The hip-hop pioneers are quick to boast about the millions of records they’ve sold, how they took rap mainstream with hits like “It’s Tricky,” and how they basically started the whole rap-rock fusion genre, most notably with their smash collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way.”

But even the Kings of Rock, as they like to call themselves, know that legend won’t get them too far among today’s rap fans, who know more lyrics from newcomers like Lil’ Bow Wow or Ludacris than any of the groundbreaking raps Run-D.M.C. recited.

So as they attempt a comeback with their new album, Crown Royal, the once mighty rap pioneers are willingly sharing the spotlight with today’s current hitmakers, hoping collaborations with artists like Kid Rock, Method Man, Limp Bizkit‘s Fred Durst and R&B group Jagged Edge will help them capture the attention of today’s music fans.

“We’re a nonentity until we drop a hit record, and that’s the bottom line,” said Joseph Simmons, better known as DJ Run. “I think all the rappers, they look up to us … if we come through and do something big, it makes them look up to us even more.”

Although the trio of DJ Run, Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) and DMC (Darryl McDaniels) have stayed in the public eye over the years with a heavy tour schedule (they’re currently on the road into next month) they haven’t made an impact on the charts for years. Their last album, 1993’s Down With the King, was certified gold, but hardly made the splash of albums released during their peak, such as the multiplatinum Raising Hell in 1986.

Like the majority of rap’s early performers, Run-D.M.C. watched their celebrity diminish as the genre exploded in popularity, producing numerous stars whose albums routinely sell millions of copies – artists like DMX, Eminem, Jay-Z and Dr. Dre.

But instead of growing bitter about their declining role, Simmons decided to recapture it with an approach similar to Santana, who sold millions of copies of 1999’s Supernatural in part because of collaborations with younger artists such as matchbox twenty‘s Rob Thomas and Wyclef Jean.

“We incorporated ourselves and injected ourselves into the young people through being down with the young people,” said Simmons. “Truthfully, the whole album is full of youth. The oldest people on the album is us.”

While it may end up winning Run-D.M.C. some new fans, the strategy cost them artistically.

McDaniels, fed up with the Simmons’ and Mizell’s desire to capture the youth market, left the project and is barely heard on any of the tracks, even though he is prominently featured on the album’s cover and is participating in their current tour. “He wants his record on the radio, he wants the hot video,” McDaniels said of Simmons, his longtime friend. “And I’m not really about that anymore.” McDaniels, who like his partners is 36 and married with children, said he was frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to showcase his personal and musical evolution on the album, released this week. For example, instead of boasting about his rap skills, he’d rather talk about his life as a parent. And he’d rather rap to music that sounds like Bob Dylan than DMX.

“Right now I’m in a more mellow mode,” he said. “And wherever you are at in life, especially if you are a musician or an artist, those things must be reflected in the music, and some of the things I wanted to say on the album, it was like, ‘D., you can’t say that.”‘

Producer-rapper Jermaine Dupri, one of the many stars on the album, says McDaniels’ limited role takes away from the group’s attempted comeback.

“I think it’s a big loss,” he said. “I think DMC played a very, very big role. From a creative side, I think there was so much more that could have been done if DMC was around.”

Yet Dupri, who helped jump-start a Run-D.M.C. comeback last year by tapping Simmons to rap on the remix of the Jagged Edge hit “Let’s Get Married,” believes the album can still be a success, although he admits it will be an uphill battle.

Even Simmons, brother of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, acknowledges it will be tough. “We’re going to have to make a hell of an explosion for everybody to look,” he said. “I think it is a battle to get a Run-D.M.C. smash.”