In 1988 Run-DMC followed up their mega-platinum album Raising Hell with Tougher Than Leather. The guys could do no wrong. Raising Hell broke them into the mainstream thanks to the “duet” with Aerosmith on Walk This Way. Everyone wanted Kangol hats and Adidas sneakers. People wanted to dress like them, talk like them, and act like them. Rappers wanted to rap like them. It was a great time for the group.
Tougher Than Leather wasn’t a disappointing follow-up but it didn’t reach the level of success its predecessor did. The album had some great songs like Beats to the Rhyme, Run’s House, and Mary, Mary (with that awesome Micky Dolenz Monkees chorus).
About four months after the release of their album a film also called Tougher Than Leather was released into theaters. I BEGGED my mother to go. BEGGED. I loved Run-DMC and really loved them in Krush Groove…which I would watch it all the time over at my boy Greg Roddy’s house since it was rated R. Tougher Than Leather was also rated R and my mom was pretty adamant that her 12 year old not go see this R-rated rap movie. I was pretty sure I can wear her down so I just asked and asked and asked and asked. I probably would have worn her down but then something funny happened. There were shootings during the movie in some theaters. It was all over the news. Once my mother heard that people were getting shot watching this film the discussion was pretty much over.
I eventually bought the movie on VHS. It would never come out on Blu-ray or DVD. I’ve heard several reasons for this including the Beastie Boys not giving permission – and, for some reason, their permission is needed. No clue if it is true or not but it certainly sucks that the film is unable to gain an audience.
This film is certainly a weird duck. It’s part western, part Blaxpoltation, part concert film. The film really goes off the deep end in the third act.
Here’s the thing – Run-DMC play themselves in this movie just like they did in Krush Groove. However, in the movie world, they are not the same Run-DMC’s in both movies. Look at the Beatles flicks – is it possible that the Beatles in Hard Day’s Night are the same Beatles in Help? Possible I guess. But in Krush Groove Run-DMC sign a huge record deal, are hugely known, and ready for massive success by the end of the flick.
That certainly isn’t where the group is in Tougher Than Leather. Now the beginning of the film is a wonderful homage to The Blues Brothers. DMC is getting out of jail and gets all his black leather back. The warden tries to talk to him but D doesn’t give a shit. Why was he in jail? They don’t really get into it but it seems he did 6 months for beating the crap out of some guy.
DMC walks out the front gate where Run and JMJ pick him up. Then they are off.
The group hits the stage in a packed crowd. So it is pretty obvious that the guys had been a group before DMC went to jail. Bernie (Richard Edson) is in the crowd checking out the group. He calls back to his boss Arthur (Ric Menello) who is being verbally berated by Vic (Rick Rubin). It’s Arthur’s record company but Vic calls all the shots. They are looking for some new groups so Bernie tries to make a deal to get Run-DMC signed to Strut Records.
He approaches their manager Russell Simmons…played this time around by the actual Russell Simmons. Simmons is willing to take a meeting about getting the group signed but only if he can bring the Beastie Boys. By this point in the movie the Beasties have taken the stage and they are…well…complete idiots. This was much more Licensed to Ill Beastie Boys then Paul’s Boutique Beastie Boys if you catch my meaning. Russell is able to get both groups signed and Run-DMC is ready to go on tour.
NOW – there’s PLENTY of things to point out here.
#1 is Rick Rubin. While Rick wasn’t the best actor in Krush Groove he was actually able to hold his own against Blair Underwood. But in this movie? He is god awful. It is probably the worst acting ever. EVER. Who the hell cast Rick Rubin in this movie and made him “the bad guy”. A quick look at the film’s credits and you can see that Rick both co-wrote and directed the film. Still…someone should have looked at dailies and said, “Hey Rick, maybe we can get another actor in here for this.”
Basically Rick’s character Vic looks like Billy Mitchell wearing those really ugly sweaters that your grandmother would buy you that you are way, way too embarrassed to wear. But Rick wears em. He is rocking it. I know that’s not the greatest screen grab but you get the point.
#2 is Ric Menello. He plays the bumbling Arthur who runs Strut Records. This dude is a horrible actor too. He’s not as bad as Rick Rubin but he’s pretty bad. And who is Menello? He’s the guy who co-wrote the movie with Rubin. No wondering how these two guys got cast. Any and every scene between these two are pretty painful. Now this film was written by two white guys. Now I’m pretty sure that any and every black person will look at Rick Rubin today with his long hair and Grizzly Adams beard and still give him his props. The man is a legend. I just find it funny that Rick Rubin wrote a screenplay and decided to act as a bad guy in the film. It’s so awful it is amazing.
#3 is Richard Edson. If you watch Tougher than Leather Richard may be the only actor you may recognize. Having a kid who was obsessed with the Super Mario Bros movie I can instantly pick Edson out as Spike – who paired with Fisher Stevens as Iggy was the two cousins of King Koopa who ran around doing stupid shit. They were comic relief in a film that needed more…everything. The dude acted for thirty some years including classic films like Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon, VERY BRIEFLY in Howard the Duck, and as recently as the cult classic Black Dynamite. It’s weird that a guy with upward momentum would act in Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam, THEN move to the low budget Run-DMC movie. Maybe he was a fan. Anyway Edson would rebound from this to play John Turturro’s younger brother in Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing.
#4 – I have NO CLUE what the Beastie Boys were doing in this movie. They literally have no point of being in the film other than to show up, act goofy, and then disappear completely from the film. Now they do their act onstage so I guess they go to show off their music for a hot second. So I think to myself……why? Why be in the film? Is it brand recognition…get all the white rap kids in the 1980’s to go to the movies.? BUT take a look at the film’s poster. The Beastie Boys are only briefly mentioned in the credits on the bottom of the poster. So I was thinking…what about the film trailer???
As you can see there is ZERO Beastie Boys in that trailer. My only guess is that Rick was like, “Dudes be in my movie I wrote a part for you.” and MCA was like, “Dude whatever.” If you know your rap history (or just read up on Wikipedia) the Beastie Boys left Def Jam Records after only releasing one album (Licensed to Ill). They’d go to Capitol Records who would release Paul’s Boutique. That album would be a big failure (well…considered to be one). It actually went on to sell big numbers after people realized its brilliance. People in 1989 weren’t ready for Paul’s Boutique. A few years later Beasties would sell some huge numbers with some huge albums. Word is they had a falling out with Rick Rubin. Maybe it is over this movie.
Now if you are actually reading this review and actually took a second to watch that trailer you see that it is Run-DMC running around shooting guns at people and kicking some ass. I do find it funny that the guys sampling a Monkees song are out killing motherfuckers in the same movie. I’ll get back to the guns, shooting, and violence in just a moment.
Once Run-DMC are signed they need to go on the road. They end up hiring a guy from the block named Runny Ray to be their roadie. Ray’s a bit, I don’t know, slow…I guess? But he’s a cool guy and the dude tries hard so they bring him on the road, even if they don’t treat him the best. What can you do? Suddenly Run-DMC are huge rap stars.
So the foursome hit the road and all is well for a long while. The thing is we learn that Vic’s dad is some huge mafioso and he doesn’t quite approve of Vic getting into producing rap. Vic is working for the label basically to launder his dad’s drug money. Things are all working great until Vic’s dad shows up and informs Vic that one of his guys is stealing money from the organization.
So Vic and the gang decide to cap the dude in cold blood (take that thief!) but Runny Ray walks in at the wrong time. So Runny Ray gets capped too. Drugs and a gun are planted on Ray’s body to make it look like it was a drug deal gone wrong. The cops buy it hook, line, and sinker. But Run-DMC? They know the truth – that there is no way that Runny Ray is out there dealing crack. So instead of mourning their friend and going back on the road, Run, DMC, and JMJ decide to go out and try to find out who killed Ray.
The rest of the film is basically Run-DMC trying to solve the crime. They end up getting some old ass guns and they suddenly think their badass. They run up in bars acting like they own the place and trying to get answers. All answers lead to Vic. And so it all comes down to Run-DMC vs. the mob in a shootout that is quite horrible.
Tougher Than Leather is a decent film that descends into a weird western/blaxploitation flick – which I’m sure was the intention in the first place. Again it seems like a weird move for the group. Krush Groove wasn’t the biggest movie in the world but it was well known for fans of rap music. Then Raising Hell came out and Run-DMC was living on top of the world. That album went TRIPLE PLATINUM. That’s how huge it was and for a rap group in the mid eighties that is one hell of an amazing accomplishment.
So the follow-up is, of course, not going to be as good as the massive album. The album ended up going platinum but it was a huge disappointment from most in the rap community. By the time Tougher Than Leather comes out Run-DMC’s reign is already starting to head downward. Making this low budget blaxplotation movie is really just a weird move. Maybe Rick pitched it and they thought it would be fun. Maybe there was no big offers coming in post Krush Groove and they just decided to do it. But whatever the reasons may be the film was filmed, released, and ended up doing quite poorly. As I mentioned before there were shootings during the film. It was the first time I had ever heard of something like that and it was national news. The film was pulled from many theaters and that was the end of Run-DMC’s movie career (sans some cameos and documentaries).
Now this entire movie isn’t the best but there is some great stuff here that makes the movie quite worth while. Once again Run proves that he could have been a movie star. He is great in this movie and he does most of the talking for the group. Let’s face it – Jam Master Jay and DMC aren’t actors. And Run gets most of the lines because he is able to deliver them with finesse.
DMC doesn’t do much talking in the flick. In his own movie he mostly just stands there, raps, or acts tough. When it comes to actual lines there isn’t much there. Many years ago I had read DMC’s autobiography (plus some random interviews here and there) and he talks about how he had to to drink many, many, many 40s just to get up in front of everyone to rap. Liquid courage I would say. I’m sure this kind of lifestyle had a huge toll on DMC and it may be this fright of performing that maybe led him to not wanting many lines in the movie. Look around the film and guess what? You can totally see some 40s littered about. Now he’s good in the movie but I’ll reiterate that he is not an actor. He does what he has to do. It’s a shame because if you watch DMC later in life he is very comfortable talking in front of a camera. I believe it took him time and he needed to grow as a person. He was a MASSIVE CELEBRITY who might not have been comfortable in his own skin.
Now Jam Master Jay finally has some lines in this movie after basically being dissed in Krush Groove. Now JMJ isn’t the greatest actor either but they do give him more lines than DMC so he gets a chance to try and show off his acting prowess. It’s fun seeing him in the role because so often the DJ is always relegated to the back. Run-DMC also saw Jam Master Jay as an equal and that was always nice. There’s no group without him (well, they said they retired once he died but they’ve done more shows…maybe it just “isn’t the same” thought).
Def Jam’s Junk Yard Band shows up for a bit at a party in the movie. I had never heard of them until I had looked them up a few years back when I had rewatched Tougher Than Leather. I had looked them up and checked out some of their other music and I was really impressed with the band. They only did one album LP with Def Jam before moving on but it was cool seeing them in the movie.
Slick Rick also makes an appearance in the movie as well which is pretty damn awesome. Slick Rick was another of the eighties biggest stars and having him in here is kind of like a time capsule. He does nothing to further the plot whatsoever – he just appears on stage and raps some songs. But it is SLICK RICK! In an actual movie!!! So I was damn happy to see him.
What else do I have when it comes to Tougher Than Leather? Every time you see the Def Jam logo you should take a shot. Trust me. You’ll be a tiny bit drunk by the time you finish the movie.
There is a horrible high-hat that plays throughout the movie especially in the beginning. I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea. But it really, really, REALLY takes away from the movie. It is really fucking annoying. Maybe lack of a production budget? I dunno. I would think that Rick would have been able to afford some guy on a bass guitar busting a few bass lines. ANYTHING would have been better then what we had which was a high-hat over and over again.
From what I remember Runny Ray was a member of Run-DMC’s crew from back in the day and also served as their roadie in real life. Now I can only “think I remember that” because I’m not sure where I read/remember that from and I can find NOTHING on it on the Internet. I did read DMC’s book so maybe I remember it from there? I’m not too sure. I do think I remember that they grew up with Ray and he came up with them when they got famous (which is cool if that is true because it is really good to remember your friends). But the Internet is really lacking in information on Runny Ray so I can’t find out if that was true or not if I wanted to. Maybe I need to read DMC’s book again. The one thing I did find was that Runny Ray was featured on the song You Be Illin on the album Raising Hell which, again, is really cool that they put him on the album.
Information overall on this film remains very much lacking. It seems to be a forgotten about film and not having a home video release after VHS really makes it hard to have any kind of legacy – no matter how lacking the film actually is. I would love to see a release of the film after all these years. The film was put out by New Line Cinema which is now owned by Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers does have their Warner Bros Archive Collection line so they could always do what they do with these movies which is sort-of “print on demand.” I’m not sure if any other New Line movies have gotten this treatment from Warner Bros as well…but if they have then I would love to see Tougher Than Leather get the same treatment.
I would DIE to hear some commentary tracks from Rick Rubin or Run-DMC. Now I am not a commentary person and I usually avoid commentary tracks like the plague. They usually bore the shit out of me and I find they can be horribly pretentious. But this film? I would love to hear where the ideas came from, how the Beastie Boys came to be in the movie, what the budget was, how and where they filmed….just about anything about the movie I would love to know.
Will it ever happen? Again I don’t think so. I can’t find much information about why the movie is not out there today. Again I do think I remember something about the Beastie Boys being the hold out on why but I cannot find a reference for that anywhere nor anything else on why the movie has never been released. They don’t even need to do a physical release. Why not just release it to digital platforms like Amazon or iTunes? I’m sure there are people like me who would love to own this film in a widescreen format that made the movie look…well…better than it did on VHS. Which wasn’t very good at all. You can go find Krush Groove and Disorderlies both on iTunes for sale digitally. So what’s the big hold up with Tougher Than Leather!??!?!?!?!?! Can’t we make it happen???
At the end of the day the film isn’t good. So what. I always compare Run-DMC to the Beatles. I love Hard Day’s Night but I’m not the biggest fan of Help! The movie really does nothing for me. But the Beatles being one of the biggest groups in the history of music it is important for these movies to be out there (now, you can say Let It Be isn’t out there but the Beatles themselves own the rights to that movie and as it still makes them look bad all these years later they still don’t want it out for public consumption). Run-DMC is one of the biggest groups of all time. They may have started to peter out in the late eighties but that’s not the point. The point is they are a huge part of history and this film is very much a part of their legacy. So why cut out an entire piece of their legacy? Why just forget about it and consign it to the trash heap?
We shouldn’t. Rap shouldn’t. And even though this isn’t some much a “hip hop” movie either is Disorderlies. They are both films starring famous rappers from that time period. They all deserve to be seen. So I wish I could start one of those petitions for the release of this movie, but I’m sure those things are pretty pointless, no one would end up signing it, and I’d feel pretty stupid.
So where can you find Tougher Than Leather? I will say there are ways to find out if you are truly looking and interested in seeing the movie. I can’t say what they are or where you can go to find it…but it is out there. If you still have a VCR at grandma’s house somewhere in her spare room you can still buy a VHS copy of the movie on Amazon or eBay. It’s not the greatest version of the film (it being a pan and scan movie) but still it is truly better than nothing.
So Run. DMC. Rick Rubin. Mike D. Ad Rock. Russell Simmons. Someone. Let’s get on it. It is truly time to bring Tougher Than Leather out. It’s important for history. It’s important to remember JMJ. And, even though it isn’t the best film, it can be pretty damn fun at times. Do yourself a favor – if you like old school rap and have never seen it, find the film and check it out. You can check the film out on YouTube thanks to some awesome people making sure that this film is always available.