Run-D.M.C. may not have been the first hip hop act to use a rock guitar in their music – Treacherous Three’s “Body Rock” released in 1980 is a notable predecessor – their 1984 single “Rock Box” certainly propelled the rap-rock genre into the spotlight.
At this time, the Hollis, Queens trio had some early success for their first two singles – “It’s Like That” backed with “Sucker M.C.’s” and “Hard Times” backed with “Jam-Master Jay” – but there was still no plans to record a full-length album. That is, until Profile Records gave them a $25,000 advance to start creating one, with $15,000 going towards the recording and $10,000 to be split up between the three members.
As the story goes, Run-D.M.C. were in Greene St. Recording studio, waiting for the heavy metal band Riot to finish up their sessions, when they felt inspired by the rock guitar sounds and decided to create their own. Produced primarily by Larry Smith, the final version of “Rock Box” featured his friend Eddie Martinez playing guitar throughout the track.
“When we did ‘Rock Box,’ I wanted to do Billy Squier’s ‘The Big Beat’ over,” D.M.C. recalled in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “So, Larry pulled out the DMX drum machine and he said, ‘D, play the beat.’ I made my beat, because I didn’t want to bite a sample, so I made it sound different. I laid the beat down and Run and I dropped our whole rhyme routine over it, and we left the studio. When we came back, it had the bells, guitar, and bassline on it, and Larry turned it into ‘Rock Box’ the phenomenon.”
At first, when the trio and Profile Records president Cory Robbins heard Smith’s final version of “Rock Box,” they weren’t sure it was going to work. The group decided to create a different version without the heavy guitar playing and gave it to Kool DJ Red Alert, but as it turned out, Smith’s version was the version that became a hit.
Not only was “Rock Box” the first prominent rap-rock song to hit the mainstream, the music video also became the first rap video played on MTV. Released as the third single off their debut, the song did well on the dance and R&B charts, helping to propel Run-D.M.C. to become the first gold-certified rap album.
DMC: “Rock Box” got us on MTV, though. I remember we made two versions. Russell and them had put guitar on it later, so when me and Run heard it we was mad, because we just wanted the beat and the rhyme and a little echo. But then it dropped. What sold me on it was my man Yogi that lived up the block from me – he just came, and he’s giving me all these praises about “Rock Box,” and I’m looking at him like, “You like it?”Making a Difference: Run-D.M.C. and Guru of Gang Starr in Conversation | Red Bull Music Academy