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Run-D.M.C. Is Beating the Rap

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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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