Updated: Mar 12, 2021
The game was in a rut in 1983. I distinctly remember wondering whether the art form that I so loved was about to be proven a flash in the pan; as my parents’ generation, the
main stream music media, funk and R&B bands and just about everyone who wasn’t
part of my generation had predicted 4 years prior. Melle Mel was now Grandmaster Melle Mel and he had just dropped White Lines, which was a dope record. The Sugar Hill Gang had just dropped Kick It Live & The Word Is Out which lacked something. But the Sugar Hill Records sound was growing old. The magic of rap recordings like Planet Rock, The Message and Rappers Delight was seldom felt any more.
Renegades Of Funk by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force was a hell of a record in ’83 and part of a sonically groundbreaking trilogy that included Planet Rock and Looking For The Perfect Beat respectively. But something new needed to happen. Mixed in with some of the rap recordings by legitimate rap artists, were parody recordings like Ya Mama by Wuf Ticket and quasi socially conscious songs like Is This The Future by The Fat Back Band (minus King Tim III). On the underground side of things were songs like The Challenge by Jeckyll & Hyde which continued the tradition in rap recordings of re creating a popular song- in this case Nasty Girl by Vanity 6. Yeah, it was time for something new. Even the electro funk pioneers Newcleus took a swipe at Sugar Hill Records era groups like The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 in their hit Jam On Revenge (Wikki Wikki).
The answer to what I needed to feed my insatiable thirst for good rap records came in 1983 as I walked along Faye St. in the South side of Richmond, VA with my pretend cousin. As we walked along the street; likely playing one of the previously mentioned songs on our portable boom boxes, a friend of ours approached on his bike, playing something that sounded otherworldly. It was a rap song, but the cadence of the Mc’s wasn’t the Hank Span old school “disco rap” cadence that many Mc’s still used. And the music. There was none.
Just drums. I inquired what the hell dude was playing and where he got it from. He replied its called Its Like That by (what I heard as) Run thee Mc. I inquired a few more times, as I thought that Run Thee Mc was a ridiculous name. You had to be Treacherous, Furious, Undefeated , Funky or Awesome. He spelled it out for me. “Run DMC – one guy is named Run and the other is DMC”. He said “but listen to their other song”, as he proceeded to play Sucker Mc’s. I was frozen. The cadence , the simplicity of the track and then after the first Mc hogs the mic for a few verses some scratching comes in, and I hear one of the best vocal performances that I’d heard up to that date. “Im DMC in the place to be, I go to St. Johns University". I demanded a copy on the spot! Right in the middle of the street! So we put one box in front of the other and did the old school “dub” where you can hear air, traffic, people and every neighborhood dog barking in the recording. I recorded over whatever was on the tape that I was playing and listened to Run Thee Mc for the rest of the day. This inferior recording would have to do until I could get to The Album Den or Bohannons (local record stores). I could feel the baton passing. Everything that came before this record was now a different era. One of the past.
But I had not seen these guys yet, so their importance was only half known to me. I don’t remember if the first time that I saw them was on television (Graffiti Rock), a magazine (Right On) or what. But the attitude, the sneakers, the Adidas sweat suits and the hats were the icing on an already incredible cake. Now in all fairness, far too many people shit on the attire of The Soul Sonic Force, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and many of the pioneering rap groups as “dressing like the Village People”. Before those groups kicked in the door that made Run DMC possible, they dressed like Run & D eventually dressed. Mock necks, terry cloth Kangols, bombers and Adidas were not inventions of Run DMC. This is how New York B Boys dressed.
Because Grandmaster Flash & Afrika Bambaataa were the opening acts for The Clash, Deborah Harry, Cameo , The Commodores and Parliament Funkadelic they had to look the part. They were already frowned upon because they didn’t have a band, ignored by those musicians and had their sets sabotaged by them. According to many of the pioneers that I’ve spoken with from that era; they made an effort to dress differently than the audience.
So as far as fashion and image, Run DMC was the first group to really be able to be themselves and not dress that part. The fact that we had the same clothes in our closets that Run DMC wore on albums and television, did give certain segments of my generation; especially those outside of New York and the tri state area a bond with them that we did not have with previous rap groups. Run & D removed the super star element, even though they would ultimately become huge super stars.
Run DMC ushered in what I refer to as the “middle school” era or what some folks refer to as the New School. The backing bands were now gone and drum machines and turntables dominated the sound. This sound would last until ‘87 or so when affordable sampling technology became available, allowing one to infinitely loop whatever pieces of a composition that they desired (this became known as the Golden Era). Again, along with Run DMC’s greatness came perfect timing and the wisdom of Run’s older brother and manager Russell Simmons (who suggested that Run & D dress like their D.J. Jam Master Jay). The timing is important because Run & D weren’t the first rap group to rap over just drums. The entire first generation of Emcees before rap records had already done that. But they were the first to successfully do it on records. And they did it damn well! On March 27th, 1984 Run DMC released their self titled lp, which included Sucker Mc’s and It's Like That (their first single),
Hard Times and Jam Master Jay (their second single) and 5 new songs. Hard Times/Jam Master Jay solidified what the first single birthed. Jam Master Jay; an ode to their D.J. of the same name (R.I.P.) was almost as mind blowing as their first single. Sal Abbatiello ; owner of Hip Hop club the Disco Fever told me that the night they debuted the song nobody danced because it was so unorthodox as a rap record. It really didn’t have a beat. Hollis Crew also known as Krush Groove 2 (Sucker Mc’s was Krush Groove 1) picked up where Sucker Mc’s left off and solidified Run & D as the leaders of the new school. Rock Box, which was one of the first songs to merge rock & rap (Treacherous 3s Body Rock was the very first) broke Run Dmc through to the mainstream audience mainly due to its video which was in constant MTV rotation. Jay’s Game was as instrumental track that allowed Jam Master Jay to showcase his turntable skills, while Wake Up and 30 Days were both tracks with heavy socially conscious messages.
Because of that timing that I spoke of earlier Run Dmc was the first rap group that kids wanted to emulate on an international level. The era before Run & D arrived too early for MTV and all of the other publicity that Run DMC would (deservingly) enjoy. Something new had to happen. Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers told me that the genre would have most likely died if not for Run DMC. I agree.