reviews

Ronin Ro's Run DMC book - Mojo

March 2006

 

Mojo don't run copy from the magazine on their website, so from time to time I'll probably be posting some pieces here that I've done for them over the last few years. Here's one, a review of Ronin Ro's book on Run DMC. As with all of the pieces I'll re-publish here, this text is the original version as submitted, and may differ from the version that was printed as it doesn't include any cuts made for space reasons or corrections introduced by the editors.

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Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin, And Redemption Of Run-D.M.C. And Jam Master Jay

****
Ronin Ro AMISTAD $24.95

The Run DMC saga is revealed as a tale of innocence lost and friendship corrupted in this dazzling yet ultimately depressing new history

It began during a high school basketball game in 1979, two teenage boys discovering they had some common ground; and it ended in a New York hotel in November 2002 with one of those boys announcing to the world that the rap group they'd formed all those years ago was over. Run-DMC were the band that introduced hip hop to a world outside New York's boroughs, and the trio are widely regarded as the genre's Beatles, their impact on making rap a global musical language incalculable.  

Run DMC's publicist, Bill Adler, chronicled their rise in the official biography Tougher than Leather, first published in 1988; alcohol problems and a religion-fuelled renaissance in the 1990s were extensively covered by the music press; and Jam Master Jay's murder in 2002 was the catalyst for an explosion of writing about the iconic group. So the challenge that faced Ronin Ro, the journalist whose brilliant and brave Have Gun Will Travel lifted the lid on the violence-fuelled rise and fall of gangsta rap imprint Death Row, was to find something new to say.

As well as concentrating on the more obvious gaps, Ro's book works as a case study of an underground music colliding head-on with the mainstream: at the same time, he revisits the familiar parts of the Run-DMC tale and, armed with a formidable contacts book and the sort of fearlessness he exhibited when writing his Death Row tome, wrings new detail out of even the most over-examined aspects.

Mostly, this is a book for the ardent fan, though its necessarily downbeat conclusion makes it more lament than celebration. Certain passages read as if Ro had actually been there, and he affords the reader that same degree of intimacy. The descriptions of Run and D's initial bouts of writing are vivid and exciting, as is his record of that 1986 session convened by Rick Rubin when Aerosmith dropped by to rework Walk this Way, as mutual suspicion and lack of belief gave way to four minutes of world-altering audio tape. Even Jay's still unsolved slaying is rendered in immediate and visceral tones, Ro building a coherent picture of what seems to have happened out of variable and inconsistent eyewitness accounts.

But the murder and Run's subsequent dissolution of the group – announced with D by his side, but without his friend's prior knowledge – mean this this is an often uncomfortable read for anyone who was ever touched by the sheer joy of Run-DMC's music. And as much as Ro manages to say, it is what remains unsaid that leaves the most profound impact. Run emerges as callous and self-absorbed; his brother, the group's manager and Def Jam label co-founder Russell Simmons, as aloof and disinterested when things weren't going well; leaving McDaniels to cut a dignified yet tragic figure, a victim not just of Mizell's murder, but of the Simmons's carving up of his group's legacy. The title is misleading: while the reign is carefully examined, and the ruin clearly charted, there is more recrimination than redemption here.

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