Run-DMC: Back From Hell

January 12, 2011

run-dm back from hellToday’s roll: 4 – 12 – 10.
Back From Hell
by Run-DMC.

Hindsight can sometimes look kinder on an album than first blush. Conventional wisdom would have you believe Run-DMC‘s fifth album, Back From Hell, is a disappointment. But what might have sounded like band-wagon jumping in 1990—their shameless embrace of the era’s flavour-of-the-week hard-funk and R&B samples—no longer comes off as scrambling to keep up with currents trends. Instead it indicates they’d remained masters long after they’d brought hip-hop to a mainstream audience.

True, Back From Hell is the first Run-DMC disc which wasn’t instantly recognizable as the seminal hip-hop crew, but it would have been a mistake to stick with the signature cavernous mid-tempo rock beats, guitar riffs and minimalist scratching of King of Rock, Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather. Classic albums all, but already sounding dated by the time 1990 rolled around.

The hip-hop game had already been changed by renegades like Public Enemy and even pop-stars Beastie Boys—the Beatles to Run-DMC’s Beach Boys on the charts in 1986—had laid the old-school to rest with Paul’s Boutique.

Having taken flack from the hip-hop community for selling-out with “Walk This Way“, Run-DMC played it safe with Tougher Than Leather. As much a classic old-school platter designed for hardcore hip-hop fans as you’d see released in 1988, Run-DMC still had the carpet pulled out from under them by everyone from Ice-T and N.W.A (for street cred) to LL Cool J and MC Hammer (on the commercial front).

The Kings of Rock were finding themselves outstripped on all sides and did what any streetwise veterans would do. They retooled their attack and they did it magnificently. Raw, slinky and vicious cuts like “The Ave“, “Bob Your Head“, “Word is Born” all crank the same dirty funk samples fueling Cool J‘s and PE‘s best work and their vocal attack is on point. They’d upped their game and moved past their classic “eeny-meeny-miny-moe” rhymes and cadence to be able to stand toe-to-toe against any rapper working.

It didn’t work though. What deserved to be recognised as a tour de force at the mic and behind the wheels, was either dismissed as an insincere attempt at relevance by dinosaurs or, to a certain extent, simply ignored. The hardcore hip-hop fans called it derivative, the suburban kids wanted more duets with Aerosmith.

And fair enough, their adoption of current hip-hop trends was a little like when Rolling Stones went disco. Twenty years on, it sounds less contrived and more of a natural evolution. Sometimes it takes that kind of distance to see the how an artist’s career evolves clearly. The problem with evolution, though, is is survival of the fittest.

As much as Run-DMC adapted, their one-time chart rivals Beastie Boys would soon blow them out of the water artistically by picking up their own instruments on Check Your Head, Ice Cube would make their street stories sound like fairy-tales and LL Cool J‘s six-pack became a platinum-selling sex symbol that same year despite issuing the comparatively weak Mama Said Knock You Out.

Taken on its own merits, separated from everything else that was going on, had come before and would come later, Back From Hell is as much a hip-hop masterpiece as the first four DMC discs. It might even be their best up to that date—at least one of their most enjoyable listens in 2010.

Unfortunately, albums are rarely listened to on their own merits, separated from context, and Back From Hell will probably always be considered the first step in a steady decline for Run-DMC.


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