Run, Reverend, Run
"I don't worry about anything, because I'm a man of faith," says Joseph "Run" Simmons of Run-D.M.C., one of the acts most responsible for the rise of rap in the past fifteen years. "I just do what I do to the best of my ability. I've seen great success, and I believe that success is something that's my divine right as a human being. I believe that birds fly without a worry--they just do it. And I believe people are born and are destined to be successful without worrying about it, either. You just have to know about your divine rights and what you're here for. You have to know what your talents are and pursue that. That's what we've done--and what we continue to do."
If this discourse gives you an uncontrollable urge to shout out an "Amen!" or two, go right ahead: Run won't mind. That's because he's not just a rapper these days. He's also what he calls "a minister among many ministers under a bishop" affiliated with Zoe Ministries, a New York City-based religious organization. His title of choice is Reverend Run, and he wears it proudly. Just as important, he sees no reason why his born-again status should in any way undermine his role as a street-savvy truth-teller. "People might say things behind my back, but they don't say them to my face," he claims. "Maybe not all of them are down with what I'm doing, but I'm able to accomplish things on a lot of different levels--on levels no one has even been to before. They may not believe it, but I'll show them. Yeah--I'll show them."
Clearly, the element of braggadocio that was such a part of Run-D.M.C.'s finest work--the combo's self-titled debut, released in 1984, and the discs King of Rock and Raising Hell, from 1985 and 1986, respectively--is still present in Run's responses. Unlike many music-scene veterans who complain that the industry supports and promulgates an ageist conspiracy that prevents them from reaching the peaks they once routinely scaled, the good reverend speaks as if Run-D.M.C. were still the biggest story in show business. "The people in the rap community look at us, and they're like, 'Wow--Run-D.M.C. This is what I look up to. This is dope,'" he insists. "They're just waiting for the next Run-D.M.C. record. But more than that, they look back on our old things; they look at our track record, and they treat us like royalty. It's sort of like the way it is for the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith in the rock field. We're like that in the hip-hop field. We're just like that."
A less partisan observer would likely provide a different overview of Run-D.M.C.'s recent career--mentioning, for example, that the trio (Run, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell) hasn't released an album for four years, let alone experienced a hit. And while current hip-hop superstars such as Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest continue to cite Run-D.M.C. as an important influence, it's a good bet that many of the latest generation of rap fans view the outfit as yesterday's news if they've heard of it at all.
Run hopes to change this situation with not one, not two, but three new records in the next year. Actual release dates are up in the air, owing largely to turmoil at Profile Records, Run-D.M.C.'s longtime label. ("Profile's up for sale," Run points out, "so I don't know what's happening there. If it gets sold to another company and changes its name and all that, I don't know what we'll do. I don't understand any of it.") But he is actively involved in recording a new Run-D.M.C. opus--the first since 1993's Down With the King--and a Run solo platter. In addition, he's in the planning stages of what he describes as "a big project for Special Olympics called Reverend Run's Christmas All-Stars. It's going to be like some of those other Christmas albums they made for Special Olympics--we did a song called 'Christmas in Hollis' for one of them--but it's only going to have rap on it. We're still figuring out everyone who's going to be on it, but I met with the Fugees, and they told me they would do it, and I met with Foxy Brown and Redman, and they said they'd do it, too. And I have Snoop Doggy Dogg's phone number, but I haven't gotten around to calling him yet."
What will Run-D.M.C.'s contribution to the album sound like? "We'll do it like we do everything else--Run-D.M.C. style," he declares. "With all of these records, we're not doing anything that far away from what we've always done. Our formula has always worked. It's high-energy--just a basic, old-school type of feeling. We don't try to do anything gimmicky. We just keep it raw and rugged. That's what Run-D.M.C. has always been about."
The origins of the group can be traced to a man who was never in it: Russell Simmons, groundbreaking rap entrepreneur and Run's older brother. During the mid-Seventies Russell began promoting proto-rap events in Harlem, and before long, Run was hooked on the music. He practiced his turntable skills day and night, and by 1977 he was good enough to become a DJ for rap pioneer Kurtis Blow. Shortly thereafter, he began to put together songs of his own and share them with two of his longtime buddies, Mizell (a DJ for another local cutting crew) and McDaniels (whose nickname, D.M.C., is alternately said to stand for "Darryl Makes Cash" or "Devastating Mike Control"). By 1982, when Run and D.M.C. graduated from high school, the three had gained enough of a following on the local club circuit to convince Russell that there was money to be made from their music.
He was right. "It's Like That/ Sucker MCs," which was released in early 1983, was hugely popular and extremely influential. The beats were quite spare and, in many ways, similar to the early rhythms created by other post-Blow rappers. But the vocals of Run and D.M.C. were much more intense than those of their peers, and their words were generally more provocative--especially on "Sucker MCs," a boast-filled slap at rap competitors that laid the groundwork for an entire hip-hop subdivision. Run-D.M.C., released the next year, provided a wider range of material, but what stood out about it was its harshness. Other hip-hoppers were funkier or more socially conscious, but no one was nearly as hard.
If anything, King of Rock was even more aggressive--arguably the edgiest hip-hop album made to that point. But it took producer Rick Rubin, who loved both metal and rap and saw no reason that the styles couldn't cross-pollinate, to push Run-D.M.C. into the commercial mainstream. "Walk This Way," a track from 1986's Raising Hell that pitted Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay against Aerosmith on the latter act's Seventies fave, was a bit of a goof, but it was also an explicit enough blend of styles to get white America's attention. Thanks to saturation airings of the "Walk This Way" clip by MTV, the number became an across-the-boards smash that opened the doors for other hip-hop acts. It quite literally changed the face of pop music, and it provided rappers with the opportunity to make just as much moolah as rock icons. Witness the Raising Hell single "My Adidas," for which the shoe company in the title ponied up more than $1 million to use in advertisements.
Tougher Than Leather, from 1988, was another strong offering, but neither it nor its followup, 1990's Back From Hell, took Run-D.M.C. to a new place; rather, they were recapitulations that seemed a tad tired by comparison with the rap that had appeared in the years since the band's breakthrough. Sales lagged and personal problems multiplied. Jam Master Jay was involved in a serious automobile crash, D.M.C. slid slowly into alcoholism and Run was the subject of a rape charge in Ohio that was ultimately dropped when the woman involved retracted her claims.
Given factors like these, Christianity suddenly looked pretty good--and all three men eventually embraced it. But the gospel that Run delivers in churches in the New York area and beyond does not significantly contradict the gold-chain-wearing image the band propagated during the Eighties. As Run puts it, "My message is a prosperity message--a health-and-wealth message. Some people are preachers, some people are teachers. I'm a teacher, and I teach people in the community about wealth--how to acquire it and keep it and get their whole situation together. I talk about everything, even health insurance and life insurance. It's really deep." He pauses before adding, "I've got tapes that get into the whole thing."
He also has Down With the King, which manages to pump out the occasional Christian message without turning into a drag. The offering benefits from the contributions of a truly all-star cast, including Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Erick Sermon and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, whose guitar decorates "Big Willie." So solid is the effort that hip-hop aficionados were able to overlook its occasional efforts at religious recruitment; Down went gold, and the title cut became a sizable hit.
Since then, Run has lain low, but he hasn't been invisible. He's overseen Christian releases on his Rev Run imprint (one of his groups appeared in the Whitney Houston flick The Preacher's Wife), and he was part of "World So Cruel," a successful single and video by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. As this last credit implies, Run does not share the Christian viewpoints espoused by right-wing critics of rap's alleged excesses. When asked if he feels that collectives like the Wu-Tang Clan should be taken to task for glorifying criminality and violence in their songs, he responds, "I don't have a problem with that. I listen to it like it's a movie. I mean, do I have a problem with them making a movie of Bonnie and Clyde? Do I have a problem with some of the movies Arnold Schwarzenegger makes? No. They're telling a story, and that's all there is to it."
In other words, Run may be a self-righteous man, but not when it comes to the subject of dollars and cents. "I know who I am, and that's a rapper," he says. "People say to me, 'You're a reverend now. You're not a rapper anymore.' And I'm like, 'Are you crazy?' I'm a reverend, too, but I know what pays my bills, I know what I do best, and I know what I've sold millions of records doing. I'm a reverend because it's good for my soul, but I rap for a living."
Run-D.M.C. 9 p.m. Saturday, March 8, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $16.50-$19.50, 830-
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