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With hindsight, time has a way of collapsing — off the top of your head, what’s the difference between 1933 and 1935? When we’re dealing with years closer to the present, the sheer number of threads that can come unspooled in 24 months becomes clearer. The beginning of 2007, for example, bears virtually no resemblance to the fall of 2009. With music, though, sea changes rarely come that quickly, and almost never happen at a pace where things that might sound fresh in 1986 are made to sound drab and dated in ’88. But that’s exactly what happened to Run-D.M.C. with Tougher Than Leather, the group’s misguided fourth album, which turned 30 this week and which, in most ways, signaled the end their dominance over rap, and confirmed the status of a new, younger guard.
When they came out, Run-D.M.C. were obviously and genuinely — to use a term later co-opted by the lamest people alive — disruptive. No one rapped like they did, abrasive and serrated and absolutely assured that they could outrap everyone in your building, on your block, in your Rolodex. No one wore leathers or sweatsuits or gold ropes the way they did. (A lot of that was Jam Master Jay’s vision, allegedly.) And no one, to be sure, had taken rap to the commercial heights that Darryl McDaniels and Joseph Simmons were able to with such ease.
Rap’s early pioneers seldom nailed the album format; Kurtis Blow’s full-length efforts were famously sloppy and, essential as the title track is to any history of the genre, The Message could scarcely be called a rap record. 1984 saw two watershed releases. “Friends,” by Whodini, and a full-length effort that captured the scope and ambition of a new act: Run-D.M.C.’s self-titled debut.
Both were produced by Larry Smith, the genius musician and daredevil driver who died three and a half years ago. Where much early rap had been built on the bones of disco, R&B, or repurposed electro, Smith’s productions were decidedly of the 1980s, with booming drums and cavernous negative space; they sounded like they were beamed in from a sci-fi future, where humans were becoming androids but Prince was still popular.
Run-D.M.C. is, at many turns, a socially conscious record. It never tops “The Message,” but “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That” creak under the weight of a Reagan presidential term that wasn’t trickling down, and “Wake Up,” clunky as its all-a-dream concept seems today, strikes an earnest note that was a clean counterbalance for some of the other album cuts. It’s “Sucker M.C.’s,” though, that distills the group’s irresistible appeal. You’ve heard it quoted in parks and in clubs and in dorm rooms and on countless records from the 34 years since its release, from Run’s opening lines (“Two years ago, a friend of mine / Asked me to say some M.C. rhymes”) to that famous closing verse:
“I’m D.M.C. in the place to be /
I go to St. John’s University /
And since kindergarten, I acquired the knowledge /
And after 12th grade, I went straight to college /
I’m lightskinned, I live in Queens /
And I love eating chicken and collard greens.”
At their best, Run and D.M.C. were fun and irreverent while retaining a little menace, and grounding even the cartoon boasts in a very-real Queens that was turning grimmer and grimmer. Run-D.M.C. captures that, even when the group should have been in its primordial stages.
The follow-up, King of Rock, has not aged well, especially as a front-to-back listen. As its title suggests, it leans on the elements Smith and co hinted at with “Rock Box” from the first LP, but expects the novelty of raps over electric guitar riffs to do too much of the heavy lifting. It was the group’s 1986 album, Raising Hell, that was a commercial smash (it went triple-platinum) and a cultural moment (it had “Walk This Way”), even if the latter felt over-engineered and reads somewhere between hokey and completely unlistenable.
It was quickly canonized, and in many ways, Raising Hell deserves the distinction. “Walk This Way” aside, Rick Rubin — who had taken over production duties from Smith — outfitted Run and D.M.C. with some excellent beats. While Smith’s sensibilities (not to mention his thunderous low ends) were sorely missed, the bells that dominate “Peter Piper,” for example, are an inspired choice to open up a blockbuster album. In fact, that opening three-song run — "Piper” into “It’s Tricky” into “My Adidas” — is the strongest suite on any Run-D.M.C. release, showing just how dexterous the pair had become on the mic and internalizing their rapid rise to come up with centered takes on celebrity.
In three years, Run-D.M.C. had changed rap on a musical level — had made rhyming itself more hard-nosed and staccato — and had, to paint broadly, expanded the rapper’s field of vision from the party in front of him to the world (and especially the music industry) writ large. They rapped about being rap stars, and they steeled the world for something harder. But just as rapidly as they changed rap, those changes had been gobbled up and mutated. Paid in Full came out in between Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather. So did Criminal Minded and Rhyme Pays. Public Enemy debuted during the hiatus; so did N.W.A., though their music wouldn’t really register in New York until ’88.
Rap had become vastly different, especially on a technical level. That edge that Run and D.M.C. had on Raising Hell now seemed severely blunted; consider that “I’m Not Going Out Like That” was competing for airtime with “Straight Outta Compton.” A dive into breakbeats was not kind to the duo, either: the pace was too fast for their back-and-forth, which was predicated on being the most agile part of booming songs. While live footage from the mid-’80s suggests that each M.C. was capable of sounding more fluid than he did on record — i.e. the clipped punch of their deliveries was a deliberate choice — by ’88, the formula was embedded too deep in the code. They would have been well-served by coming unmoored from the old format and floating over the instrumentals, but they kept trying to stab through, dull knife against bone.
There are times Tougher Than Leather succeeds, to be sure. “Run’s House” has a distinct camp appeal, and not just because it would later become the soundtrack to those bathtub Blackberry sessions. And while “Beats to the Rhyme” doesn’t quite reach the top shelf of the group’s catalog, its beat is simply magnetic. (“Christmas In Hollis,” released at the end of ’87, is included on reissues of the album and is, of course, a timeless classic.)
But there are just too many missteps. “Soul to Rock and Roll” is a retread of a retread; “Ragtime” closes the album by making everyone involved seem deflated and a little bit desperate; “Miss Elaine” is not even good when graded on the “No honestly, I fucked my teacher and here’s a song about it” curve.
Less than a month after Tougher Than Leather came out, EPMD dropped Strictly Business. By the end of 1988, we had Power, Straight Outta Compton, Long Live the Kane, Critical Beatdown, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. (We also had the critically and commercially disastrous Tougher Than Leather movie, which is out of print on VHS and which I unironically endorse.) In the first half-decade of their career, Run-D.M.C. had gone from terrifying upstarts to a superstar zenith to pace car to total stagnancy.
The maxim goes that a boxer isn’t truly retired until he has a fight where he’s clearly past his prime. The champ isn’t finished when he gets knocked out — the champ is finished when he shows up and gets embarrassed. Tougher Than Leather, in a vacuum, is not an embarrassment. But it is without a doubt a fighter being danced around by younger challengers with better technique and crisper haircuts. Peers like LL Cool J were able to double back on their too-postured mistakes, but this was the end of road for Run and D.M.C. as creatively significant participants in mainstream rap. They remain, of course, one of the most significant acts in the genres history — and in American music and popular culture. But as another great duo that had its moment would say: Even the sun goes down.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.
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