Sucker MCs [1983]

I was putting together the 1983 playlist and a thought wouldn’t leave my head: I usually find it actually quite difficult to write about music, but I could probably write over three thousand words about the song Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1) [1983] by Run-DMC. So, because it’s my blog and I’m autistic, I’m going to. Uh, April Fool’s, I guess?

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock [1982]

Planet Rock [1982] by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force is, I would argue, the most important song of the early 1980s. Firstly, while you can say that Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra were already doing “Electro” in the late 70s, and have a pretty good case being that Planet Rock is a facelift of Trans Europa Express [1977] and Numbers [1981], I think that the reception of Planet Rock invents the concept and popularity of Electro which then ripples backwards in time. An important component of Electro to my eyes is that it is fun dumb party music, where Kraftwerk is intentionally austere. Admittedly, some early YMO fits that bill, but they carry with them a certain stateliness and respectability in their moving melodic sensibility that bleeds into even their goofiest dance-beat cuts like Firecracker [1978] and Absolute Ego Dance [1979]. Meanwhile, Planet Rock has a whole verse consisting entirely of “zuh-zuh-zuh-zuh-zuh!” Sublime!

It also introduced the TR-808 drum machine to rap music, which is an infatuation that despite all odds has lasted 39 years and going strong. Beyond such comparatively local impacts, though, Electro-by-way-of-Planet-Rock would become the connective tissue between the worlds of Hip-Hop, Pop, and Dance music, befitting Bambaataa’s personal aesthetic-magpie inclinations. You can follow the traces of its arpeggiation in the hit singles of peak 1980s like Axel F [1985] or much of Madonna’s early work or of course, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam With Full Force. Lisa Lisa was the very-mainstream face of Freestyle, which is essentially Electro with singing instead of rapping, and was popular within Latin American communities, especially in Miami (see: the Miami Sound System with Gloria Estefan.) A few years later in Miami, Miami Bass would take off. One of the earliest examples of that genre is MC ADE’s Bass Rock Express [1985], which pulls on the exact same Kraftwerk source as Planet Rock (though a different part of the song.) The American South would hold on to the mantle of synthesized fun dumb party music, essentially Electro with added bass and vulgarity, through about 15 to 20 years of mostly obscurity and disrepute, up through the New Orleans Bounce music of the early 90s, before a re-assertion of mutated Electro-derived styles to mainstream pop prominence with a vengeance in the late 1990s and early 2000s courtesy of Mannie Fresh and the like. Electro would make a similar impact in California, but its spin on Electro was more often set to “simmer,” with acts like the Egyptian Lover not afraid to get vulgar but more interested in seduction than shouting. In the late 80s, Los Angeles would have an allergic reaction to the corny sounds of Electro and both the biggest hit acts and the underground would spurn it… I tried, but I just can’t convince myself of a G-Funk to Electro connection, despite the background of era-straddling figures Dr. Dre and Too $hort. Meanwhile in the North, in Detroit, Electro was instead warped to much more classy and rarefied ends as the origin point of Techno music. All across the country, and in other countries too, Electro shepherded popular music out of Disco’s long shadow, into new, stranger, more digital forms.

But in all of this spread of Electro, you actually don’t hear much of any relevance coming out of New York City Hip-Hop, the scene Afrika Bambaataa helped build back in the 1970s. In the narrow New York context, Electro too helped show Disco the door, but it was a brief transitional fossil that would hang on and blow over by 1985. The immediate regional impact of Planet Rock was fatally wounded by this song, right here:

Run-DMC – Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1) [1983]

Like Planet Rock, Sucker MCs has a drum machine, though not an 808, a DMX. The more dramatic difference is that there isn’t anything to the beat BUT the drum machine, announcing itself with a loud kick and even louder seven snares. It’s a severe digital minimalism. It’s absolute scorched Earth, burning the fields down to the ground so that a new crop (the likes of Marley Marl) can grow from this fresh foundation. All at once, welcome to the new sound, Def Beat I’ve seen it called, mid-80s barren wasteland of confrontationally clattering sparse beats.

How new is it really, though? Early Hip-Hop on wax was often modified into more poppish forms for commercial success, and thus is not a perfect testament of how Hip-Hop music was experienced by the people at the time and place of its birth. On the 1982 playlist, I put a bootleg of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s Flash To The Beat which is certainly at least one year old in 1983, but likely more, possibly dating as early as 1979. That’s a document of one of their established live routines, Grandmaster Flash setting his wheels of steel aside for a Vox V829 Percussion King drum machine as the sole musical accompaniment. So though it looks to all the rest of the world like a bold fresh rupture, this is actually a back-to-basics record, capturing, from the perspective of the New Yorkers who made it, what Hip-Hop had really been all along, without any of that concession to the facade of dance musics like Disco or Electro. It’s the origin point of “Real Hip-Hop” East Coast snobbishness. Whereas outside of New York City, there was no pre-existing Hip-Hop tradition besides the exported commercialized records. Sucker MCs’ sparseness is fundamentalism, an assertion or even an argument: Hip-Hop is drums, rhymes, and scratching. It’s a mathematical proof that Hip-Hop is not a novelty or a Disco spin-off but its own genre, in making a pure Hip-Hop song that can’t be sorted with the conventions of other genres. It’s also very funny to me when people accuse Hip-Hop of not being music because it’s just drums, rhymes, and scratching, because they are actually litigating against good ole beloved Run-DMC and other records that are around like 34-38 years old, not any other rap music. Not that they care, it’s a bad-faith argument.

The personnel who came together to create the record definitely had historical continuity bona-fides, mainly by one-degree small-world connections to Kurtis Blow, the first solo rapper to get an LP of their own, with a stack of quintessential Disco Rap hits. Kurtis Blow’s name is right there on the label, for mixing. Run’s first stage name was “DJ Run, Son Of Kurtis Blow.” Run-DMC’s next single, the first track on their first album, would be that rare thing, a rap cover song… of Kurtis Blow’s Hard Times [1980]. Run’s brother and the credited co-producer of Sucker MCs, Russel Simmons, was first Kurtis Blow’s manager before going on to co-found Def Jam with Rick Rubin. The other producer of the song, the one who it seems did the actual production, was Larry Smith — who helped write Kurtis Blow’s first single, Christmas Rapping [1979], and generally shows up in everything Blow made up to 82. Larry Smith was the bassist in a studio band whose guitarist was Davy “DMX” Reeves, who does the scratching on Sucker MCs and I also must assume provided the drum machine that gives him his nickname. That band, which united for Kurtis Blow’s EP Tough [1982], was called Orange Krush. Hence “Krush Groove 1” in the title: The skeletal drumline is just a digitized version of the opening breakbeat from Orange Krush’s Disco song Action [1982].

The drumbeat programming of Sucker MCs is only three elements, hypnotically syncopated. Most prominent are four claps that aren’t actually present in the original Action break, and until I sat down and counted them I thought they were on even thirds just off of the swung feeling they give the track. This is because the first two are each one eighth after the steady pulse of the beat, while the next is dead on the third beat, and the fourth clap is one eighth before the fourth, so even though I thought they were evenly-spaced, they are in fact constantly accelerating to the fourth, where a snare rings out for a whole bar. The claps almost play the role of a clave. Snares compete for prominence with the claps, but these snares do not fall only on the traditional 2 and 4 of the measure, but also an eighth before the 3. The first beat is fairly de-emphasized actually: the kick drum that falls on it is actually the quietest of the three elements of the beat, not to mention it’s immediately followed with another kick a sixteenth later stuttering after it, to roll you into that first clap. Makes it actually kinda hard to actually identify the first beat of the measure — you could argue that the first clap is beat 1 if not for the even eighth note drumroll that starts the song — and thus like nod your head steady to it. This music is good for breakdancing, but not the even pump of four-on-the-floor Disco dancing that House will take and run with. But what the drumline does have is cyclical forward momentum like a treadmill shifting under your feet — definitely interesting enough to stand entirely on its own. Keeping track of the kick, snare, and the clap all doing their own thing but folding together into a cohesive unit is phenomenologically a lot like keeping track of a nested rhyme scheme in a rap, the type that people break out the highlighters to explain, though no such thing will be performed by Run nor DMC here. I also dare say the propellant, skittering, skeletal drum-machine tracks of the mid-80s like this prefigure propelling, skittering, skeletal Trap beats of the future.

The only other component in the production is the reverb. It’s digital reverb, you can tell by the quick fall-off and the subtle helicopter-buffeting effect of the pre-delay echos measured in milliseconds. This effect actually has tonal implications, it really works to beef up the otherwise thin and trebly sounds of DMX snares with lower-frequency second-order splash, the snares are not just a snap but a doosh underneath, which helps keep it distinct from the clap. It does not do the kick drum the same bassy favor. The DMX kick sound is more like a tap on the shoulder. It’s just enough to suggest the existence of a kick. Comparing it to the boom of an 808 makes it downright pitiful. It at least gives the kick a little more heft by drawing out the length of the sound. The clap still sounds thin, but it now sounds icy, breathy, down the hall somewhere. There’s also a touch of reverb on the vocals, but because it’s so artificial it’s wrong to say it gives the vocals presence, since it sounds like a non-place, but it does make it sound of a part with the beat, which is way harder than you’d think it is if you’ve never tried to master vocals.

The drum track runs for three bars, and then switches up the clap pattern a bit on the fourth to usher you back around to the first, but on this first pass what it’s ushering you into is the rap, courtesy of Run, who will be rapping nigh constantly for the next 2 minutes and 3 seconds, with the gaps being filled not by chorus but by straight up negative space of just drum beat. Now full disclosure, I think Run-DMC are very hit-or-miss artists and never the most technically-gifted rappers around. (My 56 year old dad, who does not like rap music, thinks they were as good as it ever got.) Case in point: the A-Side of Sucker MCs, It’s Like That [1983], which has a beat about 25% closer to Electro which really plods along despite its off-tone’d stabs, and then is dragged down further by an awkward, declarative staccato flow. Here, though, Run’s on fire. Basically every line is a quotable, even in the absence of almost any wordplay at all. The delivery is at once forceful but conversational. Those opening lines that launch over only the claps are delivered in a way that’s almost a little sly, but not so coy it’s cagey, just enough to be intriguing. Run is inviting you to listen in on something intriguing, maybe a little private. (It’s not, but rhetorically.) He’s also doing the listener a favor by emphasizing the end of his words where they hit a 2 or a 4 very hard, because rhythmically this track is complicated, and especially when he’s just over the claps you might get lost at sea.

Run outlines a framing device up top: “Two years ago, a friend of mine asked me to say some MC rhymes. So I said this rhyme I’m about to say, the rhyme was def and it went this way:” This has always confused me, because the actual content of the verse to follow is an account of things that had already happened in the past-tense. According to Wikipedia, and nowhere else that I can find, and it doesn’t cite any source either, Russel Simmons had had Run record a solo song called Street Kid [1981], so maybe some ambiguous amount of what immediately follows these lines are recycled lyrics from Street Kid? That doesn’t seem at all likely, though, not only because of the dubious existence of Street Kid, but because the 6 bars that immediately follow are a mythologized account of the creation of the song that you are currently listening to, Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1), how Orange Krush got involved like fairy godmothers, leading all the way to Run with a mic in his hand saying that now they’ve got him rocking on the microphone.

After this, the verse launches into a prophecy of the success and fortune that Run-DMC would actually achieve. (Actually, possibly exceed! Despite this song pitching them as essentially the most hardcore traditionalist purists yet known to Hip-Hop, Run-DMC rose to an absurd level of success that, in terms of big-fish small-pond proportions, no Hip-Hop act could ever know again.) It’s delivered in the same matter-of-fact past-tense, which reveals that the conceit of the song is that this must actually be a rap from the perspective of King Of Rock [1985]-era Run, as dreamed up by 1983 Run making his first single. He would go on to more or less live this dream, having spoken his capitalist aspirations — champagne, caviar, and Cadillac — into reality like a magical incantation. There [will be] nothing in the world that Run will ever lack, an absolute termination point of desire through consumption. Stoics and Lacan alike would be appalled. These things are both to pamper himself and to attract the ladies, a surfeit of ladies, groupies even. It’s standard procedure to brag about the wealth you don’t yet have and to self-mythologize, but this is a pretty clever way to go about it.

The flipside of bragging is of course, dissing. I’ve seen claims that this was the first time rappers dissed people, at least on wax, and it’s just not true, leave it at that. It is early, though, and important to the overall affect of the record as truly hardcore, not just lean but mean. Outright exclusionary: some MCs are suckers! In the second-person even, how confrontational. I can take it, I’ve played text adventures, I like being insulted in second-person. The figure of the Sucker MC in this song is a violent nogoodnik, not only a bad rapper who steals Run’s lines, but a wannabe street tough who loiters around brandishing knives and then goes home and beats his wife. It’s a little bleak, but it amounts to a positive message, and it comes complete with a subtle nod to Grandmaster Melle Mel’s more elaborately street-bleak The Message [1982].

Run has to bounce back from that after a single-bar break with a one-two-three mic check, which just by reversing back down to three-two-one I’ll count as wordplay (along with “fly like a dove” from earlier.) Then four lines of throat-clearing, rapping about how he’s rapping. It’s filler, but this is perfectly alright: by my lights, the first purpose of an MC is precisely to simply fill up the repetitive beat, with all lyrical content and technical pyrotechnics as a bonus, and Run does an admirable job. He’s the second drummer, the one who freestyles to accentuate the beat by dancing around it, nothing too elaborate, nothing too even, keeps it all moving. We circle back for one more diss of the Sucker MC, this time focusing mainly on his incapability as a rapper from the wackest part of town (left unspecified), recycling the lines about how he’s a sad-faced clown and Run’s fan. Then, finally, it’s time to pass the mic to DMC.

DMC gets a total beat drop out to announce his late arrival with under a minute of track left to go, accompanied only by even-quavered record rubbing courtesy of Davy DMX. He kicks off with “I’m DMC in the place to be,” which always reminds me of Run-DMC’s staged rap battle for failed TV show Graffiti Rock [1984] with Kool Moe Dee — who pretty much invented the diss, but here clearly deliberately holds his talent back, which would sadly be characeristic of the rest of his career — and Special K, both of The Treacherous Three (who coincidentally had their own take on Orange Krush’s Action.) DMC used the same line there, but followed it with “and the place to be, is with DMC,” and I know I just gave Run a pass for throat-clearing and petty reversal, but DMC only had 4 lines to work with and to use 2 on that is just pathetic! DMC redeemed himself when, on Here We Go (Live At The Funhouse) [1984], in the same year over the same sample (Billy Squier’s The Big Beat [1980]) he was able to recover from Jam Master Jay’s hiccup in beat juggling that could have thrown off his rhythm. (Coincidentally, at the time he was recycling his lines from Hollis Crew (Krush Groove 2) [1983], an inferior retread of the Krush Groove 1 that epitomizes changing things for the sake of changing things, which therefore serves to demonstrate the perfection of the original drum machine pattern.)

DMC’s delivery is palpably less modulated than Run’s here: he’s shouting nearly discrete syllables. I’m not saying that to rag on him again: it works. Part of Run-DMC’s aesthetic fundamentals is the “stab,” demonstrated more obviously on the A-Side, and here DMC is using a choppier flow that turns the rap into a series of stabs. Even if he doesn’t drop so many of those lines that get quoted and sampled over and over again in the years to come, that’s probably because he has less lines and many of them are directly biographical and applicable to only him; he by no means embarrasses himself on Sucker MCs, even busting out words like “versatile.” After so long with Run, this is an escalation to a punchier, more in-your-face style, for a punchy, in-your-face song. Again, there’s positive messages, about going to college and eating vegetables, delivered with a casual force of conviction that these things are cool and hardcore brags that makes them cool and hardcore.

Then we draw to a close. DMC and Run finally do their signature finishing of each others’ sentences (more prevalent on the A-Side), fusing into the Run-DMC hydra. The beat ends the exact same way it began, with its kick and seven snare roll. As soon as it stops, Run-DMC are talking about how you have to know when to start, when the beats commence. Or come in, if you prefer: they dissolve into a sudden wash of delay rendering the last word just barely intelligible. They’re trading the mic to the listener, encouraging them to go off and pick up the gauntlet from here. People would. Class was in session, and the first New School had begun.

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