It may surprise some people who read this space fairly regularly to learn that “The Rockologist” is actually a pretty big rap music fan. In particular, I’m quite partial to the so-called “old school” of rap (which is perhaps somewhat less surprising).
But in truth, it actually goes much deeper than that. You see, for a time during the eighties and nineties, I was basically known as something like “THE rap guy” (along with my partner Nasty Nes), here in Seattle. I wrote about rap exclusively for Seattle’s music rag The Rocket, and as “The Shockmaster” I played it, along with my boy Nes, on “Seattle’s only rap show in FM stereo,” KCMU’s Rap Attack.
The thing is though, I got into rap basically by accident. In the early eighties, I managed this record store in Tacoma, Washington called Penny Lane Records which had a very large clientele of blacks in the military. So out of necessity, I made a point of bringing in 12″ singles of the then largely “underground” rap music phenomenon, mostly imported from the East Coast (where many of my customers at the time came from). These were by largely unknown artists at the time like Afrika Bambaata and The Soul Sonic Force, The Funky Four Plus One More, and Kurtis Blow.
And for the longest time, I really didn’t “get” rap. For me though, probably the two most important turning points were seeing what DJ’s like the late Tommy Boy Recording Artist Whiz Kid could do on two turntables (We actually became close friends while his wife Betty was stationed at a nearby military base.) and then getting hooked on the rock and rap sort of polyfusion pioneered by Run-DMC. From there everything was pretty much academic, and I was equally pretty much hooked. Eventually, I would play a key role in discovering, and developing the career of Seattle’s lone rap superstar, Sir Mix-A-Lot.
But back to Run-DMC.
The first thing I noticed about this concert recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, shortly before the unfortunate murder of DJ Jam Master Jay, was how little Run-DMC’s live performance has changed in something like twenty years. So let’s get the nit-picking out of the way first.
As recently as 2001, Run-DMC apparently started their shows the same way they did in 1987. Which means there are several stops and starts before they get to the first rap. I found this just as irritating here as I did then (although Jay’s scratching is still pretty damn cool). By the time Run finally takes the stage, it’s also kind of weird to hear the “Reverend Run” (as he is known these days) exhorting the crowd to “throw your God Damned hands in the air.”
But once you get past those couple of minor foibles, Run-DMC absolutely rock the MF’n house here in such a way that I found myself instantly transported back to those days in the eighties where I was “the Shockmaster.” For me, what has always set Run-DMC apart is the way that they incorporated hard rock guitar riffs into the hip hop mix. All of those songs are included here too, from “Rock Box” to “King Of Rock” to the trailblazing rap version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”
With this concert clocking in at just over an hour, there is far too much crowd banter in between the actual songs. But it’s a minor quibble. Besides, there is just something which goes against the laws of nature about rap shows that last longer than an hour or so. The bottom line is that the old school sort of hip hop of pioneered by Run-DMC paved the way for pretty much everything that has come since, and they sound absolutely at the top of their game here.
In particular, Jam Master Jay emerges here as the real musical lynchpin behind this ground-breaking group. Whether he is doing the dizzying sort of pyrotechnics on the wheels of steel, or merely directing traffic amidst the proverbial musical chaos happening onstage, it quickly becomes apparent that Jam Master Jay may just have been the true musical brains behind this outfit.
Which makes it all that much more of a shame he was taken from us way too soon.
Live At Montreux 2001 will be released simultaneously on DVD and as Run-DMC’s first ever live album.