30 years later, 1988 still stands as rap’s greatest year. The lyrical molotovs of Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton, the post-modern (and pre-lawsuit) free-for-all of sampling, the national spotlight of a new show called Yo! MTV Raps and much more. To celebrate 30 years, Rolling Stone’s Best of ’88 explores some of the greatest songs from those explosive 12 months. See our other entries on Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock, EPMD, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Slick Rick, MC Lyte and Biz Markie.
In the four years leading up to 1988, multi-platinum, arena-rocking, Rolling Stone cover stars Run-DMC were the uncontested Kings of Rock, with a laundry list of firsts, achievements and accolades that cemented their status – as Chuck D says – as “the Beatles of hip-hop.” However, in 1988’s watershed of creativity, their fourth album, Tougher Than Leather ended up being overshadowed: outcharted by pop upstarts like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, critically outshined by firebrands like Public Enemy, lyrically outpaced by the quantum leaps of Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane. Still, Run-D.M.C. had more classics up their Adidas-striped sleeves.
“Beats to the Rhyme,” the B-side to lead single “Run’s House,” was hard-rhymed, hard-scratched, bass-exploded piece of shouting over a collage of samples — from a grunting James Brown to a screaming Sam Kinison. It looked back to their 1983 origins with nimble, back-and-forth MC routines and Jam Master Jay’s furious cutting — but it may have actually been ahead of its time in its turntable fury and revisionist old school purism. No wonder it became sample fodder for the most creative rap envelope pushers: Digital Undergound, De La Soul, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, tons of turntablists and more. Rolling Stone caught up with the devastating mic controller to talk about this bombastic “hardcore, futuristic, throwback hip-hop performance.”
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You say that people didn’t get this song right away.
Well, when we first dropped it, our peers got it right away. You know, EPMD, Eric B and Rakim, [Big Daddy] Kane and everybody. But the overall hip-hop audience… it was so above their heads because it was so energetic. It had that real hip-hop vibe to it. It had the before recorded hip-hop vibe. So a lot of the fans of hip-hop were, at that time, they had been accustomed to the presentations that was on records. So when we came out with that, all our peers in the game knew they had to get the fuck out the way and bow the fuck down. The MCs, the rappers, producers and the DJs was like, “Yo, these dudes are untouchable.” But… the audience was like, “Yo, this isn’t like ‘Rock Box'” or “This isn’t like “Rapper’s Delight” or “This isn’t like Special Ed or L.L. records.” It was a hardcore, futuristic, throwback hip-hop performance.
Did you have higher hopes for the songs commercially?
No! We didn’t care! We didn’t care about commercial success because we had to put the fear of god in the KRS-One, Daddy Kane, Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, Diggin’ in the Crates Crew, all of those dudes. It wasn’t a commercial success thing. You know, in 1988, we was still respected and we was still untouchable live, but you had all this other good stuff coming out, man. And we was kind of getting lost in the sauce. They couldn’t touch us with our tours and what we was doing commercially, our reputation, but I’m just talking about being the everyday ones to be talked about, they wasn’t talking about us as much.
Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith [from EPMD], they were like my sons. And what I mean by that was they were so excited to tell me about all the successes that they were getting. But they was always calling me [laughs] or beeping me on my beeper and saying “Call me right now Uncle D!” They was dropping all these fantastic songs, they was going Gold left and right. Now at the same time, I was very proud of them and I was fucking egging them on. I was praising ’em. But every time I hung up the phone, I’d say “Oh shit! These motherfuckers are coming for the throne!” I would hang up the phone and go, “Oh shit! If they keep this up, we gonna be over!”
So when we did “Beats to the Rhyme,” it was to let the neighborhood know, in this great, profitable, chart-topping, movie-making, commercial-money-getting genre here, when they talk about the best MCs and DJs to ever do it, you gonna see a picture of us. And that’s what “Beats to the Rhyme” was about.
The crazy thing about it, me and Run, we recorded the actual vocals over a different beat. It might’ve been “Funky Drummer” or it might’ve been — it was this breakbeat that used to go [mimics the “Ashley’s Roachclip” break]. Then Jay took that beat away and then he made the “Beats to the Rhyme” track. Then he put that beat to our vocals, that’s why we called the song “Beats to the Rhyme.”
It shows in the pastiche quality of his scratches.
It was like imagine if me and Run were to did that song a capella without even telling Jay what it was about, and he just had to fill it in. It was basically a fill-in-the blank song. When we did the song, we kind of knew our mission was accomplished ’cause like I said, it wasn’t about commercial success. I don’t care how good KRS-One is. Slick Rick was murdering things! He had just dropped “Children’s Story,” these dudes were rapping their asses off. So our thing was we’re not getting caught up into being the dated guys who used to be dope. It was like we had to hit people with the knockout punch and some combinations to win the fight, and if we wasn’t going to win the fight, it had to be a draw. The beautiful thing about it, it’s a throwback. “Beats to the Rhyme” is 1980, ’81 hip-hop style. You know, Cold Crush, Treacherous Three-style but it was futuristic because of the track and the music and the scratchin’.
Yeah. I think that’s why it’s been sampled so much and so many scratch DJs use it
Yeah, it’s all the elements of hip-hop. The braggadocio, ego, hard lyrics, beats, real DJ scratching. You know, 1988, it was just for us. To the left and to right of us, it’s Eric B and Rakim, EPMD, KRS, Public Enemy! I remember I used to ride around in my K5 Chevy Blazer and I had have a $50,000 sound system in this monster truck and I used to just ride around New York City blasting “Don’t Believe the Hype” at decibels. Prior to doing “Beats to the Rhyme,” we came off the road and my sound and light guy, Runny Ray, we went home, put our bags down. The first thing we used to like to do is go home, I’ll go get my Cadillac, and then we go to the car wash and then we go to Jamaica Avenue, we go get some 40s. So I go to pick up Ray, right, and Ray gets in my car. Run and Jay were very competitive and focused on having to win all the time. For me, this hip-hop thing was fun, but my man Ray knew it was easy to me. So, Ray, he gets in my car and he goes, “Yo, D, I know somebody better than you.” and I know he’s playing so I play along, “What the fuck you talking about? Man, I’m the mighty King of Rock!” So he pulled out a cassette tape and he puts in “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” by Big Daddy Kane. And this thing came on “mm-mmm-mm” and then that beat drop, and Kane said, “Rappers steppin’ to me.” And then that music came on [mimics song]. I kicked Ray out my car. “Get the fuck out my car.” And he thought I was playing, he’s smiling. “Get the fuck out my car, why would you do that, man?” You can ask him. I kicked him out my car, left him standing on Frankfield Boulevard in Queens, and I rode around my neighborhood for the rest of the day for about six hours listening to “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” over and over. I listened to that and I said, “Damn, it’s finally here, my fucking career is over.” The ride has ended.
We had to do something at that time that nobody else was doing. And that was our key. Run DMC’s key was when everybody’s sampling James Brown and using funk and jazz, we gon’ do rock. And that’s how we would win. So, “Beats to the Rhyme” was a saving grace for us in the midst of all of those phenomenal artists that was out in ’88.
The narrative about Tougher Than Leather is that you guys weren’t keeping up with the times.
But the way you’re describing it, is that you were aware of this. You were feeling the pressure and yet you decided to go in another direction.
Exactly. Tougher Than Leather was [an] album where we was so busy trying to be Run DMC, instead of just being Run-DMC. For Run-DMC to succeed, we couldn’t do what Kane was doing. We couldn’t do what EPMD was doing. We couldn’t do what Slick Rick was doing. But what we could do, let’s do what we did when we was 15 in Jay’s room practicing. Let’s go back to our “Sucker M.C.’s”/”Here We Go” roots —
Well, you say it in the song: “Bust these routines like 1983.”
Yup! Exactly! It’s funny though, we’re trying to fit in and do something not to sound dated, but it was so new that the hip-hop public was like “This isn’t like ‘Children’s Story’! This isn’t like ‘Eric B for President!’ What is this?” And when you listen to it, it’s wild, it’s ambitious, there’s no choruses, so it was very punk-y! The Beasties loved it [laughs]. So as long as the Beasties love it and Rick [Rubin] loved it, so we good! It wasn’t until like ’92, ’93 when the hip-hop public started talking how good it was.
How did you first realize that hip-hop had come around to “Beats to the Rhyme”?
Oh, people started talking about it! After “Beats to the Rhyme,” from ’89 to ’93 we was here but nobody cared. Pete Rock hates me saying it, but it’s true: Pete Rock’s “Down with the King” did for Run-DMC what “Walk This Way” did for Aerosmith. It brought us back. When “Down With the King” came out [in 1993], we was back on the charts, we was back on everybody’s tour and we was back on the radio. It’s been 5 years! People loved Run-DMC and know what we did, but we was like Aerosmith! We was the guys that used to do the thing. Now, we doing all these interviews. And by now we’re opening for Naughty by Nature. We’re opening for Q-Tip! We’re opening for N.W.A! We opening for Dre! We’re opening for Pac and B.I.G., and all these guy, all of them are telling us how dope that “Beats to the Rhyme” is. They’ve been waiting to tell us but we was kind of off the chart.
Which one of you guys was the big Sam Kinison fan?
“Dick in your mouth all day!” Run was a huge Sam Kinison fan. You know, when we was smoking weed and drinking 40s, Run used to do a killer imitation of Sam Kinison.
Do you remember the first time you heard the track after Jay finished it?
It was scary the way Jay made everything fit, because, remember, we didn’t rap to the track! Big shoutout to Davy D. He had a lot to do with it too. The reason why “Beats to the Rhyme” turned out that phenomenal was ’cause Dave and Jay are DJs. And DJs make the best producers! “Beats to the Rhyme” was phenomenal ’cause we left it in the hands of two badass DJs. It’s a fucking DJ record that MCs happen to be on. And thank God the two MCs was me and Run.