This story was originally published in October 2011.
A burst of thunder, three drumbeats and lightning-strike guitars — the opening riff to Slayer's "Raining Blood," from 1986's Reign in Blood, is undeniably one of the most monumental moment in metal history. So monumental, in fact, that its influence has resounded far beyond extreme music: Artists as diverse as pop-punks Reggie and the Full Effect and Dirty South rapper Lil Jon have used the riff (not to mention about eight million hardcore bands), and the song has been covered by everyone from piano-playing singer/songwriter Tori Amos to YouTube-star kid sisters jamming out on Rocksmith. We talked to Slayer's Jeff Hanneman, the classic cut's main songwriter, about his and the band's definitive song, its origins, evolution and lasting legacy.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WRITING THE MAIN RIFF TO "RAINING BLOOD"?
JEFF HANNEMAN I just remember when I came up with it, I thought, This is pretty good. I instantly grabbed my little mini-recorder or whatever I had at that time and recorded it so I wouldn't forget it. I had no idea that the fans would react to it as much as they do. Still, to this day, when we play that song, they go nuts. It's just unbelievable. At concerts, you know the drum buildup before we start playing that riff? It's almost like an eerie calm going on in the audience. But once it starts, when we start playing that riff, they fucking go crazy. I think its success is that it's so simplistic. It just sticks in your head. It embeds itself in your brain, and you sing it in your head all day and the only cure is to play the song again. Kids go nuts for that song. Like I said, I knew it had something that was really eerie about it or whatever, but I didn't know it was going to be as big as it was. In fact, I played it for Kerry [King, Slayer's other guitarist] on my little 8-track, and Kerry was like, "So." And I'm like, [laughing] "Dude, c'mon this is cool!"
WHAT DID THE OTHER GUYS THINK OF IT?
Fuckin' Dave [Lombardo, then–Slayer drummer] loved it. Tom [Araya, vocals, bass] loved it. Kerry was the only one that was like, "Huh, what?" Of course, he loves it now.
DO YOU REMEMBER HOW IT SOUNDED IN DEMO FORM?
I came up with the riff and I had some stuff to go after it. Not what is actually on the song now, but I did the whole buildup. The whole "bomp bomp bomp" and the eerie guitar sounds, and I put it down on my little 8-track with my drum machine. And I thought it sounded great.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT WRITING THE SONG?
I pretty much started the lyrics and I hit a roadblock and I think Kerry finished them up. Then I came back and did the ending part. The whole "Raining Blood." That part. But it pretty much came together easy. It's a short song.
WHAT WERE YOUR MUSICAL INFLUENCES AROUND THAT TIME?
I think pretty much punk. I think those were still my big punk days. Wasted Youth, T.S.O.L., Minor Threat.
HOW DID YOUR PRODUCER, RICK RUBIN, REACT TO IT?
I think on that song he just said, "It's done. It's perfect." That's pretty much how Rubin works. It's either, "Oh, this sucks." Or "It's perfect." [Laughs] Then he'll throw in his two cents. Our big thing is we'll either listen to him or if we think it's dumb, it's dumb, and we won't do it. But his big contribution to that album was the sound. That was the first time we ever sounded that in-your-face. The past records were all a lot of reverb, too much reverb. We didn't know exactly what we wanted. But looking back it's like I don't know why we even put up with that much reverb. But we were kids. And Rubin just said, "Fuck the reverb," and said, "Let's just put it straight." Like it would be, I guess, live or whatever. After that we were like, "Yeah, let's keep it this way."
HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN SICK OF PLAYING "RAINING BLOOD"?
Not really, because it's a great song. It's short and the kids go nuts. Every night when we play it, once the kids go off like they do, it gives you goosebumps. You go off. It's still fun to play.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HOW IT HAS BEEN EMBRACED IN THE SPORTS WORLD?
Yeah. I finally heard it, God, they played it in a hockey arena. I couldn't believe that. I love hockey, and I go to a lot of the games. And I was like, Why don't they ever play Slayer? And then they finally played "Raining Blood," and I was like, "Yes!"
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF TORI AMOS' COVER OF "RAINING BLOOD"?
I would have to say her version was the most original. Is this our song? It's like, why would you even do that song? Something about the rag? I don't know. She just asked if it was OK, and we said, OK, knock yourself out. And that was the end of it. The only cool thing about it is, I guess, because she did that song, we were playing over in Europe and we were really late and we were going on before her. We were super late and she just said, "No problem." We got there late, our flight was late or whatever, and she said, "No problem. Play your whole set." Like, Wow. I thought she was gonna be a bitch.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF HOW SOME PEOPLE USE THAT RIFF AS THEIR RINGTONE?
[Laughs] Yeah. That's pretty cool. I actually would think that would be goofy, but that is pretty cool.
DID THE SUCCESS OF THAT SONG INTIMIDATE YOU AS A BAND IN ANY WAY WHEN YOU WERE WRITING YOUR NEXT ALBUM, SOUTH OF HEAVEN?
It was just like, we're not going to be able to top that whole album. We're not going to be able to beat that. That's why we did South of Heaven and Seasons, we just kind of mellowed out a little bit. Not mellow, but slowed down. Maybe this new album [World Painted Blood] will be… I don't think anything can beat Reign in Blood. [Laughs] Who am I kidding?
Below, see Anthrax, Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown honor Slayer's Jeff Hanneman in 2013 by closing their rendition of Pantera's "This Love" with the iconic opening of "Raining Blood":