RUN-DMC, Raising Hell
Loud-and-proud staccato flows from a group that put hip-hop over the top
There's no mistaking Run-DMC's loud-and-proud staccato flows for today's crop of mumbly-even-when-they-shout rappers; if one thing dates the trio's rhymes, it's that they sound like they're having fun lobbing lines back-and-forth, rather than monomaniacally droning through gangsta clichés. (Just listen to the way Run shouts "Ronald's!" to DMC's "Those burgers are…" set-up on the 27-second personal history lesson "Son of Byford.") It's no surprise why Raising Hell became one of the first hip-hop albums to truly break through to Middle America after a few years of post-"Rapper's Delight" woodshedding for the genre: that sense of play between the two MC's is infectious. With one of the best opening four-song runs of any old-school hip-hop album, these Hollis boys may not have expected to change pop, but they sure knew how to put their best foot forward.
That quartet is the core of Run-DMC's legacy: "Peter Piper" introduced many a non-New York resident to the sampled drum break, with its effervescent scratched-in segue from a terse, monochromatic drum machine beat to the funky, full-color bells of Bob James' "Take Me to the Mardi Gras." Future auctioneer-shaming fast-rappers may have made "It's Tricky" sound slow, but even if it's no longer the tongue-twister to beat, Russell Simmons' and Rick Rubin's cut-up of "My Sharona" makes it the funkiest, fuzziest rock-rap this side of Tone Loc's Delicious Vinyl classics. With some of Jam Master Jay's most vicious scratching and zilch in the way of ear-friendliness, "My Adidas" is one of the most counter-intuitive, and perversely catchy, examples of corporate name-dropping in rap history. And "Walk This Way," the culturally ingrained collab with a brink-of-extinction Aerosmith, is the model of raunchy, no-sell-out selling-out. Perhaps nothing, even near-numbing familiarity, can fully clean up Joe Perry's riff.
But that's only four songs out of 12. The rest of Raising Hell may lack the first quarter's immediacy, but it's a reminder that, even as one of the groups that put hip-hop over the top from a pop standpoint, Run-DMC were first-and-foremost servicing a hardcore audience of rap fiends who'd stuck with the genre through its commercially lean years. "Is It Live" is as much a percussion workout as a flow showcase, the backing track little more than an agitated duet for drums and scratching. And "Hit It Run" subsists on just a steady thwacking rhythm, frenetic beat-boxing, and more amelodic turntable interjections. What sells the album's minimalist excursions into almost pure rhythm is that aforementioned vocal enthusiasm. Like those millions of fairweather pop fans tricked into picking up Raising Hell on the basis of its MTV-monopolizing hit, the rappers 'glee sells the album as "pop" even if it resembles the modern-day version even less than 1986's crop of Billboard hitmakers.