ALBUMS OF OUR LIVES: RUN DMC’S RAISING HELL

By

It was a cassette copy with no case, and my dad gave it to me a couple of years after he’d moved out. I was about nine. I knew enough about the album to yelp “This is priceless!” as I ran to my bedroom. Under the gaze of my Michael Jackson posters—ever since Thriller, I had both idolized the man and sensed that werewolf-Michael was spending his nights outside my bedroom window—I put the tape in and pressed play.

The line “Jack’s on Jay’s dick” turns up ten seconds in, before the first beat drops. Apparently, that hadn’t fazed my dad, who’d listened to the tape on the drive up from LA. To him, albums and movies didn’t have to be kid-appropriate; they only had to be interesting. Why else would he enthusiastically rent Saturday Night Fever for me and my pubescent friends? What made him think that The Rapture, which sticks in my mind as a cross between The Omen and a Cinemax After Dark titfest, would be a good thing to watch with his girly-voiced son?

Maybe he knew what I’m just realizing now: dicks aside, Raising Hell is a kindie-rap masterpiece. The lyrics are about nursery rhymes, sneakers, basketball, food. Sure, there’s some PG-13 sex stuff, and in “Walk This Way” Steven Tyler screeches “Just gimme some head!” But it’s easy to gloss over, especially if you have no idea what they’re talking about. Very little is needed beyond the two tightly intertwined voices and the beats, but then there’s this middle layer of cheesy guitar riffs, canned horns, and bonehead piano lines—some of which crackle with vinyl noise, just like my parents’ records. Somehow, Raising Hell was hugely relatable to a white, suburban fourth-grader—one who briefly thought Run-DMC came from a mythical land called Rock-a-Rhyme. (I misunderstood the conjunction in a line from “It’s Tricky”: “Or spend some time and rock a rhyme…”)

No less surprising, my dad liked them too. My dad: a Western Kentucky depression baby who moved to Hollywood in the seventies, then took his young family (and their records: Sgt. Pepper, Between the Buttons, Stardust, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer…) to Santa Cruz, where I was born. He moved back down the 101 around the time Purple Rain came out, alone this time.

He was equally unfazed, two years after Raising Hell, by another tape of mine, one that featured a white guy yowling about “niggers” and “faggots.” I had swapped Michael Jackson for another androgynous idol, and I was too smitten with Axl Rose to take the slightest offense at “One In a Million.” Neither parent seized my copy of G N’ R Lies; all I can remember is my dad mimicking Axl’s snake dance from the “Patience” video (complete with theatrical pre-outro “shhhhh”) and suggesting that he’d ripped it off of Jim Morrison.

Around that time, he taught me “Satisfaction” riff on the bottom string of his Epiphone acoustic. Before I knew it, I was making the same sounds I’d heard on a record. The happiness I felt then—I probably won’t know that feeling again until I have a child of my own. I played those three notes past dark, until a blister welled up on my right thumb. My dad took me to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee.

 * * *

My Raising Hell tape survived about fifteen years, the last of them spent in a milk crate between the front seats of my band’s van, clattering around with Appetite for Destruction, This Year’s Model, Against the Grain, In It For the Money, Master of Puppets, 13 Songs. My band: now here was something my dad could get behind, even in our unlistenable high school years. When we started playing LA, we’d stay at his house in the Valley with his second wife and my two newer sisters. In the mornings, over mountains of pancakes, my dad would test our cultural acumen with questions like, “Anybody seen Boogie Nights?”—“boogie” pronounced like “loogie,” part of a mysterious, half-conscious habit of mispronouncing things. (More recently, he’s asked about Napoleon Deenamite and tried to go veegon.)

Whenever I played him a new recording we’d made, he’d want to hear the lyrics. I remember a Northeast roadtrip, the two of us looking at colleges. No one had told him that I’d passed through a brief drug phase, although he must have wondered why I’d stopped dyeing my hair (Manic Panic, Pillarbox Red) and started writing terrible, terrible straightedge lyrics. I recited some of these on that trip, and, like the teacher and writer he is, he gently urged me to focus on story and characters instead of lines that rhymed “rationalize” with “fucked-up lies.”

With the band, what mattered to him wasn’t our shifting styles or our stabs at seriousness; what mattered was the fact that we jumped around a lot (I’ll just tell you now that we were a ska band), we bantered with each other and the audience between songs, and we generally played like kids who had grown up together. Or, as my dad still puts it, with the same italics every time, “You guys were a tight band.

I’m not saying we got it from Run-DMC. But it’s hard to imagine a tighter band, in both senses of the word: tight like they traded lines at top speed—“He’s the better of the best, best believe he’s the baddest / Perfect timing when I’m climbing on my rhyming apparatus”—and tight like family. They rapped about each other; they rapped a whole lot about the voiceless Jay. They were as regimented as a gang, and as distinct as action figures: Run short and fiery; Darryl tall, cool and bespectacled; Jay, the wizard behind the curtain. In a sense, they were childhood gods, lining up right after Luke, Han, and Leia. But at the same time, they were just some guys cracking each other up. All of which somehow fits inside “Son of Byford,” DMC’s 30-second autobiography: “It’s McDaniels, not McDonald’s / These rhymes are Darryl’s, those burgers are…” and here, Run pauses from his beatboxing to shout “Ronald’s!

* * *

I missed out. Last year, when my dad was in the hospital having a tumor removed, I should have made him a mix of stuff we’ve listened to together, from Raising Hell to Rabbit Fur Coat. It’s hard to picture him listening to “You Be Illin’” in that white room—the iPod lost in the blankets, the headphones tangled up with the tubes—but not too hard. And of course it wouldn’t have had the impact that Run-DMC had on me, twenty-five years earlier, but it might have shortened the years and miles between us for a minute, the way music does. It might have stood in for the words that never quite seem appropriate, words that even now we tend to mutter at the end of phonecalls—uhluuuhyou—if at all.

God, this sounds like a eulogy. It isn’t. But everything I’ve mentioned here, I still listen to. And I think that’s thanks in large part to my dad, his subtle nudgings, his eagerness to listen, his sense of what lasts.


James Rickman is a member of the band People Get Ready, whose first album came out on Brassland last fall. His writing has appeared in Paper, ASCAP Playback, H.O.W. Journal, Jezebel Music. He lives in Queens. More from this author →