But he wanted more. Commanding the crowd to take off their shoes and hold them up in the air, he was greeted nearly instantaneously with a wave of shell-top sneakers. And even that moment's inspiration brought a profit: An Adidas representative was in the house that night, and the following week Run-DMC signed an endorsement deal with the sneaker company that brought the three childhood friends from the poor neighborhood of Hollis, Queens, $2 million.
It's no wonder that Run-DMC fashioned their astounding prosperity into a religion for a generation of rappers and their fans--or that when he turned to God after hard times, Simmons, who at age 35 now calls himself "Rev. Run," would come to champion a religious stance that cites prosperity as a sign of God's grace.
Both seemed to desert Run for a time. The first rap group with a multiplatinum album, the first to appear on MTV or the cover of Rolling Stone, Run-DMC invented not only mainstream rap, but the image of rappers as gaudily turned-out ghetto boys living the lush life. Their bragging about their Mercedes and gold chains became the theme for rap songs from Run-DMC's rise until the early 1990s, when a harder sound, called "gangsta rap," took over the scene and the charts.
Run-DMC's playful style fell quickly out of favor. The trio drove themselves to bankruptcy into 1991 trying to revitalize their status, self-financing a rap movie that went bust and an album that did poorly.
Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose for Run personally. After battling a rape charge brought by a woman at an Ohio show for nearly two years, his finances and marriage were severely strained, and he collapsed into a deep depression that prevented the group from performing and making records. "Intoxicated by the illusions of power I had created, for the first time in my life I felt as if I were failing," Run wrote in his self-help memoir, "It's Like That." "I had no--absolutely no--thoughts of going forward with life.... People said, 'Get up and fight, Run,' but I didn't want to get up and fight. I was hurt. I wanted to lie down and die!"
"It's Like That," published last year, narrates Simmons' comeback from depressed rapper to his ordination in the Pentecostal church as "Reverend Run." Though it's subtitled "A Spiritual Memoir," the book combines a fairly run-of-the-mill tell-all with advice on how to become spiritually empowered (conveniently crossing the two hottest marketing publishing trends: spiritual self-help and memoir madness). Run boils spiritual revival down to 12 simple steps: "Run's House Rules." These essentially translate the basic clichés of the self-help industry into the hip-hop vernacular.
Material goods have not lost their shine for Run. "If God is not about giving you stuff," he reasons in the chapter entitled "Wealthy Mentality," "then why when God blessed Job he gave him more?" The process of getting material goods is who God is, according to Run: "God is a universal spirit that helps you help yourself." For Rev Run, the wages of sin may be death, but the wages of spiritual engagement is, well, good wages.
This wealth-friendly theology isn't original to Run.
The idea that godliness is akin to material well-being has been around at least since the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale began preaching "the power of positive thinking" in the 1940s and '50s. Perhaps its crudest incarnation came in the 1970s, when Rev. Ike began a radio ministry, selling bill-size prayer cloths so that believers' wallets would never be empty. Prosperity preaching has taken hold in the African American community as a way to provide passage out of poverty. "Wherever you have poor people, you will have prosperity preaching; its like playing the lottery," says one minister. Today, the name most often associated with prosperity preaching is T.D. Jakes, pastor of Potter's house in Dallas, who drives a Mercedes Benz and has his own line of Hallmark cards.
But it's not clear which is the higher value for Rev. Run, God or his bounty. While he's cleaned up his act, and there is something life-affirming in "Let's Stay Together Forever," off the group's new release, "Crown Royal" (check out the kids running around in their underwear in the video), the bulk of the album seems to be the latest play to revive Run-DMC's fortunes.
Like the whiskey it's named for, "Crown Royal" is a blend of quality tastes. Guest appearances from rap-metal stars Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, Everlast, Third Eye Blind, and Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit are there for the college crowd. For street-cred, the other half of the album features rappers Method Man, Nas, Mobb Deep, and Fat Joe. Collaborations are a standard formula used for artists who need to update their sound. But several of the guests here are on the media moralists' Top 10 list, and the God talk Rev. Run uses in his memoir is nowhere to be found. With tracks like "Take the Money and Run" and "Them Girls," one has to wonder if Rev Run is just a born-again hooligan.
It's going to take a lot more to inject spirituality into rap music. If Run intends to empower rap fans spiritually, he'll have to stop diluting his message. Or more simply, if a bit trivially put, as I watched Run perform next to Kid Rock on last year's MTV Awards, I couldn't help thinking, If Rev. Run wants us to see his spiritual side, shouldn't he stop grabbing his crotch?