Tougher Than Leather (Rick Rubin, 1988)

UNCONCEIVABLE! UNBELIEVABLE!

Trouble is just a beat away in this action-packed ’80s classic starring the Kings of Rock, Run DMC. The up-and-coming hip-hop trio of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay are signed to Strut Productions, a crooked booking agency laundering drug money for gangsters and aiming to exploit the group’s growing popularity to further their criminal schemes. When their close friend and roadie Runny Ray stumbles upon the illegal operation and is murdered in cold blood, the devastated musicians take the law into their own hands to avenge their friend’s death, facing racist thugs and armed gangsters in their pursuit of justice.

Co-written, co-produced, and directed by superstar record producer Rick Rubin and supported by a hard-hitting soundtrack featuring music by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, the Junk Yard Band, and Public Enemy, Tougher Than Leather is an urban Western that’s too tough to miss.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround Options
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Grammar Like a Hammer: The Making of Tougher Than Leather, a new documentary containing interviews with Darryl McDaniels, Rev Run, Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, Chuck D, and Eddie Murphy
  • Run DMC music videos for “Run’s House,” “Mary, Mary,” and “Christmas in Hollis”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an interview with photographer Glen E. Friedman and a collection of his on-set photographs

By 1988, Run DMC – Run (Joseph Simmons), DMC (Darryl McDaniels), and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) – were ready for their celluloid vanity project. Hip-hop had crossed over into the mainstream on the backs of the Kings of Rock with albums going gold (Run DMC, 1984), platinum (King of Rock, 1985), and multiplatinum (Raising Hell, 1986). Their video for “Rock Box” was the first hip-hop video played on MTV (1984) and the group was the only rap act that played Live Aid (1985). They featured in Krush Groove (Michael Schultz, 1985), a retelling of the Def Jam label’s founding and the rise of Russell Simmons (brother of Run) as a hip hop mogul, and they had established a new aesthetic standard for hip hop with their explicitly street-inspired look. The next step was the silver screen but Tougher Than Leather was released in 1988 to poor reviews, reported shootings at screenings, and a legacy of suppression with only an out of print VHS to mark its commercial existence.

The film resembles a Spaghetti Western told in a blaxploitation context, with Run DMC signed to the crooked booking agency Strut Productions. Strut’s figurehead is Arthur Ratnor (played by co-screenwriter/hip hop music video director Ric Menello) but the operation is actually under the thumb of shadowy crime figure Vic Ferrante (Rick Rubin) who uses the business to launder drug money for his kingpin father (played by Rick’s own father, Mickey Rubin). When their friend and roadie Runny Ray (Raymond White) walks in on a gangland assassination, he’s shot down by Vic and framed as a participant in a fictional drug deal gone bad. Run DMC set to clear their friend’s name, pitting them against racist thugs and racist-ier gangsters. It’s a fairly straightforward premise of good guys and bad guys headed toward a fatal showdown.

Tougher Than Leather is certainly a film with its share of obvious problems. Rubin and Menello’s script is clumsy and disheveled. The Licensed to Ill-era comedy relief of the Beastie Boys is truly obnoxious. Richard Edson’s haphazard efforts to develop a character reveals a talented actor being wasted by poor direction, and the film struggles to establish a natural pace and rhythm in its editing. Rubin’s own performance is particularly rough, demonstrating the celebrated record producer as overwhelmed with the duties of writing, producing, acting, and directing his first feature film. Interviewed by Nathan Rabin in 2005, Rubin admits as much, describing the experience as:

Very unpleasant. I like rock ‘n’ roll hours much better than movie hours. In those days, I was sleeping until two or three in the afternoon, and having to wake up at 6 a.m. and go to work every day was a disaster. We were just in completely over our heads. We didn’t know what we were doing, just having fun and doing crazy stuff. I like the fact that we did it, because we did it.

The project was originally offered to Spike Lee, who declined and made Do the Right Thing (1989) instead. Russell Simmons had been impressed with Lee’s presentation of hip-hop in School Daze (1988) and it’s tantalizing to think about what Tougher Than Leather might have been under the direction of Lee. Instead, we’re left to note some intriguing connections between the two films – the contrasting quality of Richard Edson’s performances, the common presence of Public Enemy’s music, the competing shoe deals between adidas and Run DMC on the one hand and Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon and Nike on the other.

Tougher Than Leather‘s issues with performance and craftsmanship were eclipsed in some critics’ eyes by the casually virulent racism of Rubin’s villain, the sophomoric shenanigans of the Beastie Boys, and the smooth misogyny of Slick Rick’s performance of “Treat Her Like a Prostitute.” Richard Harrington seemed almost comically upset at the “crass exploitation and ugly race- and gender-baiting” of the film. Harrington famously called the movie “vile, vicious, despicable, stupid, sexist, racist, and horrendously made.” Chris Willman might have better connected Tougher Than Leather to a historical context in film by suggesting that its “violent, sexist bent harkens defiantly and perhaps embarrassingly back to the ‘blaxploitation’ era of the ’70s,” although Willman seems to have lacked the necessary distance from the blaxploitation work of Melvin Van Peebles, Jack Hill, D’Urville Martin, and Fred Williamson to make that statement at all flattering. It’s the kind of “won’t somebody think about the children” hysterics that deserves an “I’m from the ‘hood stupid, what type of facts are those?” response. Tougher Than Leather was a dark, fictionalized street-fantasy that existed in response to the sanitized, Hollywood presentation of hip-hop in Krush Groove. Run saw the context and the hypocrisy in the such objections, remarking “Kids will understand [the violence]. Parents will, too. After all, they loved ‘Rambo,’ didn’t they? They loved ’48 Hours’ didn’t they?”

To be honest, Run DMC are kind of great in Tougher Than Leather. Run assumes the role of sincere spokesman, Jay fits as a charming wingman, and DMC strikes a silent but charismatic repose throughout. Nowhere is Tougher Than Leather better than in its opening, a POV sequence of DMC leaving prison to the sounds of Flavor Flav’s domestic complaints and leading to some striking shots of DMC standing up against the man, Jay and Run waiting outside and looking like an album cover waiting to happen, and an exceptionally shot Cadillac ride back to Queens enclosing the description of sexually surreal dream. If Rubin could have channelled this throughout, Tougher Than Leather could have been hip-hop’s The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972). But while that might be disappointing, it’s not really fatal either, as Tougher Than Leather succeeds as an important document of hip hop. Even beyond performances of “Beats to the Rhyme,” “Mary, Mary,” and “Run’s House” by Run DMC, Tougher Than Leather is a hip hop time capsule of adidas shoes (no laces!), Kangol gear, black fedoras, Cazal eyeglasses, leather jackets, dookie rope chains, block parties, stage concerts and late-’80s NYC.

The greatest joy of Tougher Than Leather is found in seeing the image of Run DMC, streetwise and street tough, transcend the album cover or the music video and come to life in a feature length film, in seeing this trio of men assume the positions of heroism, resistance, and empowerment that had previously been occupied by the vigilantes of genre films long outdated. There will never be more Run DMC and so it’s disappointing for fans of the group that there is actually less than there could be, and the same could be said for the Beastie Boys too, particularly given that Tougher Than Leather includes a live performance of the rarity track, “Desperado.” I’ve read a few theories as to why this film remains suppressed, but I’m not sure which is true. An Arrow Video release seems like wishful thinking given that the rights are presumably held by Warner Bros. as part of the New Line library, but the Criterion Collection has managed to crack the WB code so why not Arrow? (Shout! Factory has been good at clearing rights issues and so we could see Tougher Than Leather being suited to a Shout Select release also.) Arrow Video has a select number of blaxploitation titles already in their catalogue and Tougher Than Leather would offer some further variety while delivering a kind of Holy Grail to hip-hop fans in the process.

Credits: The cover summary for this proposed Arrow edition is largely adapted from the VHS cassette’s packaging. Photographer Glen E. Friedman briefly appears in the film and the film’s poster was based on one of his photos, so we chose him to provide a print interview and a selection of his photos for the supposed booklet. You can see some of his still photography of the production on his personal blog. Finally, we imagined a documentary on the making of Tougher Than Leather that includes most of the major players plus Eddie Murphy, who was reportedly on set for much of the shoot.

This post owes credit to Richard Harrington and Chris Willman‘s reviews, Nathan Rabin’s interview of Rick Rubin, Ryan McLelland’s review for 2 Guys – 1 Review, and Vern’s review at outlawvern.com.

And before this proposal wraps up, I’d like to take a moment to note that Darryl McDaniel’s DMC now stands for Darryl Makes Comics, an independent comic book imprint currently publishing one of my favourite titles of the last few years – DMC. If it were possible, I’d suggest a whole special feature on DMC for the Arrow edition and a stand-alone comic to accompany the booklet. (Truthfully, what I really want is a high quality animated feature of DMC. Netflix could make that with a good anime studio like Dynamic Planning or Studio 4°C, right?) The third DMC graphic novel has just debuted and I highly recommend the title to anyone interested.

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