The unabridged version of our interview with D.M.C. below; the version in our print edition is slightly shorter for space reasons.
For the last thirty years, legendary hip-hop group Run-D.M.C. has racked up honor after musical honor. They were the first rap group to go platinum and first to be nominated for a Grammy Award. They were the first to sell out a whole arena tour. Honored as the Greatest Hip-Hop Group of all-time by both MTV and VH1, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Their impact on the culture and history of hip-hop is practically immeasurable.
The trio includes Joseph "Run" Simmons, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and the late Jason "Jam-Master Jay" Mizell, whose decade-old murder remains unsolved. Run has gone on to a successful solo music career, an active ministry and a three-year run as a star on the MTV reality show, Run's House. D.M.C.'s post-Run life has been a little more complicated. After leaving Run-D.M.C., McDaniels experienced a myriad of health issues, including a bout with depression that left him almost incapacitated. He credits a well-timed radio play of a Sarah McLachlan song ("Angel") for saving his life.
On his journey out of depression, McDaniels decided to investigate his heritage, culminating in his discovery that he was adopted out of foster care. His subsequent work with children in foster care and the founding of a summer camp has earned him a Congressional Angels in Adoption Award.
IUPUI student Godfrey Coker met McDaniels about a year ago in Indianapolis. They immediately connected over their shared interest in African social justice issues. Their friendship culminated in the creation of a benefit event for House of Restoration Africa, Coker's nonprofit. HORA responds to immediate needs of families in West Africa, and proceeds from the D.M.C. event will benefit the nonprofit directly.
NUVO spoke with McDaniels during a long, wide-ranging conversation about the history of hip-hop, the importance of arts education and his new musical output (he also rapped for us several times). They may call Simmons the Reverend, but McDaniels does his own share of proselytizing.
NUVO: How did you get involved with the House of Restoration Africa?
D.M.C.: I met Godfrey about a year ago in town. He said he saw me, but was afraid to come over to me. But I saw him looking, and I said, "Hey man what's up?" We started talking and he started telling me he was from Africa. He asked me if I was familiar with what was going on there, with the diamonds and Sierra Leone and the kids. And I said, "Yeah man, I'm familiar, because I read a book about two or three years ago (Editor's note: McDaniels is referencing Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ismael Beah).
And in the book, [Beah] told a story about how the rebels came and killed everyone in his village, and him and his friend were caught in the middle. [They were] just living day to day, hiding from the rebels and hiding from the government soldiers. They were just trying to eat and survive, but they got caught by the rebel soldiers and were tied up and getting ready to get murdered.
He said he had a cassette tape of Run-D.M.C. in his pocket and the rebel leader said, "What is this?" And [Beah] started explaining hip-hop, and [the rebel leader] made him and his friends perform the song and they got set free. And he said, "Yo, Run-D.M.C. and hip-hop saved my life."
NUVO: How did that feel [to hear that]?
D.M.C.: Man, it was crazy. He was doing a book tour, and they didn't tell him and they flew me out there and had me walk out on stage. And he was crying and yelling, "This is unbelievable!" He was telling me about how much that old school hip-hop meant to kids in Africa. So, to make a long story short, Godfrey started telling me the same thing. Old school hip-hop was positive and had messages, not like this new stuff. And he told me that he was doing something where he was bringing sneakers to the kids, to give them [shoes].
And he was telling me about the kids and the diamonds, what Run-D.M.C. and hip-hop means to the youth. He told me the horror stories, and told me about how the rebels come in and they cut the kids hands off. He said, "Man I wish you could do something," and I said, "Whatever you want me to do." He looked at me like I was crazy. I said, take my number, and decide what you want to do, and I'll be there, free of charge.
NUVO: I was just talking to TJ Reynolds [earlier today], who is in one of the five bands that's going to have the chance to open for you. He said the really special thing about your music is that it's just as fresh when you play it the last time as it was to hear it for the first time.
D.M.C.: The perfect thing about this music is that [you] will always be able to relate to what time period it is [now]. A lot of kids say, "Mr. Simmons and Mr. McDaniels, you're just saying that now because you're older, you're wiser and have a lot of experience." I say, "That's true my young brothers and sisters, but if you listen to my records, I was saying that since I was 15-years-old."
The typical MC or rapper was 12-22 years old, in my generation. Old school isn't a time period, it's a consciousness. So old school doesn't mean old, it means better than all of the hip-hop that comes after it for eternity. The reason why it is as relevant now as it was relevant then is because it's coming from the same place of whatever struggle, whatever emotion, whatever problems exist in society eternally.
NUVO: The same basic truths.
D.M.C.: The struggles I had then are the same troubles that kids have now. But the problem with hip-hop now is that there isn't any dialogue between the older cats and the younger cats. And when I walked in there and talked to Godfrey [Coker, the founder of HORA], we were able to have a dialogue. When you have the old and the young coming together to serve a purpose, you'll have change.
There's not a generation gap in hip-hop now, [there's] an information gap. My generation was taught at a young age that it's about no excuses. We use our creativity, whether it's rapping, dancing, spoken word, shooting a video. If we could use communication and creativity, then we can have change and make it better for everybody.
NUVO: I can understand why people listen to you, D.
D.M.C.: That was the whole purpose of creating hip-hop in the first place. They look at a young person and say, "Don't you say nothing, you don't know anything." So what we did was to say, "Oh they don't want to give us a chance?" And we took our turntables down to the park, busted the light poles open, funded it until the police said, "You kids can't come down and have a concert!"
But we did it so we could be heard and noticed. And once we were able to record and make records, it wasn't about show business, it wasn't about trying to make money. It was beautiful when [the money] came, but the reason why the old school generation changed the world was because we changed the communication. We changed how black and white people related to each other. We didn't just make celebrities. We made it possible that [the world] can look at hip-hop music and say it's not a fad. The reason why was because we made the politicians and educators and the people that were running the world [listen]. They didn't just say, "Oh LL [Cool J], and Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys and De La Soul have a hit record and are on MTV. They said do you hear and see what these young people are doing? And it was good. And that's the thing that makes it possible for hip-hop to do what it does today.