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It’s Tricky: Run-DMC’s Raising Hell Revisited
John Freeman , March 7th, 2016 07:18

Thirty years after its release, John Freeman looks back at the genre-bending crossover album that was so much more than an over-played Aerosmith cover version.

It's early 1987 and for the last six months, Run-DMC have been belting out a rhyme called 'My Adidas' – a standout track from their third album Raising Hell. With his band permanently bedecked in the German sport giant's apparel, manager Russell Simmons thinks his boys should be getting paid for becoming a walking advertising campaign.

Showing typical entrepreneurial zeal, Simmons invites a couple of senior Adidas executives to a Run-DMC show. The grey men in grey suits initially appear unimpressed by proceedings. Then, when Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels exhorts the crowd to "show us your Adidas" before beginning to rap the intro, 3,000 pairs of trainers are thrust into the air. The Deutsche businessmen now cannot dive for their cheque books quickly enough. Within weeks Run-DMC had signed a $1.6 million deal with Adidas, who had hastily created a line of laceless urban streetwear. The 'no shoelace' look was taken from prison rules – inmates were not allowed laces.

It can be argued that while Raising Hell pushed Run-DMC into the music mainstream, it also ensured that - in America at least - rap and hip-hop became central to fashion, sport and youth politics. More than one glass ceiling lay shattered at the trainer-wearing feet of Run-DMC.

Not only is Raising Hell one of the most seismic albums of the 80s, it is also Run-DMC's finest work. Today, nearly three decades after its release, the killer tracks, the mix of militant politics and tongue-in-cheek playfulness, coupled to bold, beatbox rhymes and the eclectic use of samples ('It's Tricky' borrowed a riff from The Knack's 'My Sharona') still sound sharp, vital and downright irresistible.

It had been a long journey for the three members of Run-DMC, who all grew up in Hollis, a neighbourhood of Queens in New York. Joseph 'Run' Simmons, was enticed into the hip-hop scene by brother Russell – who was a local promoter in the early 80s – and would regularly share a stage with old-school rhyme king Kurtis Blow. Joseph Simmons would play taped recordings of these shows to his friend Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels and the two would begin to write together.

The two young rappers would meet Jason 'Jam-Master Jay' Mizell in a local park space frequented by DJs and rap crews and in 1983, after orchestration by the ubiquitous Russell Simmons, the newly-named trio would sign their first record deal and release their debut single 'It's Like That'/'Sucker MCs'. Their sound instantly struck a chord; the infectious bravado and minimal, punchy beats moved rap away from the discotheque and onto the streets.

Run-DMC looked different too. In the early 80s, rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa tended to wear pretty flamboyant stage costumes, echoing the glam look of the disco era. By styling themselves in tracksuits, plain leather jackets, Kangol hats and their beloved Adidas pumps, Run-DMC resonated directly with their audience. In making such a statement, Run-DMC helped mould hip-hop fashion over the next two decades. They also ensured that almost every major sportswear manufacturer would look to African-American culture for inspiration.

By 1986, before the release of Raising Hell, Run-DMC were already a major rap act. Their first two albums (1984's self-titled debut was followed a year later by King Of Rock) were both highly successful with the latter certified platinum in America. Indeed, a number of songs, including the title track on King Of Rock highlighted that the trio were already embracing rock music into their sound, ahead of their famous cover version of Aerosmith's 'Walk This Way'.

After performing at Live Aid in July 1985 (the only rap act at the event, Run-DMC were permitted only two songs and their TV coverage was cut to show an extended introduction to Sting in London) the group began to think about album number three. They'd been troubled by King Of Rock with Jam-Master Jay admitting "it wasn't the best we could do" and Run feeling the record had been bettered by LL Cool J's Rick Rubin-produced debut Radio. Run-DMC wanted to make a complete album, rather than a few key tracks and some filler. By this point, they were signed to the Profile record label, but utilised Russell Simmons' connection to Def Jam-partner Rubin, inviting the latter to take production duties on the new album.

Recorded at Chung King 'House Of Metal' studios in lower Manhattan, Raising Hell suite of songs were bolder, fuller and oozing in confidence. The first four tracks are a microcosm of the band's vision. Opener 'Peter Piper' is a nursery rhyme shout-out sampling jazz pianist Bob James' recording of 'Mardi Gras', while the infectious 'It's Tricky' is a pointed rap about the complexities of the genre, in a response to a stuffy establishment who saw rapping as 'easy' and of little musical worth. The song also contains an anti-drug message, "We are not thugs, we don't use drugs, you can assume on your own / They offer dope and lots of coke, but we just leave it alone." Again, this was in reaction to the off-the-mark claims by conservative critics who were at pains to attribute all manner of hell and brimfire to rap music.

Next up is the style-defining, sponsorship-bagging 'My Adidas'. In fact, the German brand wasn't particularly cool in Queens at that time; most kids were wearing Reebok or Fila. Track four is 'Walk This Way'. Although delighted with the quality of the new songs, Rubin felt the album could use a song that might appeal to rock fans. 'Walk This Way' (from Aerosmith's 1975 Toys In The Attic album) was already known to Run-DMC, who would cut up the 'boom-bash' drum pattern when DJing.

Rubin had the idea to invite Steve Tyler and Joe Perry to record the song with the rap group. While initially surprised at the request, Perry had heard rap music "blaring out" of his stepson's bedroom and thought it sounded "fresh". If Run-DMC knew the track, they didn't know anything about Aerosmith, and would refer to Steve Tyler as "our homeboy from Toys In The Attic". However, it would appear that after much beer had been imbibed, the track was nailed in five hours.

And, yes, 'Walk This Way' is a blast. The iconic video neatly visualised musical barriers coming down and, with heavy MTV-rotation, both Run-DMC and rap music were jettisoned into the mainstream. There was no going back.

But Raising Hell is so much more than 'Walk This Way'. The trio had succeeded in producing a fully-formed, cogent set of songs. The use of short link songs like 'Son Of Byford' or the playful in-jokes of 'You Be Illin'' – be it ordering Big Macs at KFC or shouting 'touchdown' at a basketball match – would be used by future raps groups as the idea of a narrative developing over an album began to mature.

However, perhaps the most important track on Raising HellM is the finale, 'Proud To Be Black'. Partly written by Run's father Daniel Simmons, it is the record's most overtly political song, name-checking Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Jesse Owens and reflecting "The world's full of hate, discrimination and sin / People judgin' other people by the colour of skin." It's an extremely powerful lyric and resonant with the sentiments of their earlier work.

A quarter of a century on Raising Hell stands as not only rap's first 'complete' long-player but as a bona fide classic album. It would reach number three on the Billboard chart and achieved triple platinum status in America. It was a record that not only defined a path musically, stylistically and politically, but also unshackled the opportunities for rap and hip-hop.

Run-DMC would follow Raising Hell with 1988's awkward Tougher Than Leather, and, in truth, the trio became overwhelmed by a deluge of peers – be it Public Enemy, N.W.A. or Boogie Down Productions. By the early 90s, Run-DMC began to untangle, with alcohol and depression becoming their most difficult battles. When, in October 2002, Jam-Master Jay was murdered in his Queens recording studio, the band was officially retired. Their finest work had been Raising Hell, an album that celebrates so much more than merely an over-played cover version.

Originally published September 1, 2011

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