Run-DMC at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Run-DMC at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Run-DMC at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 7 2009 2:30 PM

Kings of Rock

Run-DMC at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Run-DMC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Friday night. The hip-hop greats marked the occasion with a surprising gesture: They refused to take a victory lap. Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) had pledged never again to perform under the Run-DMC moniker out of respect for their late DJ, Jam Master Jay, who was murdered in 2002. The Rock Hall induction ceremony has seen many shotgun reunions over the years—some transcendent, some tottering—and this summer, like most, the nation's concert sheds will play host to dozens of reconstituted bands, bashing through back catalogues while a session bassist discretely noodles away at stage right: the replacement for the dead guy. But Run-DMC kept its vow on Friday night. "They tell me I could get Grandmaster Flash [to fill in]," McDaniels told MTV. "But I can get any DJ in the world if I want. It wouldn't be right. I can't replace my drummer."

The dignity of the festivities was further enhanced by, of all people, Eminem, whose induction speech was touching and astute. Em ticked off Run-DMC's achievements and milestones: first rap act to go platinum, rap's first arena headliners, first rappers on MTV. He pointed to the video for "King of Rock" (1985), which portrayed Run-DMC as musical insurgents, barging into a rock 'n' roll museum "very similar to the one that we're inducting them into tonight." At the time, the song's claim—"I'm the King of Rock/ There is none higher"—seemed like a provocation, pure rap bluster. Today, it looks like reportage: Although not everyone recognized it at the time, the rock era was winding down circa 1985, thanks in no small part to the crew from Hollis, Queens.

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They did it by proving that rappers could beat rockers at their own game. While the music of early rap acts like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five (the Rock Hall's only previous hip-hop honorees) was an extension of disco—dance music for "party people"—Run-DMC cranked up the volume and the attitude: Bellowing rhymes over walloping beats in songs like "Sucker MCs" and "Hard Times," the rappers rocked, long before they covered an Aerosmith tune. In the "King of Rock" video, Run, D, and Jay are shown snickering at film footage of Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the rappers were spiritual cousins to those rock 'n' roll pioneers. Run-DMC's uniform—black leather jackets, black Lee jeans, black fedoras—drew on the iconography of 1950s greasers. And their musical aesthetic was similar to the early rockers—the songs were hard, smart, and tight. Run-DMC is rap's Chuck Berry. Hip-hop may have gotten more sophisticated in the decades since, but Raising Hell (1986) has never been improved on.

That achievement was largely Jam Master Jay's—he was the architect of Run-DMC's stark, smacking sound, a "drummer" indeed. A valedictory run through "Peter Piper" or "My Adidas" on Friday night would have been fun, but the rappers' refusal to play was classy, a fitting tribute to the man who proved that a turntable and drum machine could harness the thrust of a Hall of Fame rhythm section. As DMC boasts in "Rock Box" (1983), the first and best of the group's rap-rock fusions: "Snap your fingers and clap your hands/ Our DJ's better than all these bands."

Jody Rosen is critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.