The third album from Run DMC, ‘Raising Hell’ was released in May 1986 and promptly shot up the Billboard charts. Within two months it had gone Platinum, making history as the first Hip Hop album to rival for Pop supremacy. ‘Raising Hell’ went on to sell triple Platinum by April of ‘87 and has been ingrained in musical history ever since.
Underpinning this success was the hustle built in to the music. Simply put, Run DMC went out to gain legitimacy and in turn took the final step of placing an entire genre centrestage, directly under the spotlight. As the first Run DMC album jointly produced by Rev Run’s brother Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, together the founders of Def Jam Records, ‘Raising Hell’ has become known for a sound that fuses breathless Rap vocals with beatbox beats, scratching and Hard Rock riffs. It’s a sound that is most closely associated with ‘Raising Hell’s most famous single, the collaboration with Aerosmith, ‘Walk This Way’. Yet the album carried several hit singles, more dramatic vocal takes and a title track that arguably contained a better guitar breakdown. More importantly, the majority of the tracks here are stripped back to the bare essentials of drums and voice aimed more at a b-boy audience than mainstream Rock and Pop listeners. As an album, ‘Raising Hell’ was always more than the famed cover track that revitalised Aerosmith’s career.
From the opening bars of ‘Peter Piper’, pulling from nursery rhymes, Rev Run and DMC set about continuing the braggadocious style of Hip Hop common on the street; a style that was being moved away from by the genres most successful originators. The following tracks ‘It’s Tricky’ and ‘My Adidas’ continue the theme. Rhymes challenge critics’ accusations of a lack of musicianship and skill in Hip Hop, proudly and loudly represent the trappings of street culture as an ideal over glitz and glamour, and deliver an anti-drug message to close out ‘It's Tricky’. As each verse passes, the bands overall claim of authenticity, ownership and substance grows stronger. The sales, a sponsorship with Adidas, and a classic Rock seal of approval would cement the band as the face of Hip Hop, transforming the genre from alternative to mainstream pop culture.
Beyond the fronting, ‘Raising Hell’ is varied and nuanced and often overlooked. ‘You Be Illin’ is the forgotten star of the show as its influence underwrites the next big Rap stars; The Beastie Boys. Also produced by Rick Rubin, The Beastie Boys quickly became the successors to the Run DMC crown and their humour-filled, off-kilter Rap owes a debt to the simplified street sketches of tracks like this.
Two tracks on the second side of the album, both so often forgotten, best show the depth to the sound on ‘Raising Hell’. With ‘Dumb-Girl’ the group score their biggest miss with a misogynistic track that’s best consigned to history. Two tracks later, on closing track ‘Proud To Be Black’, the group make their most socially conscious statement. Recounting icons of Black power and culture like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Jesse Owens, the Rev Run and DMC step away from playful rhymes and show insight and commitment to represent a wider Black culture that goes far beyond Hip Hop and notions of ‘the streets’. It’s the perfect closing of ownership and authenticity that stops dead any accusations of selling out (the group was quickly sponsored by Adidas after ‘Raising Hell’s release).
As a collection of tracks, ‘Raising Hell’ covers a lot of bases, not all of them standing up to the test of time. As a cultural document that shone a beam of light into the future for other Hip Hop acts to follow, it was unprecedented. A true crossover album thanks to its four singles, ‘Raising Hell’ will forever be of importance to the history of Hip Hop.