Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Run-D.M.C. [Profile, 1984] A-
  • King of Rock [Profile, 1985] B+
  • Raising Hell [Profile, 1986] A-
  • Tougher Than Leather [Profile, 1988] B+
  • Back From Hell [Profile, 1990] Dud
  • Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983-1991 [Profile, 1991] A
  • Down With the King [Profile, 1993] B+
  • Greatest Hits [Arista/BMG Heritage, 2002] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Run-D.M.C. [Profile, 1984]
Though a bit upwardly mobile for the highbrow-lowbrows who regard money lust and the death throes of capitalism as two sides of rap's only fit subject--D.J. Run boasted about attending St. John's, of all things--the competitive fatalism of the spare, brutal "It's Like That"/"Sucker M.C.'s" was unforced and dead on, and Eddie Martinez's Hendrix-Funkadelic metal on the expansive "Rock Box" proves that even street minimalists can love guitars. But this does more than fill in around two of the finest singles of the past couple of years. It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever, a tour de force I trust will be studied by all manner of creative downtowners and racially enlightened Englishmen. While their heavy staccato and proud disdain for melody may prove too avant-garde for some, the style has been in the New York air long enough that you may understand it better than you think. Do you have zero tolerance for namby-pamby bullshit? Do you believe in yourself above all? Then chances are you share Run-D.M.C.'s values. A-

King of Rock [Profile, 1985]
You can tell these guys are real rock-and-rollers because they sounded so much fresher before they got what they wanted, and you can tell they didn't get it all because their rhymes still make a lot of sense sometimes--especially "You're Blind," a protest for and at the ghetto rather than about it. But their well-timed "You Talk Too Much" routine runs aground on stupid insults ("nagging wife," gosh) and old jokes ("Why don't you find a short pier/And take a long walk," groan). "It's Not Funny" is either a perverse albeit well-named joke or a complete washout. Even the boasts run thin. "Take airplane flights/At huge heights"? I mean, what do sucker MC's do? Just taxi around the runway? B+

Raising Hell [Profile, 1986]
Like the Rolling Stones twenty years ago, they're middle-class lads who are into music that's hard above all--they're street because they want to be. Granted, the analogy is less than exact. Where the Stones dramatized their streetness by becoming bohemians, Run-D.M.C. remain defiantly and even paradigmatically middle-class, a much tougher trick. Run-D.M.C. project less respect for women than the Stones, and less interest in them, too. They commit more lyrical gaffes. And their music is a lot further out. Without benefit of a "Rock Box" or "King of Rock," this is their most uncompromising and compelling album, all hard beats and declaiming voices. They're proud to be black all right, but I don't think it has much to do with George Washington Carver. They're proud to be black because it means they can do this. A-

Tougher Than Leather [Profile, 1988]
Coming off their sophomore jinx and out to prove their mastery, they ended up celebrating it as well; coming off their triumph and feeling too damn big for their minor label, they merely demonstrate it. Technically, the kings are nonpareils--not a duff beat or a forced rhyme. But for the moment they lack desire. I'll enjoy the genre-busting side-closers anywhere, the original-metal title tune and anticrime message on the radio, and the rest later. B+

Back From Hell [Profile, 1990] Dud

Together Forever: Greatest Hits 1983-1991 [Profile, 1991]
Use your programming buttons--the jumbled order, intended like the title to conceal how over they are, cheats them instead. Played chronologically, the music coheres--their style evolves naturally, switching gears only when they begin sweating street cred--and the rhymes lay out a tragedy. A pair of streetwise college kids inveigh against a scourge before anybody has an inkling it's going to happen. Preaching and demonstrating self-reliance, they start with a beatbox and two stentorian voices--"Unemployment at a record high"--and then incorporate just enough guitar to turn the market around. As they get famous, their boasts begin to sound out of touch--live '83 they're all camaraderie, live '84 it's already like the audience is down there somewhere--and by '87 or so their message seems formulaic. But given their bona fides, it retains a certain credibility--even the useless 1989 spiel "Pause" (rhymes with "Don't break laws") sounds like them. By the time they check out with the scary tale of a crack shooting on "The Ave.," they're packing nines--and unemployment 1983-style seems like heaven, or at least not-hell. A

Down With the King [Profile, 1993]
A triumphant comeback, but the comeback is spiritual and the triumph formal, which adds up to art rather than culture. Where multiple producers usually signal overweening identity crisis, this is debt collection--since rap as we know it proceeded from their innovations and accommodations, there's no one in the music who doesn't owe them. And though the two Bomb Squad cuts owe Cypress Hill in turn, all the other guest overseers--Q-Tip, Jermaine Dupri, Pete Rock, EPMD--drop plenty flavor without impinging on the group's aural identity. Sure of their hard-not-gangsta ethos, equally deliberate in the vocals and the bass and drums, they always sound like Jay, Run, and Darryl Mac. Yet with their own spare production style signifying only as a trademark, they live off those outside shots, and the boasts about the stages they useta rip up ring truer than the ones about the trends they're gonna start. I hope their godfather status is good for sales as well as respect, influence as well as sales. But I wonder how much their return will mean, even to rap aesthetes, if it isn't. B+

Greatest Hits [Arista/BMG Heritage, 2002]
Utilitarian, which suits them. At least it's sequenced with a sense of continuity, and unlike the deleted Profile job, it abjures remixes, live collectibles, and Back From Hell. Sure Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell are good-to-excellent historical artifacts that render it superfluous. But what no one dares say is that by the standards of the aesthetic they made possible Run-D.M.C. are a little crude. Their rock-solid funk is more Memphis than New Orleans, their declamation the opposite of flow as Rakim defined it, their blunt rhyming neither spontaneous beat prosody nor the blaxploitation real of gangsta's true lies. In fact, for such big influences their straightforward sound is kind of unique, and their greatness harder to hear than it's supposed to be. On these 17 tracks, the consistency and reliability their hard-working music implied is a reality worthy of the lower-middle-class 'hood they represented. A

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