Checks, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll: A chat with DMC
After the untimely passing of Jam Master Jay, the other two-thirds of Run-DMC took an understandably extended break to figure out their place in the rap world. Rev. Run re-emerged in 2005, dropping his debut solo album and conquering another medium with his MTV series, “Run’s House.” Not be outdone, DMC has his debut solo album scheduled for release in March 2006, as well as a documentary on VH-1 in late February. He discussed these topics with Bullz-Eye, as well as the Run-DMC reissues, how an unlikely musical artist changed his mindset from suicidal to philosophical, and how he’s a little peeved that Run beat him to the solo punch.
DMC: How you doin’?
BE: Pretty good!
DMC: Where you at?
BE: I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia.
DMC: Oh, yeah, Chesapeake, that’s a good spot; I’ve been there a couple of times.
BE: Yeah, right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
DMC: Yeah, that’s when I was down there: doin’ shows, back in the day.
BE: Oh, yes. I think you played the Boathouse, maybe.
DMC: Yep. We definitely did, if I remember correctly.
BE: So, where are you at today?
DMC: Frisco! San Fran!
BE: How much press have you done today?
DMC: Well, so far, I did two things, but they were kind of long, and…well, it’s a long story, and I’d like to get to the record and everything. It gets a little deep.
BE: Fair enough. Maybe if there’s time, we’ll get to it. (Writer’s note: Don’t hold your breath waiting; we didn’t.) But I’m very psyched to hear your whole record; all I’ve heard so far is “Watchtower,” from the MySpace site.
DMC: Oh, but that’s it…?
BE: Yeah, they said they were going to try and get up a few more songs before I talked to you, but they never did.
DMC: On the MySpace site, huh?
BE: Yeah, but just the one song. But it sounds great!
DMC: Oh, thank you, thank you. I had a bunch of help from my friends on that record.
BE: Yeah, that’s what I’m seeing on the press release. Is that Kid Rock on “Watchtower”?
DMC: No, no! The singer is Josh Todd, from Buckcherry…and, on drums, it’s Joey Kramer from Aerosmith. On bass is Tom Hamilton, also from Aerosmith, and the guitar player, believe it or not, is Eliot Easton from the Cars.
BE: Oh, wow!
DMC: But, on the album, I have a record that’s produced by Kid Rock.
BE: Yeah, I knew he was on the album somewhere, and I just couldn’t identify the vocalist on that song.
DMC: Yeah, the record that me and Kid Rock did is called “Find My Way.” But you should hear that shortly, once we get you the album and stuff.
BE: Yeah, I’m very psyched to hear it!
DMC: So, yeah, I had a little help from my friends on the record.
BE: Nothin’ wrong with that.
DMC: People that are more than just celebrities. I’m talkin’ ‘bout real musicians and artists, as opposed to just working with people for the celebrity and the name value. I mean, these guys are big names, but they’re serious about what I do. I really needed musicians, because the album is really all about the music for me, and I wanted to make the best music I could, so I wanted some real cats I could get down with, if you know what I’m sayin’.
BE: I saw Sarah McLachlan is on the album, which is a name that could shock people the most…or surprise people the most, anyway.
DMC: Actually, she’s my favorite artist of all time.
DMC: Her music really inspired me…and, actually, that song “Angel” that she did? That was the record that saved my life.
BE: How so?
DMC: Because…I would say it was, like, 1997, and I was kind of going through a depression, and I was suicidal. And I was asking myself, am I here just to be DMC? There’s got to be more to life than this. I know it sounds crazy, but it was, like, because I did this and I did that. Aerosmith, “My Adidas,” “Walk This Way,” first to go gold, first to go platinum, I grew up in Queens, I went to the best schools…but with all this success, there was something missing. There was a void in me, but I didn’t know what it was. And I told myself, ‘cause we was over in Europe on tour…and, even then, it was fortune and fame, I was getting $70,000 a night, y’know, me, Jay and Run was tourin’ over in Europe and life was good…but I was, like, there’s something missing. Something ain’t right! And I was suicidal…well, okay, I wasn’t suicidal, but I knew something was wrong with me because I was having suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful or didn’t have gratitude about what I did, but it was more, like, if this is all that life is about for me, then I want to move on to the next plane of existence, ‘cause there’s gotta be something missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.
DMC: So this is in ’97, so I had made a decision that I’m gonna commit suicide, and one day I got in the car when we got back from Europe, and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” was on the radio. And that record…not fortune, not fame, not my wife and kids, not being DMC, not all of those great accomplishments…that record, “Angel,” made me say that day, “It is good to be alive!” I mean, I heard that record “Angel” by Sarah, and it was the happiest moment of my life. And for one whole year, I listened to…well, I went out and bought everything she’d ever made, because I knew about her, but I wasn’t really listening to her. So, for one whole year, I wasn’t listening to anything but Sarah McLachlan, over and over and over…when I was traveling, when I was working out, when I was alone in my room, on my walkman, on my CD player, Sarah McLachlan. So at the end of the year, I go to the Grammys and the big Grammy party in L.A., Clive Davis’s Grammy party that everybody wants to be at. Who do I see there? (Gasps) It’s that lady! ‘Cause she was “that lady” to me then. So I was, like, I’m’a walk over there; I gotta tell her what her record did for me. So I walked on over to her, and she seen me, and the first thing she said to me was, “DMC of Run-DMC! I love you guys! You guys are so cool!” And I’m, like, really? Wow, she likes me! But I’m, like, Miss McLachlan, I love you to death, I was suicidal and so depressed, but your record saved my life. The name of the record’s “Angel,” they say you’re an angel, you sing like an angel, but you’re not an angel to me; you’re a God to me, because you saved my life! And she looks at me like, (uncertainly) “Oooooookay! I just wanted to say ‘hi’!” But then she looks at me, and she says, “That’s what music is supposed to do. Thank you for telling me that, Daryl.” And she shakes my hand, and she walks away. And that was another defining moment in my life, because before then, in the midst of all the suicidal thoughts, I’m, like, okay, I’m DMC, I’m 40 years old, how does a B-boy grow up to be a B-man? What do I do? What am I gonna rap about? ‘Cause I still want to do this hip-hop thing, but I ain’t here to talk about what I did when I was 18 or 25, ‘cause I don’t do that no more. So I was in kind of a creative limbo. So her record saved my life. A year later, I meet her. After three years go by, I found out that I was adopted, when I was at the age of 35.
DMC: But it was at that point when I went, “That’s the void that was missing!” ‘Cause I was, like, I’m DMC, my life is good, I went to the best schools, Catholic elementary, Catholic high school, Catholic college, I became the king of hip-hop, fortune, fame…but something in me was like, like… (Stammers for a second, then continues) Also, it was a thing, like, what do I do now at this point in my life? And all those things were so key into the molding of the album. And when I found out that I was adopted, it was another defining moment that made everything make sense: the Sarah McLachlan record, all the classic rock music I loved as a kid, the reason I loved John Lennon and the Beatles and Dylan and Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revival and all of this stuff. And after I found out I was adopted, I was afraid I was gonna get a little bit upset and depressed about the abandonment issue, like, oh, shoot, my momma gave me away, why she didn’t want me? Wasn’t I good enough? What was the matter with me? But then I said, no, no, no! A light came on in my head, and I thought, what do I talk about at this point in my career? How am I gonna keep going in this hip-hop thing that I love so much, especially when people are saying that hip-hop is a young person’s music and blah-de-blah this? I’m hearing other rappers sayin’, “Yo, when I get to be 35, I don’t even know if I’m’a be in hip-hop; I might be movin’ on to other things!” And all of those things had me so disillusioned and discombobulated. But then I thought of somethin’. I said, “Oh! My story’s bigger than just being DMC, first to go gold, first to go platinum, ‘My Adidas,’ ‘Walk This Way,’ and all that stuff! My story’s a story of purpose and destiny!” If I was never given up for adoption by my birth mother, my adopted mother never woulda come and got me, I never woulda moved to Hollis, I would’ve never met Run, there would be no DMC, and rap wouldn’t have jumped off the way it did when it did. It was destined for that to happen, especially to me. So instead of getting depressed about this, I could write a song about this! ‘Cause I don’t want to rhyme about my sneakers no more, and I don’t want to rhyme about being the king of rock, I don’t want to rhyme and tell people how to walk this way, ‘cause they know how to do all of that! They know my story; I grew up in front of people! Hip-hop adopted me! So I decided I’m gonna write this record that’s gonna help that little foster kid or that little adopted kid or, even more so, that grown-up! Adoption is just my situation; I’m living proof that, whatever situation you in, whatever predicament you’re in, wherever you are in life, you have a reason. Look at me! And then another light went on in my head, everything started to make sense! I’m gonna go get that lady, whose record helped my life make sense three years earlier, to help me do a record to help some other people!
BE: Hey, what comes around goes around.
DMC: Yeah, so I called Sarah McLachlan, and said, “Yo, Sarah!” I got her on the phone and said, “Remember when I seen you three years ago, and you told me that’s what music is supposed to do ‘cause I told you what your music did for me…? Well, I just found out that I’m adopted, and I’m gonna do a Harry Chapin remix of ‘Cats in the Cradle,’ and I’m gonna make it so it can help some people, and I was wondering if you could do the record with me.” And she said, “Yes, I’ll do the record with you.”
BE: That’s awesome.
DMC: Yeah, but, no, that’s not the…all of this was gravy! I’m suicidal, she saved my life, I meet her, she says that’s what music is supposed to do, three years go by, I find out that I’m adopted, which was the void that’s why I needed help and why I was gonna commit suicide…but, then, two days into making the record, she looks over at me – and this was a defining moment – and she says, “Daryl, I have to tell you something.” I go, “What?” And I knew everything about her: I knew Lilith Fair, I knew her records, I followed after the point that she released “Angel.” And she looked at me and said, “Daryl, I was adopted, too.”
DMC: I did not know that. That’s the power of music. I found out what I have to do. I have to write songs. Like that “Watchtower” record. I love Dylan. I love Lennon. I love Fogerty. I love Led Zeppelin. But I noticed something: once you get the responsibility of being that person that people look up to an a musical artist, you have a responsibility to talk about the issues that’s going on…and not just the things in the hip-hop world. There’s wars going on, the schools are messed up…you know what I’m sayin’?
DMC: So I realized, I don’t have to rhyme about me anymore. I’m 40 years old. I would sound kinda stupid talking about things I did at 25, ‘cause I don’t do that no more. So all of that gave me my focus and my purpose and destiny to be not afraid to evolve.
BE: Well, yeah, but you’re still rapping about you. You’re just rapping about the you that you are now.
DMC: Right! But I had to figure out…my whole dilemma was, how do I do this? So I learned from Sarah, I learned from Aerosmith, I learned from John Lennon to be the John Lennon, the Dylan, the Springsteen of my decade. Because think about it: I’m a war baby. I’m a war child. The Gulf War, the war in Iraq right now…I’m that generation. And I thought about something. My producer Romeo, he said, “D, this ‘Watchtower’ lyric is deep. Yo, Sarah, those adoption lyrics is deep. The suicide lyrics is deep. You should do a record about the war.” And I went, wait a minute, I don’t want to be political. I was never political. But he says, ‘D, you was always doin’ socially conscious records, so, in a way, you are political! But, D, I understand where you’re coming from.” Because, like, I don’t know anybody personally in the war from my family, but I know friends that say, “Yo, my brother’s over there,” and I know this family just lost their son. And he said, “Yeah, but, D, how did you feel when Jason (a.k.a. Jam Master Jay) died?” He said, “That’s how they feel.” That’s when I knew, okay, I can relate to them. Even though I’m not personally affected in my family, me losing a soldier – Jay – is just like them. So that’s why I was able to make the war record. And I could’ve come out like, “I’m DMC, I’m back, remember me, can’t nobody ever do what I do,” but, instead of naming names and blaming people, I used my life as an example.
BE: I know you paid tribute to Jay on the album.
DMC: Yeah, I did. Of course I had to give a big up to Jay. But not just as a DJ. As a person. ‘Cause you gotta do a record about Jay, but everybody knows he was the best DJ in the world. He was Jam Master Jay! So I should do a record about the side of Jay that people don’t know, as a person. So I just did a record and talked about how he taught me to swim, the reason why I wear the brim is because of him, he used to always play video games, he liked to play basketball…and that’s the Jay that I knew. And that’s the Jay I’m gonna remember.
BE: And I saw from the press release that you improvised it. And I had the chance to talk to Run a few months ago, and I know he more or less improv’d his lyrics on his tribute as well. So I guess they’re both just totally from the heart.
DMC: Yeah, ‘cause we knew him! We didn’t have to sit down and go, ‘Well, let me see. He was the best DJ…” It was easy. (Laughs) He was like me.
BE: How did you come up with the album title, Checks, Thugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll? Are you a big fan of puns…?
DMC: Oh, no, what happened was that I looked at the way the territory and the atmosphere and what the vibe was. It’s a beautiful thing that rap is making a lot of money. It’s a billion dollar industry. We dictate what people drive, what they wear, how they walk, and how they talk. But a lot of people…’cause hip-hop is about keepin’ it real…but a lot of people will just do what they gotta do for the dollar. The younger generation is what the “Watchtower” record is about…because I’m fortunate enough to still be here. I’ve seen NWA, I’ve seen gangsta rap come and go, I’ve seen Tupac come and go, I’ve seen Biggie come and go, I’ve seen Vanilla Ice come and go, I’ve seen Hammer come and go…and all of those things that I just mentioned were very important, but these little kids come up to me and say, “D, I wanna make a record so I can get a car. D, I wanna make a record so I can get a chain. D, I wanna make a record so I can get a crib like the guys on MTV.” Those things are nice, young man, and it’s good to make a living off your talent and to be blessed, but, really, hip-hop is about keepin’ it real. You wanna make your record because you have the power to do so and because you have something to say. But that’s the whole “checks” mentality. People will do whatever they can, they’ll sell their souls for a check. And thugs…everybody got to be harder than the next man! I thought, if my DJ was the best in the neighborhood and I thought I was the best MC, that I could go make a battle record about you and say that you’re a fake…but nowadays when you do that, they wanna come shoot you! They think you’re trying to take away their check! So I’m looking at the circumference, and this game is so money and image built. It’s all about celebrity…but what about having some importance? So I said that’s the rock ‘n’ roll. I’m the missing ingredient. Hip-hop is successful, hip-hop is not a fad; it’s been here, it was a baby, it’s still young, but I’ve watched it grow up. And I’m the missing ingredient, ‘cause I’m bringing it back to the music, to the substance of where it’s fun, it’s motivational, it’s inspirational, and it’s educational. So that’s the whole idea behind Checks, Thugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll. If I got anything to give to these people that’s left in me, it’s just some good music. I’m not out to prove a point. But I am here to try and help people through my music.
BE: Which is understandable, that you’d want to give something back.
DMC: Right. ‘Cause I know my responsibility. “Oh, D, ‘cause of you, oh, D, we love you, oh, D, we bow down to you, oh, ‘cause of you, Jay, and Run, all you guys created rap.” See, a lot of guys think rap started with DMC, which is funny. A couple of people, they don’t think about Sugar Hill Gang, but people don’t know that, before there were rap records, there was rap. All I’m doing is, with the responsibility and the power and the respect that these people are giving me, I’m just doing what Dylan would do. There’s a war, I’m gonna talk about it. The schools are messed up, I’m gonna talk about it. I’m not gonna be afraid to talk about it. And I’m not gonna be afraid to grow up, neither. Because I hear those rappers talking about (retiring by) 35, and I got a question for everybody: does Bruce Springsteen stop playing the guitar because he’s 50? Will Bob Dylan ever stop playing his songs and writing his songs? No, because that’s what he do. And the funniest question in the world… (affects a hilarious voice that can only be called Naive White Guy Announcer) Will the Rolling Stones ever stop touring?!? (Laughs) Well, those guys are my inspiration! I was doing it when I was 10, I’m gonna do it ‘til the day I die.
DMC: (Laughs) That’s my motivation! I’m bein’ sincere! And another reason I’m so hyped about it is that I’ve found something new for me to do. I’ve found a different way to make music. Like, I’ve always liked rock music, but now I’m composed and producing and working with musicians. We’re making music. We’re making sounds that Pink Floyd would use and Led Zeppelin would use. And since it’s new to me, I’m like a kid again. Because, for me, it was getting monotonous. Yeah, I’m DMC, and this and that, but where do I go? How can I evolve? I found my evolution because I’m looking outside of me. Oh, should I go get this producer? Should I go get this new hot rapper to guest on my record? No! Look inside of yourself, D. That’s what the people want. They want you.
BE: So your album is less samples and more, uh, actual music?
DMC: Yeah! A couple of programmed beats, but all the music is music.
DMC: Yeah, the majority…I’m’a say 95% live drums. And bass. And guitars. And harmonicas. And banjos.
BE: Are you planning to tour behind it? Because…
DMC: Yeah, I’m hittin’ the road in March.
BE: Excellent. Because when I talked to Run, he was, like, “Naw, naw, I might do Jay Leno, but that’s it.”
DMC: Yeah, I’m gonna hit the road in March, and I’m gonna tour for five years. And I’m gonna put out my next album in eight months, if this one doesn’t go for two years. I’m like a kid again. I’m just gonna go have fun.
BE: That’s what it’s all about, right?
DMC: For sure.
BE: Are you psyched about the reissues of the Run-DMC albums, and the better sound quality now?
DMC: Well, it was such perfect timing for me, because it lets the younger generation know all the hoopla that, every time their parents see us on TV and hear a record, they want to know all this about Run-DMC. So they can go out and get these so-called “old” Run-DMC records, ‘cause to these kids, it’s new. To this day, a lot of our music can still stand up to the new stuff that’s out now. So, for me, it’s setting me up so that these kids can say, “Oh, that's why Mommy and Daddy love them: ‘cause ‘Peter Piper’ is a <mother>…! And ‘My Adidas’ is incredible!”
BE: Well, don’t worry: I’ve got a 6-month-old daughter, and rest assured that she’s gonna get the full schooling.
DMC: Cool, cool! And that’s also what it is: it’s education for the generation before. The mothers and fathers spend all day going, (affects a voice not unlike Richard Pryor’s Mudbone), “Oh, the rap music today, that ain’t good, the real rappin’ is the Run-DMC! When I was a kid…” (trails off) So, now, at least the kids can see, if anything, what all the hoopla was about.
BE: Oh, and I was going to ask you about the book (“Raising Hell : The Reign, Ruin, and Redemption of Run-D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay”), which I guess is somewhere between a biography and an autobiography, since it’s authorized, right? It’s kind of an oral history of the band…?
DMC: Yeah. You’re talking about the one that’s out now, right?
BE: Right. That was done with the full cooperation of ya’ll…?
DMC: Yep. I have nothin’ to hide. ‘Cause if I don’t say it in the book, I’m’a say it on a record.
BE: Right. So you say you’ve got a whole other album in the can…?
DMC: Yep. All ready, and ready to go. (Pauses) Well, I gotta go mix it, but I’ve got all the ideas.
BE: But the material’s there to be had.
DMC: Exactly. And every day, I get a new revelation. I’m learning something new. I hear a new instrument. So I’m there. But I gotta get out there on the road and get this to people first.
BE: Do you have a lot of people asking if you’re gonna get your own TV show, or are you totally tired of that?
DMC: Yeah, I get that all the time.
BE: I’m sure you do.
DMC: But I do have a documentary coming on.
BE: Oh, I read about that. By the woman who directed “DiG” (Ondi Timoner).
DMC: No, she did my video.
BE: Oh, whoops.
DMC: No, I got a documentary coming on VH-1 where I bring the cameras and I search for my biological parents.
BE: Oh, okay.
DMC: And I filmed every second of it: the therapy, going to the hospital, going to get the birth certificates…because another person could use it to go find their roots. But everybody asks me all day, “Are you gonna do a show?” See, I won’t do a show unless it has a purpose. You know what I’m sayin’?
DMC: Because you look at these reality shows, and, for a person to sit there and waste their time watching somebody else in their mansion…? There’s something wrong. But Chuck D told me something powerful about 15 years ago, when I too high on coke and alcohol and weed to understand, he said, “The most powerful thing that we got as hip-hop is the power of communication.” I mean, there’s people who got it. Eric B & Rakim, they got it. NWA, they got it. Um, Run-DMC, they got it. EPMD, they got it. We always had more than one thing about us that we were trying to relay. There’s always a mike in front of us, we’re always in videos, now rappers are making movies, we’re always on the radio. We can make a big difference, because, like I said, we dictate how people walk, how they talk, how they drive, what they eat, and what they drink. So, now, all I’m doin’ is, since I was fortunate enough to live through all the coke and the alcohol and not kill myself, I’m just taking up my responsibility.
BE: Excellent. Okay, well, I guess I just have one more question for you: must DMC always follow Run? Because Run got his solo album out first, and, now, here comes DMC…
DMC: I don’t know how that happened, because I did mine first! He’s on my album!
BE: Yeah, I noticed that.
DMC: Yeah, but he didn’t put me on his!
BE: Well, when I talked to him, he was talking as though his album was just something he needed to do by himself.
DMC: Hey, that’s cool…but he could’ve still put me on there, though!
DMC: I mean, for those people who just wanna hear…like, there are people who always ask us, “Is there gonna be another Run-DMC record?” And we say this: “Do you wanna see us without Jay?” And they go, “Naw, naw, ‘cause, yo, it’s different.” But…BUT…for those people who would love to hear me and Run on something together, something that wasn’t a re-release, that would’ve made people happy! But I got him on my album for those people.
BE: What song is he on?
DMC: A record ironically called…and I did not know it was gonna be called this until afterwards…but DJ Lethal produced three records, and one of them was this one called “Come Together.” (dramatic pause) So…is it a little bit prophetic in there?
DMC: Yes, there was. Because we came together. But, see, it was different. He had to do his album that way, and I had purpose and destiny in mind.
BE: Well, to each their own.
DMC: Exactly. But, now, everybody asks me, “How the hell did he get an album out so quick?” (Laughs)
BE: Alright, well, I think that’s about it. I know you got more people who want to talk to you.
DMC: Yeah, I got to do this all day, but it’s all good.
BE: Well, it’s been great to talk to you. I hope you get to Norfolk to play, because I’d really like to see you live.
DMC: Yeah, and we got to get you the album, so you can understand all this stuff I just told you!
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