Jam Master Jay tribute
(This originally started with a post on rec.music.hip-hop by my man Nesta… I was impressed by his words, and asked for his permission to let me archive his words on the first 4 Run DMC albums on this site. He agreed and suggested that I finished the piece off by covering Run DMC’s final 3 albums – something I was going to do anyway. So therefore this article is a collaborative effort. Props again to Nesta for his willingness to share.)
This Jam Master Jay shit hits me harder than Biggie or Pac did, or any of the other deaths in hip-hop. Big and Pac definitely had some joints, but I was never a huge fan of either. But man, I grew up with Run-DMC. “Raising Hell” was my favorite rap album as a kid €“ and an important part of childhood rebellion, as the first album I ever bought that pissed my mom off, just by the title. I played that tape like crazy through the years. Anyway, in the wake of Jay €™s death, I pulled out the old albums and listened to them again. I thought I €™d drop a few words on each.
Run DMC – 1984
With this album, Run DMC changed the game, in more ways than one. I think it was really the first rap album to be conceived as an album, rather than just throwing a bunch of singles and filler together. (In that regard, at least, Chuck D €™s reference to them as “our Beatles” is accurate.) When they dropped their first single (‘It €™s Like That’ b/w ‘Sucker MCs’) in ’83, it kickstarted hip-hop €™s New School era. They started a new sound – no longer using the disco/funk tracks that had been prevalent, but now rhyming over the spare boom-bap of a drum machine. The underrated Larry Smith is never talked about in the same vein as Mantronik or Marley Marl, but his drum machine work on this album matches any of their shit. They introduced their new style by subtly rejecting the Old School artists – “not Five, not Four, not Three, just two” (much as the Ultramagnetic MCs and BDP would later reject them). Run DMC also brought hip-hop fashion away from the glitzy sequins of the Old School artists and back to the style of the streets. The first 6 songs here are as strong as any album €™s. It slows down some at the end, but all in all, a revolutionary release.
King of Rock – 1985
Everything that worked so well on the first album was just a bit off with this release. It starts out with promise with the bumping pastiche ‘Rock the House’. But as the album progresses, it is apparent the beats just don’t have the same flair, the lyrics aren’t quite as memorable. Rather than relying on hard drums and Jay €™s cuts, the beats are augmented with synthesized swill, which is dull at best, and outright corny at worst. I think ‘You Talk Too Much’ was the first Run DMC joint I ever heard on the radio, but at the time it wasn’t one of my favorites, and it doesn’t stand out now either. There are no true disasters on this album, but no tracks have survived as classics either. Taken one song at a time, it €™s not bad, but taken as a whole, by the end this album really drags.
Raising Hell – 1986
By 1986, hip-hop had reached another turning point. Classic singles from Eric B. and Rakim, BDP, and Ultramagnetic MCs ushered in rap €™s Golden Age. I don €™t remember when this album dropped in relation to those releases, but something must have made Run DMC realize they had to step up their game, and did they ever. They broke the musical formula of their first two releases, now experimenting with sampling, live drums, or just a mouth and hand – that’s what hip-hop was, it still stands. A brilliant album without a weak track throughout. It’s hard to listen to ‘Walk This Way’ objectively after all these years, after every hack writer has fellated it as the genesis and peak of the rock/rap hybrid. But play the title track, or ‘It €™s Tricky’ €“ they €™re not just rapping over rock guitar. The guitar is assimilated into the beat. It rocks, but it’s also 100% hip-hop. And peep the ill imagery they spit €“ “A black hat is my crown;” “I cut the head of the devil and I throw it at you.” On top of all that, they just may have begun the Afrocentric era in hip-hop with ‘Proud to be Black’. Not just offering up simple platitudes, they knew their history, and made you feel their words – even an 11 year old white kid in Connecticut like me. They were the coolest motherfuckers on the planet, simple and plain.
Tougher Than Leather – 1988
The Golden Age was in full swing by this time. How the fuck were these relics gonna keep up? Well, they managed. Consensus holds 1988 as perhaps the strongest year in rap €™s history. Against such competition, this album may not have been one of the best of the year, but after all this time it still stands up, albeit falling short of classic status. By €˜88, of course, Rakim, Kris, Kane, and others were writing lyrics that for the first time begged to be studied – the metaphors, the rhyme schemes, the vocal patterns. When they debuted, Run DMC had broken the musical and fashion rules of the Old School, but they had never moved their rapping beyond the same simple cadences of those cats. Meanwhile, now Rakim and others were flowing through the beat, and fans were focusing on lyrical skill and vocal dexterity. So Run DMC wasn’t setting the trends anymore, but they were keeping up. They broke out the James samples. They started kicking some internal rhymes and changing up their vocal patterns. There are some flaws – the title track tries to emulate ‘Raising Hell’ but is just overbearing, as Run and DMC fight the rock guitar. And I can’t even call ‘Miss Elaine’ a hip-hop track. But ‘Run €™s House’ b/w ‘Beats to the Rhyme’ was a classic single, and there are some other brilliant moments here.
And shit, where are my manners? This memorial is, after all, inspired by the Jam Master. Among his many notable recorded moments: the scratched backdrop for DMC €™s verse on ‘Sucker MCs.’ The brilliantly varied intro to ‘You Be Illin €™.’ Listen to him tear up the hook on ‘Run’s House.’
A to the L
For me, its a strangely un-nerving experience. Of course I felt something when the other big names passed on… sadness? A little. Disappointment that promising careers would not be fulfilled? Of course. But this is nothing to how I felt when I heard about Jay’s murder. Hollow. Gutted. Devastated. God knows how Jay’s wife, kids, and family, and the Simmons and McDaniels families feel. The media in their rush to cover this “another rapper gets shot” story aren’t interested in he impact that Run DMC and thus Jam Master Jay made not only to my life, but to the lives of millions of fans around the world, and to this music we all love. They aren’t even interested in getting their facts straight, reporting that Jay was “a rapper”, was involved in the ridiculous “east coast / west coast war”, and several other straight up bullshit lies. As usual, its us, the REAL fans of Hiphop, who are left mourning the loss of another talent, when the TV cameras move on to their next hot story. I don’t even need to tell y’all to remember JMJ – every time you bump ANY Hiphop tape or cd, any time you put your hand on a piece of vinyl – you’re down with the king.
Back From Hell – 1990
A tough comeback. Between 1988 and 1990, Run DMC faded from view. I’ll always remember Chuck D’s explanation for why this happened, and why groups like PE, and BDP took over their mantle during this period. “PE are all about making music for the GLOBAL Hiphop audience. We want people in Europe, people in Australia, people in Africa, people in Russia to be able to get open to our music – that’s why LL and Run DMC have stuttered. “Tougher Than Leather” was a dope album, but it was made with the US market in mind.” In some ways this was true, as the afrocentric theme of Chuck and KRS’s lyrics quickly became the flavour of choice with Hiphop fans. Bragging and boasting was out, it seemed. Run DMC hit the lab, and tried to recapture the magic, returning with an album that left behind the sparse drumbeats and heavy bass of previous efforts, in favour of James Brown-styled funk grooves. The end result was a bit of a mixed bag – the superb sounds of ‘The Ave’, the genius of sampling the Stone Roses for ‘What’s It All About’, and the heavy sounds of the title track (itself surpassed by the 12″ remix featuring Chuck D and Icecube) were tempered by a few too many tracks with a distinctly “swingbeat”-ish sound. On rare occasions, the formula works – ‘Naughty’ and the classic ‘Pause’ certainly do the business. However, the weakness of cuts like ‘Faces’, ‘Party’, and ‘Word Is Born’ can’t be disguised.
Down With The King – 1993
It seemed that even the trio themselves realised the faults on “Back From Hell”. After a three year gap, rumours started to break that Run DMC were making a comeback with a twist. The rumours soon became fact as “Down With The King” dropped with the title track track as the extremely strong lead single. The twist? Oh yeah… well for the first time Run DMC brought in outside help to handle the majority of the production – heavy hitters like Pete Rock, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest, Jermaine Dupri and Naughty By Nature were all enlisted to provide work on the boards. It seemed like a foolproof plan – at that time those acts were putting out some devastating audio projects, and Run DMC were definitely hungry to recapture their crown. And it did seem to work in some places, with the opening few cuts on the album in particular being heavy on the headnod scale – the Pete Rock-produced title track (and the later ‘In The House’ and ‘Wreck Shop’), Q-Tip’s horn heavy ‘Come On Everybody’, the superb EPMD collab ‘Can I Get It Yo’, and the hook up with Naughty on ‘Hit Em Hard’ all served notice that the kings were back for their crown. Elsewhere, Jay’s work with the Bomb Squad on ‘Ooh Whatcha Gonna Do’, and Chyskills for ‘Three Little Indians’ and the made-for-Onyx ‘Get Open’, serve as testament to the fact that the man not only had skills on the 1’s and 2’s but also behind the boards.
Crown Royal – 1999
Ouch. This is NOT how you’d want to be remembered. An atrocious hotch potch of weak beats, too many guests (Sugar Ray for fuck’s sake), and a mostly absent DMC, means that this barely counts as a proper Run DMC album. Jermaine Dupri contributes forgettable beats here that sound EXACTLY like the one he used for the remix of Jagged Edge’s ‘Lets Get Married’, which coincidentally features Run. Laziness, and the easy option seems to be the best explanation for their reappearance here. Destroying an Al Green classic for ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is unforgiveable, no matter what the motive. Elsewhere, we’re left to ponder who made the decision to bring in Fred Durst for the horrific ‘Them Girls’, who made the decision to rework ‘Here We Go’with Sugar Ray’s off-key guitar playing fucking things up in the background, and who made the decision to throw on shitty guitar based tracks like ‘The School Of Old’ (with Kid Rock) and ‘Take The Money And Run’ (with Everlast) which aren’t fit to lace the boots of ‘Rock Box’. The only tiny redeeming features on here are the Mary J Blige-sampling ‘Queens Day’ which features Nas and Prodigy, and the title track – one of the rare tracks where DMC appears, and one of the only ones that comes somewhat close to recapturing the old Run DMC magic.
I saw Run DMC in concert only once, at the Cubby Bear in Chicago, fall of 96. Livest crowd ever. And not just cause we were charged off the old hits – we coulda listened to them at home. Run-DMC knew how to move the crowd. They came from the era when you had to control the mic to be an MC. It didn’t matter if their lyrics or flows couldn’t keep up with the competition through the €˜90s. Run and DMC had important skills that a lot of MCs out now lack. It €™s not hard to imagine some of the lines DMC spits on ‘Hit it Run’ or ‘Raising Hell’ getting a cypher live today, simply through the dynamic force of his delivery. And Jay held their performances together. He was never a spectacular DJ, but he wasn’t supposed to be. He filled at the right time, he augmented the rhythm, he kept the audience riveted. This week, Run and DMC made the group €™s demise official, but it was already apparent they were through. The 3 were 1. This really is the end of an era.
A to the L
And you know what always struck me? Jay always seemed so cool, so casual… while Run and D were all about business, Jay always seemed to be just having fun. I actually managed to get talking to him a couple of years ago when they were over here doing a small tour… I was standing in the line waiting to do the whole autographed t-shirt thing… this was around the time that the dance mix of ‘Its Like That’ was out… lotsa kids crowding Run and D, and I couldn’t believe that very few were going to Jay.
So I went over expecting to get the whole “scribble on a t-shirt and fling it back at you” routine, and actually wound up chatting to him for about 10 minutes about the scene both in Ireland and the UK, about the (then untitled) “Crown Royal” album that was due the following year, and about a ton of other shit – Onyx, McDonalds, DJ Premier, potatoes and Guinness… the man was in sparkling form.
At the same time I’m looking ten feet to the left, and there’s Run and DMC being mobbed, with D looking tired as hell, but still being civil to the people pestering him… but Run… damn…
scribble – “here” – throws t-shirt back…
scribble – “here” – throws t-shirt back…
scribble – “here” – throws t-shirt back…
I even mentioned it to Jay, in a non-inflammatory way of course… his reply – “That’s the Russell in Run coming out. Sometimes he gets a little uptight. He does all the worrying for the group, I just like to do the music…”
My first gig after Jay’s death…
I opened my set with ‘Peter Piper’, and through the course of the night slipped ‘What’s It All About’, ‘Pause’, ‘Sucker MCs’ and ‘Beats To The Rhyme’ in between the normal stuff that I usually spin. Then at the end of the night, I let the record play out, turned all the lights off so the place was in pitch darkness, and I left things quiet for about 10 seconds… people didn’t know what the fuck was going on…
And then I dropped ‘Walk This Way’… and didn’t turn the lights back on until the guitar riff… so you had 20 seconds of people going absolutely nuts because they know what the track is as they instantly recognize the drumbreak, they know what the motive behind me dropping it is… shit, they were so open to it…
It was beautiful… my own personal little tribute. RIP Jay – a gentleman, a much under-rated but highly skilled DJ, and a fucking Hiphop legend…
A to the L
(from the heart, fuck the art)