All the News That Didn't Fit

On the Record

The Olympia Connection, Or Lack Thereof


The Numbness Is Just a Bonus

Hiphop City


Soul by the Pound


Incest is Best

The Rise and Fall of the N-Word


If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Tell the Truth Anyway

You Don't Own Me

Summer Lovin'

Stagger Lee

Music to Lose Your Job By

Boy, You Sure Can Take the Fun Out of Music


Stuart Braithwaite From Mogwai

Going to New York City?


A Whole N'other Level

Who Says Morrissey Fans Don't Get Laid?


Not Modest Enough

Run-D.M.C. still falls prey to the rule that says old jams, even yesterday's jams, equal wack jams. It's a dance-music axiom that didn't make much sense for rap in the first place--though it drew quite a heavy line in the sand between hiphop and a rock culture mired in reverence for "classics"--and was finally reconsidered in the mid-'90s (remember Snoop performing "La Di Da Di" on Saturday Night Live?). Still, for the most part, the more accurately a hiphop artist targets his marketing moment, the more ridicule is heaped upon him when that moment passes. And with their sweat suits, fat gold ropes, and porkpie hats, Run-D.M.C. targeted a bullseye.

Laughing at them in retrospect occludes knowledge of the salient fact of Run-D.M.C.'s first appearance in 1983: white people and old people laughed at them then, too. But ghetto kids nationwide saw the same images and didn't find them so funny.

Run-D.M.C. arrived on the cusp of hiphop music's anointment, when a condescending mass culture was trying to present hiphop as art. Afrika Bambaataa, through his Kraftwork-sampling, "Planet Rock," had just solidified avant-garde credentials from the Euro-sweating disco crowd; months later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" proved rap's literary potential. Today those two songs are understood as hiphop landmarks. What's forgotten is the threat their success posed to rap's core crowd of urban black kids. A generation's Saturday night roller-disco soundtracks were suddenly coming under the scrutiny of the The New York Times.

The appearance of Run-D.M.C. promised it would never be all fun-and-games again. Their '83 debut single "It's Like That," and "Hard Times"-- the title cut from their 1984 LP RUN-D.M.C.-- were, like "The Message", about inner-city poverty. But the new group wasn't about to win any accolades from the white liberals who reacted to cries for help (which is what "The Message" amounts to). Run-D.M.C. didn't just know their way around the urban jungle--they thrived in it. And they didn't boast to hype the party, either. The fluid narrative and disruptive beat of "Sucka M.C.'s" screamed that they were the party.

Serious, yes--but sensitive? Hell no. As literature, the difference between the from-out-the-ghetto communications sent by Run-D.M.C. and those from groups on the Sugar Hill label (Bambaataa, Flash... everyone, really) is akin to that between "I Been Workin' on the Railroad" and a striking Memphis trash collector wearing a sign blaring "I AM A MAN."

The important thing about how Run-D.M.C. dressed is not that they wanted to make a point about not caring what white people thought of them, but that they genuinely couldn't give a shit less. Ghetto youth's reaction to this audacious hijacking of rock's rebel posture for rap's celebratory purposes was immediate and visceral. The uplift-the-race vibe that entered rap music after its un-self-conscious first phase was internalized, electrified and, on black-youth terms, institutionalized by Run-D.M.C. They did all this in a way that served the needs of ghetto kids above those of Times readers. For those who didn't get it, Run-D.M.C. introduced a seminal rap gesture: the single-handed, wiping-motion of dismissal. Its covert meaning ("I AM A CRITIC") caught on and saved hiphop.

This is the context in which Run-D.M.C. should and perhaps would be heard, were it currently in print (it's not). Uses of sampling that come off as crude--say, the toggling metal riff and cowbell break that hammer down "Rock Box"--are in fact the sound of Run-D.M.C. heroically stomping on pointless dance and rock ideologies. Even in 1984, many expected hiphop to show respect for others. So it was with unforeseen impudence that Run-D.M.C. celebrated their DJ ("Jam-Master Jay") and their neighborhood ("Hollis Crew")--declaring hiphop's style-over-content commandment with fire, and turning it from a convention to a hallowed tradition.

So it's a bit ironic that Run-D.M.C.'s style became outmoded so quickly. By 1986 their embodiment of self-respect was outdone by more-fluid Rakim's, and that summer found Run and D.M.C. getting down with Aerosmith for rap's first (yet far from worst) moment of classic-rock idolatry. Really though, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the first group to make a defiant, critical stance elemental to rap style (flooring 'hoods with a whole different kind of song in "Sucker M.C.'s") should be consumed by the monster they created. It's just odd that 15 years later, they still don't get their due. The whole Sugar Hill Records Story recently came out as a box set, and Eric B. & Rakim's debut, Paid In Full, was re-released in a "Platinum Edition." Run-D.M.C., the bridge between them, is out of print. Someone is half-stepping.