This week, Run-DMC’s groundbreaking classic album Raising Hell turns 30. An important moment for everyone with even a passing interest in hip-hop, it’s a milestone DMC himself nearly forgot about. It’s understandable, since he’s having a busy 2016. He’ll be releasing a new book, Ten Ways to Not Commit Suicide; a new comic book from his Darryl Makes Comics imprint; a new single entitled “Flames” with Myles Kennedy and Disturbed’s John Moyer; and somehow making time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Felix Organization, a non-profit he co-founded that helps send foster children to the arts-inclusive Camp Felix.
Still, the Devastating Mic Controller found time to speak with Complex about Raising Hell’s legacy.
It’s hard to underestimate the way Raising Hell influenced hip-hop since its release in 1986. But most visible is the crossover success of “Walk This Way.” Were there any other potential unexpected reinterpretations on the table?
It was Rick Rubin’s suggestion to do “Walk This Way” as the version that y’all hear on the record. Me and Run’s version of “Walk This Way” would have been with a typical hip-hop sample and talk about how good we were. We didn’t even know the song was called “Walk This Way.” We would say, “Pull out Toys in the Attic and play four.” Rick walked in the studio while we were already sampling it during an early session at Chung King Studios, and he suggested it might be cool if [we] did the record over as is. Me and Run hated the idea. Jay, rest in peace, said it might be dope. It was hillbilly gibberish country bumpkin rap, and so far from us even to understand it would work for MCs. Me and Run were crying, “Y’all are taking this rap-rock shit too far.” But it was Jay who said, “Slow down, don’t perform these lyrics the way Steven Tyler performed them. If y’all do those lyrics the way Run-DMC would do them with the signature switch-off/emphasis/overdub thing that you do.” Me and Run did it that way and it worked.
Remember, on Raising Hell, we had a rock song called “Raising Hell.” That was supposed to be the one following in the steps of “Rock Box” and “King of Rock.” I never wanted the b-boy thing to die. Remember, before “Rappers Delight,” before Sugar Hill and Enjoy Records, the only thing in existence were the live tapes of Grandmaster Flash, Treacherous Three, Lovebug and the Crash Crew. Those were the only thing in existence and “Funky Drummer,” “Apache,” “Good Times,” “Heartbeat”—these were the jams the DJs were playing while the MCs were running their mouths using the echo-chamber. You can go to YouTube right now and find Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and Scorpio killing it in 1978, rapping over “Walk This Way” while Grandmaster Flash mixes it. When we were doing Raising Hell, the same way we did “Live at the Funhouse,” we knew we needed to have a routine with Jay spinning a beat and Run and D spitting like we would spit at the park. Jay was like, “We got to keep it b-boy. We need to make a record using one of the beats you like to run your mouths over.”[[
[‘Walk This Way’ Was] hillbilly gibberish country bumpkin rap, and so far from us even to understand it would work for MCs.
We were going to loop it and talk about how good we were. “I’m DMC in the place to be/Been rhyming on the mic since ’83/There will never be an MC better than me/The greatest MC in history”—it was going to be the hardest thing that we could compare to “Here We Go” and “Together Forever.” We were going to get our Melle Mel/Grandmaster Caz on. Rick Rubin walked in and said, “Do you know what this is?” He gives us the 411 on Aerosmith and just says we should make the record over. That’s what’s caused everything that’s gone on in this universe right now.
The famous legend about the making of Raising Hell is that you and Run wrote your routines for the album while on the Fresh Fest Tour in ’85, and then, instead of playing your hit singles, performed the entire album for the first time in front of an unsuspecting crowd on back-to-back nights at The Apollo. Between that tour and those shows, how completed was the album and did the live reaction at those shows change anything about the album?
That’s a great question. When we did “Peter Piper,” we knew we had some shit. We knew we had some ammo. It’s funny that you talk about those Apollo shows, because when we were on that tour writing that album, it was kind of a mission. The Run-DMC album was cool, but the King of Rock album—if it wasn’t for “King of Rock” and one or two other songs, we were just maintaining to stay afloat. When we started the Raising Hell album, our eyes had become open to all the people who were around us. 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.
With “Peter Piper,” we had the back-and-forth opening, but when we dropped that Bob James “Mardi Gras” bells with the 808s under it, it was over for anybody who ever thought anything wrong about DMC. Raising Hell was an album designed after that whole Force MCs/Furious Five/Cold Crush Brothers routines. “It’s Tricky” is our version of that “Oh Mickey you’re so fine” song, but as a Cold Crush routine. We knew nothing beats “Peter Piper.” To this day, we’ll crush everything on the radio: “Jam Master was faster, get off Jay’s dick.” We even cursed on the record and it got past the FCC!
What’s crazy is LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” was supposed to have those Bob James bells on it. He was originally going to sample it. We were working out the same camp with Rick Rubin. We created our “Peter Piper” song, and LL had [“Rock the Bells”] all set in stone, but we were the first to run around six to seven days before LL. There was a little competitive beef between LL and Run, but LL, like a champ, had respect for Run-DMC and had enough confidence within himself to not use the “Mardi Gras” bells. Imagine if the bells dropped on that shit. You’ll notice he says “Rock the Bells” and no bells drop.
While Raising Hell is known for mixing the rap and rock genres, on “Is It Live” you bring in go-go music, which isn’t that popular outside of the D.C. area. How did that happen?
Sam Sever, who produced a lot of 3rd Bass’s music, produced that record. People forget Larry Smith produced our first two [albums], and then Rick Rubin came on board to produce because he was always up in Chung King. The go-go was Sam Sever’s idea. When we’d go to DC, people had a lot of respect for Run-DMC, and after the tour was over, it was go-go time. I always joke, the one thing with D.C., is they never let their music die. When the concerts were over, it was, “Run, D, we respect you motherfuckers, but get the fuck out of here, go-go is superior.” To this day, it’s alive there.
There’s a story that Run was trying to make a “Prince-style” record with “You Be Illin’.” Do you have any particular memories of interacting with him?
The meeting with Prince I remember was in 1986. We were always be flying out of JFK. We’d be coming, and Prince would be going. This was maybe the third or fourth encounter and this particular day at JFK Prince walked by us and said, “Y’all are going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day.” Run, Jay, and I looked at each other like, “What did he just say?” In 2009, when we got the call that we were to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, [we were told] the “King of Rock” video was prophetic. We made that video in ’85, the Hall of Fame didn’t exist until ’86. When Prince passed on, it made me think back to Prince in 1986 being up on current events, hearing what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was and feeling that what we were doing musically was innovative.
Prince walked by us and said, ‘Y’all are going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some day.’
This year marked the 10th anniversary of helping children with your Felix Organization, and looking back at the lyrics of Raising Hell, you’ve always been big on celebrating family and education. When writing songs with a message, how did you make sure they didn’t come off as corny or preachy?
We didn’t want to do the “socially conscious” thing just because it was the hip or powerful thing to do. I think it worked for us because we came from Hollis, Queens, New York. It was a lower-middle class suburban area. It wasn’t the Bronx, which was a war zone. It wasn’t Harlem. We were in between. My parents worked their asses off every day. Every school I went to, my parents paid for. I went to Catholic school every year. We had bad elements around us growing up, but they never said, “Come join me.” The bad elements said, “You, Run, and Jay better go places. You don’t need to be up here on the corner.” When we grew up, everybody’s mother and father was your mother and father. My parents weren’t power-hungry drill sergeants, but they disciplined me and gave me direction.
We didn’t say, “You need to go to school/And this-and-that or else/You young whipper-snappers!” I said, “I’m DMC in the place to be/I go to St. Johns University.” It’s spoken with an energy that listeners can relate to. It’s almost like I go back to being 15 every time I say it. Our presentation of those records wasn’t overbearing.
What inspired the purple-and-green color motif on the Raising Hell artwork?
Profile Records and Russell Simmons always did something to present us in a safe, acceptable manner. The way we looked was kind of intimidating, so to get people to be courageous enough to pick up the album, take the vinyl out and put it on the record… If we’d have done that cover in black-and-white or just the regular photo, people would have said, “Oh, this is some street shit.” By putting purple and red and pink, it lightened the presentation, made it safer. Me and Run always hated the album cover because they never used photos of us doing the gas face. They got Run and me laughing. The majority of the Raising Hell photo shoot was that Hollis, “Yeah boy, we running shit!” Then they colorized it to make it more acceptable.