There is None Higher: The Legacy and Music of Run DMC

There Is None Higher:
The Legacy and Music of

Run DMC

Reverend Run and DMCWords by
Todd Williams Photogallery from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

 

“Unemployment
at a record high/people comin’, people goin’/people born to die/Don’t
ask me, because I don’t know why/But it’s like that—and that’s the way
it is…”

“It’s Like That,” 1983

Run-D.M.C. was a revolution.

With that opening line from their debut single, Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell made a statement. Run-D.M.C. made the decision to take a different route than their hip-hop forefathers. No more rhinestones, tassels and Jheri curls. No more disco-friendly party raps. No more funk bands backing up MCs. Run-D.M.C. stripped away all of early hip-hop’s sonic and aesthetic trademarks and took the sound and look back to where it came from: the street.

But they still had to fight for the respect of the mainstream music press and the listening audience. “When we first came up, they thought it was a fad,” Rev. Run says. “But it was going on so much before, that we couldn’t really hear them.” That is the hallmark of youth — being arrogant enough to dismiss your elders and forge your own way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This April — 25 years after their debut album, Run-D.M.C. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it’s safe to say that the trio had the final say. But as they were beginning their rise to superstardom, they had to contend with the media’s ongoing scrutiny of rap music. “I remember … [at] a show in Vegas, they asked us ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ Run continues, laughing. “What do you mean ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ A minute a go I was in college, and now I got a hit record!”

Of course, that hit record was just the first of many. They followed their debut with another platinum-selling album, 1985’s King of Rock. The title track’s video, in which the group trashed a ‘Rock and Roll Museum,’ was a pointed response to hip-hop’s critics. The message was clear; if you don’t give us respect we’ll take it by force. “They felt like they were locked out,” said Russell Simmons, Run’s brother, who incidentally, gave the group their name. “They were the first black artists [to appear] on MTV after Michael Jackson. When they walked through the door, it was a different world.”

The message still resonates today, but Rev. Run and DMC recognize that they could’ve done a little more research in 1985. “I found out [recently] that when we did the ‘King of Rock’ video, they didn’t have the Rock [and Roll] Hall of Fame yet,” says DMC, laughing. “It was prophetic.” Run shakes his head. “There was no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when we made the video that said we can’t get in there,” he says, before cracking a smile at his former partner. “So we were dumb for making a video about a place that didn’t exist. We were like ‘you ain’t letting us in’ and they were saying ‘It ain’t built, stupid!’”

Raising Hell, their third in a string of classic albums, was their biggest-seller and cemented their superstar status. The album was spurred by its leadoff single, “Walk This Way,” a collaboration with classic rock veterans Aerosmith. The megahit reached the No. 4 slot on the Billboard charts, and further exposed rock audiences to rap music. But both sides were nervous about it. “I just didn’t want to mess up what they had going,” said Aerosmith’s guitarist Joe Perry. “But it was great. We were blips in each other’s careers, but they gave us a [boost] and we gave them a [boost].”

“We appealed to everybody at a time when people said rap was black ghetto music … about poverty and all of that,” explains DMC. “We saw a bigger picture. We just knew that everybody in the ‘hood [wasn’t] a pimp and a drug dealer, so we rhymed about sneakers — we rhymed about school — we rhymed about everything we did.”

The group closed the ’80s with one more platinum album, 1988’s Tougher Than Leather, the last in their string of classics. But the onset of the 1990s brought problems for the group. DMC’s alcohol abuse had begun to spiral out of control, Run faced a felony rape charge after an incident in 1991 with a female fan, and Jam-Master Jay survived two gunshot wounds and a car accident. To make matters worse, their 1990 album, Back From Hell, received scathing reviews and was the lowest selling of their career. Legal troubles and declining sales forced Run to do some soul-searching.

“I was trying to figure out why I’m not selling four million albums,” Run told South Coast Daily in 1996. “I wanted to know what was going on in my life. And who better to ask what’s going on in your life besides God?”

Run-D.M.C. embraced their faith on their next album. 1993’s Down With the King, was a subtle reference to their newfound spirituality. The title track was a hit and proved that Run-D.M.C. could still top the charts. But as Run was ordained a minister, Jay began producing and mentoring up-and-coming acts like Onyx, and DMC grappled with emotional problems and addiction, Run-D.M.C.’s recording career was put on pause for eight years.

After releasing their seventh album, Crown Royal, in 2001, and embarking on a global tour with Aerosmith, the group began to splinter. Rev. Run and DMC had ongoing creative differences; DMC sat out for much of Crown Royal’s recording sessions and was also suffering from a vocal disorder. No one announced a breakup, but on October 30, 2002, 37-year-old Jam-Master Jay was shot and killed at his Queens, N.Y., recording studio. Stunned at the loss of their longtime
friend, Run and DMC retired the ‘Run-D.M.C.’ moniker and went their separate ways. They have never recorded or performed as Run-D.M.C. since.

Rev. Run is one of the most respected personalities in rap music, and his family-oriented reality show, “Run’s House,” is one of the most popular shows on MTV. DMC also found success on television, taking part in the critically acclaimed
documentary about his search for his birth parents, “DMC: My Adoption Journey.” Despite tense moments over the years (including Jay’s mother, Connie, publicly blasting DMC in 2006 for not reaching out to her since Jay’s death), any old wounds appear to have healed with time, and as the iconic rap group was inducted into the Hall of Fame, DMC put things in perspective. “We were the audience. People looked at Run, D and Jay— what we were saying, the way we dressed, what we talked about, [and] the whole swagger. [When] people saw us … they saw themselves. Whether they were in Beverly Hills or in a dirt-poor ghetto, they looked and said, ‘Yo — that’s me!’ ”