Tougher Than Leather

TOUGHER THAN LEATHER is a unique specimen – a time capsule movie vehicle for a musical act at their height, but a legit act with street credibility that they did not lose by being in a movie. This is not the Fat Boys or Meth and Red making a comedy. It’s Run DMC in a gritty action movie made independently by the same people they made their records with. Maybe a good comparison would be Isaac Hayes in TRUCK TURNER or Jimmy Cliff in THE HARDER THEY COME, except they weren’t playing themselves.

Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay play Run DMC and Jam Master Jay, a rap crew from Hollis, Queens. We know they’re successful because they perform for big crowds, but they never get mobbed, recognized or interviewed, and don’t seem to be rich. They don’t talk about where they are in their career, but the songs we see them perform are all from Tougher Than Leather, the one after their commercial breakthrough Raising Hell. Tougher Than Leather is my favorite by them ’cause it’s got the same vocal energy but with more complex sampling (dropped manually with needle drops by JMJ in the movie) and less rock guitar.

The movie opens like THE BLUES BROTHERS, with DMC getting out of the joint after a 6 month stint for “what [he] did to that guy.” Director Rick Rubin is very conscious of the iconography of Run DMC, so he does the opening from DMC’s POV as he leaves his cell, walks down the hall, gets his personal items returned… all the way until the desk clerk hands him his hat. Then finally we see him as he puts it on his head. It’s like Rambo strapping on his weapons or Batman pulling up his cowl. (Later we’ll see a traitor cower in the shadow of the trio’s hats, and a sex scene symbolized by Jam Master Jay’s hand dropping a pair of Adidas outside of the bathroom.)

I always thought of DMC as a big lovable nerd, but the movie successfully portrays him as a quiet badass. I wouldn’t say they’re thugs, but they know how to scrap, and are willing to kill when it comes down to it (using guns DMC’s grandpa had left over from WWII). Their tour is sponsored by a mobster’s son (Rubin) to launder money. Their old friend and roadie Runnie Ray gets murdered and smeared after witnessing a crime, the three have to get revenge and clear Ray’s name. (Don’t worry, I know people who spotted him alive at Run DMC shows years later. He’s safe.) It’s very simple, pretty much a blaxploitation movie made a decade late.

Filmatistically it’s kind of a mix tape (get it, somewhat anachronistic metaphor). The opening reunion of Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay has long, dramatic wide shots with no dialogue and wind blowing, plus extreme closeups, definitely Leone-inspired. But most of it’s more like a raw, low budget New York indie film (which is what it is). They even got Richard Edson in there for a Jim Jarmusch-Spike Lee connection. Run DMC are on tour playing different medium sized venues, and even in the footage that’s probly not from real shows the energy is authentic. You can see how great they were.

The Beastie Boys play the comic relief, they’re these out of control white boys. They pretty much play the part that Animal played in The Muppets. I always wonder what would’ve happened if they’d gone through with their movie where they stay over night in a haunted house or something. According to this it fell through because of their falling out with Rick Rubin. Would’ve maybe made a good double feature DVD with DISORDERLIES.

Slick Rick also makes an appearance. I’m not sure if he ever had a movie vehicle planned, but that would’ve been good too. He could be a detective or something. He’d have a laser that shoots out of the eyepatch.

It’s pretty funny to see Rubin playing the villain. He doesn’t seem like the same guy we know now. He was still this young long-haired kid, he’s not too menacing so he makes up for it with a big mouth. He’s connected because of his father, and he’s kind of a sicko and an over-reacter and that makes him a genuine threat. And he throws the n-word around alot. I was happy to see Run DMC go after him.

Unfortunately as of this writing TOUGHER THAN LEATHER is still not on DVD. I gotta figure it’s a music rights issue at this point, because what else would it be? It’s too bad because not everybody holds onto a VCR and a tape of this like I do. It would be interesting for the kids to find out what the world was like before they came along and ruined it.

Judged objectively as a story, this is not exactly a great movie. I love it though. Obviously its biggest strength is as a time capsule for what turned out to be an incredible time in music history, the transitional period in hip hop, the bridge between street phenomenon and commercial product. It was a period when nobody knew where the music and culture were going, and when most of the most popular rappers were also the best ones. Let me take a moment to time travel into a theater showing this in 1987.

Hello friends, my name is Vern. I come from the futuristic year of 2012, pronounced twenty-twelve. In my time, what we call hip hop is the most dominant form of popular music and has completely transformed the culture of America and other countries across the world. Rappers have won Grammies, been nominated for Oscars, become the biggest movie stars. The president is black and listens to some hip hop. You wouldn’t want to go there though, the music would make you fuckin cry. It’s alot different. It’s mostly robots singing over keyboards. Stay here while you can.

If I tell you what happens to all these people it’s gonna blow your mind. So I’m gonna do it, to show off. Some of the news is tragic, though. You see MCA there? The Beastie Boy who dumps the beer on his head? Unfortunately he died this year. No, not from a drug overdose. From cancer. He actually becomes a Buddhist, and is known for his activism on behalf of Tibetan freedom. He’s a director too, he started doing videos and then some documentaries. He started a very successful independent film distribution company. Oh no, he was still rapping. yeah, forget about Licensed to Ill, the next one will be their best. You might not get it at first, but believe me, you’ll agree with me eventually. They’ll have 8 critically acclaimed albums and be in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

Run’s brother there, Russell? He’s gonna become a multi-millionaire off of Def Jam and expanding into clothing companies, TV shows, Broadway shows. He’s into yoga and shit. And Run, he’s an actual reverend! He’s called Rev Run now. He had a solo album, but I don’t think he raps that much anymore. He had a TV show where they just followed his family around with cameras, that’s what TV is now, they just follow around rich people’s kids, it’s hard to explain. I think I just read that one of his kids is gonna star in an actual TV show.

Yeah, they’re not really Run DMC anymore. Jam Master Jay got killed, somebody shot him, they never caught who did it. DMC actually lost his voice from yelling all the time. He can talk but his voice is totally different. Yeah, alot of this is pretty shitty news I’m telling you.

Oh shit, but Rick Rubin though! That’s the bad guy there, and he directed this. You’re not gonna believe me on this. He’s gonna be a respected music producer. Not even in hip hop for the most part, he’s gonna do I think six albums with Johnny Cash, make him cool again, I’m not joking. He’s gonna win the producer of the year Grammy a couple times. Oh, and he’s gonna have a huge beard, look like a homeless guy.

Now, before I leave here I’m gonna have the DJ drop a special beat that’s gonna erase your memory of all this, because you can’t live life knowing what’s gonna happen. I mean I wish you could try to prevent some of these tragedies – warn JMJ, cure MCA, at least get DMC to be easier on his vocal cords. But who knows what other shitty chain of events that might set off? It’s best to just let it go and appreciate the beauty of it. If we can get from now to 2012, that means anything can happen.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 30th, 2012 at 12:07 am and is filed under Action, Music, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Tougher Than Leather”

  1. the late 80’s was also an incredible time for history in general because it was the era in which I WAS BORN!

    ok well I was born at the very tail end anyway

  2. Well, it’s about fucking time. What an amazing and unlikely movie this is, a once-in-a-lifetime blend of home movie, concert documentary, exploitation flick, and student film. I read a biography of Run-DMC that described the making of it, and it’s clear that absolutely no one had any idea what they were doing. DMC, being the big, quiet nerd Vern described him as, didn’t even want to make it, since all he ever cared about was rhyming (which makes the fact that he lost his voice even more of a TWILIGHT ONE-style ironic tragedy), but he did it because Run wanted to be a star (which is pretty much how most of the decisions in their career got made). Rubin didn’t even want to direct it or be in it, but Russell forced him. It looks like he got into it once he got going, though, displaying an amateur’s zeal for experimentation. (I wonder what kind of movie he’d make now. Probably more of a THREE BURIALS FOR MELQUIADES ESTRADA thing, all stoic old tough guys being quietly authentic.) You’ll notice that characters appear and disappear at random. This is because of the classic low-budget film excuse of “He didn’t show up that day and we couldn’t find him.” It’s amazing that for all the clowning around they still managed to make a legitimate piece of badass cinema. People forget that Run-DMC, despite being nice Church-going fellows from a suburban part of Queens who became rap’s first crossover superstars by rapping with Aerosmith and/or about Santa, were also considered quite hardcore when they first appeared. Most rap songs were basically novelty records before then, featuring singsongy MCs over disco house musicians. Run-DMC put that hard street shit on wax, bringing the music to a non-dance music audience for the first time. “Sucker MCs” doesn’t even have a chorus! I truly believe that hip-hop would not be around today without them. It is a bit sad, though, because this movie (and the album it supports) were really the beginning of the end for the group. They both start out with the song “Run’s House,” a great song but a total lie. Hip-hop was not Run’s house in 1989. Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, N.W.A., Ice-T, the Juice Crew, and so many other innovative and more sophisticated acts were running the show at the time, and Run-DMC’s more basic rhyme and production style were rapidly becoming dinosaurs. Every album after this one would be, by definition, a comeback album, giving them a brief moment of renewed relevance before they sank back into history again. They’ll always be the Beatles of rap, though. No one can ever change that.

    As for Vern’s assertion that TOUGHER THAN LEATHER is their best album, I think “Mary Mary” is possibly their best song ever but I gotta go with KINGS OF ROCK. Not a popular choice, I know, but I love the mix of rock and electro. “Can You Rock It Like This” is probably my favorite song of theirs, sounding like a collabo with The Cars or some shit.

    Vern, you also left out the prognostications of Slick Rick: Very, very soon, he’ll get paranoid and think someone’s trying to rob him so he’ll shoot his cousin and go to jail for like a decade. He’ll make a couple of decent albums but never capitalize on the success of his filthy and hilarious masterpiece, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF SLICK RICK, and in the early oughts he’ll do a show on a cruise ship in international waters and then not be allowed back in the country, since he is both a convicted felon and a foreigner. After spending more time in jail, he was eventually pardoned by the governor of New York in 2008 but has not released any new music since 1999’s underrated THE ART OF STORYTELLING. He currently looks like if Stevie Wonder was Jack Sparrow.

  3. Don’t know if this is nationwide, but I’m regularly seeing tee shirts with the Run-DMC logo on it. When I saw one on a 4-year-old kid at the mall catering to expats and immigrants, I figured it might have become more than “dressing junior in mommy and daddy’s favorite band in their youth” shirt.

    Weirdly just yesterday I saw a twenty-ish guy wearing a shirt with the logo style but “Run-DMC” subbed out for “Sucka MC’s”. Isn’t that like using the Korn font for Celine Dion?

  4. Somebody uploaded the whole movie on YouTube like 6 months ago, which may or may not be legal and/or the best way to watch a movie, but at least it makes it easily accessible until it’s taken off.

  5. Man, I was still at school when this one was made and it seemed like an urban legend at the time.

    We all heard stories that Run DMC had made this incredibly violent film but that was about it – and most of us didn’t actually believe it existed at all. There didn’t seem to be any info on it anywhere. Shame it’s never had a legit DVD release.

    It reminds me of Mario Van Peeble’s western POSSE. A film I actually like for the most part with a very intriguing cast, made up of rappers and Blaxploitation stars.

  6. I was a little 9 year old punk when this landed on VHS and I scooped that shit up first day. I LOVED Run DMC. The movie isn’t amazing but it does have it moments. Vern I’m shocked you didn’t mention the best part of DMC’s badass intro. The guard prodding him with the billy, DMC turns around and says “I’m not your fucking prisoner any more”, guard goes to overhead swing at DMC and DMC catches that club in defiance. THAT’s the blaxploitation oozing out of this flick.

    Vern, I gotta tell ya, your rundown of MCA’s life actually brought a tear to my eye. No one has been as succinct about the life he led while being as poignant. Gotta say, though, as much as I love Paul’s Boutique, License to Ill is still the goods. But, Check Your Head is their masterpiece.

  7. “The Air Up There” also isn’t on DVD, did you know that?

    Excellent review. I always come across the VHS but never have had much interest. Your words have reversed that, thanks.

  8. Vern, wait! You forgot to warn them about Vanilla Ice!

  9. Ice to see you, Mattman. If I must suffer… humanity will suffer with me! I shall repay them for sentencing me to a life without human comfort. I will blanket the city in endless winter!

  10. Isn’t Art Garfunkle in this film?

  11. Inspector Li, they sell RUN DMC shirts at Wal-Mart these days, but many of them do not feature the iconic RUN DMC logo and some of them are just lame. I have one I bought for my wife as a joke because it shows a picture of RUN DMC with a rainbow behind them for some strange reason. I have also seen the style and font of the RUN DMC logo used by a number of other artist as well. I have a Kaiser Chiefs shirt that says RUN KC on it in the style of the RUN DMC logo (it is referencing the KC song “I Predict a Riot”).

    I always wanted to see this movie as a kid and never got to.

  12. “Slick Rick also makes an appearance. I’m not sure if he ever had a movie vehicle planned, but that would’ve been good too….”

    Yes , a spin off of this where he is like the Nick Fury version of the D.M.C. Universe.
    Slick Fury.

  13. Madeleine Korbelová Albright

    August 31st, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I was hoping for a Crush Groove review.

  14. Wow I just checked whether Art was in this and I was on some other planet. Hmmm.

  15. I remember being absolutely disappointed in this movie when it came out. It’s as low budget as they come. I barely remember anything about it. I remember I played the soundtrack alot though. Maybe I’ll have to check this out again with a different mindset now that I’m older.

  16. RUNDMC played at Leeds festival 2000, I’d been waiting all my life to see them, and their set was cut to 11 minutes because the festival organisors thought it would be a good idea to use their slot so The Strokes could be promoted from one of the smaller stages to the main stage. I still wake up screaming with rage about this. Always wanted to see this, couldn’t even get it on VHS here in the uk.

  17. Nabroleon Dynamite

    September 5th, 2012 at 7:36 am

    I hope Vern peeps “Big Fun in The Big Town” the best hip-hop documentary never seen. (until now. Mega cheap on Amazon too)

    I’m with Chitown in my disgust with this movie. I haven’t seen it since I walked out of the theater in shame.

    Let’s forget this movie ever happened. (or maybe it’s time for a 2nd look?)

    **checks for Mr. Majestyk**

    Raising Hell deserves it’s #1 spot. Kings of Rock falls a little short, but it is definitely better than Tougher Than Leather.

  18. I’m gonna be honest, Nabrolean: Of the first four Run-DMC albums (the ones that count) RAISING HELL is probably my least favorite, but only because it’s got so many classics on it that it plays like a greatest hits album and thus doesn’t have the joy of rediscovering deep cuts that the other ones do.

    You should give the movie another shot, though. If you go in hoping for a real movie you’re gonna be disappointed, but as an entirely amateur production it’s pretty decent. There’s a lot of ambition going on, from the arty camera setups that a professional director probably wouldn’t attempt to the characterizations (even Rubin, playing a detestable, petulant racist gets a few moments to prove his humanity) to just the overall tone of naturalistic NYC house party flavor mixed with spaghetti western stylistics. It’s not really a good movie, but it’s definitely a distinctive one. If anything, I think its overall clumsiness adds to its charm. I don’t think I’d like it as much if Russell had just hired some low-budget hack to crank out a by-the-numbers late-eighties action programmer.

  19. Nabroleon Dynamite

    September 5th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I’m watching it right now on youtube. About 15 mins in. So far, so good. Pays a billion times better on the small screen. Or the nostalgia factor has me in it’s vest.

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