'Raising Hell' at 35: Run-D.M.C., Rick Rubin Invent the Rap Blockbuster
By Stereo Williams
Run-D.M.C. was primed to takeover the world.
In 1984, the "Kings From Queens" dropped their eponymous debut album and didn't just kick down the mainstream door for rap music, they blew it off the muthafucking hinges. Run-D.M.C. was a gold-selling smash that boasted monstrous singles like "It's Like That" and "Rock Box," the latter of which put Run, D.M.C. and Jam-Master Jay on MTV. In 1985, they followed it with another hit album, the MTV-primed King Of Rock, starred in their first movie Krush Groove, and appeared at the landmark Live Aid festival.
In the wake of Run-D.M.C.'s success, Def Jam Records was launched, and with it, the careers of teenage phenom LL COOL J and soon-to-be superstars Beastie Boys. Hip-Hop was becoming big business, and Run-D.M.C. was the superstar face of a Hip-Hop's commercial movement. But the King Of Rock album saw Run-D.M.C. appearing to chase the rock audience in a way that critics felt watered down their sound. It put the group on edge as they hit the studio for their third project.
“Everybody is looking for us to go downhill now,” Jam-Master Jay told SPIN in 1986. “Everybody’s praying and planning for our downfall. If we come with another weak album, we could be over with. Know what I’m saying? So we went to work. A couple of people say, ‘Hey, you know if you come weak this time, I’ll just be happy to step up.’ I ain’t going to say no names. Like when Run’s lung collapsed (in December), I know a lot of rappers who was real happy. There were people who actually talked about it. That’s real fucked up. Some people think if Run-D.M.C. is out of the race, it’s easy to go for yours out there.”
Run shrugged off the group's newfound superstar status.
“Myself,” he said at the time, “I’m not interested in reaching a giant audience. I could sell a million and be happy every time. I like the b-boys that I know to buy records. I don’t want to go stretching my neck out to go find a rock crowd or whatever, trying to sell 50 million, cause I don’t even really understand that too much. I only know how to make what I know how to make. If there’s a million b-boys that buy that type of record, I’m straight. I’m not really trying to catch that Live Aid crowd or whatever.”
Clearly being the Kings came with some baggage. Run-D.M.C. was on the Fresh Fest Tour when they started writing and working material that would become the Raising Hell album, and in New York City, there was a rise in street-oriented rap acts like Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim. Some started to look at Run-D.M.C. as too commercial. They worked their new material during a two-night set at the Apollo Theater, with some of their now-rivals on-hand to see the shows.
"When we started the Raising Hell album, our eyes had become open to all the people who were around us," D.M.C. recalled to Complex in 2016. "KRS-One taking shots at us, everybody was coming at us: Erick Sermon, everyone at the Apollo show, the new up-and-coming guys who thought they were more street than commercial-ass Run-DMC, had everything on lock, and wanted to take the crown from us. When we came out with that “Peter Piper” shit, it crushed everything they had on their minds."
"Peter Piper" is on the short list of the greatest opening tracks of all time. Dee and Run trade bars about the greatness of their legendary DJ, presenting Jam-Master Jay as a fabled character like in nursery rhymes of old. A conceit that could be corny instead comes off fresh and inspired, with everyone soon understanding why they're all "on Jay's dick."
They crafted the hit single "It's Tricky" from Toni Basil's cheesy hit "Mickey" while filtering it through the early rap routine style of acts like The Cold Crush Brothers.
On Raising Hell, Rick Rubin's hooky, polished production is a supercharged version of Run-D.M.C.'s already-established sound.
Larry Smith's kinetic boom bap was the bedrock of Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell, and Rubin added some distinct sampling ("Peter Piper" is born of the Bob James classic "Take Me To Mardi Gras" and "It's Tricky" samples The Knack's hit "My Sharona"). Over Rubin's production, Run and Dee get off some of their most infectious hooks and assured rhymes.
"My Adidas" was Run and Dee paying homage to the look from around-the-way that had informed Run-D.M.C.'s iconic style. The group's look was born of the late Jam-Master Jay's Queens flyness; the godfather hat and laceless adidas sneakers were that look. But some in the community associated the look with thuggery, with Run-D.M.C. took exception to.
"There was a doctor in our neighborhood named Dr. Deas, and he was like this community activist dude," D.M.C. told Sole Collector in 2014. "He even wrote a little pamphlet and he put it around the neighborhood called Fellon Shoes, where he was saying [that] kids and youth in the streets that wore Lee jeans and Kangol hats and gold chains and PUMAs and adidas without shoe laces were the thugs, the drug dealers and the low lifes of the community.
"So, when we heard that, we were like, 'How in the world is he gonna judge a book by its cover?'”
Of course, "My Adidas" would go on to be a sneaker anthem that broke even more new ground for Run-D.M.C.
"Run-DMC was playing Madison Square Garden in 1986 and the rep for Adidas was there," Rev. Run remembered in 2005. "I told everyone in the crowd, 'Put your sneakers in the air!' They turned the house lights up. When I looked out, the entire Garden was holding up one Adidas.
"I turned to the rep and he said, 'You're getting your own sneaker deal!' It was for $1 million per year and I closed it on that stage."
Raising Hell dropped in May 1986 and became the first rap album to go multiplatinum en route to hitting the Top 3 on the Billboard 100. ...Hell spawned four major singles on the R&B charts and wound up on numerous Best Of lists at the end of 1986. The album's enduring legacy stands as one of Hip-Hop's most revered; Public Enemy frontman said that Raising Hell was what convinced him to sign with his legendary group to Rubin's Def Jam Recordings.
The legacy of "Walk This Way" is well-documented to the point of obscuring just how great the rest of Raising Hell has always been. The song's success resurrected the careers of Aerosmith after a down period during which the legendary Boston rockers almost disbanded altogether. Guitarist Joe Perry left Aerosmith in 1979, as frontman Steven Tyler descended into heroin addiction. Perry (and guitarist Brad Whitford) rejoined in 1984, but it hadn't restored the band's fortunes. Their 1985 album Done With Mirrors barely went gold, but the band collaborating with Run-D.M.C. sparked renewed interest in their music. Tyler and several other band members completed successful rehab stints, Aerosmith experienced a major career resurgence that would aid their career well into the 2000s.
Raising Hell stands as the first major commercial blockbuster in Hip-Hop, and a high-water mark for Run-D.M.C. as a group. It did more than prove the commercial possibilities of rap music, it announced that Hip-Hop had fully mastered the album as an artform. The sequencing and production on Raising Hell set a standard for 80s rap classics and great Hip-Hop albums for decades to come; and it's still the best summation of Run-D.M.C. at the height of their influence, creativity and power.
*HEADER CREDIT: Jam Master Jay, Rev Run and DMC of Run DMC attend Pro-Peace Fundraiser on January 18, 1986 at the Palladium in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)