“Won’t you tell me the last time that love bought you clothes?” Talk gets little realer than “It’s Like That”, Run DMC’s debut single mix of fatalism, pragmatism and ultimately optimism, set to a beat like a medicine ball bounced off the walls of some vast concrete bunker. Over that crushing sound, Run and DMC shout to be heard, trading and declaiming lines like duelling street preachers. It’s deservedly known as a landmark single, a record that takes the sharp, rhyme-swapping camaraderie of the early hip-hop groups somewhere bigger and harder.
Jason Nevins, encountering this bomb-blast of a record, decides it would be improved by a crunching, unflinching house beat. He is wrong. This remix is, admittedly, loud and effective, almost as brutal in its unrelenting way as the original. But it’s far less accomplished and interesting. Its inane additions – the sped-up “Run DMC and Jam Master Jay!” squeaks, for instance – just disrupt the relentless, overlapping forward motion of the original MCs. It drowns DMC’s voice in particular, and muffles a lot of the group’s inflections in the process. They may be talking about poverty and economic disaster, but they’re also young men grabbing onto their chance of success, and there’s a grim, cocksure relish in their storytelling. Nevins’ beat can’t completely smother that, but it doesn’t help either, putting all the weight on the title refrain, making “It’s like that – and that’s the way it is!” a slogan where it once was a payoff. Nevins’ beat is the sort of route-one 4/4 thump that has always infuriated and fuelled people who hate house music – there’s a place in my heart for that completely straight-ahead approach (and, if I’m honest, for the way it riles people), but here it sacrifices too much.
The video further lets on what’s happening. It’s a girls vs boys breakdance battle in a warehouse, and its omnipresence on video channels contributed a lot to the remix’s six-week stay at Number One. But taken in tandem with that unbroken beat, it’s revealing. This record isn’t updating the sound or content of early hip-hop, or even engaging with it at all in any productive sense: it’s simply using it as texture. Nevins may not be a Europop producer, but it’s a very Europop sensibility. And indeed the “It’s Like That” remix was number one across Europe, largely in countries which had never paid much attention to old school rap.
There’s nothing especially wrong about that situation (and I suspect it made Run-DMC richer than anything since Aerosmith had), but it makes this feel like rather a tawdry number one – something made with no especial sympathy for its source. It’s a particular shame that Nevins simply lops the end off the “It’s Like That”, omitting the last two verses. Those turn their back on the rest of the song’s harsh emphasis on self-reliance, informing listeners that really their best bet is to lean on some larger institution (church or education, the group don’t judge either way). It’s a sentiment that “It’s Like That” has fought its way towards, and the song is not improved by dropping it. Elsewhere, enough of the thunderbolt original is preserved for this remix to just about work, though it’s all despite Jason Nevins, not because of him. Rarely was a “versus” more earned.