As one third of the legendary group RUN-DMC, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels helped define hip hop as we know it. With hits like “It’s Tricky” and their then unheard of collaboration with rock ‘n roll artists Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, RUN-DMC broke down barriers of all kinds in creating music that was at once relatable and inspiring. Celebrity Parents spoke exclusively with DMC on the beauty of hip hop, his self-described “metaphysical, suicidal, alcoholic spiritual wreck” phase, and how success without significance is meaningless.
Full disclosure. I’m from Queens, and I had the big gold hoop earrings and rocked out to RUN-DMC.
What part of Queens are you from?
Oh yeah, right by Queens Boulevard. Queens is the best!
Of course!!! Let’s dive right into it. Let’s talk about RUN-DMC.
Without the hip hop that existed before it, there would be no RUN-DMC. We definitely learned from the previous artists. But once the artists started thinking about show business, hip hop lost its beauty. At a young age, we knew that we could sell venues, but we couldn’t ever lose the reason why this music does what it does. Everything that inspired us we put into our music.
What inspired you?
The world around us. And our music changed the world because our message was so much better than what the artists are doing now. We listened to our elders; we listened to our parents and to teachers. We read books and we questioned. If we sat with the gangsters in the neighborhood, we listened to them when they said, “You can do better than this. I’m a drug dealer. You don’t have to be one.” We would listen to both and then put it on records.
The problem with hip hop today is that you have dudes 25 or 50 years old dressing like young kids. The music is not innovative or creative. You have to make a difference. Over the last 10 years, hip hop has gone backwards. It’s okay for the girls to be half-naked; it’s okay to be illiterate. NO, it isn’t!
The things that made our hip hop powerful were the messages of togetherness, respect, and responsibility, but those things are underground.
Those are themes that are not celebrated.
Right. Because it doesn’t make money. Record labels are only going to make what sells. The artist has to take responsibility for the privilege they’ve been given. I blame the politicians. They see what’s happening in the inner cities. Teach the kids better things so they can put better things on the records. You’ll let the schools close and build more prisons.
Musically, who inspired you and RUN-DMC?
Afrika Bambaataa for sure. He was the leader of the biggest gang in NYC. But when hip hop came along, he didn’t talk about gang fights. They made a record called Planet Rock, and in the midst of despair, they gave us vision. It was a 16 year old man, telling us, at 16, that there was hope.
Now, how did you grow up?
We grew up in a suburban lower middle class area. But here’s the difference: I lived in a home. My father got up and mowed the lawn. I had two parents who were together, and they went to work every day. I saw them 3-4 hours a day because they were out working so I could have the American Dream. Those who inspired me were those in the dirt-poor ghetto who knew there could be good. That music did that.
And it was music without explanation. You could watch it and discover great new music. LL Cool J said that he and his family watched the documentary about me finding my birth mother when I found out I was adopted because it was a show they could watch together. That’s the point. The business of music is like any other industry. You have Disney and then you have porn. Right now, we have porn. Everything in between those two is what’s important. Kids will have a better understanding of what they should do in their lives.
I think when people think of RUN-DMC, they not only think of the music, but the gear you, Rev Run and Jay wore.
We wore Adidas with no laces, gazelles, godfather hats, and gold chains, but we didn’t set out to make it a fashion statement. Our message was so powerful and profound that people wanted to follow us and dress like us. Honestly, I got scared when 50,000 people wanted to dress like me! It was our message that was more important; we never said, “Drink beer, smoke weed and go have sex!” When we gave the total experience of what we were living, people had a better understanding of what they needed to do in their own lives. At a young age, we were already parenting. So when I speak to people, they would say, “You’re a straight A student? Wow, it must be cool to be good.” So you set the example, and truly be that example.
Now let’s talk about your collaboration with Pauley Perrette, “Attention, Please.”
RUN-DMC’s first desire was to be the best DJ’s and MC’s in the world. We were able to accomplish that. But I always had a role to play. It’s a team, and I’m wide receiver so I can’t play quarterback. Joe has always been the front man. As an artist, I like to work with real musicians. I wanted to do a song which talks topics in a way that’s comprehendible to the 6 year old kid as well as the 60 year old adult. When I first started rhyming I had to be great. Now I have to fill a purpose and a need. I’ll write a song about the foster care system. In the end, rap is what I do, but not who I am.
And you love music that’s beyond hip hop.
As a kid, I loved Elton John, the Beatles, Harry Chapin, the Doobie Brothers and Bob Dylan. The singer/songwriter folk musicians touched my life. It’s meaningful; I can be a total reflection of my thoughts and feelings. I don’t have to out rhyme Eminem or outsell Lil Wayne. I just have to be the best artist to ever touch the mike.
You got to that point. Now you have to do something with it.
Right, right, right! I found out who I am. At age 35. It was before Jay got shot, but that was a catalyst too. We were touring together, and I would lay in my hotel room and go, “Am I here just to be DMC? The first king of rock, the first to go gold, the first on MTV, the first hip hop artists on a Rolling Stone cover, doing Live Aid, performing “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith? Because if this is what life is about, I hate it!”
My friends thought I was crazy. I realized success without significance means nothing. Then I got really, really depressed. There was something missing. I got to a point where I became a metaphysical, suicidal, alcoholic spiritual wreck. I’m DMC, I can do that, but something wasn’t being fulfilled. I read the Bible 50 times, cover to cover. Even the hard part with the Ark, and the measurements, words I couldn’t even pronounce! I thought, it’s in here, it must mean something!
Then I got a bunch of Deepak Chopra books and that didn’t work. So I turned to the bottle—Jack Daniels and Jim Beam became my best friends. But then I got uncomfortable with everything. I started to read about planes of existence. I thought I would kill myself to get to the next plane. Stupid, I know, but I really started believing it. I just wanted what I was feeling to be gone. I didn’t want to do it, though, and then I called my mom. She called me back an hour later with my father on the phone and they told me, at the age of 35, that I had been adopted.
Wow. That must have been a shock.
And it came at what seemed like the worst time. Then, my mom told me that I was in foster care, and then everything started to make sense. I became DMC for a bigger reason. I looked back on my lyrics, and realized that my music was always defining what I should be. I saw that I had a purpose to use that power for, and it all made sense.
Life is fun again. It’s more fun than before. I don’t drink or get high anymore. I don’t substances to create a fake feeling of what I was supposed to be getting. If I had been running around doing Live Aid and with my Adidas and not high, what would it really have been like to experience it? But fortunately I realized I was killing myself and then went to rehab, and now I can talk to people because I’ve walked in their shoes. I can talk to a foster kid or an adopted kid. Rock and roll artists can make a song about war, and people listen. If hip hop is so powerful, why aren’t the artists addressing the issues like Lennon or Dylan did?
Exactly. It’s all about not being afraid of responsibility. When we did songs, “It’s Like That,” and “That’s the Way It Is,” it’s the total truth of the existence. When we did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith, two generations came together and brought a whole new generation of musical artists like Cypress Hill, Blink 182, and Limp Bizkit.
Let’s talk about your charity, Camp Felix.
Once I found out I was adopted, I started talking to kids. I wanted to do something for the kids who don’t get adopted. I started Camp Felix with Sheila Jaffe, a Hollywood casting director. We wanted foster kids to have a better life, and give them a sense that they do have a family. Family has nothing to do with flesh and blood. We created a summer camp where foster kids can go for a couple of weeks, and not only have fun, but see that there’s something more out there for them. It’s a sleep away camp with over 100 foster kids to create vision and inspiration. Hopefully the kids can go back with their families, but the camp helps them to feel better about themselves. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I can cry right now talking about it.
Where do you see Camp Felix going?
We want to take Camp Felix national, so we can put it everywhere, and create a curriculum in every foster agency. Foster care is great for a million situations, but it can be horrible, too. We want to make what’s wrong with foster care right. And I can be the voice for those causes.
As part of RUN-DMC, you connected with people on a large level, and now on a personal level as Darryl McDaniels. But now you’re going big again.
A lot of younger people have those desires to do good in the world and the will to make it better. Those are the people who I can open doors for. It has a greater purpose now.
Now, you’ve been working with Jam Master Jay’s son, TJ. What is that experience like?
TJ wanted to be a DJ. At first, his mother was not thrilled but TJ has his own identity. He doesn’t want to dress like his dad. He can follow in his father’s footsteps but with his own style. He has his own thought process. It’s a blessing for me to mentor him, but an even bigger blessing to have worked with both Jay and his son. I can share everything that I learned with him, and he can learn, but now he’s educating me.
And it all comes full circle.
True. My own son is 17, I’m married; it’s all good now. When I look at the sum of the tales I rapped about, I’m living it. People can take pieces of my journey and apply it to their journey. And that’s what it’s all about.