How Run-DMC's Iconic Debut Album Ushered in a New Era in Hip-Hop
On March 27th, 1984, Run-DMC released their self-titled debut album. After the album was released, it was clear that things would never be the same for rap music.
Run-DMC almost singlehandedly ushered in the New School Era of hip-hop when they released their smash single “It’s Like That”/”Sucker MC’s” in Spring 1983. The record captured the spirit and stripped down, straight forward energy of the park jam and put it on a record. This was during a time when people were making rap versions of popular radio singles and trying to appeal to audiences other than B-Boys and B-Girls. Run-DMC’s A-side, “It’s Like That,” was a commentary of the Reaganomics ’80s and inner city blight in the mold of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message.”
The B-side, however, changed everything. “Sucker MC’s” was a straight forward beat from a drum machine with no catchy chorus in which DJ Run, formerly billed as “The Son Of Kurtis Blow,” did exactly what he’d do on the mic at a throw down in the park. It was bare. It was minimalist. There was no backing band playing a version of a popular radio hit to ensure black radio might take a chance on it. “Sucker MC’s” was strictly for the B-Boys and B-Girls. It was raw. It was gritty. It was also completely revolutionary.
“It’s Like That” and “Sucker MC’s” both got burn on seemingly every boombox in major urban centers and succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of hip-hoppers all across the nation. They weren’t trying to gain favor with the segment of black radio with program directors that shied away from rap because of its unwillingness to compromise or assimilate within the acceptable confines of funk/soul/R&B. Gatekeepers like Frankie Crocker, Donnie Simpson, Don Cornelius and many other entrenched black music executives’ resistance to rap — while ignoring its young audience who clamored for it — would prove time and again to be short-sighted.
Up until 1983, most leading rap groups of the Old-School Era dressed like a mix between punk rockers and funk/soul/R&B acts like Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Kool & The Gang. Run-DMC dressed like straight up B-Boys from Hollis, Queens. And their aesthetic made them accessible and relatable to legions of rap fans.
Run-DMC’s follow up single “Hard Times”/“Jam Master Jay” was released in December 1983. Its popularity led to it entering the Hot Black Singles charts on January 7th, 1984. Its ascent mystified many in black music; by February 18th, 1984 it shot up from #63 to #11. That six-week span both opened the eyes of the industry to the possibilities of rap on the sales side seeing as how Profile Records was independently distributed yet they still were selling in excess of 250,000 units without widespread black radio support.
Run-DMC’s success, coupled with several other rap singles climbing up the Hot Black Singles charts, led to the entire rap world’s fortunes hanging in the balance on the outcome of Run DMC’s LP hitting store shelves the following month. rap singles had managed to gain traction and move an impressive amount of units before, but the final frontier was for a rap album to climb the Top Black Albums chart. Even fellow artists helped their cause as Sister Sledge performed Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” during their appearance on The Jeffersons called “My Guy, George” which aired on CBS on March 4th, 1984.
After the release of Run-DMC’s self-titled debut album on March 27th, 1984 it was clear that things would never be the same for rap music. While they were on Profile Records they benefited fully from the push of the Def Jam/Rush Management machine which included the music industry savvy, hustle, and foresight of Russell Simmons and Bill Adler. The album was reviewed and written up by leading music publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, Village Voice, Billboard, and New York Times that usually wouldn’t be receptive to rap.
Two people that were crucial to getting the word out about Run-DMC to the mainstream were Billboard writers Nelson George, in his weekly column “The Rhythm & The Blues,” and Brian Chin who covered the Dance/Club beat with his column “Dance Trax.” In the April 14th, 1984 issue of Billboard, “Rock Box” made its appearance in the Billboard Singles Reviews. The following week, Brian Chin remarked that Run DMC’s recently released debut album was “hard-hitting and thoughtfully executed” while highlighting “Rock Box” as a standout track. The next month, Kiss 108 FM (WXYS) in Boston did the unthinkable: groundbreaking PD Sunny Joe White added “Rock Box” to the station’s regular rotation. Sunny Joe’s influence was evident when all up and down the Northeast Pop and black radio stations followed suit.
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The end result? Run-DMC entered the Top Black Albums chart at #43 on May 12th, 1984. The very next week it jumped nine spots to #34 before peaking at #11 on June 23rd, 1984 largely due to the success of “Rock Box” (which hit #22 on the Hot Black Singles chart the previous week.) One of Run DMC’s biggest achievements was reaching #53 on the Billboard 200 on July 28th, 1984, ultimately yielding an all-important Gold RIAA sales plaque by December.
The critical response to the album echoed the opinion of the streets. It was universally recognized that Run-DMC were rap’s new champions ushering in a new age for a daring, brash young American genre of music that was no longer going to be denied its rightful place at the table. Run-DMC’s debut album would become the first domino that fell just as hip-hop culture burst onto the American mainstream that following Spring and Summer.
The Cannon film “Breakin’” opened in early May 1984; it became an instant box office hit and its soundtrack shot up the Billboard charts thanks to the lead single “Beat Street Breakdown” which was released the day before Run-DMC’s album entered the charts. In late May, the Fat Boys self-titled debut LP was released, it became another Gold record and a crucial win for the burgeoning art form. Kurtis Blow’s singles “AJ Scratch” and “8 Million Stories” off of his fifth LP Ego Trip had the ear of the streets, but it was his single “Basketball” that broke into Billboard’s Hot 100. In early June 1984, the Harry Belafonte produced Orion Pictures film “Beat Street” opened and became yet another box-office hit complete with a hot soundtrack album was helped hip-hop culture explode into the mainstream.
There were B-Boys present at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Michael Holman (who was an associate producer on Beat Street) got a pilot for a show about hip-hop culture aired on national TV called “Graffiti Rock” in late June, which aired in syndication in 88 different markets. The B-Boying themed TV special “The Pilot” aired in September 1984 and was played repeatedly for a year afterward. In October 1984, Whodini’s sophomore album Escape dropped containing hits like “Five Minutes Of Funk,” “Freaks Come Out At Night”, and “Friends” which cracked the elusive Billboard Hot 100 charts. Escape collected a Gold RIAA plaque in January 1985 after being one of the headliners of the hugely successful 1984 Fresh Fest with Run-DMC.
Run-DMC championed hip-hop culture and rap music in another crucial arena. MTV wouldn’t play videos by black artists and after constant pressure and protest from the urban music community they finally relented. Two of the first Black videos they played were Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Run-DMC’s “Rock Box.” The record was tailor-made for not only the young music network but its Rock loving viewers thanks to the slick production of Larry Smith, Run and DMC’s back and forth rhymes and Eddie Martinez‘ virtuoso guitar work. Everything about the “Rock Box” video just made viewers wonder why rap videos hadn’t been on MTV before. The video was instrumental in pushing Run-DMC’s album beyond Gold sales and thrust them into the forefront of the burgeoning music form. After that barrier was broken down, the floodgates had been opened and hip-hop culture’s invasion of the mainstream was complete. After five years of the first rap records being pressed up, the genre had finally managed to reach the heights the release of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” had set it on.
Run-DMC was partly responsible for introducing rap music to a brand new audience thus they often were the go-to guys whenever anything rap or hip-hop culture related came up. Their style of dress was iconic (and an extension of Jam Master Jay’s personal style), the way they went back and forth harkened back to the Old School Era but the ferocity and power of their bars changed the way subsequent MC’s delivered their rhymes in the New School Era. Their live shows with Jam Master Jay set the precedent for how future rap groups had to command a stage and rock a crowd. They were the standard bearers. They were champions of the art form and the culture as well as hip-hop ambassadors.
In short, without Run-DMC’s debut album you likely wouldn’t be reading articles on Okayplayer 35 years later.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.