Kings Still Reign: Rev. Run of Run-DMC Shows No Signs of Slowing Down [Interview]
Rev. Run of the iconic hip-hop group, Run-DMC, talks with Okayplayer about entering into the National Recording Registry, creative desire, and more.
Age has arguably been one of the most merciless battles in hip-hop over the years, especially as former stars and trailblazers attempt to recapture moments that made them great in their youth. But what does the battle with age look like when you’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and everyone knows your music, despite rarely ever choosing to listen to it? If anyone has the cheat code, it’s Rev. Run of Run-DMC who later this year will be a headline performance NASS Festival in Bristol, U.K. in July.
Life for Run-DMC has been very different since Jam Master Jay passed away in 2001, in what many still believe to be due to his defiance in playing 50 Cent’s blacklisted music at the time. I was only 11-years-old time at the time but I understood the gravity of his death and how it had rocked hip-hop. “The music speaks for itself when we get out there in the legendary hats and the fashion we created. We don’t really have much to do apart from channeling the energy of his legacy,” Rev. Run says. You didn’t have to listen to Run-DMC’s music at the time to understand their influence but years after their kingdom has ceased reigning, the legacy of the group still continues to live on.
Recently, the group’s third album Raising Hell was recently selected to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, joining N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as the only rap albums to be included in the archives. These days, Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons is less concerned with records and making history, that will continue long after he’s gone. “I’ve been out here filming a Netflix show with my family, it’s going to be something really unique,” he says. “I’m talking about retiring but my wife has got all these adventures, it’s kind of like an ‘I Love Lucy’ type of comedy show. You know I just want to chill on a yacht but she’s got all of these ideas so it’s going to be a joy I think,” he adds. Run tells me that retirement is something he’s often thought about but with the festival in July and the upcoming Netflix show produced by Amblin TV and ABC Signature, he’s not quite ready to sail off into the sunset.
Legacy in hip-hop in 2018 carries a much different meaning as it did a decade ago. We’re now a generation removed from the ‘90s golden era and a lot of new school rappers are openly admitting that heroes such as 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. are alien to them. The ‘90s wasn’t that long ago and it’s still a point in time which many still try and reconjure today through fashion trends and R&B samples in music. But what does it mean when your legacy began in the early ‘80s — before many of us were even born — yet you’re still being booked for the most prestigious festivals around?
With excitement and glee in his tone, Simmons says, “It’s gonna be great. We played ‘Made In America’ a while ago and people love to hear these classic songs, the kids, and older people know songs such as ‘Walk This Way’ as much as the new school cats so when we perform, it’s still a big deal.” NASS Festival also sees Run-DMC headline alongside UK grime veteran and pioneer Dizzee Rascal, as well as Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. “We haven’t gone out there in a while to play at a festival with this level of notoriety but when I’m on stage and the fans are screaming at me, and me at them, that’s a good time that can’t be mimicked elsewhere,” Run adds.
So much has changed in recently with hip-hop, the discourse at present is that newer and younger rappers don’t respect or appreciate the old school while the veterans are stuck in their own ways, failing to look forward. “People love authentic you. You can’t chase the youth, people will love you for that. I’m not going to be what the kids want me to be because that wouldn’t be Rev. Run. You can’t change what they like, you can only keep doing what you do and then they may like it,” he adds. A voice that isn’t bound by the limits of generations is an all-important one in hip-hop at this point in time — likely one that can bridge gaps between “old heads” and the “new school”. Often overlooked but Run-DMC has impacted generations of hip-hop fans, not just rap listeners but as a culture overall.
Hits such as “Walk This Way,” “Tricky” and “It’s Like That” are songs Simmons still considers fan favorites and the most revered to this day. The formula for making a strong rap hit these days has changed significantly, you’d only need look at the rap charts but the landscape is almost unrecognizable compared to the early ‘80s. At the time, with rap still in its infancy, the success of rap hits came through ingenuity. “I don’t know how it is these days, to be honest. For us, an idea would come while on the tour bus or on stage and they’d end up becoming songs. The inspiration for Raised In Hell carried over from the shows and I wonder if artists are using that to the same degree these days, but it’s all about life experiences at the end of the day,” he says.
“With Run-DMC, people want to hear the music that topped the charts. We don’t come here to play any games. We come out there with ‘My Adidas,’ ‘Rock Box’ ‘Christmas In Hollis’ and ‘It’s Like That,’ and that puts smiles on people’s faces and that’s important to me,” he adds. For artists such as Run-DMC, success is no longer found in a new hit or album but in coming together with fans that have followed them since 1984 for a reunion — it’s like meeting up with old friends to catch up on memorable times and moments throughout life. Perhaps that tells us that for older rappers struggling to find relevance, the template for middle-aged success lies in live shows and taking the culture of hip-hop beyond the studio but into other mediums such as TV, which is how many still make their bread and butter.
We’re seeing for the first time, what happens when there are two or more generations of rappers sharing different approaches to not only the art form but the culture itself. Run mentions Jay-Z’s most recent album, 4:44, as a refreshing example of how to mature gracefully in hip-hop. “It was very mature and fitting for someone in his current life stage, he’s been able to evolve with his time. I don’t know whether he’s been able to evolve with the times but he’s been able to do so in a way that fits within his overall canon of music,” he adds.
But then I considered what retirement has looked like for Run’s peers who came also came up with him in the ‘80s, which is something Jay-Z also flirted with retirement in 2003, following the release of The Black Album. In 2013, LL Cool J released what was also his thirteenth studio album Authentic, which some considered a misstep — much like Magna Carter Holy Grail — and since has returned to his acting career as he now boasts an impressive filmography. For public figures and icons such as Simmons, retirement never truly occurs as much of the work in the latter years of his career has been about maintaining the legacy. “When you’re in it, you don’t really know what you’re doing but when you hear someone tell you what your music did for them, then you begin to consider your legacy. It’s never been about me but how I make people feel,” Simmons says and in the context of headlining a show in 2018, the presence of Run-DMC brings feelings of nostalgia.
Simmons laments on whether more music is a possibility in the future, he says: “The songs are the catalog but I’m not thinking about making anymore [new] songs. It was something that popped into my head but then it became a show.” More than forty years on from when Run-DMC recorded their self-titled first album, Rev. Run sees no reason to stop, there is an obvious need to still create. No matter what age, that desire to create never dissipates but for now, “When the time comes, I’ll know,” Simmons concedes.
Jesse Bernard is a London and Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, Dazed, FACT, Noisey, Crack Magazine, BRICK Magazine and more. His work can be found at @marvinscorridor.