Run-D.M.C.’s musical identity is easy to pinpoint— pure, city-bred rap. But the group’s message is a little harder to figure. The first group to come to genuine superstardom under the banner of rap music, a sparse, tough-talking street sound that features staccato rhymes and a heavy beat, Run-D.M.C. uses a violent, gangster image to get across its mostly peaceful, anti-drug, anti-gang message. When the band’s 1986 LP Raising Hell rose to Number 3 on the pop charts and sold more than three million copies, the contradictions between the group’s oft-stated good intentions and its often violent repercussions came to a head when violence erupted at several of Run-D.M.C.’s sold-out tour dates. The backlash and controversy that followed, including several condemnations of both Run-D.M.C. and rap music itself, prompted an exhaustive discussion of both the causes of street violence and the proper channels of communication that are needed to condemn it.
But Joe “Run” Simmons, chief lyricist and spokesman for Run-D.M.C., sees no contradiction in his group’s appeal. He says that what young, disadvantaged kids
Group composed of Joe “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jay “Jam Master Jay” Mizell; all three born in Queens, N.Y. Simmons, son of Daniel (a city administrator) and Evelyn Simmons, married Valerie Simmons; children: Vanessa. Education —Attended La Guardia Community College. McDaniels attended St. John’s University.
Joe “Run” Simmons began composing and performing raps with Kurtis Blow in the late 1970s; Simmons began collaborating with Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels to form group Run-D.M.C. in the early 1980s; first hit singles, “It’s Like That” and “Hard Times,” released 1983; performed at the “Live Aid” concert; contributed to the “Sun City” record project; appeared in film Krush Groove, 1985; starred in film Tougher Than Leather, 1988; group has appeared on television programs “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The Late Show with Joan Rivers.”
need is precisely the kind of message he can give them. “A lot of kids who like us are impressionable,” Simmons told New York magazine’s Peter Blauner. “But they listen to me because I act tough and cool. I got a lot of juice with them. It’s like I’m cooler than their teacher, I’m cooler than their mother, I’m cooler than their father. So when we say don’t take drugs and stay in school, they listen.” Adds Johnny Johnson, a Run-D.M.C. fan, in the same article: “They got the power… they’re like homeboys. If they came on stage in suits and ties, it wouldn’t have the same impact.”
Still, despite Simmon’s insistence, on stage, in interviews, and in his song lyrics, for kids to stay in school, keep away from drugs, and avoid the trappings of gangs, the tone Run-D.M.C. sets has an undeniably violent quality about it. Whether or not that tone is needed to reach the group’s audience is a question for sociologists, but from their all-black outfits, gangsterstyle hats and swinging, gold-rope chains, to the way Simmons characteristically hurls his microphone stand around stage, the group comes across very aggressively. They even made a film called Tougher Than Leather, which, during the planning stages, the group described as a “cross between 48 Hrs and Rambo ” and which involved a plot of violent revenge. “In our new movie,” said the group’s on-stage DJ Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell in New York, “people are gonna get shot in the face.”
Despite Run-D.M.C.’s hardened street image and strong appeal among ghetto youth, all three members of the band grew up quite comfortably in a middleclass section of Queens, New York. Simmons actually was led into the recording business by his older brother, Russell, who had helped establish such pioneer rap acts as Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five by booking them in Harlem clubs through his company, Rush Productions. Blow and Russell Simmons were close friends, and young Joe Simmons would tag along with the two of them, particularly fascinated with Blow’s distinctive rap style and recordscratching technique. Soon, Joe was being called the “Son of Kurtis Blow,” and was even allowed to perform a few of his own raps during Blow’s concerts. “He was a slick kid,” Blow recalled in New York of those days in the late 1970s. “Always running his mouth. A nice kid, though. I taught him a lot, but he was good, really good.”
Only fifteen years old at the time of this first exposure to the glamorous music business, Simmons could have easily been tempted to drop out of school. But his father, Daniel, a New York Board of Education employee, was adamant that all his sons finish high school and find something useful to do. Joe enrolled at LaGuardia Communiity College to study, of all things, mortuary science, and it was while studying a cadaver in one class that he came up with a new rap: “One thing I know is that life is short/so listen up home boy, give this a thought/The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught?/It’s like that/and that’s the way it is.”
Simmons then showed the rap to his best friend since childhood, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, who was then studying at St. John’s University. The two friends extended the rhyme into a full-scale rap and, together, recorded “It’s Like That” as a single on the small, independent Profile label. The single sold more than 250,000 copies in 1983, and the group followed it up with the equally successful single “Hard Times.” It was at this time, under the eye of Russell Simmons, that the band adopted its now customary gangster style of dress, and it was not entirely without reason. “That’s a lot of the appeal,” Russell told New York. “It’s not for the Bill Cosbys. People talk about how there aren’t black role models around, but what they mean is there aren’t enough white black people on television. Rap groups like Run-D.M.C. aren’t like that. They talk directly to the kids. It’s more authentic.”
Ironically, it was in the wake of Run-D.M.C.’s greatest success that the group began coming under increasing fire from the media. Their third LP, Raising Hell, skyrocketed up the charts on the strength of the immensely successful single “Walk This Way,” which was originally recorded in 1977 by the heavy-metal group Aerosmith. But rap purists immediately cried foul, claiming that the group had gone “soft” by recording a song popular with white rock audiences. Simmons was outraged with this claim, telling Rolling Stone that “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… As for my trying to get more radio play, I’ll never… I always say what I feel.”
But the real trouble started when Run-D.M.C. embarked on a fifteen-week, sixty-two-city tour to promote the album. Although most of the concerts were peaceful, positive events, violence erupted at several locations, such as Pittsburgh, New York, and especially Long Beach, California, where more than forty people were injured when rioting broke out before Run-D.M.C. reached the stage. The violence turned out to be a turf war between L.A.’s two notorious gangs, the Bloods and the Crips—which is exactly the kind of thing that Run-D.M.C. claims to be against. “We like their rhymin’,” a gang member told Rolling Stone. “It’s hip, it says something to me, and I like their clothes—it’s B-boy [gang] style to the highest degree. So gangs want to see them, and when you put all these groups together, you’re lookin’ for trouble.”
Which only leaves Simmons all the more exasperated. Clearly worn out by all the negative publicity he’s received, and with the way Run-D.M.C.’s message has been misconstrued, Simmons tried to sum up the precise reason why violence has been so close on the heels of rap music. “The broke crackheads can make money if they come out and beat up on my little fan who’s got $30 in his pocket because he wants a Run-D.M.C. T-shirt or a booklet,” he told Newsweek. “Which leaves me hurt. They come to make money. They come to fight. They’re scum.” A family man with a wife and a daughter, Simmons, like the other Run-D.M.C. members, remains as committed to rap as he is to his family and his community. The band members still live in their old Queens neighborhood, and are trying to make a stand there. “I don’t want money,” Simmons told Rolling Stone. “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, gas it up, and drive my wife to work.”
King of Rock, Profile.
Raising Hell, Profile, 1986.
Tougher Than Leather, Profile, 1988.
New York, November 17, 1986.
Newsweek, September 1, 1986.
People, December 22, 1986; June 22, 1987.
Rolling Stone, December 4, 1986.
Members: Run, vocals (born Joseph Simmons, 14 November 1964); D.M.C. (born Darryl McDaniels, 31 May 1964); Jam Master Jay (born Jason Mizell, 21 January 1965; died Queens, New York, 30 October 2002).
Best-selling album since 1990: Down with the King (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "What's It All About," "Down with the King," "It's Like That"
From its infancy in New York clubs, hip-hop has become as much a part of the international pop music scene as disco and rock, indelibly altering American culture. Much of the credit for those accomplishments goes to Run-D.M.C., the first group to expose rap to middle America.
Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay grew up in Hollis, a middle-class neighborhood of Queens. They managed to be around at some of rap's seminal moments in the late 1970s. Clubs would play instrumental disco records, and DJs would start rhyming lines over the repetitive passages to keep people's attention. Russell Simmons, Run's older brother and one of rap's most important impresarios, managed the pioneering rapper Kurtis "Son of Kurtis" Blow. In 1977 Run became Blow's DJ, spinning records while Blow rapped. Run's trademark was to add variety by spinning hard rock records instead of the usual disco fare, a change that altered the course of pop music. D.M.C. was attracted to lyric writing. Meanwhile, Jam Master Jay cut his teeth DJing at impromptu street parties where teens would plug speakers into street lights.
The group's debut album, Run-D.M.C. (1984), found instant favor among fans of the fledgling genre. Run and D.M.C. show excellent timing, trading lead lines in the middle of a line or even a word. Their rhymes seem simplistic by today's standards, but tracks like "It's Like That" and "Sucker MCs" display an indomitable, youthful creative energy. The single "Rock Box" became the first rap video played on MTV; the album was the first rap record to go gold, with sales surpassing 500,000 copies. The group went on to many other firsts, such as becoming the first rap group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone and the first to appear on Saturday Night Live.
The band appeared with the Fat Boys in the movie Krush Groove (1985), although Run-D.M.C.'s members later said they were embarrassed by it. That year the group released their sophomore album, King of Rock (1985), which uses more rock guitar and featured the singles "King of Rock" and "You Talk Too Much."
The band's big breakout came with Raising Hell (1986), which contains the seminal rap-rock fusion song, "Walk This Way," featuring Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. The two groups created a template that many other bands, from the Beastie Boys to 311 to Linkin Park,
followed to the heights of mainstream pop success. The song made number four on the Hot 100, announcing to mainstream America that rap had arrived. The hip-shaking "You Be Illin'" and "It's Tricky" also became hits and showed that "Walk This Way" was not a fluke.
The group seems to plateau with Tougher Than Leather (1988). They continued their heavy-hitting, hook-filled rap-rock fusions with Rick Rubin-produced tracks like "Mary, Mary" and "Miss Elaine." But rap fans had begun to drift toward more street-oriented hip-hop by groups like the Geto Boys and Public Enemy. Accompanying the album's release was a movie of the same title. A ham-handed blaxploitation flick starring Rick Rubin and the band, it was derided for its crude stereotypes and misanthropic violence. The album sold over 1 million copies, but the movie tanked.
Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys had picked up the rap-rock mantle for suburbia and Run-D.M.C. decided to reconnect with its base. Back from Hell (1990) ditches Rubin and the guitars, opting for self-production, stripped-down beats, and a harder edge. In a departure from the group's previously clean image, the lead track, "Sucker DJs," drops a thirteen-letter expletive early on. The midtempo track "Ave." talks about hanging out "with a quart in our hand" when the street suddenly erupts in violence. During the early 1990s, when gangsta rap and bubblegum rap were ascendant, Run-D.M.C. seemed hopelessly middle-of-the-road, enunciating its lyrics enough for white fans to understand but rhyming too earthily for soccer moms to approve. The album didn't even go gold.
Some thought Run-D.M.C. was a 1980s relic that would fade away. But the group returned for a last hurrah on Down with the King (1993). Trading the syncopated breakbeats for a more muscular, booming vibe, the group returns to the forefront with a little help from hot producers like Q-Tip and Kay Gee. The first single, the title track, "Down with the King," with its more aggressive vocal style and anthemic chorus, became the group's biggest hit on the pop charts since "Walk This Way."
In 1994 Run became an ordained Baptist minister but continued to perform with the band. An unexpected boost came in 1998 when a remix of "It's Like That" by the New York producer Jason Nevins became a huge dance hit. The group achieved another milestone later that year by performing at the White House for President Clinton's Gala for Special Olympics—quite a coup for a group whose mid-1980s concerts had stoked the ire of the Parents' Music Resource Center, whose leader Tipper Gore was by then the wife of the vice president. The song that Run-D.M.C. performed for the event, "Christmas in Hollis," made the rap charts over Christmas 1999.
During the late 1990s, the group set out to recover its roots, announcing it was preparing Crown Royal, an album that featured many of the new rock groups that were indebted to 1980s rap/rock hybrids. D.M.C. was less than enthusiastic about the project. He said he felt like he was outgrowing rap's youthful energy. He spoke to the press about being influenced by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. A late 1999 release date came and went with no album in sight. The anticipated reunion with Aerosmith failed to materialize, though the two groups performed "Walk this Way" together at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards. Expectations remained high for the album. After all, the rap/rock fusion was the happening subgenre.
Finally arriving in April 2001, Crown Royal features an all-star guest list including Nas, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, and Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind. D.M.C. only appears on a few tracks. Despite the heavy hitters, critics and fans shunned the album. "It's Over," featuring Jermaine Dupri, coasts in self-congratulatory mode. Fans wanted to hear something more energetic and forward-thinking, especially after an eight-year recording hiatus. The title track, featuring Durst, offers more of the same, including the awkward line "I'm the reason rap sales started climbing." No singles from the album charted in Billboard.
As the band headed back to touring and mentoring young artists, no one could have guessed that tragedy was about to strike. On October 30, 2002, Jam Master Jay was shot and killed while playing video games at his recording studio. Several months passed without an arrest despite a reward fund of over $60,000, though friends and relatives suspected the murder was committed or at least ordered, by someone he knew. The tragic loss of Jam Master Jay brought an end to Run-D.M.C.. However, the group's legacy remained undimmed. A who's who of rock and rap paid tribute to him, and in 2003 his protégé 50 Cent became the hottest new star in rap. Run-D.M.C. didn't invent rap and didn't take it to its notorious extremes, but they helped to turn what some thought was a passing fad into an international powerhouse. In the mid-1980s they created the fusion of rock and rap that was so influential a decade later on the college rock scene.
Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1984); King of Rock (Profile, 1985); Raising Hell (Profile, 1986); Tougher than Leather (Profile, 1988); Back from Hell (Profile, 1990); Down with the King (Profile, 1993); Crown Royal (Arista, 2001).
Run-D.M.C. , first mainstream successful rap group. Membership: Joseph “Run” Simmons (b. Queens, N.Y., Nov. 14, 1964); Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels (b. Queens, N.Y., May 31, 1964); Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell (b. Queens, N.Y., Jan. 21, 1965).
The first rap group to enjoy mainstream pop success, thanks in large part to 1986’s smash pop hit and video “Walk This Way,” Run-D.M.C. was also the first rap group to have a video screened on MTV, to make the cover of Rolling Stone, and to perform on American Bandstand as well as the only rap group to appear at 1985’s Live Aid concert. Although Run-D.M.C. projected a violent gangster image, their music concerned itself with peaceful messages advocating the avoidance of drugs and gangs. Nonetheless, their concerts, particularly those in 1986 in support of Raising Hell, were often accompanied by violence, drawing attention to the paradox between their good intentions and the violent outcome of their live music.
Joseph “Run” Simmons’s brother Russell was instrumental in establishing rap artists such as Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—pioneering rap acts—by booking them into Harlem clubs; he cofounded the pioneering rap label Def Jam, with Rick Rubin, and encouraged his younger brother to pursue a performing career. Joseph Simmons began composing and performing raps with Kurtis Blow in the late 1970s and began collaborating with Darryl McDaniels in the early 1980s to form Run-D.M.C. with disc jockey Jason Mizell. Scoring their first major R&B hit in 1983 with “It’s Like That” on the small, independent label Profile, Run-D.M.C. continued to achieve major R&B hits through 1985 with “Hard Times,” “Rock Box,” and “30 Days” from their debut album; the title track and “You Talk Too Much” from King of Rock, regarded as one of rap’s landmark albums; and “You Can’t Rock It Like This” from the film Krush Groove. In 1985 they appeared at the Live Aid concert and later contributed to the recording of “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid.
Run-D.M.C. scored an R&B smash with “My Adidas” in 1986 and soon established themselves with a larger audience with the pop and R&B smash “Walk This Way,” featuring Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Joe Perry (the song also revived Aerosmith’s career). Both songs were included on their Raising Hell album, as was “You Be Illin’” (a major crossover hit) and “It’s Tricky” (a major R&B hit); the album sold more than three million copies. They conducted a four-month, 62-city tour that year, but a number of their concerts were marred by violence. Their next album, Tougher Than Leather, sold quite well but not spectacularly and produced a major R&B hit with “Run’s House.” However, 1990’s Back from Hell sold modestly at best; Simmons and McDaniels both admitted to drug and alcohol problems, and Simmons also had to defend himself against a charge of rape, later dropped. Run-D.M.C. did not score another major pop hit until 1993’s “Down with the King.” In 1992 MCA Music Entertainment, the distributor of Run-D.M.C.’s NewYork-based record label JDK Records, withdrew the misogynist “No Head, No Backstage Pass” by the group FU2 in the wake of the “Cop Killer” controversy that embroiled Ice-T.
run-d.m.c.: r.-d.m.c. (1984); King of Rock (1985); Raising Hell (1986); Tougher Than Leather (1988); Back from Hell (1990); Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983–1991 (1991); Down with the King (1993).
Flaunting untied Adidas sneakers, pricey Kangol hats, sweatsuits, and thick-rope gold chains, Run-D.M.C.'s ostentatious image and electric guitar-ridden sound captivated America's white youth culture in the 1980s. Joseph "Run" Simmons (b. November 14, 1964) and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels (b. May 31, 1964) began rapping together and convinced Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell (b. January 21, 1965) to join them as their deejay. Thanks to the fusion of hard-core rock and rap in songs like "Rock Box," Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut album struck a chord with white male, suburban rock fans, and the album sold over 500,000 copies to merit gold status. Their punchy, simple rhyme style and sparse tracks also appealed to rap and rock audiences.
In 1985 the group starred in the classic hip-hop film Krush Groove and released the platinum-selling King of Rock. A year later, the group released Raising Hell, whose phenomenal success was propelled by the group's duet with the rock band Aerosmith on "Walk This Way" and MTV's heavy rotation of the crossover video. The album sold over three million copies. The year 1988 saw the release of Tougher Than Leather, and while the album was platinum-selling, it was a commercial disappointment.
Audiences were gravitating away from hip-hop toward the more violent gangsta rap genre by the dawn of the 1990s, and the disappointing sales for Run-D.M.C.'s album of the year, Back From Hell, indicated that trend. Down with the King found a hit single and went gold in 1993. However, the group largely disappeared from sight for the remainder of the decade, although Run-D.M.C. planned a comeback in 2001 with their album Crown Royal.
Crown Royal turned out to be Run-D.M.C.'s final release. The band retired in 2002.
George, Nelson. Hip-Hop America. New York: Viking, 1998.
McDaniels, Darryl, with Bruce Haring. King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility, and My Life with Run-DMC. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994.
Simmons, Joseph "Reverend Run." It's Like That: A Spiritual Memoir. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
rachel zellars (2001)
Updated by publisher 2005