How Run-D.M.C.’s ‘Raising Hell’ Launched Hip-Hop’s Golden Age
Raising Hell stands as a landmark in hip-hop music and hip-hop history. Obviously, being the first hip-hop album to go multiplatinum carries a lot of weight, but it’s easy to reduce the album—and Run-D.M.C., in general—to historical significance while downplaying the musical impact. And the fact is—Raising Hell was and is a banger.
From the opening lines of “Peter Piper,” it’s clear that Run-D.M.C. was hell-bent on making sure the world felt them on this album. One of the greatest opening tracks in hip-hop history, the song served as another ode to the legendary Jam-Master Jay, (this time framed as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of nursery rhymes), but to have it open the album was unique—most deejay odes were buried deeper on the LP. And the Bob James sample (1975's "Take Me To Mardi Gras," supplied by superproducer Rick Rubin) was flipped in a way that would be revisited countless times over the course of hip-hop history.
The opening five tracks of Raising Hell stand as some of the most clear-eyed sequencing a hip-hop album had boasted up to that point: “Peter Piper,” “It’s Tricky,” “My Adidas” and Walk This Way” were all major tracks for Run-D.M.C. and “Is It Live” is one of their best album cuts. If the album’s second half doesn’t have as many iconic songs, it doesn’t suffer from lack of inspiration. The beatboxing showcase “Hit It Run” and the misogynistic “Dumb Girl” are infectious, the silly story rap "You Be Illin" is one of the catchiest things they ever recorded and “Proud To Be Black” was an early shot of the topicality that would take over much of hip-hop within the next two years. The album is a towering achievement from hip-hop’s second wave and, though it may not be better than Run-D.M.C., it’s certainly as good as any of the best albums the genre produced between 1985 and 1988.
Released on May 15, 1986, Raising Hell would go on to sell more than 3 million copies in the U.S., becoming hip-hop’s first blockbuster album and kick-starting the genre’s “album era” in earnest. Over the next year, landmark releases from the Beastie Boys (Licensed To Ill), Boogie Down Productions (Criminal Minded), Public Enemy (Yo! Bum Rush the Show), Eric B. & Rakim (Paid In Full) would hit stores, giving hip-hop albums the kind of prestige that had largely eluded early rappers. And the album’s more far-reaching impact would be felt for the entirety of the following decade. From the late 80s to the late 90s, hip-hop albums would be the measuring stick by which most of the genre’s greats would be judged; and Raising Hell's ubiquitous music videos for hits like "Walk This Way" and "It's Tricky" foreshadowed the popularity of soon-to-debut mainstream hip-hop video shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City, which would give an entire generation of rap artists, from LL Cool J to Jay Z, the kind of visibility that Run-D.M.C. enjoyed at their peak.
But it’s not like no one saw this coming.
Run-D.M.C. had been at the forefront of hip-hop for more than two years. Their eponymous debut was released in March 1984, announcing that hip-hop had arrived as a fully-developed, album-driven musical genre. Their sophomore LP, King of Rock, landed a year later—building on their rap-rock template and amplifying them as crossover stars. That status was cemented that year when Run-D.M.C. performed at Live Aid; the only hip-hop act on the bill. Since their earliest recordings, Run had emerged as a charismatic frontman, with D.M.C.’s unmistakable, booming voice anchoring the group’s image and Jam-Master Jay on the wheels of steel—backing the two emcees with cuts and scratches that were always identifiably JMJ. When it came time to record their third album, the group was ready to take their next great leap.
Rick Rubin had produced Def Jam’s first smash album, LL Cool J’s 1985 hit Radio, and he was in the process of recording the debut album from the Beastie Boys, Licensed To Ill. But in between those two iconic projects, the legendary producer took over production on Run-D.M.C.’s upcoming project—after the group had been produced by Larry Smith on their first two records. Rubin built on Smith’s template: hard digital boom-bap, a few subtle samples and some flashy rock guitar; and one odd idea that would push the album over the top. It would be the only album Rubin produced for the group, but it was undeniably his most important rap album.
As has been well-documented, it was Rubin who suggested that Run-D.M.C. record a full-on cover of Aerosmith’s 1976 track “Walk This Way” as opposed to just rapping over a sample of it. Rubin brought Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry into the studio to record with Run-D.M.C. and, after some persuasion on Rubin’s part, Run and Dee enthusiastically rapped Tyler’s original lyrics. The single would be released that July and the video became an MTV fixture; resurrecting Aerosmith's career and introducing Run-D.M.C. to hard rock fans who'd previously ignored rap music. And it sparked a rush for this rap group's hot new album.
It would be a mistake to reduce Raising Hell’s prestige to just “Walk This Way.” That song was a monster hit and helped push the album commercially, but it’s not the best representative of Run-D.M.C. musically--nor is it indicative of why this group continues to be so significant to hip-hop. For all of the praise that rap-rock hybrid received, it’s almost glossed over that Run-D.M.C. had been releasing rap-rock songs for years; and it could be argued that both “Rock Box” and “King of Rock” were superior to “Walk This Way” in execution, if not in chart success. Also, Run-D.M.C.’s most enduring musical legacy isn’t really in their rap-rock fusion; that’s very significant, but their more lasting impression would be felt in the world of hardcore hip-hop. From their first album, it was clear that Run-D.M.C. weren’t interested in making dancefloor rap. They weren’t making disco-inflected party records like their predecessors such as Kurtis Blow or the Funky 4+1. They weren’t making electro rap a la Mantronix or Afrika Bambaataa, either. Larry Smith gave Run-D.M.C. a sonic template that was meant for rattling trunks and Rick Rubin expanded on that with Radio and perfected it on Raising Hell. Run-D.M.C.’s aggressive delivery and booming beats would become standard for hip-hop artists who were looking to separate themselves from fluff, and that approach can be felt in everything from EPMD to DMX. The era of “Yes, yes, y’all” and smiley-faced party rap was over. When Raising Hell went triple platinum, it proved that this kind of hip-hop could sell as much as anything else--perhaps even more.
And this album kick-started hip-hop's "Golden Age," the period from the late 80s to the late 90s when the genre grew in visibility, diversified in aesthetic, expanded in scope and came to dominate so much of popular culture. Their debut album had served as a warning shot that hip-hop's "true school" originators were yesterday's news, but it was Raising Hell that proved to be the dawning of the next wave. Of course, Raising Hell also represents the apex of Run-D.M.C.’s career. 1988’s follow-up Tougher Than Leather was largely successful and is now regarded as another classic in the group’s canon, but it failed to replicate …Hell’s juggernaut commercial success. The emergence of acts like P.E. and N.W.A. meant that Run-D.M.C. were no longer the undisputed kings, but their legacy was already cemented by that point. The sound, approach and look of Raising Hell put them over the top and gave any other ambitious hip-hop artist a roadmap to pop culture greatness.
And it still sounds good when your system’s loud.