I could talk about Raising Hell as a rap critic: it’s certainly one of those albums that any writer has to contemplate at some point – as essential to hip-hop as any album you could possibly name. But the Raising Hell always meant more to me besides its historical significance. It was also the very first hip-hop album I ever listened to.
Raising Hell came into my hands via a cassette dub given to me by my junior high friend, Jo-Man Wong. I actually ran into Wong at an MC battle
years later except now he was calling himself Don Mega – a five-foot tall Chinese American guy rhyming with a dancehall patois like he was one of those Jamaican Wongs and not an L.A. suburb Wong. I digress though.
The tape had Run DMC’s Raising Hell on one side and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill on the other. I didn’t realize either artist were part of a genre called “hip-hop,” I knew nothing about the crews except that one was from Queens, the other from Brooklyn, but either could have been Istanbul for all I could really fathom from the tiny universe of the San Gabriel Valley I knew. All I did know was that there was something here that captivated me unlike any music I had heard before.
It came down to the sonic force of the song and lyrics and I know that’s sort of a cliche thing to say but seriously: most of the music I listened to at that time was modern rock and new wave. That’s not to say those genres couldn’t throw down when they needed to – “Blue Monday” by New Order is still hard as fuck in any era and Mobb Deep showed us that Thomas Dolby was funky all along – but put that up against Run DMC dropping “My Adidas” on your ass? No comparison, no equal.
Despite how often I listened to Raising Hell, I can’t profess to have loved the entire album start to finish. There’s a few songs that, even to this day, I’d still fast forward past: “Is It Live” (the Go-Go percussion is cool but this just never sparked anything for me), “Raising Hell,” “Perfection,” and “Dumb Girl.” There are other songs that I thought were “ok” back then, like “You Be Illin’” with its comedic storytelling, or “Hit It Run’s” beatbox chorus.
“Walk This Way,” which was just starting to blow up the video countdowns and radio shows and I liked it well enough even though I had no clue it
was an important rock/rap hybrid. Hell, I was so ignorant, I thought “Walk This Was” was a Run DMC song that just happened to cameo these long-haired rockers named Aerosmith.
I definitely remember “Peter Piper,” partly for its nursery rhyme familiarity but even though I had no fucking clue as to what “sampling” was about, I definitely found the beat to be intriguing. I could hear, in the background, this voice saying, “it’s time to rise and shine” but for the life of me, I didn’t understand what it had to do with the song or its lyrics. But those bells? Those bells sounded amazing to me.
“It’s Tricky,” was one of my favorites off that album for a long time: I just couldn’t get enough of how the track kicked off. I loved how it began slow with, “this speech is my recital/I think it’s very vital,” and then knocked everything into overdrive with those mega-aggressive drums and the rock guitar that accented every point Run and DMC had to make.
Last but certainly not least, the last two songs on the album left an indelible imprint. “Son of Byford,” was just so goddamn ill to me with that beatboxing and DMC declaring, “I was born…son of Byford, brother of Al!” and “it’s McDaniels/not McDonalds/these rhymes are Daryl’s/these burger’s are Ronald’s!” It was a short, less than half a minute, but made the most of every second. Then to drop “Proud to Be Black,” after that was the coup de grace, not the least of which was that I had never heard pop songs affirm identity with such fervent passion and pride.
I can’t say if Raising Hell is Run DMC’s “best” album (though obviously, it was their most popular) especially when compared to how seminal their eponymous debut was. But for myself and a generation of nascent rap fans, this was our entry point, the album that opened our ears and minds to the world of hip-hop. To anyone else, the tape I had was just a plain cassette dub but even as I wore it to static with each repeated listening, hip-hop’s call only became louder.
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