Thursday, March 10, 2005

RUN D.M.C. or The Beatles?

Whenever you hear one of those cats like Keith Richards or Rod Stewart smartin' off with shite about hip-hop artists "stealing musicians' music in samples" always bear in mind that "groundbreaking" British groups in the '60's & '70's like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, to name a few, and 'guitar-wank' soloists like Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield were biting moves and sounds from Black American bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, Lightin' Hopkins, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and (even) Ike Turner which is, in layman's terms, a form of sampling. So -- as Flavor Flav once groused on Public Enemy's seminal LP It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back: "don't believe the hype" because every musician is a thief (to quote U2's "Fly on the Wall"/ Bono)...As of this writing, hip-hop has come a long way since Sugar Hill's "Rapper's Delight," yet it still remains ensnared in the musicolgy melee titled: Is Hip Hop A Lasting Music or Not?

Cuts like T-LA Rock's "It's Yours" and albums like X-Clan's To the East Blackwards rank up there with Claude Bizet's 'Carmen Suite' and Beethoven's Syphony No. 5," and are equally nutritious for the musical diets of all. Good music it GOOD MUSIC, yo. But you already know this -- guess I'm preaching to the choir again and digressing. I wrote the piece below about 2 years ago and never used it -- before Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) had been murdered but long after hip-hop had been commodified by the taste makers on video channels and fashion rags. After JMJ was slain, the current state of affairs in the hip hop culture and the NPR piece jogged my memory. I'd forgotten that I'd written the piece but just because you don't get published by others doesn't mean you can't do it yourself.. I thought I'd post-up the story here because, hey, the story must be told somewhere...

One night in 2004, I fell asleep while listening to a review of 50 Cents' (then) new LP 'Get Rich or Die Trying' on NPR. As I drifted off I thought, "Dayum, hip-hop releases getting coverage on National Public Radio; what's next, dogs and cats living together?" Mind you, this wasn't the first time that I'd heard a rap review on Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" but this particular segment struck a chord within me. It made me think about my own first encounter with hip-hop and how far the genre has come since, now that it's "officially" a quarter of a century old.

Fade back to the South, Virginia to be exact. I was twelve years old back in 1983 and although the radio stations in town didn't play rap on the regular, it was sometimes possible to pick up DJ Redd Alert's Saturday night broadcasts pumping out of NYC on KISS FM. Needless to say, many of the kids my age were checking regionally unheard of cuts like "PSK" by Philadelphia's Schoolly-D (the first real gangsta-rapper), Grand Master Flash, Africa Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, Kool Kyle & Billy Bill and this trio of side-burned, leather-clad young brothers who called themselves Run-DMC (Joseph Simmons, Daryll McDaniels and Mizell, respectively). My friends and I would que up or hand-held tape recorders and get mixes straight out of the woofer to tide us over until the next week's broadcast that we prayed would trickle down to us while listening below the Mason Dixon line -- this was decades before cell phones, CDs were only found in banks and if you mentioned downloading streams online, you were starring in the latest George Lucas flick while storm troopers chased you around a Death Star.

The music, language and feel was unlike anything we were hearing on the airwaves at the time and everyone in my crew just knew that we were on to something fresh. I'd never felt so alive as I basked in the acoustic glow of this new sound -- these artists were opening up our young minds in ways we couldn't have begun to fathom. To our amazement (and chagrin) 0% of these sounds were played on the local "urban" stations that we were accustomed to listening to. Disco was still gasping its death rattle and groups who are now the usual suspects on "WAVE" and Lite Pop stations were at the height of their creative and financial powers.

We continued to filch our funk from the Big Apple and put out an APB on this "new music." We didn't even know what to call it. One day my best friend Earl called me and shrieked "Turn on the radio, turn on the radio!" The local "MAGIC" affiliate was playing "The Message" (with the bleep at the "people pissing on the stage" part firmly intact) and we just stood there on either end listening and cheering; we soaked up every drop of rap's debut on our city's airspace and all was good with the world.

Soon, rap records started to appear on store shelves down in VA and whenever I had enough grip from saved allowances set aside, I'd stop downtown at Bohannon's Record Store on Broad and 1st Streets to buy 12 inches of the newest wax. One fateful day I walked into the store and got hit by a ton of bricks when I saw "Daryll and Joe" pointing at me from the cover of "Run-DMC," the group's eponymous full-length debut LP. My pants were dancing with figs; I couldn't believe it! Suffice to say, I scooped up the new LP ($8 and change, thank-you-very-much), caught the #41 Churchill bus home, ran to my room and slapped that jammy on my Flintstone-era component set.

I cranked Run-DMC at a Nigel Tufnel-esque "11" for hours and pored over every scratch, beat, cut, cross fade and , above all else, the lyrics. I don't think there's a brown man in America, who listened to rap in the early 80's -- and is in my age bracket -- who can't recite every lyric from that album verbatim. Dig it: "The beat is big, it's kind of large and we're on the mic, we're in charge"..."For all you sucker MC's perpetrating a fraud. Your rap is cold whack, you leave the crowd so bored..." or "J-A-Y are the letters of his name. Cuttin' and scratching are the aspects of his game..." or better still: "Run: One thing I know is that life is short. DMC: So listen up homeboy -- give this a thought. Run: The next time someone's teaching, why don't you get taught...Together: It's like that! AND THAT'S THE WAY IT IS!"

The emotions evoked defied description in my young mind's eye but it was real and it was edifying; like I was given a key of some sort. Unlike most of the R&B and Rock artists that I also listened to -- including bands on that "new" Music Television channel -- I could actually relate to these rappers in a palpable way. They were just like me. The gritty stories that they'd tell didn't evoke cartoonish images of over-the-hill freaks in platforms and diapers or androgynous boy-men or New-Wave Technicolor pompodours (which were all cool, creatively speaking, for other reasons in hindsight). These were young black brothers dressed in track suits, Cazal glasses, shell-toe Adidas, Dobbs fedoras and Triple-Fat Gooses ( down jackets) -- in essence, my uncles and older heads who lived in my neighborhood. It transformed me, like I had been years earlier when I was re-introduced to Rock'n Roll by my uncle Duck, who put the Rock in my bones with "Frampton Comes Alive," -- that's not a typo,yo.

Later, when my uncle Duck threw on a copy of Blowfly's "Rap Dirty" I knew it was all over. As mentioned above, he'd introduced me to guitar-Rock at an early age with Peter Frampton and Dick Hungate's 8PM show on XL102. I thank him for doing so to this day. Pressing FFWD, I think another reason that Run-DMC's debut set got me so souped up is that even though they were a black group, producers Russell Simmons (now a hip-hop/fashion mogul) and Rick Rubin (currently a super-producer credited with introducing Johnny Cash to the Nine Inch Nails set) were infusing the "street sound" with other textures most significantly being John "Jellybean" Benitez' guitaring on "Rock Box" which helped force the electric blues shred to re-direct itself and circle back towards a younger listening audience who'd eschewed it for synthesizers and drum machines -- people like me who were old enough to know what was played out but too young to know how far back the wiry arms of black music's influence stretched.

Good music never dies. After biding its time, it rises like a phoenix from the most unlikeliest of places. Run-D.M.C.'s debut album, itself, became the first rap LP to yield gold sales ("Rapper's Delight" was a single). These boys were on fire yet still flying below the radar screens of the mainstream audience -- a'la The Wailers before Eric "Slowhand" Clapton copped a version of "I Shot the Sheriff -- but all that was about to change.

In 1985, Run-D.M.C. issued the crossover breakthrough album King of Rock that held the hit title track as well as cuts like, "You're Blind," "Can You Rock It Like This" and, my personal fave, "Daryll & Joe" but another significant thing occurred as well. It is here that the trio collaborated with an artist outside of the "traditional" hip-hop canon when they cut "Roots, Rap, Reggae" with the Jamaican dub toaster (King) Yellowman -- bridging an older genre of Black sound with this newer one. The masses finally began to embrace the newly christened hip-hop genre and even MTV started steadily broadcasting "The King of Rock" video to an ever-expanding suburban demographic. In the proceeding year Profile Records -- co-run by Russell Simmons - a man unheard of at the time on the mainstream celebrity circuit, and Joseph "Run" Simmons' big brother-- issued the group's third effort Raising Hell and it did just that.

The first cut I heard from the group's tertiary set was "Peter Piper" which I caught snippets of while walking down the street as a tricked out Fleetwood bearing New York City plates noisily sped past as I strolled it home from the bus stop one day after school. I stood there on the pavement in a daze feeling like I'd missed the boat. I knew those voices from listening to their previous albums non-stop for hours on end. It was them! They were back without warning. That's how I found out that Run-D.M.C's new joint had been released. After I secured the $crilla, I shot over to Bohannon's scooped the LP. I wasn't disappointed in the least.

The album held slices like "My Addidas," "Raising Hell" and, of course, "Peter Piper." The group was coming into its own; their flow was top-shelf and their ideas were oozing forth in a major way and in thus un-tried directions. The R&B radio successes of the tunes on Raising Hell mentioned earlier were wholly eclipsed by "Walk This Way," a tune that opened a door through which forthcoming acts like Urban Dance Squad, 311, Rage Against the Machine and still later, Linkin Park would be able to easily walk through and onto the national stage.

"Walk This Way" was recorded with Boston's Aerosmith, who were missing in action for years on the rock-n-roll battlefields by that time, read: classic rock has-beens. Not only did "WTW" defibrillate the public's interest in Steven Tyler's caterpillar-lipped stage persona and band, it pointed hip-hop toward "rap-rock" clearer than any of Run-DMC's rock'n'rap hybrids ever had. This single was a watermark both both artistically and commercially and, as such, was heavily rotated on the airwaves and became a hit. But with all this success, a fall was in the offing: enter Hollywood.

Back in '85, Run-DMC had appeared in their first feature film, 'Krush Groove' which was more or less one of the first rap-related movies on the mainstream market -- it was quickly followed by flicks like 'Breakin' and 'Beat Street.' In 1987 the rappers starred in their very own feature vehicle called 'Tougher than Leather' which quickly sank without a trace. The next year they issued an LP with the same title that held cuts like "Beats to the Rhyme," "Run's House," "Together Forever" (which I'd scooped two years earlier from a Madison Square Garden concert simulcast on, you guessed it, that KISS station back in NYC) and "Mary, Mary" which was their rap-rock take on the Monkees' version.

I was still peripherally interested in what was happening with Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay but by the time I got to university there were bigger fish to fry when I formed a band of my own called Full Stop. Sometimes I'd pay tribute during a show and slide in a "Run Rhyme" which felt cool.But for all intents and purposes the group had already accomplished what they were put here to do in my book. The trio issued a handful of albums in the years that followed but had become merely one of the many fish that swam in the seas of rap that had become available to the mainstream public.

By the early 90's hip-hop had taken on a life of its own spawning an array of of sub-genres while the pop culture massive began to mine every single nook and cranny it could access. Rap was used to sell everything from soda pop to automobiles to haute couture; it was diligently sold as something much larger than the grass roots musical movement that it had been just five years prior. Run-D.M.C. had a big hand in that. I think the success of "My Adidas" came back to haunt them in ways that were unforseeable. These guys were the first rap act to play Madison Square Garden -- there are popular rock acts that are still trying to book that gig and, of course, fill the place up.

When asked about Run-D.M.C.'s beginnings I can't help but feel like I was there from day one; like I had a hand in their discovery, and eminent downfall. They definitely played a part in expanding my world view of what the possibilities were, like the big brothers I never had -- for that I'll always feel like I was in the right place and time to witness something extremely cool and unique unfold right in front of my eyes which is something every generation has in common. Most people my age can remember a time when there was just no hip-hop at all and then, almost overnight it seems, hip hop was everywhere you looked-- now, it has almost reached the point of critical mass.

After hearing that Jason Mizell was gunned down last year in cold blood following a recording session, I felt that his killing marked the end of an era. Jay was like hip-hop's John Lennon. Even though he didn't host sleep ins or wed a performance artist who'd have a hand in scattering the group to the four winds, the similarities in the way that both were taken away from us is a stark reminder of how we really don't appreciate what we have until it's taken away from us.

Jason had been working with the rapper 50 cent during studio sessions just prior to his slaying and had taken the younger artist under his wing. After the DJ's passing was official the remaining members of the trio (Simmons and McDaniels) announced that they wouldn't perform again without Mizell which was a major bummer to the 2nd power. I recall how outraged I was a few years ago when reading an article featuring one of those geriatric dandies like Rod Stewart orKeith Richards insouciantly pouting about "the current state of the recording industry" and how it got me thinking about the dinosaurs who are now caged in the rigidly formatted petting zoos of classic/noodle-rock radio stations and then about the original "Kings from Queens" and what they meant to me and I recall their popular declaration from fifteen years ago: "Every jam we play, we break two needles. There's three of us but we're not the Beatles!" No fellas, you weren't. But you always will be the Queensborough firebrands that "took the beat from the streets and put it on TV," and that's something that can never be denied...'cause it's like that and that's the way it is...Laters, CeeP.


Blogger mj said...

ah yes. nice work again, young meing! i definitely likes. . .
and you know what i likes about this piece? i like that it pissed me off a couple of times. i liked that it reminded me of how i felt about u2, that common experience part of it all you mentioned. i liked that i remember most of your references and they had sometimes similiar and other times disimiliar meanings/memories for me.
mostly, i like that it spurred me to write about some musical influences. . .

10:48 AM, March 12, 2005  

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