The pioneering rap-metal fusion of the song "Rock Box" and the powerful 1984 debut album it came from, Run-D.M.C., catapulted nineteen-year-old rappers Run (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) and their DJ, Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), to the top of the rap heap and beyond. "Rock Box" proved that rap, like rock, is a malleable art form, capable of absorbing other influences, continually reinventing itself in the process.
Run and D.M.C. wielded rhymes like rockers wield guitars; the hugely influential "Rock Box" made the comparison explicit by souping up an inspired brag session with an innovation: blistering heavy-metal guitar from ace sessionman Eddie Martinez.
Although Run thought it was a bad idea at first, the marriage of metal and rap was inevitable, as rappers had already been using rhythm tracks from songs such as Billy Squier's "Big Beat" and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." "Rock Box" kicked down musical barriers: It was the first video by a rap artist on MTV, thereby attracting a large white audience.
The rap-metal fusion remained influential. In the summer of 1986, Run-D.M.C.'s remake of "Walk This Way" went Top Five. The Beastie Boys rode rap metal to platinum heaven with hits like "Fight for Your Right to Party," and Tone-Löc's "Wild Thing," with its Van Halen guitar hook, went double platinum early this year.
Run-D.M.C. includes several other rap classics as well. The group's first two singles, "It's Like That" and "Hard Times," paint bleak pictures of unemployment, inflation and war but go on to promote school, work and church as a way out. But the positive message wasn't simply a public service. "I was trying to get a record that was positive," Run says, "because I knew that the radio didn't want to play anything negative."
On tracks like "Sucker M.C.'s," Run and D.M.C. rapped over little more than an infectious drum-machine beat spiced up with synthesized hand-claps, capturing on vinyl what rappers had been doing in New York City parks for years. Although radio initially bridled at the minimal approach, the record's hip street sound eventually proved irresistible, giving creedence to Run's assessment of the album: "It's good to be raw."
Run's brother, Russell Simmons, who went on to become rap's foremost impresario as co-owner of Def Jam Records, helped arrange the vocals and coproduced the album with Larry Smith, a veteran R&B musician who programmed the drum machines and supplied the odd organ swoosh. Jam Master Jay scratched in percussion effects while the two rappers took a novel tag-team approach, uncannily finishing each other's lines, phrases and even words.
Besides some heavy breathing, Smith made a unique contribution to "Wake Up." "If you really listen to the record," Smith says, "you'll hear somebody peeing in the toilet and flushing it. That was me!"