We last left Run DMC in 1988 with their fourth release, Tougher Than Leather. The album wasn’t as commercially successful as their previous album Raising Hell, but it still would earn the boys from Hollis another platinum plaque. I personally thought it was an okay listen, that hit just about as often as it missed. The trio would return in 1990 with their fifth release Back From Hell, which they would also handled the bulk of the production duties on.
Before Run, DMC and Jay went in the studio to begin recording Back From Hell, their was conflict amongst the crew. By this time, they weren’t getting along as well, Jay allegedly owed the IRS over $100,000 in back taxes, Run was struggling with depression and D started to develop a drinking problem. On top of each their personal issues, Jay and Run thought it was time to update the Run DMC sound, meaning copy the popular trends of the time, while D wanted to stay true to the formula that the world came to love Run DMC by. Ultimately, Jay and Run would win the civil war and (by Run DMC standards)Back From Hell flopped and received negative reviews from the critics, which I’m sure left DMC with a “I told you so” grin on his face.
Considering I’m already not a huge Run DMC fan and what I wrote about the flopping and negative reviews, I’m not looking forward to this listen.
Sucker D.J.’s – Back From Hell opens with an intro that has DMC talking and dropping a few rhymes over pretty much the same instrumental they used for their first hit record “Sucker M.C.’s”.
The Ave. – Run and DMC discuss the perils and happenings of the street life on this one, and neither of them sound authentic in doing so. Further more, the backdrop (which is built around a loop from The J.B’s & Fred Wesley’s “Same Beat”) is a bit too laid back for the duo’s content.
What’s It All About – This one picks up where “The Ave” leaves off. Only Run and D briefly make mention of the KKK, Mandela’s freedom and the newly fallen Berlin Wall, to give it a world-wide feel. Imagine a hip-hop version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, only not as good (and neither song ends the question asked in the title with a question mark…grrrrr). DMC completely abandons the song’s original concept on the third verse, as he goes on a tangent about those that question he and his team’s relevance, dropping enough f-bombs in one verse to make Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison roll over in their graves. The instrumental is built around a loop from The Stone Roses “Fools Gold”, and the bass line is pretty nice. Glen Friedman (who was the group’s photographer) and Russell Simmons are given co-production credit for this one, along with Run DMC and Jam Master Jay.
Bob Your Head – Along with Run DMC and Jam Master Jay, Frankie Inglese gets a co-production credit on this instrumental that is built around a loop from James Brown’s “Popcorn With A Feeling”, and it’s pretty sick. Run and DMC don’t say anything memorable and their verses sound like they had nothing to say.
Faces – This was the third and final single released from Back From Hell. Over a New Jack swing r&b flavored instrumental (that Stanley Brown gets his first production credit of the evening over), Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay, each spit a verse about the different faces they’ve come in contact with through their journeys. Not a great song, but I’ve definitely heard worse bad rap and r&b joints.
Kick The Frama Lama Lama – Over a sick instrumental, Run opens the song spitting a nonsensical verse about alligators and the Flintstones’ domestic disputes. D follows with a public service announcement about the importance of wearing your jimmy hats. Run then takes the third verse and sounds like he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, going for the neck of someone (or anyone) that thinks Run DMC fell off. It was both funny and entertaining to hear the good Reverend threaten to “run this ruler up your ass to measure the shit you’re poppin'”.
Pause – This was the first single released from Back From Hell. Each of the trio spit a verse with a different meaning for the word that makes up the song title: Jay turns the word into a dance, D instructs those using drugs to pause, and I’m not sure what the hell Run’s verse is about. The instrumental (with another production credit going to Stanley Brown and Davy-D) has a bit of an r&b feel to it (I actually like the keyboard chords that come in at the end of DMC and Jay’s verses), but I found it decent.
Word Is Born – For those not familiar with hip-hop in the nineties, the phrase “word is bond”, which simply means you stand by and put everything on the words you speak, was a popular term used by hip-hoppers in that era. I’m not sure what the hell “word is born” means. My guess is our hosts were trying to sound hip and thought they were saying the phrase correctly, but I digress. Over a funky up-tempo instrumental (that kind of reminds me of LL’s “Jingling Baby (Remix)”), Run uses his verse to call out drug dealers, while D uses his to brag about his emcee prowess and call out wack emcees. Once again, our hosts don’t leave us any quotables, but the backdrop in nice.
Back From Hell – For this title song, Run and D tell the stories of three convicts’ prison experiences. Neither Run or DMC are great storytellers, and I’m not sure how the content on this song ties into the album’s overall concept, but the instrumental is hard and sick.
Don’t Stop – Over a cheesy r&b instrumental, Run and DMC attempt to give the listener words of encouragement to help push them through whatever he or she may be facing. Aaron Hall stops by to sing the hook, but even his crooning can’t save this hot mess of a song. Come to think of it, he probably adds more heat to the burning mess.
Groove To The Sound – Speaking of Aaron Hall, this one sounds like it may have sampled his voice from Guy’s “Groove Me” and imbedded it in the backdrop (which also samples one of hip-hop’s favorite sources, Bob James’ “Nautilus”). Neither Run or D impress on the mic, but the instrumental is nice, which is starting to become a running theme.
P Upon A Tree – Silly DMC interlude.
Naughty – Garbage.
Livin’ In The City – Over a very mediocre instrumental, DMC get’s a rare solo moment, spitting one quick verse on what the title suggest. Hood politics seems to be a popular topic on Back From Hell.
Not Just Another Groove – I have a sneaking suspicion that Stanley Brown is more responsible for the production on this one (and the other three songs he’s listed as a co-producer on) than Run DMC, as all 4 of the songs he’s credited for, have a strong r&b vibe to them. Similar to “Pause”, I kind of like this instrumental, but completely understand if you think it’s garbage. Unfortunately, Run and DMC don’t add much to it lyrically. Considering the song title, It was kind of ironic that they drop random rhymes over the beat and then suddenly at the end of the song try to make it seem like this song actually had a message, instructing the listener to throw up the peace sign while chanting “stop the violence”.
Party Time – The fellas end Back From Hell with a hot mess of a song that Run even refers to as “bullshit”, as the song comes to an end.
Back From Hell reminds me of the “Return Of The King” episode from season 1 of The Boondocks. In this episode, Aaron McGruder explores the scenario that MLK didn’t die in the assassination attempt, but instead was left in a coma and finally comes out of it in the new millennium, where he struggles to adjust to a new America (“Huey, I don’t know if I need a 2o gig Ipod or a 40 gig”). On Back From Hell, it’s evident that the Kings of rock, who ruled the eighties, are trying to find their lane as the new decade begins. Some of the production work on Back From Hell is actually pretty dope, but Run and DMC’s rhymes don’t sound authentic as they come off like O.G.’s trying to sound hip (and hard) by forcing curse words into their lines, unnecessarily. And for every “hardcore” song they have a danceable r&b track, intentionally trying to be all things to all people. That’s acceptable if you’re an Apostle trying to get souls into heaven. Not so much for a legendary groundbreaking hip-hop group just trying to fit in to move units.