“Two years ago, a friend of mine
Asked me to say some MC rhymes
So I said this rhyme I’m about to say
The rhyme was Def a-then it went this way
Took a test to become an MC
And Orange Krush became amazed at me
So Larry put me inside his Cad-illac
The chauffeur drove off and we never came back”
Sucka MCs – Run DMC – 1984
…It took less than 10 minutes to get to 205th street – the epicenter of the Run DMC story. I texted Nick to let him know that we could meet at the Jam Master Jay mural, and go from there. DMC, himself, had suggested that I visit this iconic spot. I wasn’t going to argue with The King DMC (The King of Rock). It was incredible to have his suggestions.
Serendipitously, Nick and Frank showed up only a few minutes later. I had been enjoying the fact that I had reached this point in the trip, and I was overwhelmed with the notion that I could now explore. After a few introductions, and some gentle direction, Frank immediately began filming me in front of the JMJ mural. They asked me to wear a small microphone, and I quickly realized that it would be me on camera…the rest of the day. I hadn’t planned on this, and it made me a little uncomfortable – I’m not really a guy who likes to be on film. That being said, I decided to refocus, and stay true to the larger mission.
As a small posse, we worked efficiently and quickly. We rarely stopped, except to discuss the next site, and answer questions from curious passersby. Everyone we talked to lit up with excitement when we told them what we were doing. Many of them wanted to be captured on camera. Obviously and justifiably, there is still a lot of pride attached to the names DMC, Run, and Jay.
We decided to go to the spot that used to be Hollis Grocery. Seemingly, the only thing that has changed is the name of the store, and the awning above the door. In what has always been one of my favorite Run DMC images, the trio is clad in black, with DMC in a B-Boy stance, while Jay and Run, wearing thick rope chains hang out of a parked convertible. This image, by Ken Regan, gave an eager public a view of Run DMC that illustrated so much about who they were, and where they were coming from. To drive up and see the unchanged brick facades, imagining that their car had only recently driven off, felt a lot like time travel. It was exhilarating.
Nick and Frank filmed me trying to get the shot from the street, and we realized that images from the same photoshoot probably employed a ladder or higher platform. The photographer had also used some sort of fish-eye lens in order to create more dramatic angles and perspective. Still, I got what I needed, and I was all ready to keep moving. At that point, Nick and Frank were caught up with trying to set up a drone camera, and render a 3D mapping of the block. I was noticeably impatient, and Nick took pity on me. He said “Why don’t you go to one of the non-Run DMC spots, while we figure out the drone thing?” I quickly decided to find Andrew Jackson High School. I thought it might take me awhile to go down to St. Alban’s and locate the spot. Much to my surprise, the GPS stated that it would only take me about six minutes to get there. I would only be gone for about twenty minutes, but it gave them the time they needed, and I got to visit this quintessential Hip-Hop destination.
Andrew Jackson High School is the building in the background of LL Cool J’s 1987 Bigger and Deffer album cover. The photograph is by Glen E. Friedman, and it shows James Todd Smith a.k.a. Ladies Love Cool James, standing on the hood of a car, outside of the school at night. The combination of the music on this record and the photography on the cover, brings me right back to my junior year at my own high school. The tracks I’m Bad and I Need Love propelled LL to superstardom, with the added bonus of turning him into Hip-Hop’s first legitimate male sex symbol.
I hadn’t been gone long, but by the time I came back, they had the drone challenge sorted, and they were ready to keep moving. We decided to walk around the block to Bardwell Avenue. My research, and a few nuggets of intel from DJ Hurricane, led me to explore this street on-line. My goal was to find the exact spot where Janette Beckman had photographed Run DMC in 1984. Some images from this photoshoot are connected to Vikki Tobak’s Contact High project, and Janette herself had recently asked publicly if anyone remembered the street name and address. I was reasonably sure that I had found the right line of houses, when the gable styles in the background, combined with Hurricane’s information, matched up with her beautiful collection of images.
As we walked down Bardwell, a few people were noticeably concerned with the buzzing of the low-flying drone – including me. We feebly offered an explanation, while everyone wondered why I was worthy of being filmed. The fun part was watching people’s faces light up when we would mention Run DMC, and our modest goals of documenting their origins. It was like we had stumbled upon the secret handshake.
It was a very quiet street, and we had no trouble lining up the shots. I was giddy with the knowledge that I had reverse-engineered this photoshoot. I wanted to make Janette proud.
I was ready to get back over to Hollis Ave to explore the area west of 205th Street. Before I left home, I had discovered a short video of Darryl McDaniels showing a reporter around his neighborhood. Although it was a relatively recent video, it connected a lot of dots, and confirmed some of my theories about where the early photos were shot. There were a few images that left me stumped. I couldn’t figure out the locations, and the background details were too vague to yield any usable clues. I decided to go right to the source. I wrote Glen Friedman a short note to ask him about his Hollis images of ‘Run and Them’. I’m a big fan of Glen’s photography, and I had been fortunate to connect with him a few times over the years. He was very gracious in his replies, and I tried to figure some things out on my own, too. He is about to release a new Beastie Boys / Run DMC book, Together Forever, and evidently it will include much of the information that I needed. This might mean I’ll need to plan a return trip. For now, though, I was ready to find some of my ‘white whales’.
We drove less than a mile down Hollis Ave, before we found parking again. All of my locations were clustered within a 1/2 mile of the JMJ mural. I wanted to check out some of the murals around the neighborhood. We took a few images of Dollie’s corner store, as it figured prominently in the background of some photos, and we even got to meet Dollie, herself, when she came outside to find us inspecting the mural on her building. After striking up a conversation with her, I realized that just over her right shoulder, she had also been included in this colorful tribute to Hollis.
It was time to go to 196th Street and find some of Glen’s locations. I was worried that the back alley gate would be locked, and some of the best images would be impossible to locate. We walked up and took in the large brick building. We lined up a shot from the front steps looking towards the Hollis Ave street sign; with a house in the background that hadn’t changed much in thirty-plus years. We spun around and snapped some flicks that incorporated the front of the building, including a unique stacked-stone wall that featured in some of my favorite Friedman photos. It was all coming together.
We stopped to talk to a man who had approached us and started playing a harmonica, when we all noticed the sound of a loud lawnmower approaching. The small patch of grass out front needed some attention, and as we rounded the building to find the alley, we spied that the gate had been propped open with the lawnmower-man’s gas can. It was meant to be. We easily pushed past the swinging gate, and sprung into action. I wasn’t sure how much time we would have, and I wanted to take advantage of every second. I recognized the railing from the recent DMC video, but more importantly, I began to realize that many of my favorite images of the group had been taken behind this building. I was sure our time back there was going to be cut short, but it never happened. We spent about twenty uninterrupted minutes recreating angles and shots, dutifully walking the steps that Glen and Run DMC must have taken, so many years ago. It was amazing to be in the spot where Run, Jay, and DMC honed their craft, and prepared themselves to take over the world.
This was one of those times in life when you remember to step back and appreciate the absurdity of the situation. I was so excited and happy to be in an alley in Hollis, NY…and I was. I was really excited that all of the pieces fit. It’s why we do what we do. The mission was accomplished, and everything else was going to be gravy.
We walked back to the car. Well, Frank and Nick walked, I strutted; and we peeked at the map to see the rest of our little green flags. There were two locations that represented my ‘white whales’ – The image for the 12″ single of Walk the Way, Glen’s Hollistown image, and my favorite image of Run DMC – the one where they are sitting against a nondescript garage door on ‘any street’ USA.
Glen had offered some help with the Walk This Way image, letting me know that it was near a bridge overpass at the Long Island Railroad. For the garage door image, he simply said “It’s difficult”. Fortunately, I had found another image from that same photoshoot that included some architectural detail. This helped me narrow it down to Jamaica Avenue, a large thoroughfare pushing through Hollis. I was in business.
We moved to the area where the Hollistown/Walk This Way photoshoot took place. Incidentally, the Christmas in Hollis single sleeve image confirmed we had arrived in the right location. Run DMC had posed for several pictures that day, and the combination of the clothes they were wearing, and the background from the shoots helped us to zero-in on the path they took.
Confident in our accuracy, we moved towards the tracks. We wanted to find the pedestrian tunnel, and capture an additional few compositions. We were nearing the end of our mission. We had only to go to Jamaica Ave, and double-back to get Frank’s car, when I remembered that we needed to boogie down to get the Down With the King album cover shot. We hit Blair House, an apartment building of some significance in the Run DMC story, shot over to Jamaica Ave to grab the ‘white whale’ image in front of the garage door, and drove the mile-and-a-half (our longest drive of the afternoon) to finish with the Down With the King shot. Our time as a trio was dwindling – Frank had to get back to Astoria, and Nick needed to get to JFK for a flight back to Vancouver (Did I mention that he flew from Vancouver to NY for the day?)
We spent a few minutes lining up some over-head drone footage of the car, I drove straight and slow, and we returned to Bardwell Avenue. I took off the lapel mic, and we said our goodbyes. It was great to be around some creatives that were willing to spend the day in this fashion.
Once I was alone, I cued up The Breakthrough by LL Cool J, and started towards the center of St. Alban’s. I had a couple of images of LL by Liberty Rock, and I wanted to drive by a house where Jackie Robinson once resided during his Brooklyn Dodger years.
It was late afternoon, and I was tired but thoroughly happy. I had managed to see every location that I had added to my map. It was time to head for home. It had been a great day of exploring, photography, music, and history. Exhausted but satisfied, I pointed my car towards the Belt Parkway. Once again, I rapped along to the music and poetry that had inspired this exploration. This time around, I felt just a little more connected to the lyrics and the era. Thanks, Glen, Janette,Ken, Darryl, Run, Jay, James Todd Smith, Jarobi, Q-Tip, Ali, Phife, and anyone else who had a hand in getting through to me at that vulnerable, impressionable time in my life. It was because of you that I made this trip. Grateful. – AK'”
“A few years ago my name was Joe
And then I went to a party, cold stole the show
Stole it as sure as birds have wings
Now they’re callin me DJ Running Things
Got Kurtis Blow down with the two
And my man Larry Lah makes beats for you
Keepin up the funky beat is the Hollis Crew
So D, take the mic cause you know I’m through” –
Hollis Crew (Krush Groove 2) – Run DMC – 1984