Songs are signs of the times. The Notorious B.I.G.’s aspirations to “blow up like the World Trade” are uniquely ‘90s. Marvin Gaye’s soulful repudiation of war and prejudice based on long hair on “What’s Going On” is a clear signifier of the hippie movement against the Vietnam War of the 1960s. Sometimes a song’s reflection of a certain time is predicated on the stories unheard in a five-minute audio recording. That’s how a Run-DMC track about how good they are at almost everything became the song that “brought Black and white people together,” as Darryl “DMC” McDaniels describes it.
This idea of songs inherently being mirrors of the time permeates episode three of Songs that Shook America, which focuses on Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” a song that broke racial barriers and united groups of people once segregated by music choice. The distorted guitar sound that runs through the entire “Rock Box” record was one Questlove deemed the sound of the 1980s that connected Prince and Def Leppard to hip-hop songs such as LL Cool J’s “I Need A Beat” and Fat Boys’ “Jailhouse Rap.” Questlove spends time in the episode meticulously going into detail about how that sound defined the ‘80s. That guitar sound was the rock in this rock-rap marriage, and Run-DMC wanted to limit the union.
Learning that the two MC’s argued against the song’s defining sound going throughout the entire song would be shocking given how it helped hip-hop crossover into the mainstream. Yet, in what is becoming typical of Songs That Shook America, context is king. In the episode, neither Run or DMC described any early efforts from the group to appeal to white audiences and consciously break racial barriers. “Rock Box” came from DMC’s desire to make his own version of Billy Squire’s “Big Beat,” a desire that bordered on an in-your-face obsession. “Rock Box” shook America because the group made the song from their influences of the time without conforming to the genre and racial confines of the time.
Accidental or not, the 42-minute episode wastes no seconds thoroughly explaining how groundbreaking the song was for its time by examining the improbability of its success. For most millennials, MTV was their childhood portal into the diversity of music where Britney Spears dancing around as a schoolgirl could be played right after Destiny’s Child ode to having their bills paid. Songs That Shook America delves deep into the network’s racist past when Video Music Box founder Ralph McDaniels remembers one of their execs telling him “middle America doesn’t want to see hip-hop.”
McDaniels isn’t the only firsthand account of the racial barriers MTV put up by catering almost exclusively to white rock artists in its early ‘80s beginnings. Bill Adler was the director of publicity for Rush Management, the company that managed Run-DMC, and he gives some of the most scathing insights into the ridiculous lengths it took to get the mega-successful Run-DMC on MTV. He describes MTV as an “FM rock radio station with pictures” that only started playing Black artists after Michael Jackson’s label Epic Records threatened to take the label’s entire roster off the network if they didn’t play Jackson’s music video for “Beat It.” But, it’s what happens after MTV finally decides to put Run DMC’s “Rock Box” on its channel that is the most shocking admission.
In the music video for “Rock Box,” the first rap music video played on MTV, starts with white comedian Irwin Corey dubiously explaining how rap began to an onlooking young white boy before Run-DMC performs in the middle of an interracial dance party. For decades, this video was an innocuous, fun video of a party. Adler reveals the label included Corey because he was “certifiably white” and the young white boy was put in to “reassure everybody, ‘Not only can you be white and like Run-DMC, but you can be young and white and not be afraid of these grown-up Black men.’”
As infuriating as that admission may be, it exemplifies the best part of the episode, and the series as a whole: the restoration of forgotten parts of history. Lyrics like “our DJ’s better than all these bands” are fly boasts of bravado before the episode. The line’s defiance emerges when we learn of stories about promoters at venues being incredulous of the three-man group being a live performance act because they didn’t have a band like rock artists. The revelation that for decades radio stations have played the song unedited even though a vocal trick somewhat obscures Run saying “fresh shit” in the intro. DMC even remembers, during the group’s 1986 Raising Hell tour, a rumor was spreading that Jam Master Jay died.
Each episode thus far has made a conspicuous effort to give the backstory, as well as cultural impact, of the artist separate from the song. The previous two episodes were able to give detailed yet general overviews of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s careers and upbringings while also examining each of their selected songs, without anything feeling cheapened in favor of the other. That’s not as true for Run DMC, a group with a legacy that was cemented and iconified decades before West’s or Lamar’s.
Run-DMC’s legacy is too extensive to contain it to a discussion of a single song, a fact that was, at times, incongruous with the 42-minute time constraint. When “Rock Box” was discussed, its grandiose stature in pop culture history is either exalted or explained. However, the documentary, rightfully so, dedicated roughly five minutes to Jam Master Jay’s death and lasting impact at the end of the episode. While seeing his son TJ Mizell pull up rarely seen photos of his father holding him when he was born and his artists eulogizing the late great DJ was good, the inclusion felt rushed and not as fleshed out as other parts of the group’s history.
Millions may remember Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” collaboration with Aerosmith as the song that broke through to the mainstream and ushered in decades of rap/rock unions. Songs That Shook America makes it clear that “Rock Box” rocked so “Walk This Way,” and countless artists could walk.
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