No group has helped shaped the hardcore aesthetic so in vogue among today’s rappers as much as Run-D.M.C. But when it comes to giving a live show, the group has little in common with today’s group of pretendersand that’s a compliment. The live show is a lost art in hiphop. Today’s MCs grew up rhyming in the basement rather than rocking parties like their forebears, and they know how to do little in concert besides lurch across the stage, curse at the crowd, and clutch their jewels.
So whenever I get to see any of the post-old-school groups such as Run-D.M.C., it’s a treat, because it reminds me that hiphop began as a dialogue between artist and audience. A Run-D.M.C. show, usually beginning with a scorching rendition of “Run’s House,” is like therapy for the hiphop head tired of small-minded imbeciles who consider smoking 10 blunts a day some sort of great accomplishment.
At least I thought it would be therapeuticuntil I got to Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena last Friday to see Run-D.M.C. cater to its crossover audience at the expense of its original faithful. Despite a few noticeable new pounds on Run, the group members, all sporting black jeans, black Stetson hats, and Adidas shelltops, looked the same. But they lost a lot of musical heft by jettisoning classics like “Run’s House” and “My Adidas” for mass-appeal material, some of it respectable (“King of Rock,” “Walk This Way”), some not so (“Mary, Mary”). The trio faltered technically as well: Jam Master Jay’s steady hand betrayed him, and on “Peter Piper” the record skipped noticeably. And apparently D.M.C. has been demoted from being a full-time partner to serving as a hype man for Run, who repeatedly ordered the crowd to jump. Who needs to be told that at a great rap show?
It was a depressing sight, especially for a seasoned hiphop fan with little to hold on to but his nostalgia. Not that Run-D.M.C.’s crossover hits are so horrible; most of them, in fact, epitomize the hardcore aesthetic that Run-D.M.C. invented. Before its debut single, “Sucker M.C.’s (Krush Groove 1),” dropped in 1983, party rap dominated hiphop, with its lush strings and wailing horns. In sharp contrast to most early-’80s rap, the single was anchored by sparse drums and a rugged flow. And Run-D.M.C. had no truck with most MCs’ wild funk-era costumes and effervescent flow.
Early hiphop, still drunk off black America’s successes during the ’70s, fashioned a world where the only relevant question was “Where’s the next block party?” Affirmative action and Nixon’s ideals of black capitalism had created a large new black bourgeoisie, which made rap, in its early years, sound like music from a victory parade. Before Run-D.M.C., only Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, with their politically charged opus “The Message,” attempted to sketch a grimmer portrait of black America. But when Run-D.M.C. debuted, the group attempted to add color and texture to images of that world. The group was only occasionally as blatantly critical of society as Melle Mel had been with “The Message,” but its sound represented urban black America’s mood and immediately made one thing clear: The party was over.
“Sucker M.C.’s” was rap’s first song to have a measurable nod factor, an element that would become a standard among underground acts. But unlike the droning sludge produced in today’s underground, “Sucker M.C.’s” still made you want to dance. Run-D.M.C.’s ascendance made hardcore the order of the day and ended the era of glitzy supergroups featuring an ensemble of MCs.
Of lesser importance is the group’s status as rap’s first successful crossover act. By fusing rock’s blaring guitars with prevalent percussion, Run-D.M.C. appealed to both suburban white kids and black kids from the projectsa fact the band seemed plainly aware of at McDonough Arena: It’s unlikely that if the group had been performing at the Ritz that it would have been plugging its new album’s cameos by Korn and the Beastie Boys. Even as the group attempted to reach its mostly young, white audience, it wasn’t clear that the audience even understood where Run-D.M.C. was coming from: One lanky kid was so enthralled with the trio that he hollered, “Long Island, baby!” to the Hollis, Queens, natives. And the group got some of its loudest applause for reminiscing about the old days of touring with the Beasties.
In those days, Run didn’t have to order the crowd to jump; a blazing rehash of “My Adidas” did the trick. Maybe the standards were higher then. The group knew it had to follow the then-youthful LL Cool J or the cinematic Public Enemy. The current stars on the rap sceneexcept, maybe, Common and the Rootsoffer no comparable challenge.
Run-D.M.C. was the first group to ooze machismo, to make it uncool to smile and fashionable to assume a b-boy stance and glare coldly at the world. The pose was then advanced by N.W.A., which took it further and said, in so many words, “Fuck the world.” In 1999, it has gotten so bad that a few weeks back I watched in disbelief as the host of a show threatened the crowd by announcing that the headliner wouldn’t come out until everybody was quiet. Granted, it was a rare, extreme statement, but it underscores how far hiphop has moved from its roots as live music.
Run-D.M.C. didn’t come off that bad at McDonough. But the group clearly had lost its step since its early days, spending more time on interludes than on actual performance. Instead of giving us the plethora of old hits, the principals used the stage as a platform for renditions of cliché new material, historical braggadocio (“Y’all know we was the first!”), and Run’s unimprovised freestyles. During one segment, the group actually left the stage for 10 minutes. The crowd stood in the dark murmuring and muttering, utterly befuddled by the hiatus. It was an apt metaphor for hiphop, where the citizens of rapdom are left to question their world when even their gods betray them.CP