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Listen: In hiphop’s canon of primary wordsmiths, Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels have earned damn near Whitmanesque levels of acclaim. Take a minute to review their body of work, starting with their self-titled 1984 debut, and it becomes clear that, in the wasteland of early-’80s music, these cats were almost the sole salvation.
Before the ascent of Joe and Darryl (aka Run and DMC), rappers blew onstage in pimped-out getups inspired in equal parts by P-Funk album covers and The Jetsons. Check the eclectic gaucheness of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or the cartoon costumery of UTFO, and the boulevard minimalism of Run-DMC becomes an aesthetic statement in itself. Black jeans and Adidas, sweat-shirt and Kangol, gold ropes thick enough to tow a Lincoln Navigator: The implicit line was that these cats were all about performance as reality. To cut to the quick, Run and DMC were keeping it real before the phrase was even a shiver on a marketing director’s spine.
Driven by a mélange of elemental beats and shrill guitar riffs conjured up by DJ/producer Jam Master Jay, Run-DMC was responsible for the first gold and first platinum rap albums. Plus, the trio was giving props to the home ZIP code. I bear witness to Queens’ status as the ugly-stepchild borough of the pre-Run-DMC era. The self-proclaimed Kings From Queens kicked open a door that let in LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, Kool G Rap, Nas, and plenty of others.
That said, these men inhabit the semihonored post of musical godfathers to the least sentimental musical genre on the planet. Rappers make quick work of their forebears. In a phrase, hiphop eats its old. The singular brilliance of 1986’s Raising Hell is lost on a demographic that literally wasn’t born when Run-DMC first blessed a microphone. And although Run’s status as a newly ordained minister establishes the right of rappers to do what burnt-out soul singers have been doing for years, his position ain’t exactly common in the all-too-often anti-spiritualist field of rap. Thus, the periodic attempts to polish the patina on the group’s legend. Thus, Crown Royal.
From the get-go, it’s clear that this record ain’t about carving out a new niche or tacking a brilliant coda onto Run-DMC’s career. Shoot, you could argue that Crown Royal is really a tribute album, albeit one in which the honorees figure prominently in the tribute-making. Of the 12 tracks that constitute this release, only one, “Crown Royal,” is without the fingerprints of the trio’s musical junior partners. Among contributions from Nas, Prodigy, Kid Rock, Everlast, Method Man, Fred Durst, Sugar Ray, and Fat Joe, the essential Run-DMC-ness of Crown Royal never gets a chance to emerge. Add into the mix the fact that DMC is virtually absent from the tracks, and you figure that this disc is Run-DMC in name only. Truth in advertising just about demands that Crown Royal be marketed as a “various artists” release.
Word on the street holds that the two verbalists are in the midst of that oft-cited but seldom-explained phenomenon called “creative differences.” Rumors aside, though, DMC’s strong, silent persona has always cast him as verbal straight man to the hyperkinetic, bombastic Run. Without him, the whole balance seems off, like Stockton playing without Malone.
It’s easy to see what this CD was supposed to have been: a cross-generational funk session during which hiphop’s oldest living alumni draft a few of the genre’s young heads and show them that the old folks ain’t lost the instinct for flow just yet. And to his cred, the liturgical rapper still knows his way around a breakbeat. At an age when most of his peers are worrying about crab grass and male-pattern baldness, Run still possesses a nicely sandpapered larynx and one of the most agile tongues in the game. On “Queens Day,” the elder rapsman even holds his own with thug arrivistes Nas and Prodigy.
But even flow can’t salvage his awkward pairings with Fred Durst on “Them Girls” and Everlast on “Take the Money and Run.” Matter of fact, Run’s skills spotlight the fact that Run-DMC and these new cats are apples and oranges. Not only do their styles miss each other, but they might not even be in the same area code. Run hasn’t lost his lyrical acumen, but Durst yields classics such as: “I like the small girls/I like the tall girls/I like all the girls/Fuckin’ dirty call girls.” Factor in the ultra-high-tempo of the track and the result is musical tragedy.
Both “Ay Papi,” which features the Bronx bard Fat Joe, and “Ahhh,” on which Chris Davis pitches in guest vocals, hit their marks. In the case of the latter, the rumbling keys and verbal noirishness even hint at the kind of sublimely funked sound Run-DMC can still kick out on occasion. The Kid Rock guest spot “The School of Old” also yields fruit, but that success is dimmed by Sugar Ray’s flaccid “Here We Go 2001.” Whereas the demented metallic guitar flourishes on “The School of Old” up the ante for the midtempo bass pulses, the frenetic guitar licks on “2001” just annoy.
Run-DMC, Jam Master Jay, and Randy Allen are all listed as producers on Crown Royal, and the sounds on this collection are clearly too eclectic to have sprung from one source. The album opens with a boulevard-friendly computer-synthesized riff overlaid with the most elemental bass notes you ever heard and then veers into the florid piano pulses of “Queens Day,” the anarchic guitar riffs of “2001,” the ghetto salsa of “Ay Papi,” and the techno-edged funk of “Simmons Incorporated.” The result is a production that fits together like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
The collab with Kid Rock is the closest that Run-DMC comes to the creative synergy the group had with Aerosmithequal parts rap and rock. Other Crown Royal efforts sound more like spare rock tracks over which Run decided to shout some rhymes. Worse, Joe, Darryl, and Jay obviously haven’t learned any new tricks: “The School of Old” is basically a cover of 1985’s “King of Rock,” and “2001” is an update of the 1983 big-beat classic “Here We Go.” Despite the fact that the field is full of pups scrambling to catch up with them, Crown Royal is evidence that these dogs have already had their day. CP