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DMC on Always Being Open to Trying Something New

Now 55, Darryl McDaniels reflects on life as a rap pioneer, even as he had to hide it from his parents

DMC on New York City rooftop 2019

Kareem Black; Groomer: Hiro Yonemoto/Art Department

Part of the AARP Hip-Hop at Middle Age series

En españolA lot of people think Run DMC is the most important hip hop group of all time. What do you think?

That’s crazy! I think we were the representatives of what the culture will always be and what it has become. I think what Run-DMC was influential in doing is when hip-hop culture went into show business, we let the world know that you don’t have to change who you are to exist. What I mean by that is that the first rappers, the first hip-hoppers, had no hip-hoppers to look up to because they were the first.

They were looking to disco a lot, I feel like. They would have bright, colorful clothes. Your look was dark.

Our look was the B-boys, the break-dancers, Adidas suits. So when we came into show business, we said, “We’re coming as we are!” When the rest of the world saw us, they saw something that they could relate to.

Why is it that you guys broke out and became international superstars before anybody else could?

Well, one of the things that I look back on is that in the early years of hip-hop, everything was those message records. Even the critics and the journalists studying them, especially all the white guys said, “It’s the black ghetto music coming out of the inner city.” The Bronx was burning, so it was this dramatic thing, but it was just that. It came out of the Bronx and it was death, darkness and destruction, but here were these young people creating this culture.

But remember, Hollywood was coming here to party in the ’70s, all the movie stars and everybody hung at Studio 54. We saw that and wanted to have fun and play music, but we had no resources. We had no real estate and no money. We took our Studio 54 to the streets. In the midst of death, darkness and destruction, we wanted to have fun, too.


2018 U.S. song consumption*

  • Hip-hop/Rap — 24.7%
  • Pop — 19%
  • Rock — 11.7%
  • R&B — 11.2%
  • Latin — 10.8%
  • Country — 7.9%

*Includes physical and digital sales, plus audio streams | Source: BuzzAngle Music

You grew up in Queens, in a middle class community?

Lower-middle class community. My father was a boiler man at the bus depot for transit. My mother was a nurse. City jobs, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fortunately, I had both parents in my house. And I went to Catholic school my whole life. I used to have to run home to take off my Catholic school clothes to put on my play clothes. I got teased, bullied and picked on. Why? I had a uniform on and a big green bag that said Saint Pascal Baylon Catholic School. The poor public-school kids would come to me — kids are mean — “Oh, you go to Catholic school. Your mother and father are rich.”

 So when Run DMC came along, that even changed the mind-set of the kids in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. It made the good kids know that they could be associated with this hip-hop thing.

You put out an album and your parents didn't know.

When hip-hop came, it was my thing that I used to do in the basement alone. I wasn't doing it as a career or something that they saw was worthy. Hip-hop to me was just like playing with my GI Joe. I was just writing rhymes for me.

Me and Joe [Joseph “Run” Simmons], we went to the same school, but we didn't start hanging with each other until eighth grade. He comes over to my house to play basketball. He sees my rhyme book and he goes, “D, you wrote all of these?” And he reads them and he looks at me: “When my brother lets me make a record, I'm putting you in my group.”

August of ’82, the phone rings. It's Joe: “D, remember four years ago when I said, if I make a record, I'm putting in my group? Grab your rhyme book. Russell's letting me go into the studio. We're going to make a record.” We go to Greene Street Recording Studios. We make a record called “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s”

I go home at 2 in the morning. My mother and father are waiting at the door. “Boy, where the hell was you at? Boy, don't you ever stay out this late.” And I went to my room. I didn't tell my parents I went to make a record.

Then Joe calls: “Yo, our record’s a hit. We gotta start doing shows. We’re going to be getting $1,200 a night, D.” I go back up to my room and I'm sitting there trying to comprehend everything. And I go, oh, shoot. Joe's going to kill me because I never told my parents I even made a record.

So then what?

I go back downstairs and said, “Mom, here's the deal: If you let me go, whatever money I make this summer doing these shows, I'll use that to pay for my tuition at St. John's.”

"We’re like, 'Hold up, hold up. This is hillbilly gibberish. We ain't doing it.'

— Darryl McDaniels on Run DMC's initial response to the idea of covering 'Walk This Way'

At what point did they hear the records?

When they showed me the actual “It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.’s” singles that were going in the store. Because now it’s real to them.  Because my mother and father were familiar with 45s. So it was, like, “Ma, look. This is like what Donna Summer does.”

How did “Walk this Way” come about?

We used to look for records already made that had breaks where the people weren’t singing. We were going to sample the album with the toys on the cover. I always liked the big beat.

Rick Rubin, who was our producer, comes in the studio. “Yo, do you know who these guys are?” He gives us the 411. They're a group called Aerosmith. They’re not really doing good right now, this and that. “It would be a real good idea if y'all did the record over it.”

So us thinking from a limited hip-hop perspective, we're going sample it. Rick goes, “No, do the record over the way the band originally did it.”

We’re, like, “Hold up, hold up. This is hillbilly gibberish. We ain’t doing it.”

Jam Master Jay says, “Yo, calm down. Don’t sing it like Steven Tyler did. Rap it like Run-DMC would.” So we did it. We finished the session. Everybody’s jumping around, you know. “This is brilliant. You a poet.”

It's amazing that you made such a hot record when your heart wasn't in it and you didn't believe in it.

And the moral to that story is always be open to try something new. Because it might not just change your life, it could change the world.

Now, I can live with “Walk This Way,” because rock was always my favorite thing.

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More than hip-hop?

Yeah, because I could relate more to John Fogerty, Bob Dylan and Neil Young because they talked about political issues. So folk music or rock music was like social studies class to me. When I heard “Fortunate Son,” it made me stop playing it and go “Wow.” When I heard Neil Young talk about “tin soldiers and Nixon coming; we’re finally on our own.” That was like storytelling to me.

So when you get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, is that a culmination for you? Is that, like, wow, we really did it.

I couldn't believe we got in there. Because think about it: The joke is we used to steal all the music from these greats that's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right? You know what I'm saying? But then the thing for me, it wasn't my achievement; it's the true pioneers’ achievements.

But you guys did it with such authenticity and realness.

We took the beat from the street and put it on a CD. The street is the most important.

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, 55, was cofounder of Run-DMC, rap’s first superstar group. Run-DMC scored rap’s first gold album, collaborated with Aerosmith on crossover hit “Walk This Way” and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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