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“Take Off to Street Music”: Run-D.M.C.’s “Rock Box” video rocked from the floor up to the ceiling
Night Flight’s “Take Off to Street Music” — which originally aired on May 14, 1985 — featured the music video for Run–D.M.C.’s “Rock Box,” one of the first recorded fusions of rap and rock (although the Treacherous Three’s 1980 track “Body Rock” had done it years before). Watch the episode now on Night Flight Plus.
Run-D.M.C. — a trio consisting of two rappers, Joseph (Rev Run, or just “Run,” who earned his nickname for his speedy turntable prowess) Simmons and Darryl (D.M.C.) McDaniels, and a DJ, the great Jam Master Jay — had all grown up together and were schoolmates in Hollis, Queens, NYC.
Run had been a DJ himself, accompanying legendary rapper Kurtis Blow.
When Simmons partnered with rapper D.M.C. and DJ Jam Master Jay, they happened to come along in the second stage of hip-hop (1982-1987), but they still managed to score a number of “firsts” during their storied career: they were the first rap group to have a Top 10 album on Billboard‘s pop charts (1984’s Run-D.M.C.); the first to have a platinum album (1985’s King of Rock); and, they were the first to be nominated for a Grammy (Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group, for 1986’s Raising Hell).
They were also the first rappers to appear on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” and the first rap group to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
As it turned out, they weren’t the first hip-hop or rap group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which did happen for them in 2009 (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had received the honor two years earlier, however), but in 1986 their collaboration with rock band Aerosmith — on a stellar rap and rock remake of that band’s 70s hit, “Walk This Way” — forever broke down the racial and stylistic barriers that had existed between rock and rap.
Run-D.M.C. had already accomplished the feat of fusing rap and rock once before, however, with “Rock Box,” their third single for NYC-based Profile Records, which would climb to #26 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Club Songs chart.
The track featured heavy rock guitar from Eddie Martinez, who was a session player and noted for his work with Blondie.
Martinez is seen playing the electric guitar in the music video, which was directed by Steve Kahn, who shot in and around Danceteria — a NYC punk club located at 30 West 21st Street in Manhattan — on a budget somewhere between $25,000-$27,000.
As you can see, the “Rock Box” music video actually opens with an appearance by wacky Professor Irwin Corey, whose weirdo college professor character intellectualizes about the importance of rap music.
Corey was a stand-up comic who made regular appearances on late night TV talk shows, and in Vegas showrooms and other comedy venues, where he was often billed as “the world’s foremost authority, and, according to Wikipedia, he’s still living (he is currently 102 years old).
During the video, the trio are seen decked out in what had become their signature look by then: black Kangol hats, black Lee jeans, black t-shirts and leather jackets, white Adidas sneakers, gold chains, and, as always, D.M.C. is wearing his trademark glasses.
Run–D.M.C. are mostly seen in grainy black & white footage in the video, which features a few scenes with a cute little kid who we’re supposed to believe comes to Danceteria and pushes his way through the older adults in order to get up close to see his favorite hip hop act.
Apparently, the trio initially had no interest in making the video for “Rock Box,” and didn’t even bother to watch it once they’d finished working on it (they also figured it would only air on local NYC-area music shows like “New York Hot Tracks,” since MTV wasn’t playing too many rap videos at the time).
They also had mixed feelings about the final product itself, according to D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Mark’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:
“We weren’t into it — it was just something we were told to do. And the director had the idea to have some little boy chasing after Run-D.M.C., to show we had appeal to the younger generation. A little white boy, too.”
In the summer of 1984, “Rock Box” became one of the first videos (if not the very first) by black artists to air on MTV, joining megastars Prince and Michael Jackson as one the first black artists to have their videos played by the network (although “Rock Box” still wasn’t played with the same frequency as rock videos were at the time).
Things started to change sometime in the fall of ’84, particularly after Lou Reed taped an episode of an MTV show he hosted called “Rock Influences” on September 25, 1984; that particular episode featured a live performance by Run-D.M.C., whom Reed had personally invited to appear on the show.
That fall, Run–D.M.C. also headlined the first national rap tour, the Swatch Watch New York City Fresh East, which featured rappers (including the The Fat Boys and Whodini), DJs, and break dancers, and sold out 10,000-20,000 seat venues from Atlanta to Philadelphia, while grossing somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million over twenty-seven performances.
Artwork by by Ed Piskor
Here’s more from D.M.C.’s quote about the video in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:
“‘Rock Box’ was the first rap-rock record. It took Eddie Martinez’s rock guitar to get us on MTV. Our producer, Larry Smith, came up with the idea. People forget about Larry Smith, but Larry Smith owned hip-hop and rap. He produced our first two albums, and he produced Whodini. The rock-rap sound was Larry Smith’s vision, not Rick Rubin’s. Rick changed history, but Larry was there first. Actually, me and Run was against the guitar. We did two versions of ‘Rock Box’ because we didn’t want the guitar version playing in the hood. But when DJ Red Alert played it on his radio show, black people loved the guitar version more than the hip-hop version.”
On December 17, 1984, the trio’s Larry Smith-produced self-titled debut Run-D.M.C. became the first rap album (and the first on Profile) to be certified gold, with four of its songs — in addition to “Rock Box,” the album also featured “It’s Like That,” “Hard Times” and “30 Days” — all placing high on the R&B charts.
At the time, all three members of Run-D.M.C. were just nineteen years old.