Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 32 - Run-DMC

I was driving in the car with my younger sister during my Beastie Boys portion of this project (Week 8). I cued up Licensed to Ill on the stereo, and informed my sister (the good brother that I am) that this was the first rap album to top the Billboard Charts.

My sister made the sort of bored expression that only a sixteen year old girl can pull off. "I'm not impressed," she informed me, without missing a beat. The subtext of this damning statement, of course, is that this music is old, and thus dated, past its expiration date, no longer fit for consumption.

Is newer always better? We tend to think this way, and not just in regards to music. We're always looking for the next big thing, whether it's an album, a book, a movie, a political movement. And it's certainly true that newer music is probably the best representation of our current age, better suited to speak to us about contemporary issues. But does this necessarily make it better than that which came before, or just different?

Sometimes past works become so popular that it's hard to approach them with anything close to a clean slate. Take, for example, Run-DMC, this week's artist. I'm sure in 1984, their music was exciting, even jarring. I can understand the historical significance, but I don't think I can appreciate how new this music was back then. In part, I've been softened up by rap music since then - the very music that draws inspiration from Run-DMC's initial albums. It's a paradox. Certain groups become so successful, so influential, that they effectively make themselves irrelevant.

Also, I find that I've encountered parodies of this music far more often than the music itself. To bring up the Beastie Boys again, whenever I listen to Run-DMC's amazing song "King of Rock", I find myself thinking of the line from Hello Nasty - "I am the King of Boggle / There is none higher / I get eleven points from the word 'Quagmire' ". Once you've heard a satire like that, how can you take the original seriously anymore?


Artist of the Week: Run-D.M.C.

What I Knew Before: I think I came into this world with Run-DMC's cover of "Walk This Way" already implanted in my mind; it's one of those songs you just know. Other than that, I had a vague idea that Run-DMC was the first significant rap act to really hit it big on the charts, but I had never really heard much of their music. It just doesn't get that much play outside of I Love the Eighties anymore, I suppose. I did have "King of Rock" in my iTunes library but, in one of those strange quirks of the digital era, I'm not sure how it got there. Its play count was at zero before this week.

My listening: The self-titled Run-D.M.C. (1984), King of Rock (1985), and Raising Hell (1986). I listened to Raising Hell everyday this week, and I listened to the other two three times a piece. Also, I am writing this on Sunday having just listened to Tougher Than Leather (1988), which was so awesome that it knocked the post-Halloween hangover right out of my head. I wish I had listened to it more this week.

What I Liked: Run-DMC brings this raw, unbridled energy to most of their work that pretty much knocks my socks off every time I hear it. The music also has the ability to make the most mundane tasks seem awesome - listening to this made it a lot more fun to unload the dishwasher, or drive to the grocery store.

Run and DMC have a pretty good back-and-forth thing going with most of their rhymes. A few times it degenerates into a sort of lame call-and-response, but most of the time the interaction between the two rappers is pretty fun to listen to. At the same time, most of the rhythms are pretty simplistic, without a lot of the ellisions and rhythmic tricks used by modern rap artists. But that same rhythmic simplicity gives the music a sort of power - once you get into Run-DMC's groove, it's hard to get out of it.

I liked the group's attempt to integrate rap and rock. I know that "rap-rock" has a negative connotation nowadays, but what Run-DMC is doing is pretty cool. They hinted at this combination on their first album with "Rock Box", pursued it unconditionally on King of Rock, backed off a little bit on Raising Hell, and finally reached the perfect combination between the two on Tougher Than Leather. Jam Master Jay's beats aren't bad, exactly, but they're rather spartan and, for the most part, without embellishments. It's a lot more fun to hear Run and DMC rap over a roaring hair-metal guitar riff.

What I Disliked: Remember that thing about dated music I was talking about? A lot of these lyrics are stupid. Really stupid. They seem naive, simplistic and childish compared with what would come later. Some of Run-DMC's earlier stuff has a lot of social messages, which I don't really mind - songs like "It's Like That" and "Wake Up" might be corny, but at least they're sincere. But some of the other songs have lyrics that are pretty terrible. "You Talk Too Much" is a six-minute track filled with strange insults about someone who talks too much ("It's everybody's business that you love to mind / And talkin to you, is like dropping a dime"). And even Run-DMC's attempts at self-aggrandizement fall flat ("D for Never Dirty / MC for Mostly Clean").

I know I just lauded them for their simplistic rhythms, but that got really repetitive after listening to the group for hours upon end every day of the week. Their best songs manipulate this rhythmic minimalism to great effect. Their worst songs fall into that call-and-response format I was talking about, and become really boring, usually involving one of them rapping a line in an ascending, questioning tone, and the other responding in a descending, conclusive tone. ("One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and-six-and-seven? One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and-six-and-SEVEN!" That is my impression of the format for a lot of their tracks. It reminds me of Bulworth rapping.)

Finally, while Run-DMC can pull off the rap-rock integration, it falls completely flat when they try to tie in other genres of music. As Exhibit A, I present you "Roots, Rock, Reggae" and as Exhibit B, I give you "Ragtime".

What I Learned: I learned that Run-DMC was the first rap act to bring the tough, street-smart mentality to the genre. Before they came onto the stage, rap was a lot flashier and showier. Run-DMC brought an angry sort of minimal austerity to the music, and they were probably just as influential in the way they dressed (all in black, with Fedoras and unlaced Adidas sneakers. Compare this to the glitzy outfits of Grandmaster Flash).

I also learned that Run-DMC was opposed to the cover of "Walk This Way", but producer Rick Rubin pressured them into it. While it certainly won them a lot of fame and airtime, I think I'm going to have to side with Run-DMC. It's a kind of a stupid song, and it's sort of a shame that it's become their legacy. There are other, better, Run-DMC songs that involve this partnering of rap and rock.

Cool Fact of the Week: Jam-Master-Jay was murdered in 2002. Since then, Run-DMC has officially disbanded, with the two surviving members refusing to perform under that name. In an age in which a lot of older acts are embarking on "reunion tours" with only one or two original members, I think that Run-DMC's decision to retire the name is very classy indeed.

Further Exploration Would Entail: There are some later Run-DMC albums that are almost universally panned - Back From Hell (1990), Down With the King (1993), and Crown Royal (2001). The latter includes collaboration efforts involving Kid Rock and Fred Durst, so I think I'll definitely be staying away. Rather, I'm interested in exploring the early forms of rap music to which Run-DMC was reacting. I doubt that Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang, or Afrika Bambaataa have enough albums out to merit an entire week, but I might start exploring their singles.

Best Song You've Heard:

King of Rock

Best Song You Haven't Heard:

Tougher Than Leather

Next Week's Artist:

The Allman Brothers Band

[Postscript: I got some inquiries last week about my chronology. I am already on Week 32 on this project, but I've only been blogging for the past three weeks. The artists of the previous, unchronicled weeks have been (in order, as far as I can remember): The Stone Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pavement, U2, Depeche Mode, Guns N' Roses, Joy Division, the Beastie Boys, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Mötley Crüe, Yes, A Tribe Called Quest, the Velvet Underground, Radiohead AND Daft Punk (this week was a double), Fleetwood Mac, Jane's Addiction, Robert Johnson, Can, Public Enemy, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, OutKast, Oasis, Johnny Cash, Duran Duran, The Who, The Police, and Pearl Jam.]