Last month I had the opportunity to read an article on the Huffington Post site about Jay Z’s 2004 hit “99 Problems.” The article discussed a well overdue paper written by associate law professor Caleb Mason, Ph.D. at Southwestern Law School, titled JAY-Z’S 99 PROBLEMS, VERSE 2: A CLOSE READING WITH FOURTH AMENDMENT GUIDANCE FOR COPS AND PERPS. His paper explored the truthiness (thanks Colbert) of H.O.V.A.’s 2nd verse. I followed the link from the article to get a glimpse of the paper. I perused most of the paper and it was damn good. Dr. Mason went line by line to set the legal record straight on J’s rap.
Forthrightly, I am fascinated by lyric analysis. The meaning of lyrics in a given context can yield numerous results. For example, lyrics in a cultural context are vast and often times hinge on the biases of the interpreter and certainly the era (decade of interpretation), and goal of the analysis. In some cases, lyric meanings, minus the input from the author/artist, can be endless because the song’s connotation is left to the listener, reader, and interpreter. Some examples of this would be Eric Burdon and War’s 1970 hit “Spill The Wine,” or any one of Parliament/Funkadelic or James Brown’s joints and even The Beatles’ “I am The Walrus”–wait, scratch that–we all know there is only one meaning to that song . . . Anyway these songs can easily have multiple meanings and no doubt make meaningful contributions and commentary in political, cultural, and social spheres.
After reading the Huffington Post article, I began thinking about analyzing songs. Ultimately, I was inspired to analyze the lyrics of a hip-hop song to see what I’d come up with–albeit not as thorough as Dr. Mason’s piece . . . this is just a blog you know!
In 2004, hip-hop had long since solidified itself as a more than viable musical genre. Hip-hop in the millennium has matured and has earned the right to stay out late. Now it often comments on social events, cultural phenomena, political topics, and can easily facilitate a global conversation.
Yep, it’s all grown up! Analysis of today’s hip-hop is amazing in terms of the converging cultures and musical genres. But what about an analysis of hip-hop when it was young and didn’t know any better? What about when it was still learning how to walk in those white patent leather baby shoes while sucking it’s thumb? Or when it was trying to figure out which way It was going to swing to get it’s future swag just right? What about that?
So, I thought it would be interesting to look at a hip-hop song that preceded Jay’s by twenty years to examine its truthiness. I decided to analyze rap pioneers Run-DMC’s hit “Rock Box.” It was the top rap song in 1984. The popular “Rock Box” was the 3rd single released off their début album. This song was boisterous, outlandish, gritty, and contained elements of rock through Eddie Martinez’s guitar riffs and solo. Run-DMC caused a ruckus and their lyrics boasted in pure self-aggrandizement. So I posed the question (to myself), did they have grounds to make such statements? Were they actually better than their contemporaries such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, and Whodini? Well, let’s see if their statements were true in the context of their time. I will be looking at Run’s first verse only.
For all you sucker MC’s perpetratin’ a fraud
This has got to be one of the baddest (not bad as in bad but bad meaning good) intro lines in a rap song . . . ever! Run is letting it be know that this song is for non-original, unskilled, and lyrically deficient rappers. He cuts directly to the core of the mindset of a rapper–“I am the best to ever hold a microphone!” Lyrical lines like these came straight from the rap battles of the day, which where intended to emasculate, humble, and debase the legitimacy of the opposing rapper. Run was cold with this! But wait hold up a minute! How can he say this? He may not be an unskilled rapper but he and partner D.M.C. may have compromised their originality on their second single release by re-recording Kurtis Blow’s 1980’s song titled “Hard Times.” Run-DMC’s song contains the same subject matter and certainly some of the same lyrics. I know this may have been a nod to their idol Kurtis Blow and an ode to the climate of the times, but they could have been original about it. So who’s the sucker MC now? (They also re-made Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” but since it was technically a duet they get a pass).
Your rhymes are cold wack and keep the crowd cold lost
Wack?!!! Hmmm . . . of the top ranking rap song of the era such as U.T.F.O’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” Whodini’s “The Freaks Come Out At Night,” Kurtis Blow’s “8 Million Stories,” and Newcleus’ “Jam On It” the latter is the only one that may have qualified as having “cold wack” rhymes (sorry Newcleus fans). A certified club hit, yet note their lyrics: “Do we get to say wikki wikki wikki again?” They continue and say something about “Burger King and a sack of Big Macs . . .” as well as a narrative about a rap battle with Superman. With these lyrics they certainly entered the realm of wack-ness!
You’re the kind of guy that girl ignored
Well this is obvious, right? Run’s lyrics were so tough, he could not be ignored by anyone especially the women. In fact, at 19 his rhymes were so alluring he attracted and married Valerie Vaughn a year before “Rock Box” was released. Run was not ignored for the next 13 years.
I’m drivin’ a ‘Caddy,’ you fixin’ a Ford
I don’t have any evidence that Run drove a ‘Caddy’ (Cadillac). However, culturally speaking, it’s no secret African Americans have long since had a love affair with the ‘Caddy.’ The Cadillac is a symbol of success in urban America. From pimps to preachers it was the vehicle of choice. If Run was indeed rollin’ a ‘Caddy’ I imagine it was a pimp out Seville fully loaded with all the trimmings. Meanwhile, if Run’s competition own a Ford they were sho’ nuff fixin’ it. In the 70s and 80s Ford earned a tragic reputation of poor craftsmanship and unreliability that led to some of the funniest acronyms for an entire car company. Check these out: Found On Repairman’s Doorstep; Found On Rack Daily; Ford Owners Recommend Dodge; Full Of Rust Deposits; F**ker Only Rolls Downhill; Fix Or Repair Daily; Found On Road Dead; Frequently Overhauled, Rarely Driven; and FORD backwards: Driver Returns On Foot . . . Damn! That ain’t right!
My name is Joseph Simmons but my middle name’s Ward
and when I’m rockin’ on the mic, you should all applaud
Because we’re (wheelin’, dealin’, we got a funny feelin’)
We rock from the floor up to the ceilin’
Indeed his mama did give him the middle name Ward. According to Babynames.com, Ward means ‘guardian’ and was most popular in 1961 (Run was born in 1964). In 1984 Run was certainly able to guard the mic and reign supreme. I only wish today he were able to guard and preserve Rap’s authentic integrity it once had.
Furthermore, Run’s lyrics contain an air of veracity and with this “Rock Box” ventured into uncharted territory. The song peaked at #26 on the Hot Dance Club chart making it the first rap song to make that chart. The group’s self-produced video for “Rock Box” was the first rap video to air on MTV and it help catapult Run-DMC’s first album to gold status (500,000 sold) and get them nominated for a Grammy . . . Yes, we should all applaud.
We groove it (you move it) it has been proven
We calmed the seven seas because our music is soothin’
No doubt, when you dropped the needle (yes, the needle) the song made you take notice and move. However, “soothin’” this song was not. In fact, this song and the rest of Run-DMC’s songs were loud, hard hitting, and in your face in comparison to previous rap songs of the era. The object was to get attention. It did!
We create it (relate it) and often demonstrate it
Well, they did as a matter of fact, create their own sound and wrote their own rhymes, which related directly to the mid 80s youth culture. They have been demonstrating “it” as early as 1983 by touring all across America sometimes with LL Cool J and the Beasties Boys in tow; whom had yet to drop a recording at the time.
We’ll diss a sucker MC make the other suckers hate it
They constantly made claims they were the best in the rap game. Their rhymes were designed to get a rise out of any M.C. who thought they were worthy of the challenge. I’m sure the dissed sucka M.C.’s that fell by the way side became consumed with jealousy and even hatred as Run-DMC climbed the charts. Their flow and success was too much for the sucka M.C.
We’re risin’ (surprisin’) and often hypnotizing
Risin’ and hypnotizing? Well, yeah . . . Their status elevated in the burgeoning hip-hop genre so quickly that they were invited in 1985 to perform at the first Live Aid concert based on the success of “Rock Box.” Live Aid was a global concert on two stages; one on the Wembley Stadium stage in London, England and the second on the J.F.K. Stadium stage in Philadelphia, which were connected through live video feed to raise money for the Ethiopian famine. Run-DMC performed on the Philly stage with the likes of Joan Baez, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Santana, and Madonna. On live video feed from Wembley they shared the stage with The Who, David Bowie, U2, Sade, and Paul McCartney. The group continued to rise, which was indeed surprisingly hypnotizing!
We always tell the truth and then we never slip no lies in
Well a few lies here and there, but what is hip-hop without a little mendacity.
No curls (no braids) peasy-head and still get paid
That’s right, my brothas never sported a greasy Jheri Curl (fingers crossed hoping no photo ever pops up with them looking greasy). Their hair was short neat and nappy! They did not have to conform to make money. In less than a year after their first album Run-DMC would release another hit song titled “My Adidas,” which garnered them a $1.6 million endorsement deal with Adidas. This now famously lucrative connection has allowed Adidas’ shoes and apparel to became tops in the hip-hop world–a legacy which continues today.
Jam Master cut the record up and down and cross-fade
Jason William Mizell, a.k.a. Jam Master J. dreamed up, created, and produced all the beats and music for “Rock Box.” J’s style became the signature sound of Run-DMC and early hip-hop. Sadly, the man who created the soundtrack to my “wonder years” was murdered on Oct. 30 2002. Damn That DJ Made My Day!
So there you have it, my take on Run’s first verse of “Rock Box.” You should take DMC’s verse next. I hear he’s a rhyming apparatus!