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Kings of rap

Run DMC and Sugarhill Gang rock the mics of Music Midtown

If this year's Music Midtown line-up seems particularly crush groovin' and funky fresh, that's because the fest is kicking it old-school with rap pioneers Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC. Both groups have played defining roles in the history of hip-hop — Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" is widely credited as the first rap record to make the pop charts, and Run DMC stand as the first gold- and platinum-selling rap group — but they come to town with vastly different agendas.

Sugarhill Gang were viewed as a novelty at their height and, never having followed up the success of "Rapper's Delight," have joined the ranks of one-hit wonders on the nostalgia circuit. Run DMC, meanwhile, enjoyed a string of successes in the '80s and, after a brief comeback in the '90s, have returned again with a high-profile, star-studded new release, Crown Royal.

To hear rapper Run (born Joseph Simmons, brother of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons) tell it, rap history didn't really get rolling until his group — rounded out by Darryl "DMC" McDaniels and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell — came around. While giving props to Curtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash, who he heard at block parties while growing up in Queens, Run doesn't think "Rapper's Delight" had much impact. "Not even a little bit," he said. "We're the real rap pioneers."

Despite the trio's dearth of hit material in the past decade, Run remains confident about Run DMC's legacy. It's a theme touched upon frequently on Crown Royal, a disc heavy on collaborations with younger artists including Nas, Everlast, Jagged Edge, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and Mobb Deep's Prodigy. With help from friends in the spotlight, Run DMC hope Crown Royal will do for them some of what Supernatural did for their Arista Records labelmate Santana.

Speaking with a rapid-fire delivery not far removed from his distinctive rapping — even throwing in bits of Run DMC's classic lyrics at random — Run outlines the reason his group still has so much to brag about nearly two decades since it debuted with "It's Like That/Sucker MCs": "We're the kings of rock," he says, "there are none higher!"

It's hard to deny Run DMC's influence of melding rap and rock — as they did most famously on 1986's remake of Aerosmith's "Walk this Way" — on today's music, especially on artists such as Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. But the number of guest artists, and the relative absence of Run's fellow rapper McDaniels, who barely appears on the disc, begs the question whether Crown Royal is a Run DMC album at all.

For his part, Run says the record should have been billed and marketed as the "new collaborative album from Run DMC." Then, he says, people would quit asking why there are so many guest appearances. "It is what it is," Run says. "Why is a zebra a zebra? Because that's what it is."

In truth, McDaniels dropped out of the Crown Royal sessions and plans to release a "mellow" solo album, but everyone in the Run DMC camp plans to lace up their Adidas for the current tour, which includes Music Midtown.

"We're bonding again," Run says, shrugging off questions of inter-group feuding. "Nothing can change what Run DMC is."

Run DMC performs on Music Midtown's Coca-Cola/V103/WB36! Stage, Sun., May 6, at 7 p.m. Sugarhill Gang performs on Music Midtown's Coca-Cola/V103/WB36! Stage, Sat., May 5, at 2:10 p.m. For more information, visit www.musicmidtown.com or call 770-MIDTOWN.??