New York City, NY

8. Run-D.M.C. – It’s Like That (1983)

Geography

This chapter covers my favourite NYC musical story of all: the birth and spread of hip hop within the city’s boundaries, and its subsequent explosion beyond. Run-D.M.C., from the relatively middle class yet nonetheless drug and crime riddled area of Hollis, Queens, represent the moment in which rap truly smashed into the mainstream. Those in and behind the group were ultimately elevated to stratospheric heights, but their roots are recognised by the naming of Run-DMC JMJ Way in their old stomping ground. DJ Jam Master Jay himself stayed living and working in Queens until the senseless 2002 murder that took place in his own recording studio.

But prior to this, the platform for Run-D.M.C.’s arrival had been organically developed in some of New York’s most deprived and neglected areas: the South Bronx neighbourhoods of the 1970s. It was here that territory once divided between violent gangs instead became partitioned into party patches of influence for hip hop’s three founding fathers: DJ Kool Herc on the west side, Afrika Bambaataa in the Bronx River area, and Grandmaster Flash in the borough’s most southern tip.

“We never disrespected each other. Nobody would tread on another’s area without permission.”
Grandmaster Flash

With no shortage of bare faced cheek, New Jersey also manages to muscle in on this narrative. Englewood’s Sugarhill Gang had hip hop’s first smash hit, Rapper’s Delight, through an appropriation of not just a sound, but also lyrics taken from the other side of the Hudson River.

Published January 2019

Affinity

Here we have perhaps the greatest chasm between what I knew at the start of this process and what I know now. When it came to the origins of hip hop, I simply didn’t have a clue – I couldn’t even tell you whether I knew that it originated in New York City.

Appreciation of rap however was tied to my early interest in music – the very first album I had my mother buy me in 2000 was Gorillaz’s self-titled debut, on the back of Del the Funky Homosapien’s rhymes in its lead single, Clint Eastwood (one of the few raps to which I still know all the words). A vague grasp of contemporary hip hop would follow – mainly the angsty shock jock stylings of Eminem and D12 – but the genre’s early years took much longer to register on my radar. Run-D.M.C. were the first, a friend lending me a copy of their Greatest Hits when I was a sixth form student in the mid noughties at a time when they were seen as something of an enjoyable throwback novelty, aided by the 1997 Jason Nevins house adaptation of It’s Like That having been a staple in our school disco years.

As I grew older I retained a level of appreciation for It’s Like That, along with tracks like It’s Tricky and Walk This Way, yet my hip hop tastes were unlikely to have stretched to many other tracks from this era. Again once the US100 inclusion was made and the research began, my eyes were opened up to a whole hitherto unexplored world – to the extent that in the years since launching this project, I’ve been the first in the queue for tickets for UK dates of both Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C themselves.

Origin

“Dirty, dangerous, and destitute. This was New York City in the 1970s … It seemed as if the entire infrastructure was in decay. Political corruption, sloppy accounting, and the cost of the [Vietnam] war were killing the city.”

Allan Tannebaum

The background setting to hip hop’s origins lie in the horrifying levels of neglect and mismanagement overseen by the City of New York and the federal government. Slashing of social welfare, white flight and irresponsible town planning hit the South Bronx particularly hard, the area becoming a powerful symbol of urban decay. Local landlords failing to receive rent payments would routinely torch buildings to fraudulently claim insurance payments – over 30,000 buildings were burnt across the borough within ten years, lending it the bleak moniker of ‘The Burning Bronx’.

The birth of hip hop: the original hand written invitation to DJ Kool Herc's party (cover charge of $0.25 for ladies, $0.50 for men)
The birth of hip hop: the original hand written invitation to DJ Kool Herc’s party (cover charge of $0.25 for ladies, $0.50 for men)

This did not however prevent a culture of partying among the area’s residents. DJ Kool Herc was one notorious party starter, and on August 11 1973 his apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue hosted what is widely acknowledged as the first ever hip hop party. At a time when disco fever gripped wider New York, Herc was more interested in the funk and soul he had grown up with – and through an innovative means of turntable manipulation, he provided a new way for his guests to ‘get down’ to the most danceable elements of these records. Herc would extend bass and drum breaks of two records back to back, a technique he called the ‘merry-go-round’, complemented by booming bass and Jamaican style ‘toasting’ over the mic. The template for hip hop performance had been created.

Enter Grandmaster Flash. Flash was an obsessive purveyor of what he called ‘research and development’ in the musical arena, and he made it his mission to perfect Herc’s technique, building his own set of turntables out of junk he found in various local yards. Through the crafty use of a crayon, Flash pioneered a means of cueing up sections of tracks that the DJ could essentially play indefinitely, providing a platform for extended vocals that over time began to emulate a ‘rapping’ tradition that could already be found in the work of 1950s entertainer Pigmeat Markham, the spoken word polemics of Gil Scott-Heron, and even white rock groups like the Animals.

Originally the DJ was the one who provided vocal as well as musical entertainment, but Flash found himself so consumed with his records he left the microphone unattended at the end of his desk – when Robert Wiggins, or ‘Cowboy’, picked it up and began spitting call-and-response rhymes the DJ-MC dynamic was born (in 1978 it’s said that Cowboy coined the term ‘hip hop’ at this time to mimic the rhythm of marching soldiers). Cowboy would be joined by Melle Mel and Kidd Creole (the first rappers to call themselves ‘Master of Ceremonies’), and later Mr. Ness and Rahiem to form Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Concurrently fellow Bronx resident and DJ Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation movement helped organise and mobilise the burgeoning hip hop movement behind its four elements (DJing, MCing, graffiti, and B-boying aka break dancing) as an expression of black creativity. Bambaataa saw this as providing a means of counterweighting the negative impact of Bronx poverty and the associated rising power of gangs. All of the above helped to engender a hip hop obsessed culture among the youth of the Bronx. While a city-wide blackout in 1977 has been described as the most intense crime wave in New York’s history, the primary target for many looters in this part of town was prohibitively expensive audio equipment, with a whole new cohort of amateur DJs and MCs born as a result.

“The blackout had a huge impact on hip hop. After the riot, there were suddenly a million crews with stolen turntables.”

Nelson George
Flash, Bambaata, Herc
Flash, Bambaataa, Herc

Flash and Bambaataa helped to export hip hop beyond the Bronx to all four corners of New York City, whether the trendy downtown clubs of Manhattan, punk venues that brought the genre to the attention of Joe Strummer and Debbie Harry, or neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. It was something of an affront to the genre’s pioneers when manufactured group The Sugarhill Gang then gave hip hop its first smash hit with Rapper’s Delight in 1979. It wasn’t so much that they were from Englewood in neighbouring New Jersey rather than being New Yorkers; it was more that rapper Big Bank Hank made little effort to hide blatant plagiarism of lyrics written by the South Bronx’s Grandmaster Caz, ultra-ironically including a lyric about ‘never letting another MC steal your rhyme’. Hank even retained a line that spelt out ‘Casanova Fly’, which was another moniker for Caz at the time.

Left to right: Jam Master Jay; DJ Run; Russell Simmons; DMC
Left to right: Jam Master Jay; DJ Run; Russell Simmons; DMC

As it happens Grandmaster Flash could have been the first to coin it in from hip hop – he was approached by Sugar Hill Records’ Sylvia Robinson before she put the Sugarhill Gang together, but he scoffed at the notion of monetising something he thought could only work as a live art form. After Rapper’s Delight he learnt his lesson, with The Message released by Sugar Hill Records in 1982 – with its lyrical descriptions of inner city poverty, this heralded the birth of using the medium for social commentary. But still none of these developments represented an elevation of hip hop into the mainstream; it remained a fringe or even novelty pursuit. This was all to change after a 19 year old from Hollis, Queens persuaded his older brother to record him rapping alongside his college friend.

Joseph Simmons (Run) had started rapping with a reluctant Darryl McDaniels (DMC) as hip hop had spread like wildfire across the city in the late 70s, the pair later encountering Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay) in Hollis’ ‘two fifths park’ where local DJs regularly battled and competed. Joseph’s older brother, Russell, meanwhile, also developed a deep interest in New York’s latest musical craze – not interested in performing, he adopted a much more entrepreneurial attitude, recognising its potential to enrich enterprising middle men on the ground, whether they were organising parties and events or sourcing the hottest talent for record labels.

Russell partnered with Rick Rubin, who in 1983 had co-founded Def Jam Recordings in his college dormitory, but seemingly he did not suspect that his own younger brother was potentially the most lucrative source of all. Despite working closely with Run-D.M.C. the duo were never signed to Def Jam, with their debut single It’s Like That – paired with Sucker M.C.’s – released on Profile Records. Regardless, through producing their records and providing sage career advice Russell and Rubin helped to provide Run-D.M.C. with the innovative ingredients that enabled them to become a global sensation.

Delivery

The appeal of Run-D.M.C. lay in a canny ability to draw a distinctly clear line between their output and that of Grandmaster Flash et al that had come before them. This was a line drawn on stylistic as well as musical grounds – it is said that the smartest thing Russell Simmons ever did was to rid the boys of check jackets they had wanted to wear on stage, and bring in the street clothes that embedded ‘keeping it real’ as a key component within hip hop culture. Compare the ostentatious hats, expensive looking fur, and general Village People vibe of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (they were said to have their own tailors) with the threads of Run-D.M.C.:

rundmc

This was a distinction also mirrored in the music. Rick Rubin revelled in a reputation as a ‘reducer’ rather than a producer – he made hip hop stand out by stripping it down its bare elements. In the case of Run-D.M.C. this meant an emphasis on Jam Master Jay’s drum machine minimalism and heavy staccato, described by one review as having a ‘proud disdain for melody [which] may prove too avant-garde for some’. The approach on 1983’s It’s Like That was so unusual that record executives refused to believe the record was complete, anticipating further fleshing out from guitars, bass and more instrumentation. The ‘new school’ sound spread further with Def Jam’s early releases from LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys a year later.

“Do you have zero tolerance for namby-pamby bullshit? Do you believe in yourself above all? Then chances are you share Run-D.M.C.’s values.”

1984 Village Voice review of Run-D.M.C.

In contrast to hip hop’s hitherto preoccupation with partying and boasting, a key aspect of Run-D.M.C.’s lyrical approach was in applying the social commentary of The Message and delivering it through the filter of an aggressive ‘B-boy’ attitude. To listen closely to the words of It’s Like That is to place one in a lecture theatre at the University of Life, with two particularly passionate Professors in Practice providing poignant and pertinent life lessons as part of Module RD1983 – ‘Fatalism and Generation X: It, What It Resembles, and The Way It Manifests Itself‘. Should you be someone who typically views rap as primarily a vehicle for chauvinistic self-aggrandisement and violent behaviour (a phenomenon that was to come much later), then consider the lines:

Here’s another point in life you should not miss
Do not be a fool who’s prejudiced
Because we’re all written down on the same list
It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is

Its message is a curious blend of self-empowerment and fatalistic disillusionment – on the one hand the killing of the elderly in foreign wars is cited, as Run rhetorically questions ‘What ever happened to unity?’ but more optimistically we’re advised ‘Stop playing, start praying, you won’t be sad’.

Legacy

The ‘new school’ take on hip hop was a global sensation – shorter and more punchy records lent themselves more naturally to radio play, artists wore the same clothes as disaffected youths on the street, and their lyrics provided a relatable combination of impetuous boasting and social commentary. Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys drove the New School bus across mainstream America, paving the way for hip hop’s ‘golden era’ of the late 80s and early 90s, a period defined by a mind-boggling volume of variety and innovation. Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan kept the east coast relevant, but – as the US100 will later explore – on the other side of the US the likes of N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg seized the initiative and dramatically wrote a new chapter in the hip hop narrative.

Run-D.M.C. meanwhile had timed their rise perfectly – MTV was launched in 1981 and redefined the way in which music was consumed, with the Queens duo the first to have a rap video showcased on the platform. King Of Rock (1985) and Raising Hell (1986) successfully followed their 1984 self-titled debut, with Rick Rubin’s influence ensuring they increasingly incorporated rock elements. The pair boast hip hop’s first gold album, platinum album, Grammy nomination, and Rolling Stone cover, as well as being the only rappers to perform at Live Aid in 1985.

Their ‘crossover’ cover of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way – aided by an attention grabbing video in which the duo quite literally break the wall of rock music – affirmed their place as musical royalty once and for all. Adidas by this stage had taken note of the pair’s marketability, securing a $1.6m endorsement deal with the group that led to product placement anthem My Adidas – in many ways this deal represents the advent of hip hop’s fast track towards mass commercialisation.

Mural to Jam Master Jay in Hollis, Queens

The band were officially still active until 2002 when Jam Master Jay was tragically shot dead in a recording studio in his native Queens, his name now found alongside TupacShakur and The Notorious B.I.G. as hip hop victims of unresolved murders. Despite Run-D.M.C.’s celebrity, he never moved from Hollis, Queens, and prior to his death had been something of a mentor to Onyx and 50 Cent at his Jam Master Records. He sadly did not live to witness Run-D.M.C.’s ascent into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eminem inducting the group in 2009. Down in Hollis itself, the corner of Hollis Avenue and 205th Avenue, the old stomping ground for the trio, is marked with a Jam Master Jay mural and a sign christening the street ‘Run-DMC JMJ Way’. Regrettably a hip-hop-museum-cum-$1-burger-joint, opened by friend of the group Orville Hall, appears to no longer be around – remarkably there remains no hip hop museum anywhere in New York City or the wider world.

Aside from some solo efforts, Run’s more bizarre exploits include collaborating with British reality TV band Liberty X on Song 4 Lovers, becoming an ordained minister (now known as Rev Run), and starring in Run’s House, MTV’s hip hop take on The Osbournes in which a camera crew documents an odd mix of genuine family life and producer-dictated drama. Those seeking spiritual guidance can try out Run’s Words of Wisdom, half minute daily affirmations of faith broadcast on various US stations each morning.

DMC’s journey also contains no shortage of spiritual revelation but on an entirely different plane. His first solo album, 2006’s Checks, Thugs, and Rock N Roll, contains a song with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. This was the result of a rollercoaster journey that saw the rapper consider suicide until hearing McLachlan’s Angel, which in turn led to him writing an autobiography and discovering he was adopted. Having thanked McLachlan for saving his life at the Grammys, he invited her to record Just Like Me, a story all about his adoption story – and she revealed to DMC that she too was an adoptee. He now produces his own set of DMC graphic novels (its title standing for Darryl Makes Comics), in which he portrays himself as some kind of skyscraper-sized Adidas and gold ring wearing administer of justice, with Jam Master Jay featuring as his sidekick mechanic.

rick_rubin_russell_simmons
Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin in 2014

Meanwhile Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s roles in hip hop’s evolution enabled their rise as music mogul and legendary producer respectively. As the father of rap rock, Rubin’s genius in the studio became recognised by the wider music industry, moving on from hip hop to work with a litany of musical legends, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash – even finding time for a five year spell running Columbia Records along the way. Simmons sold Defjam Records for $100m in 1999, his status earning him friends in high places such as Donald J Trump – until recent developments led Russell to conclude that such an association was perhaps not so keeping with his liberal tendencies. Simmons has been a consistent campaigner and activist on a number of social issues, from the treatment of animals to gay rights – however no amount of good warrants glazing over the fact that in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal a double digit number of women have accused him of sexual harassment, assault or rape.

1520 Sedwick Avenue: the birthplace of hip hop
1520 Sedgwick Avenue: the birthplace of hip hop

Today Herc, Flash and Bambaataa are rightly deified as the three founding fathers of hip hop, the now dominant mainstream popular musical genre of our times. Bambaataa sadly stepped aside from the Zulu Nation after sexual abuse allegations; DJ Kool Herc successfully campaigned to prevent 1520 Sedgwick Ave (now recognised officially as the birthplace of hip hop by New York State) from being purchased by developers; and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, with Flash today touring his ‘Hip Hop (People Places and Things)’ live show, a visual and musical history of hip hop’s origins.

Over the 1980s and 90s New York City embarked on a road of recovery from some of the endemic governance issues that were crippling its infrastructure. The Bronx benefited from over $1bn’s worth of investment, with 19,000 new apartments and 4,500 houses built. Now instead of being a no-go zone, the South Bronx is a tourist attraction – ‘hip hop tours’ come complete with celebrity tour guides from the movement’s old school era.

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