Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures In Rap #5: Run-D.M.C.

According to AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Run-D.M.C. are "hip-hop's Beatles." I don't think that comparison works at all. He writes, "Run-D.M.C. were the Beatles of rap because they signaled a cultural and musical change for the music, ushering it into its accepted form; neither group originated the music, but they gave it the shape known today." That may be true, but listening to Run-D.M.C. in 2008, I can't say that their music strikes me as being all that...good. Maybe they are more like "hip-hop's early silent films": historically groundbreaking and tremendously influential in their time, sure, but...I tend to prefer my movies with sound these days.

Rap's detractors like to say that hip-hop is just noise and not music. The thing is, with Run-D.M.C., I don't know if that dismissive statement is too far off the mark. Most of their songs really don't have hooks or melodies or anything of that nature. I mean, their crossover collaboration with Aerosmith (a revamped cover of "Walk This Way") ends up being one of their best songs simply by default, given that it is an actual song with an actual melody. Otherwise, there aren't too many Run-D.M.C. songs I'd be inclined to listen to twice. Rap scholars also make much of the group's hybrid rap-rock sound, but it seems to me that the rap that followed owes little to this almost random stylistic direction. What do heavy metal guitars have to do with the young black urban experience?

I mean, I feel like I have to squint my eyes and tilt my head to see exactly what made Run-D.M.C. so much more grittier and more credible than the other acts of their era. Erlewine writes that "Run-D.M.C. helped move rap from a singles-oriented genre to an album-oriented one -- they were the first hip-hop artists to construct full-fledged albums, not just collections with two singles and a bunch of filler." As far as I can tell, he is correct. But if Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash albums resemble those early Motown collections with names like The Supremes Today and The Four Tops Sing For You, Run-D.M.C. albums don't exactly strike me as What's Going Ons or Talking Books, you know what I mean?

And their lyrical approach is sort of stuck halfway between the engaging cheesiness of Sugar Hill era rap and the nasty, in-your-face harrowism of the more political late '80s rap. I mean, Kurtis Blow may be cheesy, but nobody calls Kurtis Blow a lyrical genius. In other words, Run.D.M.C.'s lyrics are not bad enough to be entertainingly bad, but probably not good enough to actually be good. An example from "King of Rock":

They call us ill, we're gettin' iller
There's no one chiller
It's not Michael Jackson
And this is not Thriller
As one def rapper, I know I can hang
I'm Run from Run-D.M.C., like Kool from Kool and the Gang
Roll to the rock, rock to the roll
D.M.C. stands for devastating mic control
You can't touch me with a ten foot pole
And I even made the devil sell me his soul

This is not terrible, but it is not Chuck D. Now, you will hear Chuck D go on and on about how Run-D.M.C. completely blew him away in 1984, but influence cannot be the only measure of a band's quality. The Beatles are not just the best group in rock because they were the most influential, but also because they remain the most musically rewarding. I mean, maybe if you combined Public Enemy, N.W.A., De La Soul and the Beastie Boys into one big group, then you might have something that you could possibly call "the Beatles of rap." As is it, I'm certainly glad Run-D.M.C. moved the genre along, but after reading Erlewine's comments in the All Music Guide, I have to say I expected...more.


Herr Zrbo said...

I thought that Run-DMC gained popularity because they were the first rap artists who looked like normal guys. Like with their adidas shoes and Raiders(?) jackets, they were accessible icons. Sort of like how the look of the grunge era Seattlites was in complete contrast to the glitzy glam of Motley Crue, ya know? I have no idea about the music though.

Hey, don't forget 'Christmas in Hollis', still have to bust that one out every Xmas.

Little Earl said...

Yeah, and rap really stuck with that whole "normal guy" thing.

Herr Zrbo said...

Well, just like in rock, it's a fashion that comes and goes. Look at Dr. Dre and Snoop on the Chronic, once again they were dressed up like regular (urban) guys, and they rapped about partying, etc. Sure it's got that layer of 'killing foos is ok', but strip that away and Snoop/Dre looked like regular dudes. Definitely in contrast to B.I.G.
But like I said, I can't comment much about the music.

yoggoth said...


B.I.G. looked weirder than Snoop??

Little Earl said...

Oh, that's not actually a word I guess. Oh well, it should be.

Herr Zrbo said...

I think you lost me.