When Run-D.M.C. said they “crash through walls, cut through floors, bust through ceilings and knock down doors,” it was no idle boast. They were the first rap group to do almost everything — to be certified gold, to be certified platinum, to have a Top 10 single, to cover Rolling Stone. This year they can add being the first rap act to get a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, when they receive their honor alongside Herbie Hancock, Jefferson Airplane, Celia Cruz and more.
The group retired the Run-D.M.C. name after the tragic death of Jam Master Jay in 2002, but they reunited for a handful of festival dates between 2012 and 2015. Reverend Run is currently in the spotlight again thanks to a pair of cable TV shows, Rev. Run’s Renovation on HGTV and Rev. Run’s Sunday Suppers for the Cooking Channel. DMC, meanwhile, has co-founded his own comic book line, DMC Comics, and is currently working on two new albums that lean heavily on the guitar-driven rock music that soundtracked his childhood. Rolling Stone caught up with the devastating mic controller to ask about his past, present and future.
Run-D.M.C. were the first rap group to do so many things. What was it like to hear the news that you were the first to get the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award?
Well, I mean, for me, personally, who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy, like Chuck D would say. That was the first thought. Like Ken Stabler said — rest in peace, Ken Stabler, Oakland Raiders — about whether or not he gets inducted into the Football Hall of Fame: “Doesn’t change the way I wake up and tie my shoes.” Now that being said, I was like, “Oh, they’re gonna give me a Lifetime Grammy when they shoulda gave me a real Grammy when we was nominated for it four times or whatever.” The first to be nominated for it, but they didn’t even have a rap category so they didn’t know what to do with me, so now you wanna come give me one now?
But that being said, because of all the legendary previous honorees, it’s a cool thing. … Initially I said this: I don’t wanna get no awards until American Music Awards, the Grammys, MTV, VH1, Viacom stop acknowledging me and Run-D.M.C. — ah, well, Run can speak for himself — but don’t acknowledge Run-D.M.C. until [you] give that award to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation for “Planet Rock.” Give that award first to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first rap group to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it’s a damn shame that nobody in hip-hop knows that, you know what I’m saying? Acknowledge the real pioneers of this genre.
But, you know, I guess it’s cool ’cause — and I’m talking from my egotistical rap microphone stage right now — they shoulda gave it to me in ’86 when even Michael Jackson said there was nothing in the world more popular, not even him. When I met with Michael Jackson, he was like, [in high-pitched voice] “You guys shoulda got all those awards in ’86. I was travelling globally and you guys were in every living room. Y’all was a movement!” [Laughs.] He actually bowed to us. Me, Run and Jay saying, “Michael, don’t do that,” but he was serious.
Did you go to the Grammys in ’87?
We did go, yeah. We went to the American Music Awards, too, and lost to everybody. [Laughs]. We was up for like four of ’em and lost every one of ’em.
What was that experience like?
It was cool. The beautiful thing about it, all the other musicians loved us. “We love you guys,” Bon Jovi, shit, everybody showed us love, so even though we didn’t win, that was enough right there just to be accepted by these legendary, iconic musicians and artists. Everybody who was somebody that year, they loved us, and even back then, “Our kids love you, too,” [laughs] which was crazy.
You guys knocked down doors in the Eighties, but today you aren’t treated the same as your rock contemporaries like U2 and R.E.M.
Right. We’re still fighting for our respect, and not just of the individual entities. I’m talking about the genre that changed stuff. I recorded with the rock band Molotov, from Mexico. They say, “When Steven Tyler took that mic stand and knocked down the wall in ‘Walk This Way,’ that didn’t just happen in the video. That happened in the world, with culture, with fashion, relationships of black and white people, the metal kids and the punk kids, and y’all changed the world!”
I think with the whole success of the business and the money and the celebrity of hip-hop, people forgot about its effectiveness and its importance culturally. The thing that’s able to unify and to educate and to innovate. You know, Run-D.M.C., we was good! We was good, we was cool, but even in our greatness people still had to stop listening to us for a minute and say, “Did you hear De La Soul? Oh my god!” That’s not existing with hip hop right now …. Even though Run-D.M.C. was doing what we was doing in ’86, Rakim and KRS-One and Kool G Rap and Polo put the fear of God into me to the point that I told Big Daddy Kane, “When you dropped ‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin” and ‘Raw,’ I thought my career was over!” [Laughs.]
If you look at rap music from 1982 to 1992, there was a gulf of difference from Bambaataa into your era, into the Marley Marl breakbeat era, into what Public Enemy was doing, into what Dr. Dre was doing. And right now we’ve been listening to the Atlanta trap hi-hats for a decade now. That would’ve been here and gone in three years.
Right. When Rakim came along, you know, everybody — LL, Run-D.M.C., all of us, P.E. – we all went back to the basement in the lab, you know what I’m saying? Our generation of young people demanded so much more from each other. We challenged each other: You can come better than that. And that’s missing now. … You know, I don’t wanna call it mediocre or whatever, but everything is leveled out. There was always a step of progression, from Bam to Kurt to Run to LL to P.E. to De La Soul to Leaders of the New School to Dr. Dre and so on and so forth.
When you performed at Live Aid in 1985, how many people in that audience understood what was going on?
I would say probably 70 percent? Thirty percent was, “Boo!” [Laughs.]
Yeah, hell yeah. It was boos and, you know, couple of people that was kinda close that didn’t give a damn about this rap shit — middle fingers and boos. But I would say 70 percent was with it. For us it was a lot of pressure ’cause Bill Graham personally requested that we be there. At first, from what I hear, when Bill Graham brought our names up, people was like, “What? Why would you want them here? They’re not even gonna be around in three or four years.” [Laughs] But Bill Graham — rest in peace — personally said, “I will not participate if you don’t have Run-D.M.C. here.” We reluctantly went ’cause we kinda thought it was like a setup. Y’all settin’ us up so we can get mocked and teased. We got there, and then the only thing that we knew was that old block party confidence. … You know, when they say our names, let’s just go out there and do what we do. When you hear the boos, you got two options: You either keep going or you curse the crowd off and walk off stage. We decided to keep going. [Laughs.]
There’s the often-told story that you guys told Rick Rubin that “Walk This Way” was a bunch of hillbilly bullshit.
So how and when did your personal relationship with rock music form?
Since I was a kid! My love for rock music has nothing to do with me wanting to do it. Hip-hop forced me to do it. [Laughs]. I grew up in Hollis, Queens. Our radio station, 77 WABC, we used to always listen to that. They were playing James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Jackson 5 and all of that, but they also would play Harry Chapin. They also would play the Doobie Brothers. They also would play the Beatles. They also would play Dylan. They also would play Zeppelin. They also would play Elton John. … There was this magazine called Right On! and every week was Michael Jackson in the afros and the high heels and the bell bottoms and the dashikis, and it was James Brown, black power and all of that stuff. For some reason I cared nothing about my own soul music. It was just something about Crosby, Stills, Young and Nash and John Fogerty. Maybe it was the stories that they told. When Neil Young sung about Kent [State] University and Nixon and all of that, there was just something more storytelling descriptive about rock music that attracted me more than just, you know, [singing] “ABC, easy as …” and all of that stuff. It was just something about the sound of a guitar or a drum beat, it was just harder to me.
Now that being said, when I did start dabbling with hip-hop in my bedroom and I was … saving my allowance to buy Afrika Bambaataa tapes and Cold Crush tapes and Kool Moe Dee tapes when he was with the Treacherous Three. There was just something about when Kool Herc would throw on Billy Squier’s “Big Beat.” It was something different when Grand Wizzard Theodore would do a mix with “Another One Bites the Dust.” It was just something about hearing Grandmaster Flash play “Walk This Way” while Mr. Ness and Melle Mel freestyled over it with the echo chamber. It was just something bigger about rock drums and rock guitars that was more powerful than disco and R&B music. When we did “Rock Box”, we was trying to make a big, loud rock beat like Billy Squier’s “Big Beat.” That’s why Larry Smith put the guitars on it. That beat was a rock beat, and same thing with “King of Rock.”
Sum 41 is producing a new song for my new album that I’m currently working on. They said Run-D.M.C. is the reason why they wanted to be a band. Now they caught me off guard ’cause at first I was like, “You was little kids!” but they said, “Nah, when when we heard that ‘Rock Box,’ ‘King of Rock’ stuff, it did something to our lives.”
Tell me about the record you’re working on.
This all started about maybe about four, five years ago. Travis Barker, Mick Mars and Sebastian Bach got with me and we did a redo of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty,” and I was like, “Oh shoot, this came out so good.” So I said, “Yo, I’mma do a record this is gonna be what we did with ‘Walk This Way,’ but I’m gonna do it with all my favorite musicians, singers and artists.” So [I’m] probably maybe 75 percent deep. I got a record with Mick Mars, Sebastian Bach and Travis Barker. I got a record with Rome from Sublime. I just finished this Sunday recording with Joan Jett. I’m getting ready to record with Sum 41. I got a song that I’ve already recorded with Justin Furstenfeld from Blue October. I got a record with Rob Dukes, the third lead singer of Exodus, and I got a couple more musicians that I’mma be working with. The first single is DMC with Myles Kennedy produced by John Moyer of the rock band Disturbed, called “Flames” where we’re talking about all the shootings that’s going on in America. The white cops shooting the black kids, but we’re also talking about the black kids shooting the black kids.
I did this record called “Fired Up” produced by Rob Dukes and his new band Generation Kill. That record came out so good that we just finished a full-length heavy metal album, à la what Ice-T did with Body Count. It won’t be as profane and violent as Ice-T, but it’ll be a heavy metal collaboration full-length album. It’s gonna be called Generation Kill featuring DMC, but the name of it is called The Dark Project. Rob Dukes has been sober for 20 years. I’ve been sober for 10, so we’re dealing with addiction, suicide, we’re dealing with murder, we’re dealing with politics.
What is the state of your voice? You lost it for a long time. I remember when I saw a Run-D.M.C. club show in like 2001…
Yeah, I was dying then. I was literally dying then. Right now I’m 150 in dynamics and vocal delivery.
Is it a full recovery at this point?
No, not a full — a miraculous recovery [laughs], I think what happened was besides me going through my personal depression and finding out that I was adopted and all of that stuff, after all of these revelations there became a new purpose. The traumatic revelations that I received during that period of my time from, let’s say, ’93 — ’cause what had happened was Run-D.M.C. kinda fell off the chart a little bit even though we was still being Run-D.M.C. Nobody cared no more. Hip-hop had changed. You had the Boot Camp Clik, you had Das EFX and Erick Sermon and the Wu was coming. You had Onyx. Pete Rock hates when I say this, when he produced Down With the King for us, it saved our career, point blank. And as soon as that happened my whole world went into a dive, a crash-landing explosion. I lost my voice, found out that I was adopted, Jam Master Jay died, then my father died. So I’m an alcoholic, suicidal, metaphysical, spiritual wreck — didn’t know what the hell was going on. I hear Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” song and even though I was in the worst condition spiritually, physically and emotionally, there was something about that song that said life is good, it’s good to be alive. And then slowly the revelations started coming out. You know, me being D.M.C. was for a bigger purpose than just for being, you know, one of the greatest MCs alive.
I started getting new musical inspirations. There was a new creative breath in me, you know what I’m saying? “Yo, DMC, take it back to when you was 12 years old in your bedroom before worrying about chart position and before worrying about if you’re on the radio. What was you doing? You were just waking up every day and creating, whether you was drawing or whether you was just writing rhymes to write ’em.” So I was writing all of this stuff about all the stuff I was going through — you know, songs about my mother and father, songs about alcoholism, songs about my suicidal thoughts.
When I was in rehab, we was doing a group discussion. Somebody said, “I just recently heard President Obama say your voice is not just the way you sound when you talk.” And when he said that to me, something clicked into me, and when I started personally doing everything that I felt I needed to be doing, yo, the voice just came back. I started doing lectures. 75 percent of my existence is going to high schools and middle schools and talking to the youth, you know what I’m saying? They think “D.M.C., Hollis, Queens, love eating chicken and collard greens” is the coolest, funniest rap thing that they ever heard. Even though I was in Run-D.M.C., when all that voice stuff was going on it was time for Darryl to find his voice. I’m a beast right now. I’ve never been souped, but one of my new rhymes is, “I’m not conceited, I am just convinced/And y’all think Kanye’s confident?/I got Kanye’s confidence when I’m bombing like Common with my common sense/Y’all go over, I go through the fence/I know how to start when the beats commence/I’m never in the past, this is all present tense/And I’ll kick your ass with my violence.” That’s the type of stuff that’s comin’. [Laughs.]
How were the Run-D.M.C. reunion shows in 2012?
It’s a difference because it’s not Run-D.M.C., you know what I’m saying? It’s Run and D up on stage doing those records that they created together. It’s not that thing. I woulda came back with the complete live band thing, you know what I’m saying? It’s cool, but I had a couple of close DJs and friends go, “Yo, it’s cool to see you and Run together, but we’re not impressed.” I even told my management, “Yo, we should’ve fuckin’ lied.” It’s called show business, man. Before we did Made in America, we shoulda put out a press conference: “The biggest thing happening in music ever! This is like John Lennon and Paul McCartney getting back together! Run and D are returning to the stage together!” But nobody wanted to listen to me. I want people to see me do what I do, but I want ’em to see me do it in a better way than I did it in ’86. I don’t know if it’s the Gemini in me — it’s just something about me that I don’t wanna be doing the same thing that I did in ’93 now.
What’s the hardest thing about running your own comics business?
Well, the natural most evident hardest thing is financing it, you know what I’m saying? We did Issue 1 [of DMC Comics], it was received really, really well ’cause we did it with integrity, we used the best artists and the best writers to help us with the stories that we create. Just this past year we released Issue 2. It’s doing very well also. Now we’re at our Return of the Jedi moment.
I don’t want a thousand issues of just the DMC superhero. I don’t want 1,000 issues of just my boring ass. DMC is just the first superhero you’re introduced into this universe. By issue Number 10 or Number 11, you might not even love my character the best. You might love the new villain or you might love the new hero. We just introduced in Issue 2, a 16-year-old Latina superhero. It’s gonna be that exact representation of the real — like our diversity isn’t for commercial purposes, you know. The same thing with hip-hop. If you woulda came to New York City in ’86 and if you woulda walked up into Danceteria, you woulda saw Blondie, you woulda saw Joey Ramone, you’d-a saw Lou Reed, you woulda saw Run and ’em, you woulda saw Afrika Bambaataa, you’d-a saw Flash, you woulda saw Fab 5 Freddy, you woulda saw the Beastie Boys, you would saw Basquiat, you woulda saw Keith Haring, you woulda saw Madonna. So our diversity is a true representation of the diversity that really exists in New York City since way back when.
Comic books was my first love. Comic books was my escape. Comic books was my coping mechanism to exist in this universe. I went to Catholic school, I wore glasses. I was the little weird kid who wore glasses that sat in the back of the room, had to be in the house when the street lights was going off. I got bullied, I got teased. … I wore a uniform, so automatically I’m a mark. I got my sneakers and my money taken. So when I got home from school, Marvel comic books was my empowering world of reality. You know, in school I would learn about World War II, but when I would come home and read Captain America, Captain America would take me there. In school I would learn about the planets and the meteors and the galaxy but when I came home from school and read the Silver Surfer, Silver Surfer would take me there. You know, I learned all about science and robotics and science and all of that and the minerals and the elements, but when I came home and read Iron Man, Iron Man would take me there. The comic books actually nurtured me and molded me for my storytelling, delivery and my presence.