PLOT: A three-part documentary series chronicling the iconic forefathers of hip-hop, RUN DMC. This unique series will take you back to the 1980s, when Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell cultivated a one-of-a-kind sound that took not only Queens, but the world, by storm.
REVIEW: In college, a professor made us watch Ken Burns’ series Jazz. At first, I rolled my eyes at the prospect of watching an eighteen-hour documentary about one genre of music. I was shocked when I became engrossed by the series and began appreciating jazz as never before. Few documentaries can harness an entire genre in such a way, but the new three-part series Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story manages to encapsulate the origin of rap by focusing on one of the most legendary duos to ever perform. With direct participation from Joseph Simmons and Daryl McDaniels, Kings from Queens is full of interviews with hip-hop icons, past and present, as well as a look at where the performers are today. Clocking in at just under three hours, this is a fantastic origin story for one of music’s newest genres.
Kings from Queens tells the story of Run DMC’s rise to prominence in 1983. Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, the younger brother of iconic producer Russell Simmons, and Daryl “DMC” McDaniels were friends in school. Simmons worked early with DJs while McDaniels was obsessed with comic books. The pair collaborated and brought in Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell and the rest is history. As the series shows, the early rise to fame for Run-DMC was sudden but not without a lot of hard work from the two musicians as they showed the world that rap music was not a fad but the start of something big. As the first episode wraps, we see the duo reaching their first milestones as a band. The reflection back on their early days offers a lot of opportunities for contemporaries including Ice Cube, Ice-T, The Beastie Boys, Ed Lover, and more to discuss the influence that Run-DMC had on their careers in the burgeoning hip-hop scene. There are also interviews with the next generation influenced by the band including Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Eminem as they talk about what Run-DMC meant to them.
The three episodes of the series follow a pretty traditional route. Episode one goes from their childhood to their meteoric rise up the music charts. Episode 2 looks at the excess they experienced and the paths that Run and DMC took. It hits all of the points in their career, focusing not only on how they found their musical voice but how they were influenced as well as influenced others. Just hearing Simmons and McDaniels talk about how they found beats, rhythms, and rhymes alongside Jam Master Jay would have been enough to fill an entire documentary, but Kings from Queens also pays attention to the men behind the mics. The series also spends a good amount of time on the untimely death of Jam Master Jay, a topic back in the news recently thanks to new suspects and an upcoming trial. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy they have faced, Kings from Queens is unfailingly inspirational.
The series benefits from airing on Peacock which does not require anyone to dance around profanity or touchy subject matter. The ideas of race are paramount in the discussion of rap as a genre, similar to how Jazz has roots in African-American culture, but this series is less about the divides of class and race and more about music. There are several moments in Kings from Queens where they could have danced around the changing tone of rap music from the 1980s into the gangsta era of the 1990s, but it never feels rooted in tabloid fodder like many MTV and VH1 retrospectives. I appreciate Run-DMC’s contribution to music more after having watched these episodes which conclude with the third episode featuring footage from the duo’s 2023 concert at Yankee Stadium to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of rap music. It is an awesome and all-encompassing series that somehow fits into three chapters.
Produced by Simmons and McDaniel, Kings From Queens hails from director Kirk Fraser. A veteran director of music videos and documentaries, Fraser gives the series a propulsive beat that boasts stellar transitions and graphics that utilize animation to bring still images and retro footage to life. This is coupled with stage interviews with a retinue of famous musicians as well as on-the-street moments with the band members. There is not as much focus on the Jam Master Jay murder as I expected, but they also do not shy away from discussing that dark chapter in the legacy of Run-DMC. This could have been a very sanitized documentary and one that was either skewed in favor of the band or too critical, but Fraser and the duo strike the right balance between frank truth about their path to stardom and the challenges they overcame along the way. DMC’s struggles with addiction and Rev Run’s pursuit of a religious career are addressed and pull this series together nicely.
Kings From Queens: The Run-DMC Story is a solid ode to music and the path to stardom focused on two icons. This documentary will make fans out of those unfamiliar with rap music and will serve as a retro homage to those of us who grew up in the era chronicled here. After seeing Kings From Queens in its entirety, my biggest disappointment is that it is not longer. Hopefully, this documentary finds an audience and generates interest in stories like this for other bands and musicians from recent history. On its own, this is a great watch that had me revisiting my Run-DMC albums from a new perspective.
Kings from Queens: The Run DMC Story premieres on February 1st on Peacock.