Hip Hop History: Run-D.M.C.

By the early eighties, rappers like Grandmaster Flash and his contemporaries – now categorized as “old school” hip hop – had established their genre throughout New York and in ghettos all across the country, but it had yet to gain a foothold in the national mainstreams. Run-D.M.C. would blaze that trail.

After graduating from high school in Queens, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels began experimenting with more aggressive and daring lyrics than their predecessors, accompanied by the simple but hard-hitting beats of their friend Jason Mizell, the influential DJ and producer better known as Jam Master Jay. While they built on the rap tradition of social commentary and exposure of the horrors of ghetto life, their delivery was more bold and in-your-face, as if angry that no one had really listened to the old school social criticism. This rebellious attitude – and Jam Master Jay’s sampling of heavy metal and guitar riffs – helped Run-D.M.C. break down the barrier between rap and rock. They also transformed rap from a genre of singles into one of cohesive albums. The trio is often cited as the founders of “new age” hip hop, whose influence is still visible in contemporary rap.

This fresh sound pushed the rap group into the mainstream: their debut RUN-DMC was the first gold rap album and first rap Grammy nomination, and their followup King of Rock was the first to go platinum, and featured the first rap song on MTV. And in 2009, they became the second rap group (after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rappers, producers, and listeners still bow to the Ru-D.M.C’s beats, lyrics, and style; I still see clothes bearing their logo everywhere. Jam Master Jay’s death in 2002, when he was shot dead in a Queens studio, was mourned throughout the hip hop community.

“Rock Box” by Run-D.M.C. (1984) After this video’s scholarly introduction, which suggests that hip hop now has evolved enough to be discussed historically, Run-D.M.C. demonstrate their hard-hitting lyrics, their ties to each other and their DJ, and their appreciation of rock music. The young, smiling white boy is there to prove that this music is for everyone, and your children will listen to it whether you like it or not. Their boastful lyrics characterized new age rap: “[Run:] You’re the kind of guy that girl ignored/I’m drivin Caddy, you fixin a Ford/My name is Joseph Simmons but my middle name’s Lord/And when I’m rockin on the mic, you should all applaud.”

“Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith (1986) More than any other Run-D.M.C. track, this hit single achieved the marriage between rap and rock that the group had sought to capture. While the video starts with a rivalry between the two genres, with Jam Master Jay pranking the hard rocker Aerosmith by mixing his guitar riffs on a turntable, before long Aerosmith literally rips down the wall between rock and rap and turns the song into a collaboration. 

“It’s Tricky Run-D.M.C Remix” by Pretty Lights (2011) Though the hip hop and electronic movements are often treated as distinct, they are quite codependent, and artists like Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights pay homage to rappers and producers by sampling and remixing old classics. 


Run-D.M.C in 1988. From left to right: Jam Master Jay, D.M.C., and Run. Credit: Wikipedia.org



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