The meaning behind one of Run-DMC’s most beloved tracks, “It’s Tricky,” brims with amusing honesty and witty realism. With its rapid-firing lyrics and ferocious beat, the irresistible 1987 classic cemented the group’s place in history as pioneers of new school hip-hop, a role that was not without its downsides.
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The trio—made up of Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam Master J” Mizell—lay down the facts of being in the rap business in “It’s Tricky,” so take notes.
Behind the Lyrics
The whole message of “It’s Tricky” is that rapping is … tricky. Run-DMC unflinchingly rattle off tongue-twisting rhymes throughout the tune, letting listeners know what they do is not as easy as some may think.
This speech is my recital, I think it’s very vital, the song kicks off against a ticking rhythm. To rock (a rhyme), that’s right (on time) / It’s Tricky is the title, here we go… The point of the song can be found plainly in the chorus that explodes as quickly as the song begins. Almost like words of caution, the group warns, It’s Tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time / It’s Tricky…it’s Tricky (Tricky) Tricky (Tricky).
The song plays like a cautionary tale as the trio raps about the downsides of hip-hop stardom. I met this little girlie, her hair was kinda curly / Went to her house and bust her out, I had to leave real early. Apparently this girl only has two things on her mind and one of them is hearing a rap. These girls are really sleazy, all they just say is please me / Or spend some time and rock a rhyme, I said “It’s not that easy.”
In the next verse, an entire city has caught on and is eager to hear the group’s rhymes. In New York the people talk and try to make us rhyme / They really (hawk) but we just (walk) because we have no time. With fame, comes unwanted attention. The rappers are constantly being challenged and getting harassed to show off their chops. The song continues, And in the city it’s a pity cos we just can’t hide / Tinted windows don’t mean nothin’, they know who’s inside.
The chorus plays again before the group raps about getting flack from all sides. When I wake up people take up mostly all of my time / I’m not singin’, phone keep ringin’ cos I make up a rhyme / I’m not braggin’, people naggin’ cos they think I’m a star / Always tearin’ what I’m wearin’, I think they’re goin’ too far. They rap about how others have judged them unfairly, firing off, We are not thugs (we don’t use drugs) but you assume (on your own) / They offer coke (and lots of dope) but we just leave it alone.
Rum-DMC could let other people’s opinions bother them, but in “It’s Tricky” they prove they’re the ones with the undeniable talent to rock a rhyme that’s right on time. And as we know, it’s tricky.
Behind Run-DMC’s Beat
If you listen closely, you can hear a familiar sound in “It’s Tricky.” The iconic guitar riff from the Knack’s 1979 rock hit, “My Sharona,” shimmies through the breaks in between the sparse, hard-hitting beat.
This was not the first instance in which Run-DMC pulled samples from the genre to create an instantly recognizable rap-rock combination. The group also set Aerosmith’s raucous “Walk This Way” to a beat with the band’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry along for the ride.
“It’s Tricky” was not well received by the Knack, however. In 2006, nearly two decades after the song was released, the Knack’s Doug Fieger and Berton Averre sued the group for sampling their song without permission.
The Music Video
The “It’s Tricky” music video opens on magic duo Penn and Teller hustling a group of people outside of a theatre. In a card game, they have swindled one women out of everything she has, even down to the chain around her neck.
Penn and Teller exit when a cop gets wind of what they’re doing and the woman is left to call Run-DMC for help. The trio track down the hustlers who prove to be no match against the rap group. Watch the battle unfold in the video below.
Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images