For all its cries of par-tee and cash monee, and for all its basic function as dance music, rap has always had aspects of deep, almost priestlike seriousness, just like break dancing and graffiti art. Rainbow idealism as well as pride in craft were sprinkled through the early car dreams and macho boasts. Whether in the discos of the South Bronx and Harlem or later in the white clubs downtown, rap played in situations where a breakdown in vibes could end a party fast and maybe forever; so harmony, concerning turf or race, was not only a virtue but a necessity. At the same time simplicity--whether in classic hip-hop dress of T-shirts and sneakers, or in the bare musical elements of records and the spoken voice--was often not only a necessity but a point of pride. When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five dazzled the first major rap crossover audience at the Ritz three years ago, Melle Mel parted with this shot: "Remember, seven men, two machines."
Last Wednesday, dressed in full leathers, Mel stood in the medium-sized but star-studded Ritz audience watching three men and two machines on that same stage. Rap had come some distance; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had broken national radio with "The Message," adopted the Rick James look, then broke itself in two. But while three years earlier live Flash generated so much electricity they made you forget the physical limitations of the form, Run-D.M.C. made you remember. That was the point.
Live and on record, visually and orally, in words and music, Run-D.M.C., with their extremely basic backing, blunt voices, and direct, aggressively matter-of-fact lyrics, are the most unadorned rappers around. What makes them notable, though, isn't just their purity, but--kind of like the one-band-three-chords Ramones--the conceptual shrewdness behind it. One sign of this is their debut album, produced for the dance label Profile by Kurtis Blow mentors Larry Smith and Russell Simmons, and with 100,000 copies already in the stores. Though nothing on it rivals "The Message" and a few cuts risk monotony, its focus, integrity, and very recognizable stamp make Run-D.M.C. the finest rap album to date.
Starting last year with "It's Like That"/"Sucker M.C.'s," Run-D.M.C. emerged as a tough-minded, decent down-to-earth, nonrevolutionary duo who shouted rather than rapped over powerful, stark rhythm tracks. Hollis, Queens, home of the whole group (Simmons is D.J. Run's brother); is a middle-class black neighborhood, and if, as they claim, they always tell the truth, these boys are big believers in the work ethic and family stability. Not only are they unashamed of who they are, they're combative around it. A boast: "I go to St. John's University." An insult: "You're fightin' all your life/You're cheatin' on your wife/You walk around town like a hoodlum with a knife." Politics: "We receive much lower pay--it's like that, and that's the way it is." Philosophy of life: "Why you wear those glasses?" "So I can see."
Their attitude isn't just a matter of lyrics, though. Kurtis Blow's original version of "Hard Times" is basically a dance number with James Brown homage. Run-D.M.C.'s cover, over bare, suspenseful chords and relentless drum box, is a dire, very practical warning. When these two exhort, "Relax your body and your mind," on the new single "Rock Box"--outstanding for Eddie Martinez's raw, murky heavy metal guitar line--they might as well be chanting, "You should have gone to school/You could have learned a trade." In fact that record, clearly produced to be a dance hit, makes the plainest statement of their clean-living ethics, from telling the truth to shunning curls, braids, and designer jeans. They may be a little straight, but they eat no one's dust. With their repetitive, forceful music, and lamming percussion tracks, and dogged shouts, they rap like they're boxing, and when they go for the kill--"You five dollar boy and I'm a million dollar man/You sucker M.C. and you're my fan"--they win.
At the Ritz--and especially by contrast to the visual clutter of Davey DMX's opening act--they exhibited a kind of homely elegance, not just because of their visuals--neat leather suits, turtlenecks, stingy-brims, all black, lit in primary colors against the Ritz's bared white brick wall--but also because of the unglitziness of their totally nonshowbiz moves. Basically the two deejays--one in glasses, both solid-bodied-=-just prowled around in their laceless white sneakers, shouting. There were some slow moments--the "It's Like That"/"Hard Times" segue didn't entirely eliminate the problem of both songs having the same tune. But when the half-hour set was over, I was still hungry for more. Which, under the circumstances, I have to assume was the point.
Village Voice, May 15, 1984