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RUN-D.M.C. - Live at Montreux 2001
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RUN-D.M.C. - Live at Montreux 2001

RUN-D.M.C. is one of the true pioneers of rap music. This concert from Montreux in 2001, the group’s only appearance at the festival, captures the trio at its very best. DMC, Run and Jam Master Jay perform all their classic hits, including “It’s Like That,” “It’s Tricky,” “King of Rock” and “Walk This Way.”

A Royal Legacy

RUN-D.M.C. could be its own category in any hip-hop trivia night, with the amount of “firsts” attributed to the group’s storied career. It was the first hip-hop act to earn gold, platinum, and multi-platinum album sales, have a music video on MTV, appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, nab a Grammy nomination and sign a major endorsement deal. But most succinctly: RUN-D.M.C was the first act to demonstrate hip-hop’s ability to change the world.

Hip-hop as we know it –– its style, its sound, its financial viability, its feel –– is largely a result of popularization and steering by RUN-D.M.C. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2001, one of its final performances as a trio before tragedy struck a year later, the group showed a Swiss audience that it was still cultural royalty even as the industry had taken on new sounds and personas.

When Queens, New York, native Joseph “Run” Simmons injured his arm and lost his spot as a teenage sidekick to ‘70s rap icon Kurtis Blow, he began to rap with his friend Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels instead. They were managed by Run’s brother, Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons, and enlisted their friend, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, to DJ their shows.

Their genre-bending reached its zenith with ‘Walk This Way,’ a 1986 cover of the Aerosmith rock staple that became one of the era’s most recognizable hits.

After getting signed to Profile Records, the group released three straight classics in 1984-86: “RUN-D.M.C.,” “King of Rock” and “Raising Hell.” They integrated the attitude of hard rock –– tough personas, shouted lyrics over hard electric guitar riffs –– with hip-hop’s street presence and flashy fashion, touring the world and breaking sales records. The success of their song “My Adidas” inspired a capacity crowd of fans at Madison Square Garden to famously follow Run’s instructions to hold their shell toes in the air and helped earn the group the first sneaker endorsement by a non-athlete. Their genre-bending reached its zenith with “Walk This Way,” a 1986 cover of the Aerosmith staple that soared on the charts and became one of the era’s most recognizable hits.

RUN-D.M.C. | Jeff Pinilla | Source: RUN-D.M.C: Streets of New York | 2015

RUN-D.M.C. also helped turn hip-hop into an international force while continuing to release albums through the early ‘90s. Eventually, personal problems forced a hiatus. Run later chose to refocus on his spiritual journey and became a reverend, while D.M.C. appeared on Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” before battling depression and substance abuse. By the time RUN-D.M.C. released its reunion album “Crown Royal” in 2001, multiple stylistic developments –– gangsta rap, conscious hip-hop, the shiny suit era, crunk music, hyphy –– had already made their mark. Despite D.M.C. only appearing on a few songs (he and Run had conflicting musical visions, and his voice began to suffer from a medical condition called spasmodic dysphonia), the album’s guest list showed that their legacy was still intact. New hip-hop vets like Nas, Method Man, and Prodigy, along with rap rockers like Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, and Everlast, contributed verses for their musical forefathers.

That legacy is very much on the docket at Montreux, which booked RUN-D.M.C. for the classics. The booking put the hip-hop legends in a festival lineage that since 1967 has included Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald.

Despite their differences, Run and D.M.C. mesh onstage as if they had never split. Nearly 20 years after they had formed the group, Run’s throaty voice still projects, his back-and-forth chemistry with D.M.C. still electrifies and Jam Master Jay’s scratches and demands for the crowd to chant his name ring out just as they once did on the block.

After Jam Master Jay sets the tone, Run and D.M.C. kick into “It’s Like That,” their 1984 debut single that saw the then-teenagers encouraging fans to hold their heads high despite the poverty-stricken conditions in their communities.

Run and D.M.C. bring the same dedication to precise breath control and cocky b-boy poses that had block parties bumping in the ‘80s.

The first part of the set focuses on the group’s self-titled debut album, and its old-school b-boy flavor holds up. The drum-machine rhythms crafted by producer Larry Smith and Jam Master Jay knock just as hard, and it’s still clear why the group took rap by storm. Run and D.M.C. may not be quite as agile as they were when they were teenagers, but they bring the same dedication to precise breath control and cocky b-boy poses that had block parties bumping in the ‘80s.

They celebrate their legacy with “King of Rock,” followed by their 1988 cover of the Monkees’ “Mary Mary” and the raunchy guitars of “Walk This Way.” When RUN-D.M.C. first released these rap-rock hybrids, they were radicals who changed the sound of pop music in real time; decades later, the slamming beats and hard riffs sound integral to their identity. The vibe briefly falters when they perform two cuts from “Crown Royal,” but Run gets things back on track with an a capella freestyle. The trio returns to its debut for the nursery-rhyme-flipping “Peter Piper” and closes with a triumphant “Down with the King.”

A little more than a year later, in October 2002, Jam Master Jay would be murdered at his Queens studio, and his group disbanded. Though his peers and protégés always sang his praises, it wasn’t until his death that the world recognized his contributions. As the DJ for RUN-D.M.C., Jam Master Jay wasn’t prepping the crowd for the MCs’ entrance: he was a vital part of the main show, performing his precise scratches and beatboxes both as solo sets and as a backdrop for the lyrics. He contributed to the production on record as well. Other DJs followed his lead, establishing their presence beyond neighborhood block parties and in concert halls around the world.

Jam Master Jay’s hipness in his high-school hallways also inspired RUN-D.M.C.’s stylish uniform: top hats, laceless shelltoes, track jackets, black jeans. His impact extended to his label, JMJ Records, through which he signed the hit-making rap group Onyx and mentored future phenom 50 Cent.

RUN-D.M.C broke barriers of entry for countless artists that followed, both in the musical arena and off. Rappers such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Travis Scott and Kanye West have scored massive endorsement deals in the footsteps of Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas connection and built fashion empires. Inspired by RUN-D.M.C’s example, artists like Kid Cudi, Vic Mensa, Post Malone and Lil Wayne float among hip-hop, rock and metal, and other rappers experiment with even more genres. Run even gave hip-hop some of its earliest, most wholesome reality-show success with his family on MTV’s “Run’s House.” Rappers call themselves “rock stars” without a second thought these days, but RUN-D.M.C. paved the way.

William E. Ketchum III is a multimedia journalist dedicated to covering the intersection of music, culture and society. Over the course of his nearly 20-year career, his work has appeared in Vulture, GQ, Complex, Billboard, Guardian, NPR, MTV, XXL and Ebony. He has also provided commentary for NPR and the BBC, and he works directly with record companies and artists to tell their stories. Currently a freelancer, he was most recently deputy editor at VIBE, overseeing feature stories and music coverage.

William E. Ketchum III is a multimedia journalist dedicated to covering the intersection of music, culture and society. Over the course of his nearly 20-year career, his work has appeared in Vulture, GQ, Complex, Billboard, Guardian, NPR, MTV, XXL and Ebony. He has also provided commentary for NPR and the BBC, and he works directly with record companies and artists to tell their stories. Currently a freelancer, he was most recently deputy editor at VIBE, overseeing feature stories and music coverage.

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