#242: Run-D.M.C., "Run-D.M.C." (1984)

Hard times spreading just like the flu
Watch out homeboy, don't let it catch you


The first rule of swag is that when you got it, you don’t have to front or look like you’re trying. The second thing is trickier and more telling—when you got it, it cuts across generational borderlands, somehow immune to time’s curse of Corniness, or worse, Corniness’s bougie cousin Quaintness, who lives in the suburbs of Nostalgia City but still tries to claim hood status.

This immunity to time’s dusty hex is where Run-D.M.C.’s allure lies, at least for me. The question of whether or not I “like” them has never really been much of a question at all. Instead, I’ve gone back and forth for years over whether or not what I feel for them is actual love or just low-key bewilderment. I can’t really listen to them for long stretches—after a while, I can feel all of my senses overly stimulated: blood pressure up, head spinning, and a not-so-strange urge to shout along.

But these guys are certifiable legends, which means one could argue that my opinion of them amounts to almost absolute zero, especially considering that I will never redefine the future of hip-hop. (You know it; I know it; everybody knows it.) It’s really more a question of ingenuity: since their self-titled debut album Run-D.M.C. dropped on the scene in 1984, no one else has ever come close to replicating their sound without appearing to be obvious imitators. Them boys are just too weird; they’re just too, well, them—and their ushering in of hip-hop to the pop scene, when rap was still relatively primordial and amorphous, was a feat that earned them tenured seats among hip-hop’s greatest: electric guitars, heavy heavy synth drums, and all.

Sure, I’ve got my stylistic preferences—rap with a tendency for complicated rhyme schemes and pun-driven lyricism. But Run-D.M.C.’s debut is of a different ilk, one that re-carved the genre into something wholly other than what it would later become, while still holding on to the seeds of something new. Their signature shout-talking style self-creates its own kind of flow, one that, in its early stages, was less about rhetorical pyrotechnics than it was about making some noise and staking territory as the baddest boys in town. Just listen to “Rock Box” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or better yet, watch its music video, and tell me that Joey Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell are not the flyest guys in the room, who’d chew up your wack style and spit it right back out if you ever crossed them.

I can’t tell you when exactly I realized that I’m more of a pessimist, neither can I say with any certainty when it was that it occurred to me that this pessimism isn’t in any way in conflict with my belief in hope, or my belief in the necessity of it. I sincerely tend to believe that if something can at all go wrong, it probably will, though I simultaneously acknowledge that Murphy’s Law is a poor governance for one’s life. But what else is there, these days? Run-D.M.C.—the boys—help me feel more at home with this sense of angst and ambivalence, that peripheral, lurking cloud that I’m beginning to realize is less tied to adolescence than one might think. Theirs is the joyfulness of unmitigated youth. Bad boys, yes, but winningly cheerful, too, in their own brand of playful jadedness. Every song is a protest and a party, regardless of the topic, even when they’re rapping about an everyday world that looks much more apocalyptic than quotidian.

Run-D.M.C., the album, helps me in that I can (and do) crank it up when I’m feeling self-conscious about my own sense of uncertainty in the world. What I love most about my generation, Millennials, is our incredibly dark sense of humor—our ability to joke about our own health, spending anxieties, economic prospects, and our very mortality, with, I think, genuine earnestness. But we are, of course, not the first to feel as we do, though our world looks quite different.

Hearing the shared anxieties of these Generation X teens, these wildly confident and confidently wild boys who wore leather from head to toe while spitting bars that at times sound indistinguishable from nursery rhymes, is just a gift, plain and simple, in the way that good art is. To not merely see and hear, but to be seen and be heard, is the thing that pulls us back to a work in the first place. Run-D.M.C. pulls me back, makes me feel included—like I can chill with them and talk smack, too, if I want. Just listen to “Wake Up,” “Hard Times,” and “It’s Like That”—these were boys who get it, that sometimes things just are what they are. But don’t mistake any of this for futility. There is still room for dreaming, always, though you do have to “wake up, get up” first, fist raised and lit like a beacon.

—Natasha Oladokun