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Run-D.M.C.

      Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1984)
    King of Rock (Profile, 1985)
      Raising Hell (Profile, 1986)
     Tougher than Leather (Profile, 1986)
    Back From Hell (Profile, 1990)
   Down With the King (Profile, 1993)
   Crown Royal (Arista, 1999)
      Greatest Hits (Arista, 2002)

When Run-D.M.C. debuted in the early Eighties, hip-hop was seen as a novelty by some, and as an upstart ghetto artform by others—something that was good for the occasional pop hit. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had proven it didn't have to all be party records with "The Message," "White Lines," and "New York New York," but their tight leather cut-up outfits bordered on funk kitsch. Run-D.M.C. was the first major hip-hop band to transform basic B-boy-isms—sneakers, track suits, and jeans—into a widely influential style.

We can trace the origins of hip-hop—the culture and the artform—beyond the Bronx to ancient Africa, but if we want to talk about hip-hop the modern industry it all begins with Run-D.M.C. Under the guidance of Rick Rubin and older brother Russell Simmons, Joseph "Run" Simmons, Daryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell would go on from this debut album—basically a collection of stellar singles—to initiate a number of hip-hop firsts: first hip-hop act to break MTV's forgiven but never forgotten color barrier; first hardcore hip-hop act to make canonical heavy metal; first and last hip-hop act to collaborate with Aerosmith; first hip-hop act to pull down a major corporate endorsement; and the first to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The energy and exuberance of their initial work can still give you chills. You can practically feel the concrete rumbling beneath your feet in the wake of their debut—they are the true beginning of hip-hop as a shouting and testifying force to be reckoned with in the world beyond black radio. The two-man MC concept has never been better synchronized or more dynamic than as practiced by these cats in their prime. Their debut is already a greatest hits collection, stocked with an embarrassment of rich, stark, big beat classics. Stone monster jams like "Rock Box," "30 Days," "Hard Times," "It's Like That," and "Sucker MCs" are still definitive examples of what hip-hop can be: streetwise, socially conscious, boisterously and boastfully witty, and irresistible when getting on the good foot. In the multinational tagged, branded, and labeled world of hip-hop today, "Rock Box'"s deathless "Calvin Klein is no friend of mine/don't want nobody's name on my behind" comes from a more innocent time as the entrepreneurial battle cry that would eventually give us the Phat Farm, Sean John, Wu-Wear, and Roc-A-Wear labels.

King of Rock was the followup; unfortunately, the title track, a dope, metalled-out successor to "Rock Box," is the only classic track. The rest of the album seems somewhat mashed together from outtakes and less scintillating attempts to pepper their rap with rock flava. By their third disc, Run-D.M.C. had more than figured out how to concoct a meaty, long-playing sucker. Raising Hell's "My Adidas" made sneakers a definitive a hip-hop topic, just as "Rocket 88" had made cars a prime subject for rock & roll. "Walk This Way," their crossover hit with Aerosmith, made rock-rap more than a notion. Unquestionably Rick Rubin's high water moment as their producer, Raising Hell made it clear that neither hip-hop nor Run-D.M.C. was going to be denied an all-access pass to MTV's suburban subscribers. And if anyone needed proof that they could still bring the hardcore sound, they provide it on "Is It Live" and "Hit It Run." The group was also unashamed to take a page or two from the Beastie Boys, as is clear from the gung-ho goofiness of "Its Tricky," "You Be Illin'" and "Dumb Girl."

On Tougher Than Leather's most memorable tracks—"Run's House" and "Beats To The Rhyme"—you can feel the pressure to keep with the scratch-mad sampledelic frenzy of Public Enemy. The lyric writing geniuses emerging from hip-hop's third wave (PE, EPMD, De La Soul, Eric B. and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest) were making Run-D.M.C. sound thematically and linguistically limited by comparison, but RunD.M.C. could still command our attention with rhythm and tone alone. The metal grind redux of the title track proves you can only punish rock-rap so much before the beast asks to be shot and put out of its misery.

Back From Hell is another Run-D.M.C. impression of a Public Enemy album, and a decent one at that—our two heroes probably made Chuck D. blush with such naked flattery. But by the time 1993's Down With the King rolled around, Run-D.M.C.'s gig was up; the group turned over production chores to Pete Rock, The Bomb Squad, and EPMD for tracks that run from hot (the title tune) to barely blazing. It doesn't sound like fun anymore.

Comeback albums are hard on everybody. Old schoolers have to deny the wear of time and fashion, New Jacks have to play the role of the humble re-animators. That said, there's still no excuse for how low the guys went on Crown Royal. Nas and Prodigy are the redemptive factors on the 'hood-rallying "Queens Day," and the lush hip-hop soul that the Run-D.M.C. and Jagged Edge drop on "Let's Stay Together (Together Forever)" ain't so bad, really. But even in their twilight, Run (who, by the way, now prefers to be known as the ordained Reverend Run, if you please) and D.M.C. should have never had to dignify sharing album space with Fred Durst, Kid Rock, Stephen Jenkins, Jermain Dupri, or Sugar Ray.

If you're only going to own one Run-D.M.C. album, Greatest Hits isn't a bad choice. It has not an ounce of fat nor filler; "Christmas in Hollis" (originally on the soundtrack to the Robert Downey flick Less than Zero) will probably always be the only hip-hop holiday song worth mentioning.

Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002. Fittingly, the group seems to have hung up its Adidas for good.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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