Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1988
By Robert Hilburn:
If time and fashion pass quickly in most of pop, they fly by in rap--the music that celebrates so many new shoe styles and fast-food menu items that you need a hot line number to keep up with the latest rage.
A year ago, Run-D.M.C. was the field’s unquestioned superstar. But a year is an eternity in rap, and the group’s return Monday night at the Greek Theatre had every bit as much aura of a title defense as Mike Tyson’s bout with Michael Spinks.
And, as in the real ring, the champ came out on top, but this was no 91-second knockout.
The main question of the evening may have been Run-D.M.C.'s future, but there was a lot of the New York trio’s past on display Monday.
The row of airport-styled metal detectors set up at the entrances to screen for weapons was a reminder of the gang violence that erupted two years ago during a concert by Run-D.M.C. at the Long Beach Arena.
Plus, the surprise guest number by the Beastie Boys late in Monday’s set recalled the show at the Greek last year when the two New York rap acts formed arguably the hottest new teen bill in the country.
But these signs of the past only tended to underscore the larger issue of Run-D.M.C.'s current status.
Though the trio’s new “Tougher Than Leather” album has leaped into the national Top 10, “Run’s House"--the first single from that album--was a flop on pop-rock radio, and it didn’t ignite the group’s hard-core rap fans--if those fans questioned at Monday’s show are a valid reflection. This may well have left a perception, among many fans who haven’t heard the album, that Run-D.M.C. has slipped artistically.
Run-D.M.C.'s record company, Profile, has rushed out a second single--a drastically revised rendition of the Monkees’ old “Mary, Mary.” Profile hopes to repeat the crossover success of Run-D.M.C.'s earlier remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way"--a record that expanded rap’s audience from its original base of urban black teens to include part of the adventurous, trend-conscious wing of the white teen rock market.
Without the enthusiasm generated by a hit single, Run-D.M.C. has been running into some problems at the box office. The rows of empty seats in the rear of the 6,000-seat Greek may have been due to the competition with the Tyson fight, but a Run-D.M.C. show scheduled for this Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre was canceled, at least in part, because of slow ticket sales. Ticket sales for two shows last week in the San Francisco area were also reportedly weak.
As if the band’s need to show that it is still a vital attraction in rap didn’t put enough pressure on Run-D.M.C., the support acts--especially Public Enemy and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince--added to the drama. Both acts are widely viewed as possibly major new rap forces.
In fact, the structure of rap shows--short sets by several acts, rather than the practice of longer stints by two bands on arena rock shows--gives the evening a naturally competitive flair. Watching the parade of talent, it’s hard not to rate one against another. Because the acts rely on recorded music (mixed live by a disc jockey) rather than live musicians, the changeover time between acts is far less than at a rock show.
E.P.M.D., the opening act, shows potential on record, but the young group was way over its head Monday, exhibiting almost no stage presence in a mercifully short 15-minute appearance.
Public Enemy, which followed, makes the kind of tough, provocative records that could appeal to rap and rock audiences, but it diluted the urgency and power of that music on stage with too much show-biz fluff.
Before headman Chuck D came on stage, a crew marched out, dressed in combat fatigues and carrying mock Uzis. The idea, presumably, was to set the tone for Chuck D’s biting, socially conscious raps. But rather than bring a sense of drama to the moment, the sidemen went through some military steps that looked as if they had been influenced equally by “G.I. Blues” and a second-level Motown unit.
Even Chuck D, wearing jeans and a Raiders jacket, seemed more concerned with exhorting the crowd to get-with-it than laying down the music. When he did stick to music, the beat was hard and the rhymes were sharp, but Public Enemy needs to bring the rest of its act into line with that forceful attack.
D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince are sort of clean-cut Beastie Boys. These youngsters, too, love fast food and horror flicks, but they stop short of the rowdy, sex-and-drugs emphasis that made the Beasties a parent’s nightmare.
If there is a punk or heavy metal pulse hidden somewhere in the Beastie Boys’ hearts, there is a fairly tame pop attitude at the bottom of Jazzy Jeff and the Prince’s musical instincts.
Jazzy Jeff acts upset when the Fresh Prince and his friend, the Human Jukebox, start fooling around, but it’s all in good fun--as is the music. The tunes may not be as compact or inventive as the Coasters’ early gems, but there is that same playful spirit behind “A Nightmare on My Street” (highlighted Monday by the appearance of a guest madman) and “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
For all the questions surrounding them, the three members of Run-D.M.C. seemed to be full of confidence as they started their hour set with “Run’s House,” a celebration of their superstar status in rap. The crowd, mostly longtime fans, seemed eager to toast the proposition, waving their arms in the air and dancing in front of their seats.
Though front men Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels still do little more on stage than pace back and forth as they lay down the raps, they do so with such energy and zest that it fits the nervous, quixotic flow of the music spun off by turntable wiz Jason Mizell.
Still, the challenge of keeping fresh in rap was quickly apparent. Where a good old song in rock remains an attractive element in a concert, a rap song--because of the length and storytelling nature of the lyric--tends to become quickly dated. The power of rap is in the heat of the moment.
Where “It’s Like That” was a splendid piece of topical social commentary just four years ago, it now seems ancient and flat, like a worn carpet that has been crossed too many times. Even more recent numbers, such as “My Addidas” and “You Be ‘Illin,” came across Monday as deflated novelties.
By contrast, the material from “Tougher Than Leather” came across as so much fresher and more involving than the older material that it was surprising that the group didn’t do even more of the new songs, especially the rock-conscious “Miss Elaine.” Run-D.M.C.'s new music is a showcase of dynamic hip, pop and rock textures.
The cool response to the “Run’s House” single shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the band’s reign is over. As soon as the more inviting tracks on “Tougher Than Leather” get widespread exposure, the cheering should begin again.
In the moments when it relied on the new material, Run-D.M.C. was every bit the class of the evening and the class of rap. That’s the latest message that should go on the rap hot line.