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

Three kids from Queens are 'Raising Hell' at their shows. Run-D.M.C. set the record straight on rap music and violence

run dmc cover
Moshe Brakha
Run-D.M.C. on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

Considering some of the press his group has received recently, it's not very surprising that Run seems defensive, even nervous, about talking with reporters. At a morning press conference to discuss the next day's KDAY event, he looks away as we shake hands, and he bitterly asks, "What type of article is this going to be, anyway?" Further irritated by the photographers buzzing around him, he snaps, "I talk from the heart, but no matter what I try to say, people always dis [criticize] us. They sensationalize everything . . . They have to stereotype us."

His temper cools once the conference begins. Wearing green pants, a matching work shirt, characteristically unlaced white Adidas low tops and a porkpie hat, he grins at the TV cameras as Barry White compliments the group for its social concern. After various community activists pay their own tributes to Run-D.M.C, White describes the L.A. gang problem – 268 gang killings last year – as "the coming Armageddon at your front door."

White's intensity brings a look of anguish to Jay's face. Run nervously fondles a miniature gold sneaker dangling from his neck and tells the crowd, "Life is hard enough without drugs or joining gangs. We have great positive messages for kids. We're in touch with all the kids. They'll listen to us before they'll listen to their teachers or mothers and fathers. We're cooler than them as far as the kids are concerned, and being cool is staying in school."

The follow-up questioning is rather timid. Only one reporter challenges Run's sincerity, suggesting the group's L.A. visit was a necessary act of public relations after the Long Beach riot. Dismissing that implication, Run reiterates the group's positive message. "We offer kids alternatives. We tell them they can go play ball, go to school. There are lots of other things you can do besides taking drugs or joining gangs . . . We're positive."

The conference unceremoniously ends on that note, and in keeping with their pure-boy image, America's hottest rappers want to go to a national landmark for lunch: McDonald's.

Run-D.M.C.'s common-man approach to dining is also in sync with other aspects of their lives. All three guys continue to live in Hollis, either in houses they grew up in or close by. Run insists that the trappings of success – platinum and gold albums, offers from Adidas and Technics to do commercials, a forthcoming line of B-boy clothes – haven't spoiled them. "Move?" Run says. "What for? Beverly Hills? That's corny and fake, man. If Michael Jackson is happy out here, more power to him. I just need two dollars in my pocket and a basketball game."

Unlike Jay and D.M.C., who stud their fingers with diamond rings, Run wears little jewelry. "I don't want money," he says. "I've made money. Right now I don't need ten cars, but I have enough money for fifty cars. I don't want anything. I'm so happy. I look at my daughter sleeping. I kiss her while she's asleep. I sit with a pen and see if I can write something. If not, I go shine up my '66 Oldsmobile [he also has an '86 Riviera], gas it up and drive my wife to work. She works at a doctor's office. Then I go call Jay."

Run punctuates that self-portrait with a rhyme: "People always saying/'Yo, Run, you made a killing/Where's your car, where's your gold?'/Yo, man, I'm just chilling/I'm not rhyming for the money/This is straight from the heart/People think my car is funny/But I get it to start."

But now that Run-D.M.C. hats and T-shirts have supplanted Michael Jackson items in American households, Run is not your ordinary two-cheeseburger man at McDonald's. Even before he could ride to the Golden Arches in the group's gold Mercedes and before he had a troop of P.R. agents to pamper him, he never knew the crippling destitution of many black lives. So how can he really talk to a fourteen-year-old who sees selling drugs as the only way out of the ghetto? This philosophical discussion with Run must be shelved; he doesn't want any company during the group's jaunt to McDonald's. When he finally appears back at the hotel, he gives me a long, hard stare. He sits sullenly near a window, twirling his hat and staring at the bleak airport environs.

Jay said earlier, "I don't think nobody's after me; I forgive those reporters who fucked us." Now he takes the lead. "Bad lyrics? Bullshit! We're not talking about laying the girl down or doing this drug . . . We're the only people who can talk to kids. Besides Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., I haven't heard a decent record."

"Yeah, I love Bruce Springsteen," Run quickly interjects. "Like us, he has a positive message. We're gonna sell as much as him, if not more, 'cause we feel the same way. I hang with Bruce. I know him. I did a record with Bruce Springsteen, we made 'Sun City' because we would never play there [in South Africa] . . . I'm making lots of money now. I'm going to go over there with suitcases filled with money and build things . . . We're also going to open drug rehabilitation centers. I'm not going to call them the Run-D.M.C. House, I'll just open them."

"Yeah, we're bigger and better than any bullshit bands," yells D. The usually quiet, six-foot-plus McDaniels takes off his thick, black-rimmed shades and continues. "The reason why they are listening to us is because we are the Michael Jackson of now. Prince was it when Purple Rain came out. But we are what's going on right now. We are the music. We are what's hot."

"We are the world, we are the children," sings Run. Jerking himself up in his chair, he says he doesn't want to be known as the man who ended crack in America. "But, oh, my God," he says, "my mission is so big. We just left New York. We did a big thing with Mayor Koch, Cuomo [an anticrack rally for New York City schoolchildren], and the kids didn't care about them. We came onstage, and we all did it . . . Kids listened.

"I'd just like to ask Tipper Gore if she ever listened to my records," continues Run. Then he launches into the autobiographical "Here We Go" rap: "Cool chief rocker, I don't drink vodka/I keep a microphone inside my locker/Go to school every day/On the side make them pay/The things I do make me a star/And you can be too if you know who you are/Just put your mind to it, you'll go real far/Like the pedal to the metal when you're driving a car."

Grimacing and disgustedly shaking his head, Run expands on this beat to talk about the Aerosmith collaboration. "Nag, nag, nag, everybody is nagging me because of 'Walk This Way.' Everyone's talking about crossovers. 'Hey, son, didn't you do this to get more radio play?' . . . I hope nobody wants to talk to me next year. I'm ready for a flop. You know why? If everybody is nagging me about 'Walk This Way,' they can get my dick head." Run bangs his fist on the table before continuing. "You know why? Because I made that record because I used to rap over it when I was twelve. There were lots of hip-hoppers rapping over rock when I was a kid. Now I made it and everyone wants to nag me. As for my trying to get more radio play, I'll never . . . I always say what I feel."

Run doesn't advise other rappers to move into rock, saying, "You have to do what's real. It's like how my ideas come to me, naturally. That's how I came up with the idea for 'My Adidas.' I thought one day of all the incredible things I've done with these sneakers on. Live Aid and all the concerts."

Talk then turns to the group's next movie. Run wants Tougher Than Leather, which is about to go into production, to be more "real" than Krush Groove. "Krush Groove was nothing but a Walt Disney movie," Run says. "The Fat Boys [another rap group that appeared in the film] were just being funny, and I didn't do nothing. This next one is going to be action filled, a real mystery."

All three guys start screaming at once. Jay keeps saying, "Leather's going to be much more violent, a lot more violent." And this prompts D to chime in: "That's right, it's gonna be like a good John Wayne flick. The violence is there, but you don't mind if the good guys are doing it."

Run says that the film will revolve around the group's search for the killers of their beloved real-life roadie, Runny Ray. Since the murderers plant drugs on Ray, the cops view the case as "just another dead nigger." So the boys must become detective-avengers, or a cross between Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS. and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo.

Run says it will be "the best movie in the world. At the end, we're all heroes. You're happy we're kicking their butts. It has to be violent because it has to be violent. Sometimes violence is needed."

Playing the diplomat, Jay insists, "We don't promote violence to the kids." As for the violence at the Long Beach concert, he says, "I wanted to bang some bangers' heads out there. Whoever I see fucking up in my concert, I want to be the big motherfucking Bruce Lee and kick the gang's ass, throw them all in fucking jail and do my concert."

"We're positive," says Run. "We've played so many beautiful gigs. We're not a threat. I want to be happy every day. I'm fighting to help things . . . I've got a movement of happiness. We are not thugs. We don't use drugs. People try to stereotype us . . . "

"Yeah, we look like young black kids that are going to rob you," says Darryl, laughing.

But they all say that it wouldn't be happening if they were a white band. "Some people just want to stop rap," says Run. "The politicians blame it on us. Other people are hoping we'll mess up . . . But we're investing our money wisely, we have good accountants, and the three of us are so close we think the same. We're not gonna do anything to hurt ourselves, nothing."

Russell Simmons is worried – not about the public-relations problem caused by violence at Run-D.M.C.'s shows but about the group's current do-good attitude. The cochairman of Def Jam Recordings and the manager of Whodini, the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C, Simmons worries that the group is becoming too "straight," that its edge will be dulled by too many anticrack, antigang campaigns. He wants to make them "harder" but is worried that Run is on a "mission" that could undermine their commercial clout. "I look at them and say, 'Stop being a pussy.' But Joey really thinks he owes these kids something. This crack thing is a serious concern . . . Let's hope a year from now people don't think they're suckers."

Simmons admits that he sees how his little brother's lyrics could lead to antisocial behavior. Still, he calls his brother's group "one of the most positive teenage bands there is. These lyrics are done with kids in mind that should be able to understand them. If they can't, that's not even a tragedy . . . The guys sing about staying in school, going to church, respecting your mother, don't take drugs . . . They're positive; that's the bottom line."

But Russell Simmons feels the "preachy" lecturing of the group's civic-minded projects, like the Jackson collaboration, will sabotage Run's promise of "not doing anything to hurt ourselves."

"This preaching scares me," he says. "It gets on people's nerves . . . They [Run-D.M.C.] spend so much time wanting to do shit like this Michael Jackson thing . . . I said, 'Yeah, but fuck that. You have a career to worry about.' The idea of Michael and Run is kinda soft . . . This is something that's certainly not going to make Run-D.M.C. bigger or better; it could kill them. It could kill their careers in front of their first audience."

Kday has called its call-in show Day of Peace, but outside the studio, dozens of husky security guards expect trouble. It's rumored the Rollin' Sixties branch of the Crips gang will disrupt Run-D.M.C.'s appearance. And when a youth in a passing car shouts, "Those Bloods shot my momma and brother," a nervous worker at the event says, "This whole thing is a farce. Kids with Uzis and sawed-off shotguns are not going to stop their shit because of a radio program."

Exuding far more optimism, Barry White arrives in an ivory Rolls, and once again he effusively praises Run-D.M.C. The hefty, stringy-haired White has lost a brother in the gang wars, but he's upbeat today. "This day's a beginning," he says. "We can put a stop to drugs and gangs . . . The young people, blacks, white, Hispanic, all colors, love Run-D.M.C. They have reached the nerve of the people through their young grooves, their rapping genius."

Excited by the prospect of doing an antidrug song with Run-D.M.C., White gives each of the three a bear hug upon their arrival. But as the boys enter the studio, they all but forget White. Now the talk is only of Michael Jackson.

"He's the best man in the world," says Run, making sure the depth of his new feelings is understood. "He's an incredible human being. We ate soul food at Michael's studio last night, and it seemed like he was in touch with God. He's so calm, so content, and I'm going to go into the studio to do a tape with him. It'll be an anticrack song. The guy who did Mean Streets and Taxi Driver [director Martin Scorsese] is going to make the video. The whole thing was just great. Michael kept asking me, about rap. I asked him about record sales. And when the fried chicken came, I knew he was cool."

Smiling beatifically as a KDAY worker adjusts his headset, Run keeps raving about Michael. "He's just a normal, nice man. He's just as D described him. Have you ever seen Bambi? Well, he's just like that. If he went outside and saw a flower, he'd probably say, "That's beautiful.' People say he's gay and stuff. I don't believe that . . . In the middle of the evening I was just thinking, 'Gee, I'm sitting next to Michael Jackson, a superstar,' and then I realized he's just normal, sitting there eating his rice and playing with my gold sneaker."

This story is from the December 4th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 488: December 4, 1986
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