"I believe our brains are connected," says Joseph Simmons, a k a Run, waving a hand at DMC (Darryl McDaniels) and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizzelli), his colleagues in the hottest rap group in the world. Run-DMC (Jam Master Jay somehow got left out of the name) is preparing for a sold-out concert in Charlotte, N.C., and Run is explaining how loose they can be. "We go on stage all the time and improvise, switch off on lyrics.
"I got bass . . . " he intones with the staccato insistence that defines rap.
"Tone," completes DMC, spinning off the counterpoint phrase between bites of a sandwich as he relaxes on his hotel bed.
"I use . . . "
"Then I . . . "
"Rock . . . "
"A funky rhyme . . . "
"On the . . . "
"Micro . . . "
For Run-DMC, which will headline a major rap concert at the Capital Centre tomorrow night, these are the best of times and the worst of times.
They are at the peak of their popularity, with the "Raising Hell" album bringing rap its first platinum award (it just went double platinum, in fact). They have expanded their longtime constituency of black teen-agers to include white audiences. But Run-DMC's national tour has been hit by a series of disturbances, including a gang melee at the group's Long Beach, Calif., concert two weeks ago that left 40 people injured.
Some observers blame the music. Rhyme- and rhythm-heavy rap, they say, attracts a dangerous element and generally instills hostility and negative attitudes in young people. Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Center recently made a sweeping statement to the effect that "angry, disillusioned, unloved kids unite behind heavy metal and rap music, and the music says it's okay to beat people."
Others have pointed out that not only is the gang situation in Los Angeles a longstanding problem (one L.A. police estimate puts the number of gangs in Los Angeles County at 400, with close to 50,000 members), but that many of Run-DMC's songs come out against the very things they're being accused of.
Nervouscity officials in Providence, R.I., canceled a Run-DMC concert that had been scheduled for last night. And after the Long Beach fracas, the group itself canceled a Hollywood Palladium concert, citing concern for the safety of its fans. Still, those were the only cancellations in a 70-date, 65-city tour, and officials from other cities have come out in support of the group.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley made a point of inviting Run-DMC to come back and perform at that city's Street Scene festival in late September, an annual gathering that draws more than half a million people and this year is being turned into an anti-crack, anti-gang event. Tomorrow, the Baltimore Coalition to Stop the Killing, an organization focusing on violence among black youth in that city, will present Run-DMC with a citation for its anti-violence, anti-drug stance.
"It's confusing, this whole thing," says Run, who picked up his nickname as a kid because he had a propensity to run off at the mouth.
"I'm excited to go back" to Los Angeles, he says, though final arrangements have not been made. "We want to definitely be down with that. My lyrics are so positive, everything I talk about and what Run-DMC stands for, those gangs out there are against."
Like DMC and Jam Master Jay, Run is 21 years old and from the middle-class Hollis Street neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. And like his fellow rappers -- but unlike a lot of adults -- he gets respect when he talks to the young.
"I have a lot of juice over the kids," he says. "I tell 'em to wear Adidas, they wear Adidas. I tell 'em to don't do drugs, they don't do drugs. I tell 'em to stay in school. We're role models for sure.
"But we haven't ever rapped about gangs. We haven't had to. Maybe I will now 'cause we walked into a gang war," he adds. "We're not going to say all kids are good, but in Long Beach it was gangs. They existed before I got there, they're gonna be there when I leave. I can't stop that."
After the Long Beach concert was halted (which happened before Run-DMC took the stage), Run went on a local radio show. "I told the gangs, 'If you're listening to me -- you're stupid.' One gang guy called and said he didn't have a beef with the group but 'I'm protecting my turf, I got to do what I got to do, if it hurts you, I'm sorry, man . . . ' "
"I didn't want to hear that, it's sap rap. Get that out of my face."
Though he's still brash and egotistical, full of the boasting spirit that is central to rap music, Run's bravado has been tempered by recent events. Long Beach was the most violent confrontation, but there had been smaller disturbances at Run-DMC concerts in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New York, with dozens of arrests, mostly outside the concert venues.
Part of the problem, of course, is that rap, a black street music that emerged from the New York hip-hop subculture in the late '70s, has been little understood, much less accepted, by outsiders. The sound, built on staggered beat-box rhythms and crashing percussion, is all voice and drums, as light on melody as it is heavy on rhyme-on-a-dime lyrics, which are declaimed with a raw, aggressive, sometimes brutal and often relentless simplicity.
Rappers like Run-DMC favor street scowls and fashion statements -- leather outfits, Stetson hats, laceless Adidas sneakers -- that, combined with tough sounds, macho neo-realist lyrics and crushing volume, can be more than a little offsetting. There's nothing light about rap -- no ballads here, folks, and it's definitely designed to appeal to youthful energies -- so it's not surprising that the music's reputation has become quite negative, like heavy metal's. The medium is confused with the message. Still, the only things rap really shares with heavy metal are its lack of radio airplay, the unswerving loyalty of its fans and the fact that it drives most adults absolutely crazy.
But another problem, says Russell Simmons -- Run's older brother and head of Rush Productions, the biggest management agency for rap acts in the country -- is that most of those criticizing rap haven't really listened to it. Gore's judgment, he says, is symptomatic.
"Mrs. Gore's statement is like saying that peace is war," says Simmons, and "suggests a near total unfamiliarity with contemporary black culture. Rap records are among the most consistently positive to be found on the current cultural landscape." Run-DMC's music, he says, "counsels kids to stay in school and to stay away from drugs and crime." They've drawn upon the example of their success to preach that the application of their fans' individual talent is enough to win each of them a place in the sun. As the group themselves put it in a song called "Hollis Crew":
The things I do make me a star
You can be too if you know who you are
Just put your mind to it, you'll go real far
Like the pedal to the metal when you're driving a car.
Simmons also points to another song, "It's Tricky," with lyrics that say, "We are not thugs, we don't use drugs, but you assume on your own/ They offer dope and lots of coke but we just leave it alone."
In fact, Run-DMC has a long history of involvement with social issues, from its first records "It's Like That" and "Hard Times"and its appearance at Live Aid (one of the few black groups represented) to its participation in the "King Holiday" and "Sun City" record projects. The group has also made award-winning public service spots against VD and drugs and will headline a huge anti-crack benefit concert in New York later in the fall.
"Kids want to be like me," says Run, "and if you want to be like me you're good to go because I don't stand for nothing bad. I'm just a positive person."
Of the recent backlash, he says, "They're out to give it to us, but I'm not hurt. I have three albums -- take 'em home and listen to them and call me in the morning."
The PMRC is now backing off a bit from Gore's statement. "None of us have had a chance to see Run-DMC live in concert," admits PMRC spokeswoman Jennifer Norwood. "On the album itself, 'Raising Hell,' there's nothing in the lyrics that is really explicit or would incite kids to violence. But from accounts that we've gotten from people who have been attending their concerts, what's happening is when they get up there on stage, what's coming out is not the same as what's on the album. They're giving just what they offer, a hell-raising type of concert.
"They have gotten some bad calls as far as gang violence being connected with the concert," Norwood adds, "but any time you have a gathering with that many people being hurt or injured, you need to reevaluate what's being done there, whether it's the fault of the people on stage or not. From secondhand reports we have heard that there is a lot of obscenity and hell raising in their concert act."
"We're getting a bad rap, for sure, but it doesn't hurt," Run insists. "Older people don't understand us anyway most of the time . . . They look at the way we dress and think that means something.
"It doesn't. Just because I stand like this and look like this doesn't mean I'm going to beat you in the head."
Although it has been appropriated to a certain degree by Madison Avenue and by some pop musicians, rap music is still perceived as a black music phenomenon -- a perception, according to those involved in rap, that has held the music back.
"American culture is more segregated now than it was 20 years ago," says Bill Adler, who does PR for Rush Productions. "It shows up in entertainment, radio in particular, where you have music by white musicians on rock stations, music by black musicians on black stations, and never the twain shall meet. If this were 1969, Run-DMC would be as big as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone.
"Yet for all their popularity and record sales and their having a top-rated concert tour this summer, the first time many people outside of the black youth community heard of Run-DMC is just recently, because of this concert violence . . . I think that speaks to racism in America."
Still, Adler says, "our appeal among whites is underassessed. In some places like Providence, which has a small black population, the crowds are 50 percent white . . . They've played Alaska, which is not notable for its black community. And you don't sell 2 million records just to the black community in this country."
Yet no matter how many rap records Middle America buys, he continues, it knows little and understands less about the environment of extreme poverty, unemployment, dislocations and desperation that bred rap in the first place. That environment creates "a hard core of knuckleheads who are more or less career criminals, and they understand that if they come out and hang out after a show, they can victimize kids who look pretty much like them and then fade away into the crowd. They see a Run-DMC show as an opportunity, in their parlance, to 'get paid, to do work.' They go to a show with the express intent of victimizing our fans."
Despite their middle-class backgrounds -- Run's father is supervisor of attendance in the Queens school system and teaches black literature at Pace University -- the group knows the realities of life in black communities across America.
"We wrote a record for the ghetto teen-ager called 'Hard Times,' " Run says, breaking into a rap. "Hard times in life, hard times in death, but keep on fighting till your very last breath . . . Hard times are coming to your town, but stay alert, don't let 'em get you down."
Adds Adler, "They empower kids with the notions of their own abilities, that they're the masters of their own fate, that hard work and perseverance and knowing who you are and what you want will get you what you want in this society."
"My older son and I write poetry," says Daniel Simmons, asked how his son got into rap. "We're just into words and how to use words to inspire. This is ghetto music -- it comes up from the street, born in Africa and the very idea of storytelling: You tell me a story and I'll tell you a story."
*Of the three friends, Run was the first to get serious about rap music. At 12, he appeared with Kurtis Blow, billed as the "Son of Kurtis."
"He did it professionally, I was doing it in my basement," says DMC. "The first time I heard somebody rhyming over the beat, it just sounded so good to me, so I started writing my own lyrics. Then Run put the group together and bang, here I am. And I don't believe it."
Rhyming over the beat had evolved at dance clubs and parties, with deejays trying to rouse dead crowds. "Maybe the first one was 'Hip hop, do the jerk, let me see your body work,' " says Run. "And everybody gets happy. Then you say, that went over last night, I'll do some more . . . 'Slam dunk, feel the funk, let me see you move your rump . . . "
Eventually there came a whole "scratching and deejaying" revolution in which existing records provide a steady stream of four- or eight-bar rhythms, with deejays keeping the beat alive and rappers ad-libbing ad infinitum. Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay is a much celebrated deejay: "He's the one in charge/ It's up to him to rock beats that are truly large."
The rhymes, while not exactly Shakespeare or Irving Berlin, take some composing, a point Run-DMC addresses on the new album's "It's Tricky:"
It's tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time
They say I'm overrated, musicians really hate it
My name is Run, I'm number one, it's very complicated
You might think it's a snap, a snap to make a rap
Well if you do, me and my crew will tell you that's some crap.
Indeed, when Run and DMC graduated from high school, they were headed for college, not the charts. DMC was interested in business management or architecture, while Run was looking to a career in mortuary science. "I said, 'I'll bury people -- I know it's not a fad.' But I didn't really know."
Instead Russell Simmons had them record "It's Like That" and "Sucker MC's," and their energies were soon directed elsewhere. With the introduction of heavy rock guitar strains to "Rock Box" (a strategy most evident on their cooperative remake of Aerosmith's classic album cut, "Walk Like This," currently a top-10 single), Run-DMC began to appeal to hard rock audiences as well. Its first two albums went gold, it became a darling of MTV (which has often shunned black acts, particularly hard-core black acts) and it began touring the country.
Last year, the group made "Krush Groove," a film that made money (though the group itself hates it). When this tour ends on Sunday in Norfolk, they'll rest, then start working on a follow-up, "Tougher Than Leather," which they plan to control.
"We'll hire directors, fire directors, bring in this guy, get rid of that guy. We're going to do what we want and it's going to be a much better movie." The plot will involve the killing of their road manager by drug dealers and the group's effort to clear his and rap's name. "We become heroes at the end and figure it all out," says Run. "It's not a true story, but it's going to be real."
Despite their escalating success, Run-DMC's members have managed to retain their street credibility and their sense of themselves. Much of that's been possible, they insist, because of their parents, with whom they still live.
"It's helped us so much," says Run, "to have parents that are as wise as my parents . . . other kids grow up bad because that's all you're taught. You live in a certain neighborhood and this is what goes on before your eyes every day. And you don't get a chance to learn 'cause nobody taught you."
* Says Daniel Simmons, a veteran of the civil rights movement: "My kids have been taught all their lives about the quest for social justice. I used to take Russell on my shoulders walking on picket lines in the early '60s. My kids know where I'm coming from -- I want to see America be what it can be. It gets harder with the guys on the street. They say, 'When is this going to happen? You and Martin Luther King were fools. You can't sing your way into people's hearts, you can't pray your way into people's hearts.'
"But what are you going to do, fight your way into somebody's heart?
"I had that problem with my own kids, telling them, hey, you've got to be cool, you can't get angry because you get treated badly. You got to understand that you got to make it in this world, that you won't be loved in America, you'll be tolerated. And that's all you can expect if you're black."
Daniel Simmons points to street bravado as little more than a front, noting that boasting in pop music goes back at least as far as Bo Diddley.
"The boasting energy is all the black kids have. It's like the bravado walk. Watch young black kids walk, they all have this gait, almost a pompous walk. But behind that walk there's basically nothing holding them up. There's an element of fear: They're saying 'Look, I'm okay, I'm down, I can make it.' "
When Run was 19 and writing his first rap single, "It's Like That," says his father, "I used to worry because he thought too much about this world. He carries his pain, whether people realize it or not."
And success does little to alleviate it. Just last week, Run says, he got on a plane and prepared to settle down in the first-class cabin. "Suddenly the stewardess nags me, 'Why you putting your bag up there? This is first class.' It's a problem that exists and will always exist," he explains tiredly. "Even on a plane, I'm a black youth comin' on with money, so let me see your ticket, treat me rude the rest of the flight. I go through that so much, I'm hurt by a lot of things. The world in general is messed up but I got to go and do what is right."
Which also helps explain why Run-DMC is in the forefront of the anti-crack crusade. "I'm youth," says Run. "I see my friends, I feel it, it hurts to see this crack take over like no other drug has ever taken over. You get addicted from one pull, you want it the rest of your life. Your ambition to play basketball is gone, you're ambition to think is gone . . .
"It's way out of hand now but it can go farther. And we can get it across before anyone can."