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RUN DMC Crashes Rock's Hall Of Fame, Again

In 1984, MTV began playing a video that poked fun at the idea of rock's lead status in the music world. It showed RUN DMC — two rappers and a DJ trespassing at an imaginary rock 'n' roll museum and causing a holy ruckus. The irony is that, 25 years later, RUN DMC is being welcomed onto that hallowed ground. On Saturday, the group will be inducted into the real Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"In that 'King of Rock' video, we were snatching the wigs off the Beatles' heads, stepping on Michael Jackson's glove and pulling the plug on the Jerry Lee Lewis video," says Darryl McDaniels — the DMC in RUN DMC. "I remember people were saying that was kind of prophetic: 'You guys are bound for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of that.' "

RUN DMC will not be the first rap group to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — that was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But RUN DMC did achieve a number of historic firsts during its heyday in the 1980s.

It was the first rap group to have a Top 10 album on the pop charts, the first to have a gold and platinum album, and the first nominated for a Grammy. It was the first to have a rap video on MTV. And, for a majority of Americans, RUN DMC was the first rap group they had ever seen or heard.

"They heard the name RUN DMC," McDaniels says. "But it wasn't like, 'Who is this?' and, 'Is this a band?' It was, 'What is this?' "

The music of RUN DMC was raw and hard-hitting at a time when even heavy metal was sounding kind of tame. It challenged notions of what black music should be, and it had a familiar edge for rock fans.

"When we came onto the music scene," McDaniels says, "a lot of the other rappers were using, what? Funk. R&B. We said, 'If we use the rock guitar edge, it's a little harder than disco. If we could put that hard sound with this rough attitude, we're bound to get some attention.' So the rock 'n' roll edge, having a rock guitar, was kind of the icebreaker to say we're familiar. We have something in common."

RUN DMC started in the late '70s, when three childhood friends — Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell — came together in New York City.

"Hollis, Queens," McDaniels says. "It was a lower-middle-class suburban neighborhood. It was the late '70s when hip-hop came into the neighborhoods of Queens. It wasn't Brooklyn, it wasn't the Bronx, it wasn't Harlem. It was tree-lined streets, fences around the houses. We had grass."

Simmons and McDaniels developed a distinctive style that was sparse and heavily rhythmic, and that often had a sly sense of humor. With jugglers' precision, they tossed words back and forth, never losing the beat.

RUN DMC's debut single — "Sucker MCs" backed with "It's Like That" — appeared in 1983 and was an underground sensation. A couple of years later, the group hooked up with a '70s hard-rock band that was then half-forgotten: Aerosmith. The collaboration bridged the worlds of rock and rap, and put the careers of both groups into overdrive.

"Eighty percent of the listeners was like, 'Oh my God, this "Walk This Way" record is incredible.' But you had your 20 percent of loyal rock 'n' roll fans: 'This is a blasphemy. Who does RUN DMC think they are?' "

What many consider RUN DMC's definitive track came out in 1986.

"Our signature tune? It would probably be 'It's Tricky,' " McDaniels says. "Because it's the whole blend of rock 'n' roll, storytelling, excitement, creativity and a sense of truth, without degrading women and without glorifying violence."

Saturday, when RUN DMC accepts its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the group's DJ will not be there. Jam Master Jay was shot to death in 2002. The case is still unsolved.

"For Jay, this would be a crowning achievement of what a culture and an art form was able to accomplish," McDaniels says.

RUN DMC called it quits after Jam Master Jay was killed. Joseph Simmons now goes by the handle Reverend Run and appears on a reality show on MTV. McDaniels travels, speaking on the history of hip-hop and telling the story of how the street culture of a few New York neighborhoods struggled for — and won — respect.

"We went to the backstage door for a sound check," McDaniels says. "Boom, boom, boom, boom. Security would come. They would look at us and shut the door. Boom, boom, boom, boom. 'Yo, we're RUN DMC.' And Jay would be standing there with the turntables and the records around his neck. 'You mean to tell me I'm paying you all my money just to play records?' Jay would say 'yup' and put his hat backwards, and gallop past the guy."

Ashley Kahn is the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.

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Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.