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.
D.M.C.: And with Run-D.M.C., our whole thing was to never let our culture forget that.
NUVO: What young MCs are filling that role right now?
D.M.C.: It's kind of funny now. Theres a lot of groups doing it underground. When we did it, it was in your living room, on the radio. You know Lupe Fiasco?
NUVO: Yes, he'll be here for the Super Bowl as well.
D.M.C.: The reason why I like him is because he's a young person doing it. You know what I'm saying? He went from, "I'm good, look at me, I'm the best MC, I love girls and parties," but [then] his music started taking a serious political and economic and social tone. People kind of got scared of him. He's talking about the political structure.
And for him to be this young, exciting guy, he took it where other young rappers were afraid to go. [Those rappers] take the easy way out, and make the records about the drinking and the partying; he's not doing that. He's a young person, and he's paying attention to the politics that are in his world. And he's doing something about it. That's powerful. That's inspirational. That's motivational. So Lupe Fiasco gets my vote as an innovative game changer.
NUVO: Questlove is a really interesting character who is not afraid to get into politics and is very communicative with his fans [about his views].
D.M.C.: Yeah [The Roots] aren't afraid to address the issues. And that's powerful, because when you look at hip-hop culture, it's coming from the youth, the street. The everyday young guy. They're not just making records like, "Look at my car, I've got money." It's a powerful thing when you've got people in entertainment not being preachy, but addressing the issues. And when you look at The Roots, Lupe, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy and countless others, it's no different than when you look at the rock and roll icons that did it, [like] Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, John Lennon, James Brown. Even Marvin Gaye, who was a love guy, a sexy love singer, he did, "What's Going On."
Fogerty and Lennon and Neil Young, they sung about the Vietnam War, civil rights, women's rights. They sang about the political and social issues that were relevant to their community.
NUVO: This is a particularly interesting time, with the Occupy movement.
D.M.C.: For us, it's not just about entertainment, although for a lot of people it is. Some people, whether it's rock or hip-hop, they say, "Yo I just want to get in the business to get rich and famous." But they don't realize creatively and artistically, there's a responsibility that you can't forget about. There's a respect for artists and entertainment. The politician can't really get that, the religious people can't really get that. Whether it's Fogerty, Lennon or KRS-ONE, we are representatives of the people.
The core audience that buys your music, those are the common folk that really don't need the division and the separatist medium of politics. If you're a Democrat and I'm a Republican, if you're a Catholic and I'm a Protestant, we've got beef right there. But with music...[it's not there].
Somebody once said, "Music succeeds where religion and politics fail." Somebody also recently said to me that every revolution begins with the arts.
NUVO: And you can trace that through history.
D.M.C.: They'll shut up the politics and the religious [figures]. But if they try and shut up the musicians, ain't nothing stopping them. If they try and shut up the rappers, someone will write a play about it. And if they shut down the play, someone will paint a painting about it. And if they take the painting from the museum, someone will make a sculpture about it.
Every revolution begins with the literature, the music, the poetry, the stage plays, the movies; that's when you have change. It's all because most of the time in the entertainment business, the artist is the spokesperson, because they come from the place that's most connected to where they came from. That's because whatever got them to where they were at in the first place, they never had to change to please anybody.
Chuck D of Public Enemy once told me, "The most powerful thing about this hip-hop is the art of communication, the power of communication."
There's always a microphone. We're making videos. Hip-hop is on movies now. And as the medium of communication grows, so does your responsibility. And that's something Chuck told me. And that's something that me and Run and Jay always said. We said, "We've got to watch what we do, what we say, and what we project to our audience."
NUVO: In the age of social media, it's so easy to fire off your thoughts without thinking, I'm thinking about Kanye and his tendency to stir up...
D.M.C.: Yup. That's what I'm talking about with responsibility. You have a right to your freedom of speech, you know. This isn't about freedom of speech. It's about genocide, it's about homicide, it's about evolution. Everything you say and do will impact somebody. For me, since I'm a little old school now, You know I'm not going to say something until I understand what it is that I'm saying or why I'm going to say it.
If I walk into a rally, a bar, a party, even a bar mitzvah, I'm always conscious that when the microphone comes on, I'm not going to say, "Yo, man buy my records." I'm going to say someone that will touch that little kid, I'm going to say something that will help that person struggling with alcohol.
A couple of years ago I found out I was a foster kid. First, I found out I was adopted, [then] I found out I was also in foster care. And I spoke out. And now I get emails and tweets from all over the world saying, "Thanks for looking out for these orphans, these kids."
NUVO: You think every individual has the chance to do what you've done, if the right person reaches them.
D.M.C.: Exactly! Hip-hop is inspirational, motivational, and educational. If we possess these issues we deal with and live with globally, whether it's the Occupy [movement], the kids in Sierra Leone, the problems with foster care in America, where kids go from group homes to jail, if we can address these problems with images and concepts that [kids] can understand and also can respect, then we can have change.
Run-D.M.C. came along and started rhyming about, "Be cool, go to school, don't mess with drugs and thugs and you'll be cool." [Now] these rappers rap about being drug dealers and how it's cool with all this swag; it makes the kids think, "Oh I don't have to go to school, college isn't cool, I'll go be a drug dealer and make a lot of money and drive a Bentley." But, no, you can't. Because most drug dealers are in two places, in jail or dead. But when I came along and [starts rapping "Sucker MC"]
I'm D.M.C. in the place to be
I go to St. John's University
And since kindergarten
I acquired the knowledge
And after 12th grade I went straight to college
And some of those kids will put the guns and the drugs down, and get high school diplomas and go to college.
So many kids tell me, "Man, I had a problem. I was out of high school, [but] just because you're telling me education was cool, saying I can drive my car and have my jewelry and my fresh sneakers." [This kid] was like, "I was just in one element of this hip-hop stuff."
And he went and got his GED. And he went with his GED and was able to take community college courses. He walked in and saw a whole world of possibilities that he never thought existed before. And that representation and information, that artistic communication lead some of these [kids] places they had never been.
The problem is that they sit and think, "Man I'm stuck in the hood. I'll always be in the hood. I can't do nothing about changing this poverty for me." We told them no, if you can't rap or play basketball like LeBron James, here's what you can do: pick up a book and become a doctor, lawyer, scientist, something.
Before Run-D.M.C. came along, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash were talking to kids saying, "Man, it may be messed up in the ghetto, but be something, anything, by any means necessary." And if you do that, you change your existence, and you'll change your family's existence. You change [that] and you'll change your neighborhood's existence, and you'll change your city's existence.
NUVO: That's something that the Super Bowl has done for Indy in some ways, revolutionized entire Indy neighborhoods.
D.M.C.: And that's another thing that's good about this event. Think about how many talented individuals there are. Not all of them will be able to get on [American] Idol, get a record deal and be heard and be seen. But even if they can be put in a position to do what they do and have a showcase [like the Battle of the Bands], it gives them the enthusiasm to join forces collectively.
When we were coming up, before managers and record labels, we would organize the block party, the park jam. Once we could go inside venues, we would go neighborhood P.A.L. or to the Elk Lodge.
You could pay five dollars on a Saturday night and come and see DJ AJ, DJ Jam Master J, Grandmaster Wizzard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash. It was just a little dream [to perform live], but it kept us from killing each other and selling drugs and tearing the neighborhoods down, and we used creative competition [in that way].
I just want to give everyone the chance that I had. That real good hip-hop and that real good rock and roll, it does something to change the community. And that's what it's about. It's just a pleasure because [the result of] everything that was given to me [through] hip-hop] and [having] the pleasure of being D.M.C., is being able to do something for these kids in Africa.
NUVO: Tell me about what you're working on right now.
D.M.C.: About two weeks ago, I dropped two new singles. I'm probably going to drop another two singles in the next few months. I want to put out an album by summer. An album, you know? I never critique another person's creativity, but even the young people come up to me and say, "Yo D.M.C., what happened to albums?"
Right now everything is so iTunes and single-based. When you give someone an album, you're not just giving somebody an album from you. You're giving someone a lifetime experience of memories. That's the album experience. I'm working with some of the best singers and musicians I can find.
NUVO: Can you give some details on those musicians?
D.M.C.: I'm working with Sebastian Bach and Nick Morris from Motley Crue. The new lead singer from Sublime, he's on there, I've got a song that I do with Wayne Static of Static-X. [I'm working with] Travis Barker of Blink-182 and Chuck D of Public Enemy. A couple other high profile names, but I want to make sure I get them completely signed on before I announce them.
A lot of hip-hop is just beats. I'm really working on actual musicians, which makes the process that much more explosive and spontaneous.
NUVO: Tell us about the JAM Awards.
D.M.C.: We wanted to create something that would represent Jam Master J's legacy as a DJ and a musician, so we created the JAM Awards, where his wife gives a scholarship to keep music in school.
NUVO: It's a rough time for arts education right now.
D.M.C.: We've only been doing it for about five or six years, since he passed away. We have a saying, you just can't give out turkeys on Thanksgiving. A lot of times, when you have celebrities or musicians, the only time [their old] neighborhoods really see them is on Thanksgiving giving out turkeys or Christmas giving out Coke. You've got to continue to be interactive and involved with your community so you can prevent the music courses from being taken out of school.
J used to say, "One of the things that made me want to go to high school and do good in it was so I could go to music class. Me being in music and playing in the band and learning instruments was one of the reasons that I was able to be a great DJ and know rock and jazz and everything."
A lot of kids, music is the base that keeps them on in school. If you tell a kid, "Listen, you can't be in this program unless you get A's and B's," they'll go get those [grades] without even thinking about it.
The problem is when the government and the state take away the thing that is necessary for the productivity and contribution [to society] for these kids. The kids don't want to just be learning "See Jack Run." You've got to use bait, something that will be creatively and innovatively constructive to these kids' existences. You pull the music courses out, and that's about seven or eight kids that will drop out immediately.
J always said, "Man, when I used to go play drums and guitar, and when my teacher was teaching me to play flute, that is something that contributed to where I am today."
NUVO: If you had a message to legislators about this issue, what would you say?
D.M.C.: They must make the arts part of all school curriculums. Because, if you don't, you are failing our children. Music, arts, drawing, dance, spoken word, poetry, film making — you must include the arts as a priority in every school, from the ghetto to the top.
NUVO: So, this show is part of a series of multi-continental performances, correct?
D.M.C.: Yes, you know me and Godfrey hope to go to Africa and go to Sierra Leone, to do a two or three day tour. He was always big on collecting sneakers, and i'm still doing things with Adidas, so me and Godfrey and Adidas are going to do something big. We're going to personally deliver the sneakers to kids in Africa. We'll do a conference and some workshops.
You know, there is a problem with a lot of international hip-hop. With the negative, drug dealer, gang-banger image dominating hip-hop right now, a lot of people think that's what you have to do to be hip-hop. Which is crazy.
I was talking to people in Brazil; they'll see drug dealer rap, saying, "I've got kilos and guns and (excuse me) my bitches and my hoes," and they'll see fifty rap videos like that, but then they'll see Tribe Called Quest, and Run-D.M.C. video, and they'll be captivated. Globally, we have a problem because a lot of kids think that hip-hop has to be negative to be down. So, when I do go into other countries and perform, I've got to do some workshops, to speak to those audiences.
All of those guys in the Battle of the Bands, I'll sit down and we'll kick it and rhyme. I'll ask them what they like and they can question me. Forget about who is the best, whether it's Jay-Z or Eminem or Run-D.M.C.. I've got to explain to people why hip-hop does what it does.
NUVO: Are you a football fan? Will you go to the game?
D.M.C.: Maybe. I'm kind of mad that the Steelers won't be in the game. I'm a Pittsburgh Steelers guy. You know, Terry Bradshaw, James Harrison, Roger Staubach, the kids in that era changed my life.
NUVO: Well, we're pretty upset over here about the Colts.
D.M.C.: I know. There's always next season. That's all we can do, is look forward to the next season. Even though the Colts had a rough year, it's a beautiful thing that the Super Bowl is coming in. You kind of got the last laugh anyway.
NUVO: I've got to say, I feel like I've just gone to a really good sermon.
D.M.C.: You know everybody tells me [that I sound like a minister]. I've just to represent, serve the people. Like the Hard Rock Cafe, one of my mottos is love all and serve all.