The impact of that album, and the three that followed it - 1985's King of Rock, 1986's Raising Hell, and 1988's Tougher Than Leather, all rereleased with a handful of live tracks and demos - was not limited to the hip-hop generation, though the hip-hop generation may have benefited the most. Prior to 1984, before Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay started performing in their street clothes, most rappers dressed like exiles from Rick James's backing band or extras from the original Battlestar Galactica. (Admittedly, this is pretty much the same thing.) Radio finally started playing Run-DMC and their fellow travelers; so did the previously rock-oriented MTV. Hip-hop artists were at long last able to tour all over the country, not just all over New York City.
In short, Run-DMC was the group that started hip-hop on its path toward world domination. Specifically, their cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" brought rap into suburban households previously thought unreachable. An example: Theirs was the first tape I bought to play on the Walkman I received for Christmas 1986, and I lived in a town that was 30 minutes away from anything resembling a city. It didn't matter; "Walk This Way" was undeniable. Soon enough, Run-DMC and King of Rock joined it in rotation, as I learned their own songs were even better: "Rock Box," "Sucker M.C.'s," "My Adidas," and "Can You Rock It Like This?" to name just a few.
But hip-hop is such a fickle and fluid medium (here today, gone today, as Chris Rock might say) that it would be easy to overrate these albums in retrospect — the actual music, that is, not the influence. It would be simple to let nostalgia take hold and remember them for what they were instead of what they are. It happens all the time. You build up something you loved as a child until the actual article cannot possibly live up to the memory. That, however, is not a problem here. In fact, Tougher Than Leather comes off even better than it did at the time, divorced from the unwieldy pressures that came with trying to follow up their masterpiece, Raising Hell. “Beats to the Rhyme” and “Run’s House” particularly hold up well, with a spare, swaggering style not too far removed from Jay-Z and Kanye West. The Beastie Boys continue to make records that sound exactly like Tougher Than Leather.
Still, on first listen, these albums sound alien, related to current hip-hop in form and little else. The music and lyrics are too straightforward, the subject matter almost quaint in comparison. But listen deeper and you’ll hear bits and pieces of everything that came after it, whether it’s a beat, a rhyme, or just an attitude. Kind of like the way every rock song, at some point, owes a debt to the Beatles. That’s not nostalgia talking. It’s present-day fact.
By Zac Crain