The legendary eighties rap group Run-D.M.C. combined intelligent lyrics with addictive beats and was responsible for popularising rap and hip-hop in terms of the music, lifestyle and popular image. Unfortunately, due to the slaying of one of its members in 2002, the group has called it quits.
The founding members of Run-D.M.C. came from the unlikeliest of places: the middle-class neighbourhood of Hollis, Queens, New York. Joseph Ward Simmons (a.k.a. Run, Rev Run, The Reverend; born 14th November 1964), the youngest son of educator Daniel and Evelyn, began DJing for one of rap’s earliest stars, Kurtis Blow in 1978 – Simmons got the job courtesy of his brother, Russell, who was managing Blow at the time.
Joseph Simmons became known as “Kurtis Blow's Disco Son – DJ Run”, soon shortened to DJ Run, so named because of his ability to cut between two turntables rapidly. Diversifying from DJing, Run began to make a name for himself among the local B-boys (break boys, or aficionados of the hip-hop lifestyle) as an emcee (M.C., or Master of Ceremonies, now known as a rapper). He started to have verbal duels with Blow, and recorded his performances for his friend Darryl McDaniels.
Darryl Matthews McDaniels (a.k.a. DMC, Easy D, Darryl Mac; born 31st May 1964), the son of an engineer and a nurse, started listening to hip-hop after hearing a tape of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, one of the very first hip-hop groups (pioneers of the techniques of MCing, freestyle battles and record mixing and scratching) in the genre’s infancy.
DMC was less into the hip-hop lifestyle than Run; he loved American football, basketball and was a comic book enthusiast. However, his skills at rapping and rhyming were soon developed in tandem with Run, and the two started going out to 205th Street in Hollis (colloquially referred to as “Two-Fifth down”) to watch the local DJs strut their stuff. It was here they bumped into a hotshot DJ called Jazzy Jase.
Jason William Mizell (a.k.a. Jam-Master Jay, DJ Jazzy Jase; born 21st January 1965) had quite a reputation in the area for being the flashiest amongst the B-boys around, standing out in the midst of a crowd of hip-hoppers trying to make a name for themselves. After getting into trouble with the law, he took up the drums and bass, but soon switched to the turntables as an instrument. With his skills, budding emcees were doing whatever they could to come up and rap in front of him.
1982 came, and Run and DMC were keeping in touch while in college: Run in LaGuardia Community College to study mortuary science, and DMC in St John’s University. They resolved to form a rap duo, and enlisted Mizell to scratch turntables for them. Thus Run-D.M.C. was born. By this time, Run’s brother, Russell Simmons, was becoming a major figure in the rap world, and together with his white partner and producer Rick Rubin, had started the soon-to-be legendary record label Def Jam Records.
The elder Simmons was to play an influential role in the budding career of Run-D.M.C., booking them into nationwide tours (Fresh Fest) together with the artists on his roster, including Newcleus and Whodini. He was also responsible for creating the image of the budding new rap movement: black jeans, unlaced Adidas sneakers and black fedoras.
In 1983, Run-D.M.C. released their first single, ‘It’s Like That’, which won acclaim amongst the local B-boys, and which also became a Top 20 R&B hit. The single, and its B-side, ‘Sucker MC’s’, were unusual for their minimalistic beats and advanced rhyme styles (instead of trading off verses, they finished each other’s lines), and is considered by many fans to be the first hardcore rap song, in contrast to the lighter, funkier early hip-hop which was tinged with mild jazz grooves.
‘It’s Like That’ was followed in the same year by ‘Hard Times’ (1983), which also had the sparse beats and powerful vocal delivery that was influenced by rock as much as by hip-hop. The video for their third single, ‘Rock Box’ (1983), received airplay on MTV, which was unusual for a black performer, rap or otherwise, at that time. Their self-titled first album, ‘Run-D.M.C.’ (1984) was the first rap album to go gold, and the album was dedicated to the slain Junebug, a DJ at the Disco Fever club.
Their second album, ‘King of Rock’ (1985), saw the band adopt a rock-edged sound featuring heavy rock guitar riffs, and would eventually go platinum. ‘Can You Rock It Like This’ (No. 19 on the 1985 R&B charts) featured ghost-written lyrics by a 16-year-old LL Cool J. Their success also saw them as the only rap group on Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert in 1985, playing ‘Jam Master Jay’ and ‘King of Rock’ at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium.
They also joined notable artists and personalities like Bob Dylan, U2, Ringo Starr, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Darryl Hannah, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Pat Benatar and Joey Ramone in contributing vocals to the ‘Sun City’ (1985) album, a project by former Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who founded the protest group Artists United Against Apartheid.
In 1986, Run-D.M.C. also appeared in the movie ‘Krush Groove’ (1986), a re-telling of the story of Def Jam and Russell Simmons’ early days. Although the film boasted appearances by up-and-coming stars like LL Cool J, Chaka Khan, Prince percussionist and singer Sheila E., and the legendary Beastie Boys, the cast was unhappy with the story, and the film did not do as well as expected, even among its target audience.
‘Raising Hell’ (1986) was the album that confirmed Run-D.M.C.’s place in the history books. While cementing hip-hop staples like record scratching and raw drumbeats into the genre, their crossover appeal to the rockers was never greater – this came courtesy of a collaboration with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on a remixed version of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’. The Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith version is widely regarded as the first ever rap-rock song, and is also credited with single-handedly reviving Aerosmith’s flagging career.
Run-D.M.C.’s subsequent tour saw violence erupt at venues; a show at California’s Long Beach Arena saw fighting between the two infamous Los Angeles black gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, leaving 40 people injured. The group’s music and rap in general was targeted for criticism; this was at a time when rock music itself was under fire from the self-righteous Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the brainwave of the sanctimonious Tipper Gore, wife of future US vice-president Al Gore.
Despite this, Run-D.M.C. continued to go from strength to strength, touring with the Beastie Boys (whose own rowdy and defiant 1986 album ‘License to Ill’ eventually overtook ‘Raising Hell’ in sales) and Public Enemy. They also appeared in Coca-Cola and Adidas advertisements, the latter possibly due to the group’s popularisation of Adidas sneakers, as well as the song ‘My Adidas’ on the ‘Raising Hell’ album.
1988’s ‘Tougher Than Leather’ saw a departure from the rock chords that had flavoured their earlier work. The band’s music was more gritty and edgy, the lyrics more confrontational. Despite strong singles like ‘Run’s House’, the album was overshadowed by other albums from other acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (the starting point of the career of a certain Will Smith) and Public Enemy. ‘Tougher Than Leather’ (1988) was also the second film they appeared in. Written by Rick Rubin and featuring a cameo by the Beastie Boys, the film bombed.
‘Back From Hell’ (1990) attracted little attention as interest in the group started to fade – the budding hip-hop scene on the West Coast of America in the late eighties, specifically in Los Angeles, saw the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry start to hot up, with controversial and acrimonious ‘diss tracks’ slung across America aimed at rival rappers. Run-D.M.C. were never caught up in the wars, but the media and the public had developed a taste for the violence and politics in the lyrics of rappers like Tupac Shakur, Ice-T, as well as the artists on Puff Daddy’s fledgling label, Bad Boy Records – the term ‘gangsta rap’ started to be used with increasing frequency.
1993’s ‘Down With The King’ enjoyed some success again, this time with Jam-Master Jay lending a hand with the production. Between 1990 and 1993, the group’s members had suffered personal problems: DMC and Run were both battling drug and alcohol addictions, while the latter was charged with raping a college student. Both the rappers turned their lives around however, becoming born-again Christians and kicking their addictions. The rape charges against Run were also dropped. The Christian-themed ‘Down With The King’ broke the Top 10 on the R&B charts, and also went gold, selling nearly 500, 000 copies. By 1995, DMC was a deacon at his church, while Run was an ordained minister. Run also started his own record label, REV RUN Records, that focused on gospel and Christian-rap.
After their so-called comeback, the two rappers lay low for a while, focusing on their new-found calling in serving God. Jam-Master Jay however was keeping active in the music world, producing and collaborating with rap groups and artists. The trio were still going on tours worldwide as well. Their seventh album, ‘Crown Royal’, was announced in 1999 but was only released in 2001, as it was beset with many problems, not least the rumours that DMC had not only lost his voice prior to recording (he eventually appeared on only three tracks) but was not interested in the group’s new musical direction. The amount of guest artists also made getting permission from their respective record labels a laborious chore: Jermaine Dupri, Nas and Prodigy (Mobb Deep), Fred Durst (Limp Bizkit), Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, Stephan Jenkins (Third Eye Blind) and Method Man. Despite the wealth of guest stars, the album was poorly received, although the subsequent tour with Aerosmith satisfied most of their fans.
On 30th October 2002, Jason Mizell, a.k.a. Jam-Master Jay, was shot and killed execution-style in his recording studio in Queens, New York. Tributes from the rap and rock world poured in, and he was buried in Fernscliff Cemetery in New York. He is survived by his wife Terri and their three children. As of 2014, no arrests have yet been made, nor has a concrete motive yet been established. The most popular theory is that Mizell was murdered because of his connections with his protégé and popular rapper 50 Cent, a former drug dealer with a criminal record, although investigators have scoffed at a revival of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry.
After Jay’s death, the two surviving members laid Run-D.M.C. to rest, saying that they would never perform under that name again. In 2007, Jay’s widow Terri hosted the inaugural J.A.M. Awards, the first socially responsible awards within the hip-hop community, and inspired by Jay’s dedication to social Justice, Arts and Music. In 2008, Run joined Kid Rock’s ‘Rock N Roll Revival Tour’. Also in 2008, Run-D.M.C., along with Metallica and Jeff Beck, were nominated for the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.