Masterpiece: Raising Hell

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[Today: Rap arrives…]

It must have been either fall of 1986 or spring of ’87, but it was a beautiful afternoon. School was out for the day and a few friends and I congregated at Bobby’s house to (read sarcastically) studiously avoid trouble as best we could. At some point during our partying… er, studying… Bobby busted out an acapella rap of most of the title track from Run-DMC’s Raising Hell. It’s not an easy rhyme to knock out off the top of your head, but it sounded awesome, and it was the moment when I realized that rap was for real. Previously, rap (as Hip-Hop was then called in Oregon) was seen as a fad – something that would fade away after a few years, not unlike Disco. But Raising Hell made it clear that this music was here to stay.

Raising Hell is an album that represented the best of the old school of Hip-Hop, while looking toward the future spaces that the genre would occupy. First the old-school: these are mostly skeletal beats, with little of the overt sampling that would come to dominate Hip-Hop. The rhymes are tough, but the threat of violence is nil, cursing is at a minimum, and even the put-downs are more like jokes on your friends than out-and-out insults. “Today you won a ticket to see Dr. J”? Definitely old school. But if the structure and subject matter are vintage, many other aspects of this album were way ahead of their time: the big marketing crossover (‘My Adidas’), the collaboration with rockers (Aerosmith on ‘Walk This Way’) and most importantly, their super-professional approach to their craft. Run-DMC expected their music to live up to the best songs of the day, considered themselves rockstars (their previous album was titled King Of Rock) and shot for the moon.

And they hit it. This was by far the biggest hit album in the young history of Hip-Hop – in ‘Walk This Way’ it featured the first rap song to go Top 5 on the pop chart and the first rap video to hit regular rotation on MTV. Raising Hell was produced by a 22 year old wunderkind named Rick Rubin, who was living in his NYU dorm room at the time this album was made. Rubin knew what kind of sound he was after: “Early Hip-Hop songs were often 10 minutes long, with no chorus,” he told Rolling Stone. “I tried to get the tracks more like rock songs because that’s what I grew up with.”

But for a kid in Springfield, OR, the most impressive achievements on Raising Hell weren’t ‘Walk This Way’ or ‘My Adidas’ – it was songs like ‘Proud To Be Black’, ‘It’s Tricky’ and ‘Peter Piper’. ‘Proud To Be Black’ is strong and dignified without getting militant, ‘It’s Tricky’ speaks to the art and skill involved in rap music, and ‘Peter Piper’ proved that great Hip-Hop was as lasting as nursery rhymes. Raising Hell opened my eyes and ears…

Listen: Raising Hell

Listen: Peter Piper

Listen: You Be Illin’

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