Eyeing a gold Jacuzzi in his $750-a-night suite at the Stouffer airport hotel in Los Angeles, Run, the deffest rapper in the world, exclaims, "Me go to Michael Jackson's for dinner? I just don't know if I'm going. Shit! Who cares? Why should I go? Is his thing really mine?"
Run (Joe Simmons), D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels, also known as D) and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) — the trio that has recently injected rap into the American mainstream with its double-platinum album Raising Hell – are blasting the white-gloved Jackson and other glitzy pop stars.
"Kids can look up to us," yells Run, so named because of his motor mouth. "We don't do any dumb shit."
"We don't paint our faces neither," says Jay, 21.
Run, 22, who is careful to distance his group from Boy George and "homo-assed drug takers," says, "Michael wants us to make a record with him, and we don't really want to make a record with Michael. We really dig Barry White." The rappers have discussed collaborating with White, the rotund soul man who had a string of sexy hits in the Seventies.
"Michael's not really us," says Jay.
"He doesn't fit the program," says Darryl, 22. "Michael? If I met Michael Jackson and he had that thing on his face [Jackson's famed surgical mask], I'd rip it off. I've got no germs, man."
"Michael doesn't feel the way I feel," snaps Run, a native of Hollis, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. "He wants us on his next album. He wants to make a record about crack. We have good rhymes about it because we still see it, we live in the neighborhood still. I've made a lot of money, but I still live in Hollis. It's so funny. I don't have a big mansion and beautiful clothes. I see the crack on the corner. I need to get rid of this thing. Michael probably would like me to lay some of this on his album. Michael writes lyrics, but I write what I think. I see and feel all day."
While their remarks have the same uncompromising grittiness as their music, the tension behind their words reveals that Run-D.M.C. is now at a crossroads. Having broken through to white radio with "Walk This Way," its collaboration with the hard-rock group Aerosmith, Run-D.M.C. must decide how to be pop and streetwise at the same time. Run-D.M.C. also faces another crisis. As its fame has increased, the trio has consistently been associated with violence. A riot between two youth gangs at the Long Beach Arena last August left forty-two people injured. It was the fifth time this past summer that a Run-D.M.C. concert led to mass arrests or serious injuries. Bloody incidents also plagued some theaters showing Krush Groove, the 1985 film in which the group appeared, leading Parents' Music Resource Center spokeswoman Tipper Gore to claim that rappers tell fans, "It's all right to beat people up." While promoters have canceled Run-D.M.C. shows or added to the hysteria with talk of hiring extra security guards for concerts, more dispassionate observers have suggested that the group is getting a bum rap.
Yet the image has stuck. To much of white America, rap means mayhem and bloodletting.
So as Run leaves his penthouse suite to collect a rented black Corvette at the hotel's carport, he looks concerned. He insists that he, D and Jay have come to Los Angeles to promote a truce among warring "gang-bangers," not simply to clean up their image. As Run explains, the group will take phone calls at KDAY, a local radio station, "just so a small beginning can be made to stop gangs, stop drugs. If only one kid turns away from gangs or drugs, we've been successful."
That squeaky-clean image is reinforced outside the hotel when Run encounters a black deputy marshal from the L.A. municipal court. Moving through a group of well-dressed businesswomen to shake Run's hand, the marshal says, "Boy, is my son a fan of yours! All because of you he wants to be a DJ. I just bought him a mixer."
"That's how I started out. DJing and playing basketball," Run coos boyishly, staring at the man's shiny badge and gun. "Give your son the word: DJing is good, it's def. Tell your son you were hanging out with me."
"I will, I will," the marshal says. "My son will go wild about this."
Run's smile broadens once his car arrives. Instead of renting a large silver or gold Mercedes like other members of the Run-D.M.C. entourage, Run prefers the sportier feel of a Corvette. As he dials his wife, Valerie, and his three-year-old daughter, Vanessa, on the car's cellular phone, he says, "I'm a real family man now. I even took them to Europe this summer, and we had a ball. I'm the kind of guy who gets lonely after a show and takes a flight home."
Run chats with Valerie for ten minutes, learning that his daughter spent the day at Belmont Racetrack. He promises to call again later that evening, and that reminds him about Michael Jackson's dinner invitation.
Run knows that it's one thing to scratch, rhyme and scat over Aerosmith's tune, but it's a different move to cross into Jackson's pasteurized pop world. He burrows deeper in the comfy front seat and sighs. "I have to go for a ride to clear the bees out of my head. Later I'll get in the Jacuzzi – that way I can get my brain together. I have to decide if I want to hang out with Michael. I just don't know. I."
Run's last words are lost in a loud vroooom as he puts his foot to the gas and screeches out of the carport.
Run-D.M.C.'s Raps Echo the Sounds of the City, capturing the aggressive boasts and frustrated threats of street-toughened youths. The group's debut album, Run-DM.C. was a bravado-filled jaunt on which Run urgently bragged that he was "the coolest and the baddest." Run-D.M.C. was the first rap album to go gold and the first to have a song featured on MTV. The follow-up LP. King of Rock, was similarly boastful but less stark, as the group drifted into entertaining musicality, adding some reggae riffs and hard-rock guitar.
Raising Hell, the record that's catapulted Run-D.M.C. into the realm of appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (they rapped with Rivers), teems with raw messages about the streets, drugs and promiscuity. The huge success of the album – it's the first rap LP to go platinum – and the "Walk This Way" single has caused Run-D.M.C. to soar far beyond hip-hop. With sales of Raising Hell now well over 2 million, Run-D.M.C. has more than mainstream credibility. It is now one of the hottest groups in America.
And although their defiant, socially urgent anthems certainly speak to inner-city youths, Run, D and Jay are hardly products of Watts or Harlem. Friends since childhood, all three grew up in Hollis, a neighborhood of one-family homes and well-tended gardens. Both of Run's parents worked, holding down respectable jobs with the city. So little Joey played basketball, listened to his Stevie Wonder and Barry White records and otherwise led a genteel life.
Still the doting son, Run is quick to pay homage to his father, Daniel Simmons, a New York Board of Education employee who inspired him to write poetry at age ten. "My father is a great person," says Run, sounding like a true product of the middle class. "My mother and my father made sure I was never deprived of anything.
"The worst thing that ever happened to me as a kid was that gym class would run out of time. I couldn't play my basketball game. Oh yeah, I couldn't bring my box to school neither. But that's it. No way was I brainwashed or hurt by being black . . . It's not like I never had any money. I've always had money."
By the time Joey became a teenager, the staccato, thumping beats of rap were beginning to replace disco in black nightclubs nationwide. Acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five made Sugarhill Records the king of the ghetto blaster. Run's brother Russell, whose life story is depicted in Krush Groove, was also starting to make noise. Establishing Rush Productions, he began to book rappers into his college, and it was under his aegis that Curtis Walker became Kurtis Blow, the early rap superstar responsible for the smash hit "The Breaks." Blow would often sleep over at the Simmonses'. "I knew my brother and Kurt were having a great time," says Run. "I wanted to be with them."
So Joey started scratching over records, modeling his style after Blow's. Soon Joey's DJ'ing was so inspired that he toured along with his mentor, billed as "The Son of Kurtis Blow."
Joey played tapes of his appearances with Kurtis Blow shows for Darryl, a friend at St. Pascal Baylon, a Catholic elementary school in Queens. A comic-book aficionado, Darryl gave up drawing Spiderman and Captain America to start rapping with Joey. The pair didn't team up officially with Jay, an old basketball friend of Joey's, until after they'd graduated from high school. Their first single, "It's Like That/Sucker M.C.'s," coproduced by Russell, became a hit in 1983, as did their next release, "Hard Times/Jam-Master Jay." Rap music, which had seemingly peaked in popularity, suddenly rebounded. And Joey Simmons, eager to become rap's most recognizable star, decided to make a final commitment to the genre. He gave up studying mortuary science at LaGuardia Community College for a life on the run.
I knew there was going to be trouble, there had to be," says Chino, a gang member, recounting how violence erupted at the Long Beach Arena last August 17th between his gang, the Bloods, and their rivals, the Crips. "We were just sitting there, listening to LL Cool J [one of the opening acts], and these Crips started to show their colors under their jackets. That wasn't right, man. Then they started snatching gold chains and breaking chairs, you know, to use the legs as clubs. We had to do the same shit."
As Run-D.M.C. looked on from backstage, club-wielding policemen swept through the packed 14,500-seat arena, and over the next three hours fights raged in and out of the hall. Run-D.M.C. never made it to the stage.
"It was crazy," says another member of the Bloods, eighteen-year-old Mafia Dick. "Everybody was messing with everybody. We don't get along outside, so we're not going to get along inside. Some go to get a kick out of Run-D.M.C.'s music, but most of the guys just go there to fight. I did. We knew other gang bangers would be there. Run's music is up-to-date. We like their rhymin'. It's hip, it says something to me, and I like their clothes – it's B-boy style to the highest degree. So gangs want to see them, and when you put all these groups together, you're lookin' for trouble."
That view is supported by Steve Young and Lloyd Smith, two Inglewood detectives, both of whom are veteran observers of the gang lifestyle and its deadly eruptions of machismo. They have little patience for liberal-toned explanations of violence. To them, all gang strife is to be condemned and swiftly punished. And yet, as they sit in an office strewn with photos of gang members, they take a far different stance from the usual Run-D.M.C. headlines.
"It could've been a dog or pony show at the arena, the violence would've still broken out," says Young. "Run-D.M.C. gets a bad rap because of the crowds they draw. There are long-held grudges between these gangs, and when they converge in one place, the paybacks will come. Sure, Run-D.M.C.'s music touches a nerve, and the raps are all street, but even if Reagan was speaking, there'd have been bloodshed."
The legacy of Long Beach – and the reverberations from other incidents this past summer in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York – is not yet forgotten. For many, Run-D.M.C.'s name is now synonymous with rioting crowds, wailing ambulances and wholesale arrests. Newspaper editorials have blamed the group's driving lyrics for drawing crowds "bent on havoc." Jittery politicians have tried to ban the group from playing in various cities. Dates in L.A. and Providence, Rhode Island, were canceled, and after a Run-D.M.C. appearance at an L.A. street fair was scrubbed in September, Deputy Mayor Tom Houston proclaimed, "I'll be damned if we'll have them."
For Run, however, the most hurting blast came from Kurtis Blow. In several interviews, Run's former mentor rebuked him for laying down raps that might encourage violence. Run is still smarting from the charge. Attributing Blow's outburst to jealousy, Run bristles. "Kurt tried to ruin us," he says. "He's so jealous. He never had a gold album in his life. He's disgusting."
Run also dismisses criticism from the media and politicians, boasting, in typically grand fashion, "They say we're putting out bad messages to the kids. All – you hear? – all our messages are good . . . Our image is clean, man. Kids beat each other's heads every day. They are fighting because they were fighting before I was born. I'm no sociologist, but we're role models, man, big-time role models . . . I get bigger and bigger, and I don't care what people think."
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