“Beats To The Rhyme” by Run-D.M.C. (1988)

Run-D.M.C. was supposed to be past their prime in 1988. Just two years after literally breaking down barriers (insert tired comment about the “Walk This Way” video), hip-hop lapped them, maybe several times. It’s the price you pay for pioneering a growing art form in its early days.

“Beats To The Rhyme” proved Run, D and Jay weren’t going down without a fight. It holds its own as one of the best singles in a year that overflowed with classic hip-hop records. Run and D talk tough (and are more profane than they’d been up to that point,) but Jay steals the show by concocting a beat that merged his group’s signature minimalist sound with now-school aggression, punctuated by a sample of keyboardist Bob James’ classic “Nautilus”, a guitar jangle from James Brown (because if you were rapping in 1988, you had to sample JB), and shrieks that came from none other than shock-comedy legend Sam Kinison. “Beats” felt almost like a Bomb Squad production, and it’s entirely feasible that Jay was energized by hearing the demos that would eventually end up being Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

Famously, “Beats” was recorded by the group’s main mouthpieces acapella. Jay took those vocals and mixed them into a beat he’d created. DMC’s opening verse was memorably scratched into the instrumental track. So as opposed to the beat coming first and then being rapped over, the rap came first and JMJ concocted his production around Run and D’s verses. Pretty novel for a group that was alleged to be played out, right?

Y’know, I have never seen the Tougher Than Leather movie, but this clip below almost makes me want to smoke a huge joint, sit back for an hour and a half, and watch Run-D.M.C. and Rick Rubin attempt to act.

NOT QUITE FIVE STARS…

“The Beat Of Black Wings” by Joni Mitchell (1988):  “The Beat Of Black Wings” is taken from 1988’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, not one of the more celebrated Joni Mitchell albums. I discovered the song through-believe it or not-Janet Jackson. I’m repeating something I wrote just a few entries ago (see: “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”), but if you were a black kid in the ‘80s or ‘90s, Joni very likely came into your orbit one of two ways: through Prince or through Janet. Anyway, right around the time of The Velvet Rope’s release. Janet mentioned in interviews that she’d been recruited to participate in a Joni tribute album and the song she decided to record was “The Beat Of Black Wings”. She called it her favorite Joni song, and as a ginormous Janet fan and as someone who appreciated the genius of Joni Mitchell (even post-imperial era Joni Mitchell, as the first album I owned of hers was 1994′s Turbulent Indigo), I sought the song out.

I did not regret it. “Beat Of Black Wings” is the story of a veteran who never wanted to go to war in the first place and is now dealing with PTSD (”the beat of black wings” refers to the helicopter noises that he hears all the time). Joni is a master lyricist, but what draws me to this song more than the words is the singing. I find the duskier, cigarette-stained voice of latter-day Joni more affecting than I find the version of her voice that sang her more famous songs. She’s got the whole “wizened storyteller” thing happening, and it suits the song.

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