#123: Run-DMC, "Raising Hell" (1986)

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From the get-go, Run-DMC embraced the sonics of rock music. Their eponymous debut features “Rock Box;” the title track of their sophomore release King of Rock follows the same arena formula.

And witness Raising Hell, an absolute monster of an album: MTV staple “It’s Tricky” recontextualizes “My Sharona” so the original is initially recognizable only if you’re listening for it; “Walk This Way,” of course, grafts rhymes and thudding bass onto an Aerosmith oldie. (It wasn’t much later, better or worse, that the flagging Boston band rose from the grave, bolstered by their crossover success.)

Run-DMC’s videos were as much a part of their success as their rock leanings. They were the first hip-hop group I ever heard because of their regular MTV presence. I haven’t seen any of the videos since they were in heavy rotation, and here we are talking about Raising Hell, so I took another look.

It’s funny to watch the video for “King of Rock,” for a few reasons. One is Larry “Bud” Melman. Remember that guy?

Maybe not.

He was a pre-Internet meme, a recurring character who was funny almost solely because of his recursion on Letterman and elsewhere. In the video, he’s the gatekeeper for the rock museum Run-DMC are trying to enter, where they critically view videos first of Little Richard, then, later, Jerry Lee Lewis swiping Little Richard’s moves. Cultural appropriation is on full display, and Run-DMC are having none of it.

Which makes the appearance of Jamie Reid’s iconic cover for the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” all the more curious.

I didn’t catch the reference when the video was in rotation on MTV because back then, in 1985, I had no idea who the Sex Pistols were.

By including the flag, were Run-DMC dissing punk?

I’m not sure.

I’d like to say no, because so much of the spirit and inception of the two genres is intertwined: global recession, heat, and service strikes marked summers in England and New York, yielding the need to blow off steam, be it through block parties or primitive songs on cheap guitars. And punk wasn’t as canonical in the eighties as it is now, either: the Sex Pistols had been broken up for all of eight years when “King of Rock” hit the airwaves.

Maybe the flag was a nod to the two genres’ insurgent nature, or, alternately, a sign of what was to come. Run-DMC, after all, storm the place, give a bunch of old rock fogeys like the Beatles the gasface, and claim their rightful place inside the hallowed halls, much like the punks later would—or had, maybe, due to the inclusion of the flag. Or maybe they’re just sick of the hype around punk and decided to take a shot at it. Regardless, Larry “Bud” Melman mugs for laughs throughout the video, wearing a trademark Run-DMC fedora by the end. He’s a convert.

The video for “It’s Tricky” features Penn and Teller as con men running a game of Three Card Monte. They scam a woman for her money and gold chain, at which point she calls our heroes on a landline. The group arrives and beat Penn and Teller at their own scam, finding the right card again and again, taking the hustlers for all they’re worth. In the right hands, Three Card Monte is a ‘game’ that can’t be beaten—the scam is predicated on crooked sleight of hand rather than an honest finding of the right card. Regardless, Run-DMC turn the tables. Then Penn and Teller ask the group to show them some moves. Our heroes acquiesce before disappearing into the night, superhero style, in their own helicopter. Cut to the end of the video, where Run-DMC arrive ready to play at a packed show in Japan, only to find Penn and Teller’s game was a long one. They lost their shirts at Three Card Monte, but the game was all a feint towards a larger victory: the fame and cash of being Run-DMC onstage, with dance moves and purloined rhymes. The lyrics of the song concern themselves with the difficulties of fame, how the group is mobbed by fans and have no privacy. Penn and Teller are all too happy to adapt the group’s identities, a literal appropriation.

Finally, “Walk This Way” finds Run-DMC in their practice space, drowned out by the adjacent din of Aerosmith (really just Steven Tyler and Joe Perry). Jam Master Jay starts scratching the titular song and briefly overpowers the dinosaur rockers next door, before Steven Tyler smashes through the wall for the chorus. Cut to the two-man Aerosmith in concert. Tyler and Perry are rocking out when the crowd points to a pair of silhouettes behind a screen: Run-DMC. Our heroes interject themselves into the classic rock song, earning a group hug with Tyler to end the video.

It’s hard not to notice that white dudes sherpa Run-DMC in every video.

Michael Jackson was the Jackie Robinson of MTV, breaking the color barrier, and then Prince followed. But hip-hop was so new and so threatening that the group couldn’t appear in heavy rotation without white dudes in their videos, acting as ambassadors, legitimizing Run-DMC and hip-hop by saying, “I know these guys, they’re okay.” Thusly, gates opened for hip-hop, and, better or worse, for the Beastie Boys, who toured with Run-DMC and whose Licensed To Ill has not aged well (despite the fact that I still know all the words by heart). The Beasties’ stupid misogyny was way more of a threat than Run-DMC, who rapped about such erstwhile topics as not doing drugs and going to school to learn a trade.

In “King of Rock,” aside from Reid’s flag, which is shown in multiple scenes, there’s no nod to the Sex Pistols, pro or con. We see Run-DMC stomp a Michael Jackson glove under a trademark Adidas, though, which is pretty punk. And the Sex Pistols famously broke up on stage of the Winterland Ballroom, Johnny Rotten asking the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before dropping the mic and leaving the stage. Maybe Run-DMC felt the same way, cheated that they couldn’t get onto MTV without having white dudes vouch for them on screen, despite their prodigious talent and innovation. And not just white dudes, but B-list white dudes. Larry “Bud” Melman was an old man cast as the butt of jokes; Penn and Teller are magicians; Aerosmith had zero MTV presence prior to Permanent Vacation, rendering them invisible to a generation.

But here we are in 2018, and Run-DMC are renowned as godfathers of the genre, with Raising Hell still sounding as fresh and vital as when it was released. So maybe they weren’t cheated, after all. Maybe B-list white dudes were all part of the long game.

—Michael T. Fournier