Just Like Me

An Interview with DMC

by Michael Frauenhofer

DMC is, like any good writer, aware of the power of words and names. Which explains his considerable shock when he discovered that Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels had, in fact, been adopted.

DMC is, like any good writer, be it of fiction or poetry or even rap, aware of the power of words and names. “DMC” sounds blunt, powerful, and at the same time resonant with history: Darryl McDaniels, this man proud of his name and his heritage, his identity. He worked it into his rhymes frequently—“D for never dirty, MC for mostly clean”—and imprinted it on the national consciousness with his wildly successful and pioneering rap group, Run-DMC. Which explains his considerable shock when he discovered that Darryl “DMC” McDaniels had, in fact, been adopted.

A career like Run-DMC’s alone would seem like enough for the average rapper. There are too many accomplishments to list—first hip-hop track to make the Billboard Top 10, first rap act to go platinum and multi-platinum, first rappers to appear on Saturday Night Live, American Bandstand, and Rolling Stone‘s covers. But instead of letting himself rest in the groove he has already carved for himself in music history, DMC put out a recent solo album, Checks Thugs and Rock N Roll, and a documentary, My Adoption Story, centering on his emotional conflict. Rather than run away from such a difficult situation, the self-proclaimed “King of Rock” has embraced his common humanity, turning the conventional imperviously-tough rapper persona on its head with a song that’s not only a single but a statement of his philosophy: that we are just like him, and he is “Just Like Me”. Recently, the hip-hop legend took time to talk with PopMatters—less checks, thugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but more personal. Just like you.

How do you view the relationship between rock and hip-hop?
They’re brothers. Same thing. The same way you see the kid with the sneakers that got to be clean, and with the new gear, and with the hat to the side, and with the chain on his neck, and got to have his hair cut, it’s the same exact emotion and feeling as the kids with the skate sneakers on, the holey jeans, the tattoos and the piercings, the round haircut, the long haircut, whatever it is, punk rock, classic rock, glam rock, or rock ‘n’ roll today, Green Day, or it’s that b-boy, or the guy with the button-down, the fresh kid, they ride their Harleys, we drive our Escalades, same exact emotion. And I speak from experience, because before we even made “Rock Box” and “King of Rock”, we had our first single, and we had “Sucker MCs”, and when Run-DMC first came out, we used to do a lot of rock clubs, and them bald-headed white kids was in there loving us because it was raw, it was new, it wasn’t blueprinted, it wasn’t stereotypical. They felt they could relate to where we was coming from, because whether you live in the ghetto, or you live in Beverly Hills, or you’re white, Asian, black, or Puerto Rican, we all go through the same things—the laws, peer pressure, parents, girlfriends—everything that a white guy goes through, the black guy goes through, but it’s a different environment, but it’s all coming from the same place. So the b-boy and the rocker is the same thing. And, I’m just pointing out also, a lot of the cowboys feel what we feel, too.

Run DMC - Rock Box

Do you feel like becoming a father changed your perspective when you were writing lyrics?
Hell yes it does, because now, I’m worried about when he turns the TV on, what he hears on the news, what he sees in the newspaper, what he’s learning in school, all the things that always affect somebody, so that’s why, when I look at a lot of rap today, it’s so unbalanced, and what I mean by that is, it doesn’t concern the complete picture of what a b-boy or b-girl living in the world today is about. Everybody’s like, “I got this, I got that, there’s my bitch and my ho.” Okay, it’s cool to be compensated and paid for your hard work and your talent, but I don’t care how many cars you got. I don’t care about your gold chain or none of that, that’s just a small little part of what this hip-hop is all about, so for me, I’m sitting here and I look at hip-hop today: “Yo, I got this, you know what I’m sayin’, I’m goin’ in, you know what I’m sayin’, I’m dating this person, you know what I’m sayin’, here’s how much money I got in the bank, you know what I’m sayin’, here’s my jacuzzi, you know what I’m sayin’, look inside my closet, here’s all my sneakers.” That’s all cool, but now what? Now that you’ve got all this power, money, and you got a hit record, now what? I sit there with my 11-year-old son and say, “I don’t know what these rappers is sayin’, because they ain’t sayin’ nothin’, but I know what they doin’ and I know what they got.” And, for me, it’s like, hip-hop just has to be hip-hop!

See, I talk from experience, because I was here before rap records was made, and I’ll be here when the rap industry falls apart. But, when they hear Bambataa, and DMC, and the Chuck D, and the Big Daddy Kane, and we say what we think about rap, they think, “Oh, they’re just mad and they’re hating.” No, we don’t want hip-hop to be like it was back in the day, we want it to be better than it was, because we know it can be. See, we used to have a beautiful collage of relationships, concepts, and images, because you had De La Soul, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, A Tribe Called Quest, NWA, Nas, and Special Ed, and the Fat Boys, and the list goes on and on. Eric B. and Rakim, and Kool G Rap, you had all these people, we all came from the same place, but we all were different. We all committed something to the world that was the total experience of what we were, but right now, when you look at the success of all of the genres of hip-hop, you got all the good music coming out the South and the Midwest and all of that, but everybody sounding the same and looking the same. Instead of having blue over there, yellow over there, green over there, and purple over there, we all from the same place and we all knew about all the colors! But right now, you got everybody trying to be orange, and, what happens with that is, people get mad. If they’re not close, if they do orange better than you, you want to take it.

See, the battles now ain’t about battling on the mic, to see who can be more innovative, creative, like, “If you play that beat, I’ma go here and get this beat, a beat that you never heard before,” and “If you rap like this, I’ma rap like this,” but right now, you got everybody rapping the same way, and rhyming over the same beats, you got a whole mass-marketing of these images that everybody thinks, “This is what hip-hop is about, and it has to be like that.” You don’t need a producer, you don’t need a posse, you don’t need no bling, all you need to do is speak on what you feel and what we can relate to and keep it real.

Run DMC vs. Threacherous Three

When you remake a song like “Cat in the Cradle” or “All Along the Watchtower”, do you ever worry about the sheer legacy that a song like that has?
Oh, of course I do! But listen, the “Watchtower” record, for instance, was ... it went like this: there are Jimi Hendrix fans that hate me right now. You know what I’m sayin’? Hate me. And they never liked me, but when I did the record, I thought, I could just sample it, and I could go spit some verses on it, but I wanted to do the record with meaning, so all I did was, “Okay, here’s the beat, let me put my little two-bit bullshit raps on it,” and I left it to professionals. I got Elliot Easton, Joey Kramer, and Tom Hamilton to come and do the real rock stuff on the level that Jimi, and the way Bob Dylan wrote it. I knew it was sacred ground, but for me, this was my interpretation of it. They made “The Watchtower” way back then, Jimi made it, Bob Dylan wrote it, whatever, so now, I took it from this perspective: I put myself in this position because these are my idols! I love Dylan, I love Lennon, I love McCartney, I love Jimi Hendrix, I love Fogerty, I love Pink Floyd, I love Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and the list goes on and on, I love Neil Young to death, so for me, in my head, I was in the studio with Jay and Bob They made the record, they directed Tom Hamilton, Joey, and Elliot Easton, I said, “Damn, I can’t sing, so who do I like as a vocalist?” I couldn’t get Steven Tyler, because he wasn’t available, so I got Josh Todd from Buckcherry, because I love his growl, and his voice, he has that energy. But it’s like Jimmy and Bob said, “DMC, Mr. DMC Rapper-Dude, here’s the microphone. What do you have to say?” And that’s the whole motivation of that record.

That record is important to my generation because of the emotion of what it meant. I feel that I’m not dead, I didn’t die of an overdose and I’m not in jail. I feel I’m the watchman, or the watchtower, of this whole hip-hop rock shit. Because, I’m still here, I didn’t get shot like Jay, 2Pac, and Biggie. And every time something happens, they come to Run-DMC, they say, you know, “You said everything over. Do you think about it?” I just put those curses on there to let the people know I’m wide awake in the year 2006 and I’m watching everything. So, for me, I know it’s sacred ground, and I respect everybody that, when I walk the street, put their finger up and say, “how could you do something like that?” But I had to do it. It’s the same way that Dylan had to play the electric guitar. He had to evolve, he had to grow better. I didn’t take the record and put, you know, bullshit raps, I didn’t smoke that weed, I didn’t do nothing degrading to the essence of the record. So, for me, it isn’t really new, I did “Walk This Way” over, “It’s Tricky” was a rock record, we took “My Sharona”, even “Mary, Mary” was a Beatles song! So, the critics could say what they want, but I respected that it was sacred ground, that’s why I didn’t go out and just sample it and throw some bullshit lyrics on it. The “Cat’s in the Cradle” record was a whole different story, man. The way that record came together was crazy stupendous, see, that was the whole purpose of the album, I made “Cat’s in the Cradle”.

Aerosmith & Run DMC - Walk This Way

How did that come together?
[deep breath] Okay, it’s a long story. Two years ago, I was over in Europe with Run-DMC, we was over in Europe touring—this was when Jay was alive—and for one night on the tour I was laying in my hotel room, and I was going, “Am I DMC? Why am I DMC? What does this all mean? Do I still want to be DMC? What do I do now? I want to keep rapping, but how do I keep rapping?” I don’t want to talk about me being the king of rock, everybody know that, I don’t want to talk about my sneakers, everybody know what I wear, I don’t have to tell people how to walk this way, ‘cause hopefully right now they know how to walk in the direction that they need to go in. So I was lost. But there was something else inside me: I was very, very depressed. I was very suicidal, I had suicidal thoughts. I don’t know if I really would have did it, but I was there. So I’m laying in my room, in Europe, and I’m sayin’, “I got friends, I got family, I got fortune and fame, but I’m depressed as shit. What is going on?” I didn’t know what it was, so I said, “Okay, I’m gonna commit suicide, but how do I do it? Maybe I ain’t gon’ really do it, but there’s something wrong with me because I’m thinking about it,” so I said to myself, “Okay, I’m not gonna commit suicide on the road, because Jay and Joe will be mad at me,” so that’s what kept me alive, was [yelling]: “D, HOW THE FUCK YOU GON’ COMMIT SUICIDE ON THE ROAD WHEN WE OUT HERE GETTIN’ MONEY, AND EVERYTHING’S GOOD, AND YOU GON’ FUCK UP AND COMMIT SUICIDE?”

So I didn’t want Jay or Joe to be made at me, so I say, I gotta do it when they’re not around, when I get home. So I left Europe after the tour, I get in the car, I turn the radio on. Sarah McLachlan had a record on in ‘97 called “Angel”, off the Surfacing album. So I turn the radio on. Now, friends, family, fortune, and fame, I didn’t give a damn about it, but her record made me say, when I first heard “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan, made me go, “It’s beautiful to be alive, life is good.” So for one whole year, all I would listen to was Sarah McLachlan records. “Angel”, and all the stuff she made previously to that. So a year’s gone by, I’m trying to figure out: “What’s this feeling in me, something is not right, I’m DMC, my brother’s Alfred, I grew up in Hollis, I went to high school, I went to Catholic school all my life, I went to St. John’s, when I got to St. John’s, me and Run and Jay, we made a record, now I’m this famous rap guy, what does it all mean, I’m trying to figure it out.” I go into this other world, so my manager says, “Dewey, I don’t like you looking and acting like this, you need to get out more, because people love you, you’re DMC, and all of this,” and I’m like, “Yeah, fuck yeah, it don’t mean nothin’.”

So he takes me to Clive Davis, the music guy’s party, and the Grammy party in LA in ‘97 where everybody wanna go, they would break their neck to get tickets to Clive Davis’ little party. I didn’t want to go, but my manager Erik Blam went to all the trouble to get tickets, hotels, and all that, so I said, “alright, Erik, I’ll go for you.” I get to the Clive Davis party and I’m sittin’ there, looking at the paparazzi and the red carpet and all of this, and I’m sittin’ in my mind, “This is so fucked up, because all this stuff in this, and Beverly Hills, and people are forgetting about this is all because of the music, the people want to be celebrities and do all this and TV Cribs and bullshit, and what about the music, the music is what kept me alive, and the music is what’s influencin’ me, and now it’s turning into what I hope it ain’t turn into,” but I’m sittin’ there, and I look across the room, and—and this is all destiny—and I go, “Oh, shit, that’s that lady.” Sarah McLachlan! [gasps] “Ohh, that’s that lady who made that…”—because I knew of her, but I ain’t know her—so I’m like, “Oh, shit, I gotta go over there and tell Sarah McLachlan what her record ‘Angel’ did for me.” So I walked across the room, she seen me coming, she did to me what everybody does when they see Run, D, or Jay: “Run, D, Jay! Run-DMC, my favorite group, ‘It’s Tricky’, ‘My Adidas’, ‘Mary, Mary’, ‘Walk This Way’, you’re my favorite rap group,” Sarah McLachlan tells me.

So that was good for boosting my confidence to keep me from committing suicide, “Wow, Sarah McLachlan likes me, that’s really cool.” And I say, “Thank you, Miss McLachlan, but I got to tell you something, your record ‘Angel’, you sound like a angel, people say you are a angel, the name of the record is ‘Angel’, but you’re not angel to me, you are god. Your record saved my life, I was depressed, I was suicidal, I didn’t know what was going on, and even now, I’m still at a crazy place, but your record is the crutch that I stand for every day.” I hit her with that, she’s looking at me like, “Ohh-kayyyy, what?” So she didn’t know what to say to fuckin’ DMC standin’ over there tellin’ her this crazy stuff, but she looks at me, this was in ‘97, she shakes my hand, and she says, “DMC, thank you for telling me that, because that’s what music is supposed to do.” And she walks away. So that was one of the greatest days of my life.

Three years go by since that meeting. I find out what the hell was inside of me that was the suicidal thing! I found out just because of a phone call to ask my mother and father some information I needed to put in a book about the day I was born, they tell me—‘cause I called to say, “Yo, Momma, I’m writin’ this book, I need to know, how much did I weigh, what hospital, and what time did Darryl McDaniels come into the Earth?” So they told me all of that, hung up the phone, about a hour later they call me back, in the year 2000, and says, “Darryl, we got something else to tell you.” [in a high-pitched, mock-happy tone:] “Oh, sure, whatever, Mommy!” “Blah-dee-blah-dah, blah-dee-blah-dah, he was a month old, blah blah blah boom bang, you’re adopted.”

At the age of 35, I seen my whole life flash before me, and them putting all this together in Hollis and meeting Joe and Jay in St. John’s and Rice High School, we taking the bus, PAL, all of that Run-DMC stuff ... I was thinking about all whatever, but then I put the brakes up—[makes car brake noise]—that was the thing that had me in the room that day, sitting there, DMC, $75,000 a night, all my great accomplishments, but there’s something missing to this fucking story. I realized that whole adoption thing was the thing, but then I realized something greater. Sarah McLachlan’s record kept me alive so I could find that out. So I said, “I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna write a record that’s gonna help the little foster kid, or that other little adopted baby,” or, on a bigger level, adoption is just my situation, no matter what situation you’re in you’re fortunate enough to be here, you’re glad enough to be here, I see for me, if my mother never gave me up for adoption, my mother would have never adopted me, I would have never moved to Hollis, I would have never met Run and Jay, there would be no Run-DMC, the world would be different, hip-hop wouldn’t have happened the way it did when it did, that was destiny, and I say, “DMC, he’s gonna be alright, but this is about that little adopted kid Darryl.” If those things never happened to me, I wouldn’t be talking to you, there would be no Grammy rap shit, none of this shit would have happened, so I said, “My thing is this. Yes I’m DMC, but I have a greater meaning to this whole hip-hop shit than just being about me making records, I really represent something.” Just to emanate this record, because I just want to give hope to people, and I get an idea—[gasp]—I’m gonna call that lady, who I met three years earlier, whose record saved my life, to help me make a record to give people hope, so I get Sarah McLachlan back on the phone, this is three years after I met her, “Hey, Miss McLachlan, remember me? This is Darryl.” She’s like, “how could I forget that, it was a pleasure meetin’ you. What do you want, my son?” And I’m like, “okay, here we go, she’s gon’ really think I’m crazy now,” but I’m like, “yo, Miss McLachlan, remember when I met you three years ago, and I told you what your record did for me?” “Yes I do.” “And you told me that’s what music is ‘posed to do?” “Yeah.” “Well, I just found out I was adopted, blah-dee-blah this, boom bang bang bang, blah-dee-blah this, I want to make a record that’s gonna help some people like your record helped me, I’m thinkin’ of using Harry Chapin’s record ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ because I’m a big fan of Harry Chapin, and ever since I was a little boy his songs always gave me hope to carry through, now you like ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’, which is a sad record, I’m gonna give that ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ my adoption story, to give it a happy ending, will you do a record with me?” She goes “yes”, real quick and easy, I go, “Whoa, that was quick and easy! Okay, Miss McLachlan, I’ll fly you to New York, I’ll put you in a first-class plane, I’ll put you in a Four Seasons hotel,” she says, “Hold up, doc, slow down, slow down, SLOW DOWN!” She says, “You can come to my house to make the record,” so I faint.

So, to make a long story short, I get on a plane, I fly to Canada—she lives in Vancouver, Canada—I get to her house, two days we make the record, she brings her band in, we bring a band in, the guitars, we make the record—two days after we finished the record, we sitting there, getting ready to leave, she says, “Darryl, I gotta tell you something,” I go, “What,” she tells me, “I was adopted too.” And I did not know that. I knew “Lilith Fair”, I knew every word to Angel, and this and that when I met her, I knew also that I didn’t know her, we from the getgo, this universe had me and Sarah have something in common, it took two or three years go by to get back to her, we make the record and she tells me she was adopted too. That’s when I really knew purpose, destiny, the power of music, that’s what music is supposed to do, so when she told me that back in ‘97, once it was through the relationship that we had something in common, I knew where I need to go with my music right now. I need to be the Bob Dylan, the John Lennon, the John Fogerty, the Paul McCartney of my generation, because we don’t have one.

A lot of rappers are punks to keep it real, they make the records that keep them in their image, they keep those paychecks rollin’ in, when they got those microphones for a greater purpose than what they know, to say, “I don’t have to say what I hate about hip-hop, and who I don’t dislike,” and everything I could say is truth, ‘cause, like I said, I speak from experience, ‘cause I’m still here, I seen it all. I seen 2pac come and go, I seen Biggie come and go, I seen Vanilla Ice come and go, I seen Hammer come and go, I seen my best friend Jay come and go, I’m still here, so I know what I have to do with my music. I need to talk about what I was talking about when I was little. You ask me back in ‘86 what’s up, I tell you, “It’s Christmastime, in Hollis, Queens, mom’s cookin’ the chicken,” and wow, D, I can relate to that, ‘cause everybody goin’ to dinner with they family, and D, what’s up with “I’m DMC, in the place to be, I go to St. John’s University.” “Oh, dude, you go to St. John’s? For real?” “Yes, I really do.” So I don’t have to tell you, “be cool, go to school, don’t use drugs, and all of that,” I live my life because I keep it real, that’s what hip-hop is about.

So once all that happened with the Sarah record, I realized, “Oh my God, my first 25 years in this business was the foundation that I stand upon,” but I got to that point like, “What do I do now? Where do I go? How do I do it?” You know how I do it? I look in the mirror, and I talk about what I’m goin’ through, ‘cause at the end of the day, every record on my album, whether you’re six or 60, black, white, Puerto Rican, wherever you livin’, Europe, United States, or Asia, put the record on and you can say: “I can relate to that.” I talk about bein’ a alcoholic, I just got out of alcohol rehab a year ago, I talk about bein’ adopted, I talk about the war in Iraq, because when I think about it, Lennon, Bob Dylan, Fogerty, they don’t care what people think, they the voice of their generation, it was a war in Vietnam, and all these great guys wrote about it. The thing happened in Ohio, Neil Young wrote a song about it. So I said, “I’m an MC, I speak for the people, I’ma write a record about the war, I’ma talk about education, I’ma talk about the priests messin’ with the little boys, and the list goes on and on,” so that’s my motivation, that’s what really got me to make this album. I just need to make some music that people can relate to.

Besides saying “I could relate,” you could also say, “I totally disagree with everything DMC is saying about the war, and all this and his opinion on what’s going on in music today,” but that’s good for me, ‘cause it lets me know that you’re awake and paying attention and not just walking around like some stupid old zombie.

...Hard to get that all in there real quick, ‘cause people always ask me, “what’s up with you doing that demo,” and then my management says, “D, man, you have to tell them the condensed version of your stories.” ‘Cause for me, man, so much has happened in my life. I found out I was adopted, right? Jay gets murdered, right? Well, there’s a war in Iraq! So of course there’s a lot going on in my mind! And my only relief, when I found out I was adopted, it was special to me, because for me, I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for hip-hop. It was like hip-hop adopted me. At the end of the day, everybody that ever bought a record, that ever came to a show, that ever watched a video, that ever read a magazine about me, or ever went to see the movies that I made, at the end of the day, they say “D, you’re the godfather, you’re the pioneer, you and Jay and y’all did this, and y’all did that,” I might be everything that everybody say about me, but at the end of the day, like the title of the record I did with Sarah McLachlan, I may be all those things, but at the end of the day, you, boys, girls, man, woman, you guys are just like me. That’s why I put what I do in my records.

Run DMC - The Message

Do you ever feel like it was hard for you to make your adoption story so public?
It was the hardest thing in the world to do, but after I found out I was adopted, I started going to adoption meetings, where I’d sit in a room with all the adopted people, and we’d just talk about being adopted. Me, I’m a musician, there’s CEOs, there’s professional people, there’s people from Wall Street, there’s your everyday nine-to-five guy, there’s women, there’s men from all around the world, we sit in a room and talk about our situations, everybody’s adopted but everybody’s story is different. We all had different stories, but the emotions, the issues, is all the same. So I’m listenin’ about all the issues, about the laws, and the birth certificates, and the medical records, and the private eyes, so I say, “Okay, I’m DMC, I’m here for a reason, what could I—[gasp]—I know what I could do, I could do a documentary, of me searching for my biological parents, so people could look at that.” Me, I tell every adoptee, this isn’t about who’s your mother or father. Whoever adopts you, that was appointed by the powers that be, that’s your mother and father, the man and woman that gave birth to you, that’s how you came into the world.

So for me, I tell every adoptee, ‘cause I learnt this from another adoptee, the reason why I had to search is, because up until I found out that I was adopted, everything that the world knew about me was all I knew about me. He grew up in Hollis, he went to Catholic school, he lived in suburban Hollis, Queens, he met Joe and Jay, they said he made a single, then they was the first to make they album, and first to go gold, first to go platinum, “My Adidas”, “Walk This Way”, everything what people watched me, everything that everybody knew about me, was all I knew about me. So when I found out I was adopted, I tell everybody this: “For me, you never start a book from chapter two.” Up until the point that DMC found out that he was adopted, I was living my life from chapter two, it was a whole new beginning of how this whole DMC existence repped things, for Darryl McDaniels came about, we have to find that out. Turn the cameras on, I’m gonna take the people that loved me, that embraced me, that adopted me, they’re gonna go to the beginning of the DMC, Run-DMC, hip-hop beginning story. So it was like a whole ‘nother life, a whole ‘nother purpose, and once I got to the beginning of it, everything’s finally starting to make sense, but there’s still a lot of emotions, naturally

I’ma do the documentary, the first three days was cool, but by the third day I was ready to quit, because all of the emotions and the issues that was coming up, “This ain’t like making a motherfucking record and a video!” So I had all this stuff going on in me, I was very uncomfortable, I was like “why did my mother give me up, what was up with her at the time of my birth,” but then, I had to keep going, ‘cause I kept meeting young little kids, women, birth mothers, birth fathers, they said, “D, what you’re doing is a good thing, this is gonna help me.” So what I thought was always about me, this wasn’t even about me, this came upon me, because it was about everybody else, in a room, on a radio, buying a record, looking at me, and saying, “D, what’s next for us?” So it got really scary, ‘cause I’m not a role model, and I don’t think nobody is, but I think we got a responsibility to represent what we supposed to be representing ... Image is just an imagined thing. So it was very hard, but it was easy, because it wasn’t just all about me, it was about all the people...

Run DMC - It’s Tricky

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