This is Mom’s Place, a combination Jamaican restaurant/car service/pool hall on Hollis Avenue and 200th Street in Hollis, Queens, the middle-class black neighborhood where the three members of Run-D.M.C. grew up. On a cold, rainy Tuesday night, a couple dozen neighborhood teenagers and slightly older folks have gravitated from the sidewalk in front of a Chinese take-out place down the block and into Mom’s. Brown paper sacks holding 40 dogs (40-ounce bottles of Olde English Malt Liquor) circulate, and the sweetish chemical smell of crack cuts through the damp air. A jukebox blares the Temps’ “Just My Imagination” over the shrill bleeps from the video game, as someone sings along, off-key: “Of all the skeezers in New York…” Mom surveys the crowd with a look you could use to cut glass.
“Yo, turn us on to the box. We need two skeezers. I’m a single-minded man with a plural. Yo, where the skeezers be hanging out at?”
“You think you made up skeezers? Like Jonah said to the whale, I ain’t swallowing that.”
“Can I get some sidewalk here?”
“You gonna get the next 40, Jay? Jay! Jay!“
“Yo, I just heard your new album.”
“What did you think? You know it’s a winning album. Either that or leave Hollis now. You can’t front on my album. You know it’s the best shit. You don’t like ‘My Adidas’? You don’t like ‘Peter Piper’? You don’t like ‘Hit It Run’?”
“You liked it, but you liked it in your mouth.”
“Run” (Joe Simmons), “D.M.C.” (Daryll McDaniels), “Jam-Master Jay” (Jason Mizell), and I had been sitting in Jay’s 1986 black Lincoln for about 20 minutes, discussing whether Mom would let me in. There’d been a problem with a white guy before. But D.M.C. didn’t want to go bowling, and on a Tuesday night in Hollis there isn’t a hell of a lot else to do. So here we are. No problems. Everyone seems to think I’m someone else.
“Yo, Danny! … You’re not Danny? I’m gonna call you Danny anyway.”
Run explains: MC Danny White Boy. The only white guy in Hollis.
“Are you down with the Beastie Boys?”
This is the Hollis crew, the people who remember when Run and D.M.C. were 15 and part of the Magnificent Super Seven, rapping in Hollis Park in checkered blazers. Back in the di-days, the people who gathered around Jay when he cut up Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Billy Squier’s “Big Beat” on the biggest sound system in the neighborhood included: Butter Love, formerly Dougie Bee of the Magnificent Super Seven, now part of the rap group called the Hollis Crew; Runnie Ray, with his ghetto blaster wrapped in plastic against the rain; Cool Tee, a Super Seven alumnus; stocky, nappy-haired Country; Shane, who compares Cadillacs with D.M.C.; Daryl Woods, an almost skin-headed guy in a varsity jacket who put laces into Jay’s Adidas; barrel-chested Jocko in a gray down jacket and a gray Adidas ski hat.
“We made Run-D.M.C. what they are,” says a childlike 17-year-old named Lamont, or Little L. “We go to all their jams and we boost them and get the crowd pumping. Get the girls motivated. You know, we’re the party motivators. Run used to hang out with my cousin, so they used to be at the house a lot. He used to come with a book of rhymes. This was back in the days. And Daryl, he used to be battling my cousin, drawing Bruce Lee pictures.”
Everybody has a story: about boxing with D.M.C. using nine pairs of socks for gloves, about how Run’s going to give them their big break. “This guy’s the best rapper around here,” says Run, pointing to Romeo, a handsome, caramel-complexioned youth with a transparent mustache and leather gaucho hat. “We’ll go outside and jam.” And in the cold rain, Run spits, lip farts, and otherwise human beatboxes while Romeo reels off a sly string of rhymes. Jay comes out to join in, and picks the jam way up with a counter rhythm.
“They don’t forget nobody,” adds Leslie, a 16-year-old with light brown braids and a bright gold front tooth. “They play ball in the park. And then the thing is, they say what’s true. It’s a rap, but it’s the truth, and it’s all about life. You gotta be around it, and everything’s out here.”
The crew is all here, and scattered among them is the most powerful group playing any genre of music today: Run, in a black Def Jam baseball jacket, black Adidas pants with the string hanging out, and beige Kangol hat; D.M.C., in a furry blue Kangol, fur-trimmed snorkel parka, blue Adidas warm-up top, unfaded blue Levis, and his trademark black-framed glasses; and Jay, shooting pool with Country, in a nylon Fila hooded warm-up top, black denim Lees, and the first example of hip-hop merchandising, a black Kangol with the Run-D.M.C. logo.
Run-D.M.C. are on edge tonight. As they shoot the shit and swill 40s at Mom’s, they are waiting for their third album, Raising Hell, to hit the racks. It will either break them out to a huge new audience or signal that they’ve gone as far as they can. They also know that they’ve got a motherfucker in the can. But the also know that rap careers tend to be meteoric, then collapse. Their last album, the weakly meandering King of Rock, raised some doubts that only two strong non-LP singles could erase. And they know that LL Cool J, dishing out the best of their old hard b-boy sound, is more than ready to push them aside. King of Rock sold better than 800,000 copies, but that was only a slight improvement over the sales of their debut album, despite heavy MTV exposure. All three members believe that the rock route was a mistake. This album could be their last chance.
“Everybody is looking for us to go downhill now,” says Jay. “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.”
“Myself,” says Run, “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.”
Despite their boasts and middle-brow moralizing, Run-D.M.C.’s lyrics have always been strikingly, powerfully banal autobiography. Cold, stark pedestrianism, as if any deviation from the straight and narrow were a step toward damnation. They rap about their friends, their glasses, about taking airplane flights at huge heights. On the Aerosmith collaboration, “Walk This Way,” their clumsy fumbling with Steve Tyler’s jaded lyrics drives home just how unsexual the group is. They’ve always been more about slicing away the bullshit than expanding a vision.
Drug rumors follow the band, and they probably aren’t as straight as they play it. But they really are victoriously mundane, directed guys. Family men.
Their money is in their cars: Jay’s Lincoln, D.M.C.’s Cadillac Fleetwood, Run’s Buick Riviera, all 1986, all black. Run wants to trade his in for a Jaguar; D.M.C. wants to give his to his father and buy a van with a water bed in the back. But there are plenty of Caddies in Hollis, and the three seem otherwise no different from the rest of the people at Mom’s. “I gave my moms a lot of money,” says Jay. “Fixed up my basement. Couple of color TVs, couple of VHSs, little bit of jewelry, some gold. Santa Claus at Christmas. Few thousand in the bank.”
D.M.C.: “I had a dream last night I was in a Datsun 280-Z, came out my house, and the cops just started chasing me and shit. And I went up on the sidewalk and shit. I said, this shit is def. I woke up, I was so happy.”
Run: “I dreamed we was in a fucking Datsun 280-Z, too. And the cops came up to us and Jay went through the light. And we said something to ‘em, and one cop said, ‘I don’t give a fuck what you do.’ It was a black cop, man. You know about wild dreams, man?”
Run is trying to make a point here. “Note that,” he says, as two more members of the Hollis crew make their way into Mom’s. Daryl Woods hugs each of them and wrestles him to the ground. Is this the usual Hollis greeting? “No,” he says. “That’s they own dumb shit.” Run keeps asking me about the new album. “You like ‘You Be Illin’ a lot, though? That’s the deffest shit. “You Be Illin’ is def, Jay. You think the record ‘[My] Adidas’ is going to do good, all the little kids are going to like it and everybody? What do you think of ‘[It’s] Tricky’?”
A penny falls to the floor. “Waste not,” screams Daryl Woods, slapping his huge palm over it, “want not.” Run and D.M.C., fortified by Olde English, break into an impromptu version of “Hit It Run,” with Run sputtering a beat behind D.M.C.’s raps. “Everybody likes that beatbox shit,” he says. “Bugs everybody the fuck out. Lets motherfuckers know what time it is.”
After their unsuccessful flirtation with musicality on King of Rock, Run-D.M.C. have returned to their roots. They ditched producer Larry Smith (he still makes great pop records with Whodini) and produced most of Raising Hell themselves in a street style. Despite the cover version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” the album is almost exclusively hard b-boy jams, with little or not music. Just beats and rhymes– the style that they invented in 1983 with “Sucker M.C.’s,” the B-side of their first single, and turned into the dominant form in hip hop. The shit that put them on top in the first place.
“Before us,” says Jay, “rap records was corny. Everything was soft. Nobody made no hard beat records. Everybody just wanted to sing, but they didn’t know how to sing, so they’ll just rap on the record. There was no real meaning to a rapper. Bam[baataa] and them was getting weak. Flash was getting weak. Everybody was telling me it was a fad. And before Run-D.M.C. came along, rap music could have been a fad.”
“None of them was hard-hitting street jams,” says Run. “We came and got ill. There it is.”
“There was never a b-boy record made until we made ‘Sucker M.C.’s.'” Jay continues. “Now you got groups that just try to be all b.boy. Rappers wasn’t even street before we came out at all. Rappers used to dress up, leather this, leather that, chains. Did you ever see them back in the days? Motorcycle-gang-looking-people. When we came in, we dressed the way we always dressed, and we just did our thing. We was street. We was hard. When people seen us, they seen that we was regular, normal people. Didn’t go around with no braids in our hair, flicking them around. People tend to like what’s real. And we was real.
“‘Sucker M.C.’s.,’ ‘Jam-Master Jay,’ those records were trendsetting records. People based their whole lives on the way we looked. Even LL Cool J used to wear boots when he started rapping. His image wasn’t Kangol and rough and all that. He got that from us. We told him, ‘If you’re going to be from around our way, you can’t be like that.'”
You’re a five dollar boy and I’m a million dollar man
You’ze a sucker M.C., and you’re my fan.
You’re tryna bite lines or rhymes of mine
You’re a sucker M.C. in a pair of Calvin Kleins
–from “Sucker M.C.’s”
Run: “I had a dream last night I have my girl a car, but she didn’t want it. She wanted to paint it. But it turned into a barbecue grill that could make French fries and everything. How ’bout a car that could make French fries?”
D.M.C: “I had a crazy dream I was on the road with Michael Jackson. We went into a room, and we didn’t have to be at the show till five or something, and there was three Chinese girls in there tending to all my needs; it was real crazy, ironing my clothes. I went and took a shower, and I’m in the shower naked, and in the dream someone said, ‘Someone’s coming, someone’s coming.’ And I couldn’t see the face, but someone came in there with a knife. And it was like, what’s that movie? Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho. And then I just woke myself up. Word.”
“Everybody’s trying to call us the second generation of rap,” says Jay. “But we was doing it back in the days. We just wasn’t televised. Run was out there. Before the Sugar Hill Gang made ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ I was scratching already. I was about 15 by that time, so I been scratching.”
You can neatly divide rap history at Run-D.M.C.’s first single, “Sucker M.C.’s.” It was as radical and influential a record as “Anarchy in the UK.” With “The Message,” Sugar Hill abandoned the dominant production machine in rap music, and the label’s house band left. The artists who built the music from a Bronx subculture to a national phenomenon were suddenly hurled into a collective decline. As rappers tried to repeat the huge crossover success of “The Message” with transparently insincere social-consciousness raps, and break dancers made their way into soft-drink commercials, hip hop was losing its essential street urgency. In a little over three minutes, “Sucker M.C.’s” literally revived and redefined the anemic genre. Two guys and a gunshot drum machine (Jay hadn’t joined the group yet,) slicing through the malaise with the rawest kind of street talk: the dozens. Almost overnight, the dis (disrespect) rap controlled the street, and rappers started stripping their sound of all music. Hip hop was no longer, as Afrika Bambaataa called it, a renegade breed of funk. “Sucker M.C.’s” gave it its own brutal sound.
“It was just out there,” says Run, “like basketball, man. Something to do. Found out I was good at scratching and made a record. There it is.” This sort of “case closed” ejaculation, condensing eight years of his life into an epigram, is typical Run. He’s the loud member of the group, periodically screaming a line from a song or pumping bravado. “Bloods aren’t going to fuck with us, I’m telling you.” I know my town.” But when he’s drawn into conversation, he’s uncomfortable and closemouthed. In the pool hall he’s jumpy, running outside, never spending much time with anybody.
“I ain’t usually out here,” he says. “I never go nowhere. I’m not into going out. I just play basketball, come in the house, eat dinner, and go to sleep. I don’t like it out. I just stay in the house.”
“Run never was a hang-out guy,” Jay confirms. “Ever. He would go to a party and go home. ‘Cause Run always had to go home to his wife and kid.” Run just bought a house in Hollis, but for now he still lives with his father, his girlfriend of more than six years, and their almost three-year-old daughter, Vanessa. He is almost constantly looking for a phone to call home.
“Yes. No. No, I’m coming right home after this.”
“Cut Creator!” Shane yells, mimicking the line from LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells”: “What’s your DJ’s name? / Cut Creator.”
“Valerie,” says Run. “That ain’t funny, man. She should read that in the article, then you in trouble.”
Run’s earned a reputation for being rude and smart-assed. He doesn’t pay much attention to anything I say unless it concerns his music. (By the end of our three says, he’s able to tell me just about every record I like, which mix, and why.) He got his start as DJ Run Love, the Song of Kurtis Blow. Blow and Run’s older brother, Russell, who now runs the Def Jam label and manages Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Whodini, the Beastie Boys, and a host of other rappers, were freshmen at the City University of New York in Harlem, where Simmons started Rush Productions to book rap acts into college parties. At 12, Run joined Blow onstage and the two traded places in the spotlight before an audience that was hungry for this new music.
Simmons has been the group’s guiding influence. At 28, Run’s prematurely balding older brother, who rarely leaves the house without a Kangol, may be the most powerful figure in hip hop. His career formed the center of the film Krush Groove, and his Rush Productions groups have traditionally been the heart of any big rap tour. When Slick Rick split from Doug E. Fresh, he signed with Rush. And with Def Jam, as all new Rush artists now automatically do.
“The first year,” says Jay, “Russell had us out there working for free. That means a lot of towns had big packed shows, and Run-D.M.C. was working free. He wasn’t just trying to get money, he was trying to build something. So I love Russell for that, cause he built us.”
Unlike his protégés, the older Simmons left Hollis and lives in Manhattan. He’s a visionary while Run is content. He has worked very hard as an independent businessman, and built a small empire. His vision is probably all that stands between Run-D.M.C. and the facile satisfaction of being local heroes. Like obedient younger brothers, Run, D.M.C., and Jay dutifully do what he wants.
School girl sleazy with classy kinda sassy
Little skirt hanging way up her knee
It was three young ladies in the school gym locker
And I found they were looking at D.
–from “Walk This Way”
Two car stories:
I’m riding with Jay in his Continental, breathing the strawberry and green apple scent of ten pine-tree air fresheners: two hanging from the rear-view mirror, four from the ceiling, and two from each side of the backseat. An ’86 black Cadillac Fleetwood pulls up beside us. The automatic windows of each car lower. Run sticks his head out the passenger-side window of the Fleetwood and yells: “Burger King!”
Run: “I was driving past Daryl Woods on his bicycle one day, and I said, ‘Let me just dis him real quick.’ I pulled over and said, ‘I believe that’s a hard way to get around.’ He said, ‘Perhaps’.”
A fleet of cruisers are assembled in front of D.M.C.’s house. There’s Jay’s back Continental, Run’s black ’96 Buick Riviera, Fat Boy Markie Dee’s silver Mercedes, and, just pulling up, D.M.C.’s black Fleetwood. Fifteen or 20 people from the neighborhood are hanging out around the cars.
“Where’s the kid at?” says Run, and finding me, leads me and D.M.C. inside; no, he tells Mrs. McDaniels, it isn’t necessary to get a pizza. D.M.C.’s brother Al and a light-skinned, freckled guy named Bimmy follow us down to the basement, where a row of two-liter soda bottles and an ice bucket flank candy dishes filled with nuts.
“This is like my waiting room,” says D.M.C., cueing up and scratching a copy of Yellowman and Fathead’s Bad Boy Shanking album on the glass-enclosed stereo. “When people come over, I gotta get up, take a shower, brush my teeth, clean my sneakers, shave. So I tell them to come down here and wait. I’m just living a life, man.” He grins broadly.
Like Run, D.M.C. is a hard man to get a word out of. He just doesn’t understand why you want to know, why you aren’t as beatifically content as he is. “Today,” he says, “I ain’t got nothing to worry about. I washed my car, I gave my friend some money, he gonna pay me back tonight.” Five days into kicking cigarettes, he seems happy.
“I used to draw the comic books,” says D.M.C. “Spiderman, the Hulk, Captain America, Superman, and all that. Until I was 12. When I turned 12 I found out about rap and started rapping. First, I was a DJ. I used to DJ in my basement. Then I got tired of deejaying, and I just started writing rhymes. I used to rhyme for hours. Drink a 40-ounce beer, Olde English, and I wouldn’t be able to shut up for the whole day and the whole night. Be rhyming all night loud everywhere I go. Everybody’d tell me, ‘Yo, why don’t you shut up, you been rhyming all night. Shut up, I don’t like this guy he won’t shut up.’ Rapping was more fun than being a DJ for me. ‘Cause I could get on the mike and tell people how devastating I am.”
After a few Yellowman and Fathead tracks, he pulls out an album of old hip-hop instrumentals, and plays a rapless version of Grandmaster Flash’s “Freedom.”
“Remember this?” he asks, and passes the album jackets around. It’s a generic white sleeve, custom decorated as the first record by the Magnificent Super Seven. In different-colored felt-tip pens, Easy Dee (D.M.C.), DJ Run, Terrible Tee, Runny Ray, Capri, Masta Tee Thiggs, and Dougie Bee invested the jacket with their names and their most unguarded hopes. It’s a beautiful artifact of innocence and diligence ,a meticulous enshrinement of seven adolescents’ most prized icons–their names and their dreams.
He’s the better of the best
Best believe he’s the baddest
Perfect timing when I’m climbing
I’m a rhyming apparatus
Lotta guts when he cuts
Girls move their butts
His name is Jay come to play
He must be nuts
–From “Peter Piper”
Jay lives in an apartment in the basement of his mother’s house with his girlfriend and their newborn baby, Jason Jr. Possibly because he’s a new father, Jay seems the most responsible member of the group. In Burger King, he was the only one to throw out his garbage; D.M.C. saw him, looked back at the table, and continued to the checkout counter to deliver autographs. In the pool hall, when Daryl Woods tried to put Danny White Boy and me into a mock lineup, Jay put a stop to it. “I believe if one of my live homeboys came here,” he told Woods, “he’d fuck one of y’all up.” Then, to me: “I don’t even come down here no more. You bring a friend down here, and they try to disrespect you. Ain’t nobody in here anything compared to nothing.”
“I was a wild kid,” he says. “I hung out late. Hung out till the morning sometimes with my friends. I was the motivator. When I was 14, 15, all the big guys would say, ‘Where we going tonight?’ Any event that went down, I was on that train. I stopped being wild when I was 16. I started wanting to go to school all the time, wanting to be into books, When I say wild, I just didn’t care. I was smarter than everybody in my class all the time, so I just felt like I didn’t have to do the work. I was going to school, but I was messing up in school.
“After my father died, I really wised up. Everything changed for me then. I wanted to do what was right. Settled down, got a girlfriend. I was never really close, close friends with Run and D.M.C., but me and Run used to play basketball together, and me and D.M.C. used to drink Olde English.”
As a kid, Jay played bass and drums at block parties in a corny band, but saw that DJs had more pull than bands. “I had a turntable,” he says, “my friend had a turntable, all I had to do was buy a mixer. They had mixers for like 39 dollars. So my moms got me a mixer, and I started off like that. DJ battles was a fun thing. It was like a big park, and you’re over there and I’m over here. My crew used to have so much equipment that if you was anywhere that we could see you, they couldn’t hear you. Parties in Hollis, I was the DJ. Best guy in the neighborhood, for sure.
“The night I gave my biggest party, Run and D. went to the studio and put down ‘It’s Like That.’ I couldn’t go. They couldn’t be at my party. I was mad that D. and Run wasn’t at my party. Next day they came around with a tape. We started doing shows.”
When “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s” became hits, Jay dropped out of Queens College, in the middle of his freshman year. Run dropped out of LaGuardia Community College, where he was studying mortuary science, and D.M.C. left St. John’s. For a group that claims to be a the first street-rap crew, these middle-class citizens aren’t exactly street kids.
“The feeling inside of me was never a soft feeling,” says Jay. “It’s no matter where you’re from. It’s who you are. There’s no difference between the Bronx and Queens. It’s just that we live in houses and they live in projects. So what? They went outside and had a fight with the guy down the block, we went outside and had a fight with the guy around the corner. No difference. Everybody seems to think that cause we come from a nice neighborhood… yo, everything that was everywhere else was in Queens, too. Drugs was out there. And then, I think that people from Queens have something more to prove than people from the Bronx. Mo Dee [from the Tenacious Three] and them, since they came from a rough neighborhood, they tried to act like they was from somewhere else. They used to be b-boys, but now they want to change their image to be like pop or something.”
As far as Run-D.M.C.’s label is concerned, Jay is not a member of the group. He isn’t signed to the label, and his picture appears on the back but never the front of the album covers. Until the new album, his royalties were half those of his partners: one percent of the retail sales. On Raising Hell, he gets two. “I spent the most time in the studio,” he says. “I put the album together. It’s all coming from a DJ’s point of view, instead of a musician’s point of view. If there was a producer of this album, Jason Mizell would be the producer of the album. But it’s not. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin [Simmons’ partner at Def Jam] are. But I feel I produced it more than anybody produced it.”
A gold Cadillac insignia the size of a tennis ball hangs from a chain around D.M.C.’s neck, and a slightly smaller one gleams on his finger. “Anybody that sees him knows that that’s a rapper,” says Run, his friend since kindergarten. Though he limits his wardrobe to Adidas-wear and jeans (Run-D.M.C. recently posed for an Adidas promotional poster), he has the biggest beeper and the most gold. He gets up to change the record.
“You hear this record,” Run says, peeling the decals off a Rubik’s cube in frustration to get one all-black side. “‘You can’t change your fate.’ I don’t appreciate that. You can change your fate.”
But D.M.C. isn’t concerned. Nor is he worried about the band’s competition. “I’m telling you,” he tells his nervous partner, “Niggers don’t put us down for not being out. Niggers still love us. LL could have a lot of hits, niggers still come and tell me, ‘You can Run are the best.’ I’d be like, ‘What about LL?’ ‘No, you and Run are the best. I haven’t heard from you for five years, you’re the best.'”
“I be believing,” Run counters, “when we ain’t there, they telling LL, ‘Them boys is over, you’re the new king.'”
“You wanna go to the store with me, man?” he asks me. When I tell him I’m ready to split, disappointment crosses his face.
“Got a brand new Cadillac with a brand new 40 in the back,” he laments. “See, you’d be my excuse to get this quart of beer.”
He gets some money from his mother; D.M.C.’s parents control all his money, and give him an allowance. But there’s money to be made.
On a three-day stint in California this summer, they expect to clear $60,000 apiece. Raising Hell may sell more than a million copies. On the street, people constantly approach them for autographs; in Burger King, one of the guys behind the counter slipped them a tape. MTV sent a crew to cover the “Walk This Way” recording session. They may be on the verge of an unprecedented crossover success, but they built their careers proselytizing an image of regular Joe b-boys, eating Chicken Tenders at Burger King, and greasy chicken sandwiches on Wonder Bread with ketchup from Chung King. An old hip-hop club on the corner has turned into a “place for adults,” D.M.C. tells me. “We can’t go there no more. I don’t go anywhere new now that I’m famous.”
D.M.C.: “I had a dream there was about five parties going on in New York, and I was broke.”