Time has changed Darryl McDaniels. To be fair, that’s true of anyone who’s been in the cultural eye for as long as he has: as one of the trio that formed ’80s hip-hop icons Run-DMC, alongside with Joe “Run” Simmons and the late Jason “Jam-Master Jay” Mizell, he’s been famous for a big chunk of his young-looking 52 years. But these days, he’s not quite the rugged-voiced Devastating Mic Controller that arguably launched rap music into the mainstream. He’s living in comfy Wayne, N.J., now, not the Hollis, Queens, neighbourhood his group made iconic (“but I’m close by,” he insists, with a laugh); he sounds a bit hoarser, even after he recovered from the voice disorder that nearly sapped his booming tenor; he’s become a big fan of Canadian soft-rock singer Sarah McLachlan. (Read our exclusive excerpt of his new memoir, Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide, to find out why.)
In this instance, though, time has changed McDaniels most of all in his understanding of himself. During his days as a stage-storming rapper, he became dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol—drinking an entire case of 40 oz. Olde English beers every day—which led him down a path of deep depression. He struggled to have his voice heard in what was quickly becoming the most famous rap group in the world—first figuratively, amid stronger personalities, then literally, after his voice gave out. And then, in the midst of his lowest lows, he learned a fact that shook his world: he was actually adopted. Now, having tracked down his birth mother and sought out therapy, he’s working with others with mental-health and addiction issues.
But here’s one thing that certainly hasn’t changed: McDaniels is still loquacious, rattling off rhymes in interviews and even finding a way to make the hardest words mellifluous. “No one asked me, ‘D, are you okay?’ ” he told Maclean’s in an interview that more than doubled its prescribed time. “I would’ve said, ‘Oh, you wanna know? I’m an alcoholic, suicidal, metaphysical, spiritual wreck that’s about to shoot people up in the mall and then go commit suicide.’ ”
So he’s certainly still as raw as ever. It’s just a different kind of raw. So in the style of his new book, here are 10 booming McDaniels commandments from that interview with Maclean’s on, from growing up in the heady early days of hip-hop, to how his personal demons manifested—and were eventually overcome.
1. On how hip-hop was similar to his love for comic books
“On ‘King of Rock,’ when Run said, ‘I’m DJ Run, I can scratch,’ I didn’t say ‘I’m DMC, I can rap.’ I said, ‘I’m DMC, I can draw,’ ‘cause all I did was read comic books and draw. For me, hip hop allowed me to tell the world all my geeky corny stuff. I go to school! Everything that I always rapped about was everyday stuff that the gangster and the Harvard student goes through, the poor person and the rich person. The beautiful thing about when hip hop first came, I read comic books and read the encyclopedia and I loved to read and write and draw, so when hip hop came my way I was just writing rhymes in my book ‘cause it was fun.
“When hip hop came along, it was just me make-believing I’m this guy that’s gonna be as great as Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee and these guys—it was just make-believe. The same way I used to pretend I was Batman and Superman in my house with a blanket around my neck was the same way I was just writing these rhymes and going down to the basement on me and my brother’s DJ equipment pretending to be Grandmaster Flash. But I was doing that over and over and over and over and over and over, and when it got to the point where it was time to do the first album, then it was time to do a video, then it was time to get up on stage, I was just make-believing my whole persona. It came from me saying this, like it was a comic-book dream: ‘I am the most powerful entity in the pop universe.’
“Marvel Comics taught me something amazing. The titles of the characters were the Amazing Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, the Invincible Iron Man. So these comic books taught me to use an adjective to describe your power and then say who you are. So on my first records I said, ‘Ima be the devastating mic controller, DMC. I’m gonna be the microphone master DMC.’ Thor is the son of Odin from this mythical, royal, majestic kingdom called Asgard from this line of gods. He had wealth and riches. So then I wrote the rhyme, ‘I’m the son of Byford, brother of Al / Banna’s my mother and Run’s my pal / It’s McDaniels not McDonald’s / These rhymes are Darryl’s, those burgers are Ronald’s / I ran down my family tree / my mother my father my brother and me.’ I was coming up with all these characters and personifications to give me confidence and when I heard a certain beat, I said, ‘I’m gonna be like the Hulk on this one, I’m gonna be like Spiderman on this one, what would Iron Man do in this adventure?’
“It got overwhelming when it became a thing, like, ‘You gotta go out there and deliver because.’ I needed the extra boost of confidence because now it’s getting competitive and now Run and Jay is worried and now there’s a lot of pressure. I’ve gotta show up. The thing that made me feel good without even having to use my imagination was just a sip of that Olde English over there. So imagine that. All I was doing was shows, so all I was doing was drinking before the show and then after the show. That’s how the alcohol became my confidence.”
2. On why he wasn’t actually that excited when Run-DMC got signed to a record label
“I didn’t care. I remember I hated going to sign the deal—I remember when we got signed to Profile, me and Run had to get on the damn bus, get on the subway and go to some f–king lawyer’s office at 6:30 p.m. on a f–king school night. The rap s–t was ruining my life even back then! I need to be home doing my projects. 6:30! That means I’m not gonna get home till 9:30, then I gotta get up at 6 a.m. to be at the bus stop by 6:30 to take three busses and two trains to make it to Rice High School. That s–t was ruining my life back then and I didn’t realize it.
“I was actually in the lunch room at St. John’s University when ‘Sucker MCs’ came on in the cafeteria and the whole lunch room jumps up: ‘Oh my God, who are these guys?! Who are these Run-DMC guys?’ And I didn’t get up and say, ‘That’s me!’ The day they played Run-DMC on the radio, to me, it was, ‘Yes! It’s done! That’s the end!’ I didn’t know all this other stuff was gonna happen.
“So for me it was like, Run saw I had a skill, something that he could use. So he was like, ‘Yo D, here’s the beat, let’s do this record. D, help me rock ‘It’s Like That.’ OK, we gonna do this album, what rhymes you got?’ I used to walk in the studio, Russell [Simmons, Joe’s brother and the iconic founder of Def Jam] used to say, ‘What rhymes you got? OK, put that record on there.’ So for me it was fun, it was recreational for me, to be able to sit there and write.
“I wrote my rhymes on ‘Sucker MCs’ when I graduated Rice High School. It was, ‘Oh shoot, I got accepted to St. John’s University,’ and then I went right to my room and wrote, ‘I’m DMC / in the place to be.’ When Run did bring me to the studio to finally record with him, I wasn’t even supposed to be on ‘Sucker MCs’. Run had this whole record written—’Sucker MCs’—but ‘It’s Like That’ was more of a record that was, you know, like ‘The Message’ and ‘Planet Rock,’ so Russ was like, ‘This is gonna be the single.’ Because originally ‘Sucker MCs’ was gonna be Joe’s first record by himself, so Russ was gonna make this ‘It’s Like That’ new record, the socially conscious record. That’s why if you listen to ‘Sucker MCs,’ Run rhymes three times.
“But Run says to me, ‘D go in there and put one of your new rhymes on the record.’ I’m looking at Run in the studio, ‘Motherf–ker it’s 2 a.m., I didn’t even tell my mother I’m here!’ I’m all the way in the city of Manhattan in the Green Street recording studio in some basement in f–kin’ Soho. When Run came and picked me up at 2 p.m. on a Sunday I said, ‘Ma, I’ll be home later, I’m going to Joe’s house.’ I didn’t say I was going there.
“So I go in there and I say, ‘Let me say my new rhyme.’ And I always tell kids, I just made a rhyme about going to school! I made a rhyme: ‘I like eating chicken and collard greens.’ They all laugh and stuff like that. So for me I was just saying what I was doing. I didn’t write rhymes for records. Run discovered I had all these motherf–kin’ rhymes and was like, ‘Yo, this is a goldmine!’ ”
3. On how he found out he was adopted
“When I was gonna kill myself, I said, ‘I’m depressed.’ And people were telling me, ‘how you gonna be depressed, you’re DMC!’ But all that fortune and fame is bulls–t, that s–t don’t mean nothing. It’s only good if it’s fun, but it don’t mean nothing for the soul, or for your life, and for you as a person. So I was like, ‘OK, if I do die tomorrow, people will know the DMC story, there were two books written on us, there’s a Behind the Music, you can Wikipedia my ass, whatever whatever. But just in case I do die, I want people to know the little boy Darryl.’ In the book I wanna say, ‘Yo, what’s up world, I’m DMC, you know from the groundbreaking group Run-DMC First to go gold, first to go platinum, first on the cover of Rolling Stone, first everything that people do in hip hop, they say is because of me, Run, and Jay—but I’m really just Darryl McDaniels from Hollis, Queen’s, New York. I’m no different from any other little boy or girl on this earth who was born May 31, 1964.’
“I knew my birthday but I didn’t know no details. So I called my moms up: ‘Yo mom I’m writing a book: how much did I weigh, what time I was born, what hospital?’ She told me those things, hung up the phone. An hour later, she calls back with my father and basically says, ‘Hey son! We have something else to tell you.’
” ‘OK, shoot.’
” ‘Well you was a month old when we brought you home and you’re adopted but we love you, bye.’ It was almost like the gods, the mighty one, Yahweh, Buddha, the Almighty, whatever you want to call him or her, it was almost like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna kill himself! We’ve gotta reveal to him his secret!’ And it was revealed to me that my whole life as DMC I’ve been living my story from chapter two of my story. I thought it all started in Hollis, Queens, New York. Son, you have no idea. And that revelation—you’re adopted—OK that’s why I had these funny feelings and I didn’t know what that was, and once I received those feelings, everything about why I drank, why I act the way I act, why I had to wait 30-some-odd years to learn my truths, it all made sense.”
4. On dropping hints about his alcoholism on Run-DMC records
“If you listen to Back From Hell [Run DMC’s 1990 album, widely seen as a disaster], on all of those records I’m f–kin’ pissy f–kin’ drunk. I did the rhyme: ‘I got to pee / I got to pee upon a tree, right / I got to pee, I got to pee upon a tree / I pee upon a tree because I drink too much Olde E / Now it’s time for the pee to come out of me / So I go and pee, I go and pee upon a tree, right / I go and pee, I go and pee upon a tree / There’s people that walk by and say, ‘Hey that’s DMC!’ and I look and say, ‘No no, it is not me.’
‘You know on ‘The Ave.’, from Back From Hell, I talked about my alcoholism. I said, ‘Sometimes I whine when I’m crying broke,’ and Joe thought that’s the deffest line ever because when I say ‘sometimes I whine’ he thought I meant not crying. What I meant was they had 99-cent bottles of wine at the liquor store, Night Train, and when we was broke when we couldn’t get Bacardi or vodka and coke, we would go get 99 pennies and go get Night Train wine.
“Back from Hell was cra-f–kin-zy. Back from Hell, that’s when I put a refrigerator in my truck so that I didn’t have to stop at the grocery store to buy 40s. I would wake up in the morning and go get a case. Twelve 40-oz bottles in a case and I would put it in the refrigerator in my truck and I would drink all day and then I would go out with Jay at nighttime, we’d go to the clubs. During the day, it was Olde English all day then I would go out to the club and drink. Back in the day it was Screwdrivers—vodka and orange juice—and rum and coke, and I would do that until three or four in the morning, go home at five, sleep till 8 o’clock, get up and start doing it all over again. From ’88 is when it got crazy. From ’88 to ’91, 24/7 drinking, acute pancreatitis, the doctor tells me, ‘You have two choices: you can drink and die or not drink and live.’ So I went cold turkey for nine years and then when I found out that I was adopted I started drinking again for four years and then I realized that I gotta help myself and that’s when I helped myself.’ ”
5. On how men refuse to admit they don’t need mental health help
“That’s the masculine thing to do. They think it’s the cool thing to do, instead of saying, ‘I need help.’ The first thing you’ve got to say is ‘I need help.’ It took me sitting there after drinking a whole fifth of Remi Martin or Jack Daniels—I forgot which one it was—‘cause my wife was telling me, ‘D, you need to go to rehab,’ for four years. ‘D, you need to go to rehab.’ But I said, ‘No I’m all right.’ ‘Cause I was a functional drunk, but no, D: you f–kin’ killin yourself. It took me to say, ‘OK I need to go to rehab’. And it took me to say, ‘After rehab I still need therapy.’ And it took me to say, ‘It’s OK to cry.’ It took me to say, ‘It’s OK to feel the way I feel and then express the way I feel.’ So it’s a problem with men but even more for black men. It’s a big issue. But even all men, in age and culture. In all of our cultures, there’s stupid things that us men do because we think it’s the masculine man thing to do, not realizing we are destroying our very universe. I don’t see myself as political or religious but a lot of what is in my book can be applied to areas outside of sobriety and substance abuse and depression. Being truthful. You feel it. You feel it and you know the truth.
“Now people ask me to talk to people they know. I’m at the gym and a guy from the fire department comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Yo DMC, can you come by the firehouse and talk to some of the firemen?’ And I was like, ‘Why, is somebody there adopted?’ And he says no, all of these firemen and policemen are f–king abusing substances ‘cause life is f–ked up for them; they going through stuff. So it was a thing where because men don’t go to therapy, they’ll let DMC be the therapist, you know what I’m saying? And that started making sense for me.”
6. On the difference between rap in 1980 and in 2016
“The OGs need to hear the young Gs, and the young Gs need to listen to the OGs and then we take the young Gs’ and OGs’ ideas, concepts, images, put them together, present it to the world and we’ll have change, we’ll have elevation, we’ll have transformation. We don’t have that no more. We just got a lot of motherf–kers doing hip hop right now. But when we was doing it, one thing gave birth to another. ‘The Message,’ ‘Planet Rock,’ ‘The Breaks,’ ‘Rock Box,’ Public Enemy, LL Cool J, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest. It was growth, and it was transformative. Now it’s just a bunch of people doing the same thing. We need those differences. And even if it’s going to be very hardcore street, you know, when you listen to Scarface, his rhyme on ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’, wasn’t saying, ‘Yo, praise me and glorify me ‘cause I’m a drug dealer getting a lot of money f–kin’ up your neighbourhood. It was, ‘At night I can’t sleep lord, I don’t wanna be doing this, there’s gotta be another way, this isn’t the life.’ That was the power of hip hop. The drug dealer, the gangbanger didn’t say, ‘Yo, it’s cool to do this.’ It was like, ‘Man, there’s gotta be another way.’ And once we found out that other way we put it on a record.”
7. On being competitive in rap music
“Throughout the ’90s and throughout the 2000s when hip hop was changing, I had lyrics that would f–kin’ put a f–kin’ foot in all of these MCs’ mouths, all of our competition’s mouth. I had a song called ‘Chill With a Mil’ and ‘You Still Got Beef’ way before Biggie had ‘Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems.’ Run-DMC, we were the kings, we selling out the big tours, we got the sneaker deals, now all of a sudden they sayin’ we soft? And we sold out? Yeah, you know we got the ‘Walk This Way,’ we got ‘Mary, Mary’ songs, but y’all forgetting motherf–kers we had ‘Here We Go,’ we had ‘Party People’—’Your dreams have now been fulfilled.’
“Throughout our career we always wrote records that would let people know, ‘Yeah we may be this pop commercial group but motherf–ker, we can take all this s–t right to the park right now and destroy all y’all.’ Even when ‘Walk This Way’ was out, when Big Daddy Kane came out, Run used to come to me saying, ‘Public Enemy is better than us!’ Then later, Run would be like, ‘Don’t say this or that, don’t hang with LL Cool J, LL’s trying to read your mind and steal our ideas.’ My whole career, I always liked everybody else except me. I didn’t care about what I did.”
8. On the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef
“Yes, I followed that—hell yeah! But see, our thing was different. See, I always addressed everyone around us in my songs. In ’85 when all of these new guys was coming up around us, I don’t wanna be the king of rap. Who wants to be the king of y’all motherf–kers? Y’all ain’t important. I want to be the king of Elvis, I wanna be the king of Hendrix, I wanna be the king of the Rolling Stones. So I wrote a rhyme: ‘The King of Rock / there is none higher.’
“And then when I did my rhymes on ‘Hit It Run’: ‘Born to rock around the clock / You can’t say I’m not / And in case you forgot,’ you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause King of Rock was ’85, we in ’86 now and all these MCs like KRS-One was throwing shots at us. People were throwing shots left and right, EPMD was throwing shots in their lyrics. So I went back to the b-boy street s–t, f–k this record s–t. I’m a child of the cassette tapes before ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was even recorded. I come from the era when Melle Mel rhymed liked me. I rhyme like this ‘cause of Melle Mel. See y’all motherf–kers only know Melle Mel from ‘The Message,’ I know Melle Mel from when he had an echo chamber, and Flash was dropping Apache. So when I did ‘I’m the devastating mic controller DMC / And can’t nobody mess around with me.’ Then I said this, ‘I’m the king of rock, rap, and of rhyme,’ ‘cause this guy was like, ‘I’m the king of rhyme.’ Motherf–ker, I’m the king of rock, rap, and of rhyme. At first I didn’t want to come down to their level. But let’s say I’m the king of rock, rap, and I’m the king of it all. So I would do, ‘Do you really believe what’s going on / I was conceived and I was born / I once was lost but now I’m found / Tell your bunch I’m boss, I run this town / I leave all suckers in the dust and of course you dumb motherf–kers can’t mess with us.’ Yo come on, you know what I’m saying? So I was always prepared at every level at every year for all of that and, like I said, I had so much stuff when it all started to change and we were famous. I was like, ‘F–k this famous s–t. This s–t is bedroom, basement, street, block party fun, and I was always armed. But what had happened is what I say in the book. I would come with ideas and run ’em and Jay would say, ‘No, we ain’t doin’ that,’ and I would be like, ‘OK,’ you know what I’m saying? Sitting there smiling in their face when inside I was hurt.”
9. On rap beefs, and similar creative outlets, being healthy
“A lot of the foster kids I deal with ain’t violent kids. What happens is this: they got something they need to talk about, they got something that they need to release, so, because they’re not getting that opportunity they lash out violently against others. You know, the kids that’s always fighting and punching and stabbing and hurting other kids, there’s something that you go, ‘Yo what’s wrong with you, man? You can laugh, you can cry, what is it?’ I always go one-on-one when I go to speak with these kids, too. ‘Who are you? What do you want to do? What’s your dream? What’s your desire?’ Now if you don’t want to lash out and hurt people—a lot of people don’t want to hurt other people, I was one of those guys. I felt like I wanted to go to the mall with a gun, but I didn’t want to hurt nobody, I didn’t want to hurt myself.
“See, you got three options: You lash out violently to hurt others, if you don’t want to hurt others you hurt yourself. How do you hurt yourself? You abuse substances, you use drugs, you go sleep with everybody. If you’re not into that, if that don’t give you enough high, you cut yourself. I’m mentoring a girl here in Wayne at the School of Rock who continually cuts herself. Then I discovered that she writes poetry and draws, but she actually thought drawing wasn’t cool. I was like, ‘I draw,’ and she said, ‘You do?’ And so now she draws instead of cutting herself.
“But if you don’t want to hurt anybody else, if you don’t want to hurt yourself, your last option is suicide. Let me OD on the pills, let me slit my wrists, let me jump off the building. I was at that one. I didn’t want to punch Jay and Joe in the face when they disappointed me. I wasn’t gonna go hang myself because this record s–t ain’t that important. But my only solution was, ‘I don’t wanna live no more.’ When I look at my career, every decision that went wrong was somebody else’s decision that I had no say in—but I followed along. It didn’t have to happen, that’s why in the book you never hear me say, ‘Run did this.’ No. S–t happened, here’s what Run did, here’s what I did. What I did was wrong.
“For me, art was healthy and it goes all the way back to me writing rhymes. I didn’t write rhymes ‘cause Run wanted to put me in the group. I had books and books of rhymes when he walked into my basement. It was healthy for me to talk about my mother being a nurse and my father working in transit all those years. It was just in my book, not for anybody to see—but it was healthy for me.”
10. On what is lost because rap is a young person’s game
“In my show before I do ‘Walk This Way,’ I do a whole routine about that. ‘Y’all motherf–kers don’t tell Bruce Springsteen that he’s 60 years old and he can’t do rock’n’roll anymore.’ And what this industry don’t know is, we should learn from the kids, but the kids need to learn from us too. The more you do something the better you get at it. So think about this, you got these young kids coming out having these big hit records, two and three years go by and nobody wanna hear their music anymore. With what I did at 18, I can still get on stage right now and a kid that was born yesterday will think it’s new.
“There’s a big lack of respect for the elders in hip hop. To the point that I can walk into the local rap station, but here’s the difference. If you go in the rock station and they’re sitting there interviewing David Grohl, and you know how in a radio station you have the control room and you got the big glass window, right? So David Grohl is on the air, primetime, getting interviewed and David Grohl and the DJ sees Neil Young walk by? They would go, ‘Stop!’ The DJ will say stop and David Grohl would say, ‘Mr. Young, you gotta come here and sit down.’ But if DMC walks by, and they’re interviewing Lil’ Wayne, they’ll go, ‘Oh DMC just walked by, he’s a legend.’ And then they’ll keep going on as opposed to bringing me in and exposing me to that.
“See, when I walk into a room and I’m introduced to a kid, he sees me now at 50 and says, ‘This dude made that “Sucker MCs” record 30 years ago.’ But he needs to know—play this record now and let him know—they don’t even address who I am now. ‘I made that record when I was your age homey!’ There’s not a generation gap, it’s an information gap. There’s no respect for the elders of hip hop. ‘Yeah, we respect them, it’s cool, they used to do…’ Motherf–ker, I don’t ‘used to do’ hip-hop! I was at a gas station one time and a white kid about maybe 20 years old came up to me, I mean he was mesmerized, he wanted a picture and an autograph, but this was his words: ‘Oh my god! You used to be Run-DMC.’ I was like, ‘I just got back from doing a show in Dubai!’
“Our media, our hip hop media, doesn’t do the justice that rock, classic, jazz, and all the other genres of music do. What I mean by that is: if Neil Young come out with an album next year, he’s gonna get the cover of all these rock magazines and when you open up the article it’s gonna be six to ten pages on what he used to do, what he’s done lately, and what he’s about to do. Nowadays, if Melle Mel drops a record, it’s on page 203 at the end under all the f–kin’ ads, ‘Melle Mel’s going on tour.’ I don’t do interviews about Run-DMC being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because everybody thinks we’re the first rappers. I’ll be at events and they’ll say, ‘They were the first rap act to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ No, stop. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five because of ‘The Message’ was the first rap group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is the most incredible thing ever in the f–king history of music and Chuck D [from Public Enemy] said it was a f–kin’ blip in hip hop and black media. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five shoulda had every cover, they shoulda been on every f–kin’ variety show, interview show, f–kin’ Source, XXL. MTV shoulda f–kin gave them the f–kin week of where they come from, but there’s no respect for that ‘cause they didn’t do nothing.
“It’s not about paying tribute. Nobody gotta do anything. This is what needs to happen: the same way you got a Rock on the Range festival, the same way you got rappers going to Coachella, we need a three-day hip hop festival that starts with everybody from Kool Herc to everybody now. So you can include the majority of the great acts that did change the world, get family-inclusive music. You can go bring your sons and your daughters and your grandmother to a Naughty by Nature show. You might hear an F-word here or there but musically, you know what I’m saying? We need a three-day festival that shows Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, Kurtis Blow. ’80s, ’90s, all the way up to now. We at that point that we can do that. Me and Chuck D are about to go to all of our boys and say, ‘We gonna do this, and we gonna do it with the same integrity that Sarah McLachlan did when she did Lilith Fair.’ ”
This interview has been condensed and edited.