Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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TOUGHER THAN LEATHER (1988)

**

With Run-D.M.C., Rick Rubin.
Directed by Rick Rubin.
(RCA/Columbia Home Video, 85 min., color)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Run-D.M.C. became kings of rap by combining street credibility with middle-class common sense. College boys from the black suburb of Hollis, Queens, they convinced rap's core audience they were tough by being so damn good--not to mention loud. But that was long ago, three years at least, and in their second feature film they're obviously afraid something's gaining on them.

As directed and cowritten by Rick Rubin, the kid record producer whose metal-influenced style cemented Run-D.M.C.'s platinum status, Tougher Than Leather is a bald blaxploitation flick: roadie wasted by Mafia music sleaze, rappers wreak revenge. Though sometimes the dialogue is cliched to the point of spoof, and most of the "actors"--e.g. Rubin, who saves the juiciest bad-guy part for himself--are wooden enough to evoke John Waters or the Theatre of the Ridiculous, it can't even plead tongue-in-cheek. The film was made so Run-D.M.C.'s audience could get to see three proponents of self-betterment break white gangsters' fingers and splatter their brains all over a warehouse floor.

There are a few redeeming factors, most of which occur onstage: the Beastie Boys, the Junkyard Band, and the stars (though not the sick Slick Rick) are tougher than celluloid when they stick to music. Rubin's dad makes a creditable capo, Run-D.M.C. manager Russell Simmons shows comic instinct in the role of Run-D.M.C.'s manager, and Pop Simmons, who had a memorable cameo in the group's Krush Groove, plays a prison warden and should get himself an agent. But the movie is so depressingly cynical that its only truly redeeming factor is that it stiffed at the b.o. Maybe now the principals will have the common sense to go with what they know.

Video Review, Jan. 1989