November 2017

Kings of Rock?

Run-D.M.C. put themselves in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before there even was one—and they weren’t a rock band.

Although Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl (“D.M.C.”) McDaniels were rappers, they and DJ Jason (“Jam Master Jay”) Mizell were also fans of rock music. The type of hip-hop they created as Run-D.M.C. in the 1980s had more in common with the brash edge, high volume, and rebellious attitude of hard rock and heavy metal than with rap’s more obvious forerunners, disco and funk. The trio’s early producer, Rick Rubin, was an even bigger rock fan, and encouraged Run-D.M.C. to emphasize that harder sound, with help from friends like guitarist Eddie Martinez.

You can see Martinez in the following video for the 1985 song “King of Rock.” The conceit here is that Run and D.M.C. are trying to enter an institution called the Museum of Rock and Roll, but the security guard at the door—played by Larry “Bud” Melman, a character actor best known for his frequent appearances on TV’s Late Night with David Letterman show—says that they don’t belong there. This remark is clearly meant to prompt laughs, and the video as a whole is more than a little tongue-in-cheek. But it also raises questions about the relationship between rap and rock, and about their respective cultural roots. Race is a major unspoken factor; at the time, rap was thought of as a mostly black form of music and rock was considered mostly white, even though it was based in large part on black R&B.

When the “King of Rock” video was made, there was no such thing as a rock ‘n’ roll museum, and most people probably thought there would never be one. Today, of course, there’s a big rock ‘n’ roll museum in Cleveland, part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Run-D.M.C. are in it permanently, having been inducted in 2009. There are still some people in the world who may echo Larry “Bud” Melman’s statement that “you guys don’t belong in here.” But the majority of music fans will agree that Run, D.M.C., and Jay earned their ticket to the Rock Hall when they collaborated with the classic rock band Aerosmith on a new version of the latter’s song “Walk This Way” in 1986.

That recording—along with its memorable video pitting Run and D.M.C. against Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry—was a monster hit, leading to superstardom for Run-D.M.C. and a commercial comeback for Aerosmith, whose best days were thought to be long behind them (they’re still making music today, and they’re also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). In addition, “Walk This Way” made the connections between rock and hip-hop clear to everyone. In the decades since, the two genres have continued to mix and mingle in many different ways, and neither style has been the same since.