It was the spring of 1985 in smalltown Niles, Michigan. Every week my parents would give me an allowance, and I would get on my bike, ride in from the sticks I lived in to the only record store in town (Nightwinds Music & Video), and spend most of it on the cassette of my choosing. Since I could only afford one, not two, I had to be very selective. So, after that long bike ride, I would pore over the rows and rows of tapes to find the one that I would favor for the week.
On that warm, sunny day, I ran my finger down row after row, and then I stopped on an album called “King of Rock.” Now there’s a bold title, I thought. I pulled out the cassette and looked at the front. There was mostly a lot of script that said RUN-D.M.C. and King of Rock across the top and the middle. At the bottom were two hats atop two sets of heads and some eyes peering just over the bottom of the tape. It felt mysterious, mischievous, and again, bold.
Without knowing a single song on the album, I took it up to the counter to buy it. After all, anything this cool looking had to be good. The employee behind the counter, an older white woman, looked at me quizzically. “RUN-D.M.C.?,” she said. Emboldened by her old lady disapproval, “Yes,” I said.
I threw the tape in my bag, and made the lengthy journey back out to Howard Township, a hovel within a hovel of a small town. I took the plastic off, walked over to my boom box, dropped in the tape and pressed play.
The first song, “Rock the House,” was in your face and dynamic, but it was the second song that sent my mind sailing. The title track: “King of Rock.”
I’m the king of rock, there is none higher
Sucker MCs should call me sire
To burn my kingdom, you must use fire
I won’t stop rockin’ ’til I retire
And with that, I became a RUN-D.M.C. acolyte for life. That fiery intro, the huge beats, and that wailing guitar, and those two MCs and one DJ getting down with no delay turned me on my head. They say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but apparently you can’t apply that saying to a cassette tape, because “King of Rock” was everything I might have thought it would be and far more.
You have to understand, I was a white boy raised on classic rock and Top 40, I had no clue that this sort of music existed. Yes, I was aware of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” and “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang, but those songs (unjustly) were treated as novelty tunes by those that surrounded me.
The ferocity and immediacy of RUN-D.M.C forever put to rest the notion that hip-hop was a frivolous form of music. Because how could anything that made you feel ten-feet tall be, in any way, minor? And that’s how listening to RUN-D.M.C. made me feel in the ‘80s: ten feet tall. Through RUN (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Daryl McDaniels), and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), a whole new world opened up to me. With the pressing of a key on a boom box, a whole new world had opened up to me. Now, I got it. I got hip-hop.
I think that was the case for a lot of people like me: white kids who didn’t know how to access this very Black music. But when you listened to RUN-D.M.C., you were listening to a rock band. One without instruments, just two turntables and two microphones. As it turns out, that’s all you needed.
After discovering “King of Rock,” I went back to their self-titled debut, and then, just one year later, all “Raising Hell” broke loose with the first single from their next album, a cover of “Walk This Way” with the song’s original recording artists in tow, Aerosmith. I was no longer among the few. The crossover had happened. “Walk This Way” became a huge hit and an instant classic.
As Ice-T states in the long overdue documentary about the legendary hip-hop trio, “The window of hip-hop relevance is so small,”and just two years later, with their follow up album “Tougher Than Leather,” hip-hop had moved away from their hard hitting boast rhymes and into the field of gangsta rap. Despite that album’s undervalued brilliance, RUN-D.M.C. were watching their moment pass them by. For a brief moment in 1993, the threesome made a mini-comeback with the fine album and killer title track “Down With The King,” but the days of “Raising Hell” were over, and the brief uptick was just that: brief.
Forty years have since passed since their eponymously titled first album. Far too long, to my mind, for the first fulsome treatment on film of their legendary career to be rendered, but, that being said, Peacock’s Kings From Queens: The RUN-D.M.C. Story was welcomed by me with great delight anyway, and I devoured all three parts in a single serving.
The first two episodes are an exhilarating blast of hip-hop history and the ascendant trail that the trio blazed. Early on, the docuseries pays homage to those that came before RUN-D.M.C. kicked the mainstream doors down and brought through that opening a new art form to the masses. We also learn how the group formed in Queens, New York, how they bonded, and how their sheer force of will and skill made them unstoppable for four brief, but remarkable years.
They were the first rock stars of rap. No less than Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello is seen on screen saying they were and (are still are) the best to ever blend the two genres. They were the first rap group to go gold, and then platinum. They were the first hip-hop act to get played on MTV and the only rap group to play Live Aid.
It’s a stunning legacy, and the rush of watching how it all came to be comes at you like a flash in the capable hands of director Kirk Fraser. Before viewing the series, I got to meet with RUN (now Rev RUN) and D.M.C. separately (our conversations greatly inform this review), I’ve been doing this for a while now, but every now and then, you do get the chance to speak with someone (or someones) that require a pinch or two while you’re chatting. You know, of yourself, to make sure you know it’s really real.
A lot of time has passed since RUN-D.M.C. broke through and peaked. Kings from Queens does a fine job of reminding you why it all mattered so much. Not just the breakthrough and popularizing of a new art form, but also what they represented. For all the bravado and boasting, RUN-D.M.C. somehow managed to be positive, provocative, and fierce all at once. They raised consciousness, they saved Aerosmith (people forget how dead that band was before their collaboration), they rescued ADIDAS, they busted down doors for others to walk through, and it’s finally all on screen for you to see.
The series also takes you behind the curtain to show you who these men are. Rev RUN’s path to the gospels, D.M.C.’s struggles to fit in, and his subsequent anxiety issues which led to substance abuse. And of course, the heartbreaking death at gunpoint of Jam Master Jay in 2002 (the case is finally going to trial with three charged defendants later this year). His name may not have been on the cover of RUN-D.M.C.’s albums or on the marquee at their shows, but he was the irreplaceable heart of the band. Both RUN and D.M.C. knew this when he died, and announced the retirement of the group at his funeral.
The series ends with the two MCs getting back on stage one more time at Yankee Stadium last year to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of hip-hop. As the new nervous microphone masters take to the stage and perform, the footage cuts back and forth to them performing “King of Rock” as younger men on the rise, and now older men of stature. And I’ll be damned if the smoke from the stage doesn’t feel exactly the same.
For all the heartfelt testimonials from the legends who followed them (LL Cool J, Eminem, Chuck D, Ices T & Cube), nothing testifies more strongly than simply watching them do their thing one more time. The final episode, which encompasses the band’s fall from relevance and Jay’s death can be painful to watch at times, but the triumph of the performance is well worth waiting for.
Earlier in the film, Rev RUN states, “The only thing we did was make rap records that were dope.”
While it’s true that the records were indeed “dope,” I beg to differ with the good Reverend.
All they did was change the world.
Kings From Queens is streaming now on Peacock