Darryl “DMC” McDaniels On The History Of Hip-Hop And Poetic Justice

“The arts succeed where politics and religion fail”

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Run DMC will forever be known as musical legends. The hip-hop trio was established in Queens, New York, during the early 1980s and would go on to lead a successful music career for many more decades to come. In 2010, the group was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of FameMost recently, founding member Darryl "DMC" McDaniels expanded his reach by participating in the launch party for renowned photographer Timothy White's latest exhibit opening at Morrison Hotel Gallery. "Parental Advisory: Explicit Images" brought together hip-hop artists of the past and present for a night to recognize individuals that White deems "part of the true American music form."

"It's really important to impact minds, it's part of what we do as a gallery and as a brand," says White. "I'm trying to do these events outside of the gallery to draw attention to the gallery, and it allows me to do something bigger. I'm trying to get [people] to stay longer, to make a party of it... It's not just hip-hop, it's bringing all of these genres together."

With the event, White wanted to provide a space to admire art in while also celebrating the culture behind it. He believes that the current political climate will positively affect the arts in a big way. "I think it gives material and interest in documenting something," he says.

McDaniels doesn't feel like he's passing the torch to the next wave of artists because he has always viewed the hip-hop community as an inclusive space where the legends never leave. "Age and race and creed and color and religion doesn't separate us from the culture, it makes the culture more potent," he says. "When you look at hip-hop especially, there's not a generation gap—there's an information gap, there's a communication gap. I wouldn't be who I am, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing, if it wasn't for the real pioneers before me—Grandmaster Flash and the Fantastic Five, Cold Crush Four, the Treacherous Three, etc."

"The Beat- Blues, Jazz, Soul and Hip-Hop Review" is on display at Morrison Hotel's SoHo gallery through the month of February and McDaniels is currently working on a forthcoming album titled Dynamic Musical Collaborations. Learn more about what's on DMC's mind these days in the interview, below.

How do you feel about the direction that hip-hop is going nowadays?  

Anything that is creatively artistic and becomes overly commercialized for success gain becomes diluted, and the purpose of the thing gets sucked out of it. Now that being said, there's a lot of great hip-hop, [and] there's a lot of great hip-hop by unheard young people. But there's a lot of even better hip-hop by unheard older folks. Right now with hip-hop, people are using disrespect, immaturity, foolishness, ignorance, and negativity as a false sense of power. In my generation, the typical MC was 16 to 25 years old. [If] they did a record about going to jail, selling drugs, or being in a gang, it would describe the emotions around that situation and then at the very end of that particular song, that gang banger, drug dealer, or criminal would say, "But you young people, don't do what I did. Y'all can be something. Y'all don't have to do this." Nowadays, everything that is negative and criminal and ignorant and disrespectful is celebrated, but everything that is celebrated and accepted in hip-hop is the very reason why we created hip-hop in the first place, so these young people wouldn't have to value those negative ideas, concepts, and images.

Why do you think that the culture has shifted so dramatically?

When you're talking about hip-hop as a culture, a creative entity, you don't just look at the rap. When you look at the specific rap music genre of it, it's being destroyed because people are accepting [and] allowing things that we know are wrong to dominate what is being put on the forefront. People gotta realize we created this artistic expression—our looks, our sounds, our lingo and everything—so that we could give direction and instruction and guidance to people when they left the hip-hop show. The things you see in the video is just in the video. At the end of the day, the strip club gotta close and people gotta go home, and when you wake up and turn on the TV, you start seeing what's going on globally. You start seeing what's going on in the news. Somebody said, "Man, if an alien came here and listened to hip-hop right now, they wouldn't get an idea of what was going on in the last 20 years in this world."

How do you feel about this current generation of hip-hop and rap artists?

So the cutoff is kind of with WuTang and after Biggie and Pac died. When there were incidents—a war, a police incident, a shooting, a fight—when it was something going on in our community, the very next day a rap group or a rapper would have that issue on the record on the radio. Now with all of the death, destruction, and despair that's going on, you turn on the radio, everybody's just getting high, having sex, and talking about what brand of clothing or car they drive. Outside of video and radio, hip-hop is as dominant and as powerful as it will always be. I never thought hip-hop would have the same contrived ingredients that processed food has. 

Until people start respecting the artistic creative essence of our genre, we will always have people complaining about why hip-hop is so-called "not like it used to be." It's better than it used to be, just nobody is paying attention to those parts. I want to hear the drug dealer talk like Pac did—how he loves his momma. Pac was thug life, but he did a record addressing teenage pregnancy. That's the power of the hip-hop artist. 

To some degree, the content within Run DMC's sound was very clean. Why did you all go with that approach?

The night Tupac got killed, Suge Knight brought Run DMC to perform at the after-party at Death Row's club. When we got to the hotel, the whole Death Row crew rolls up, and [Suge] said "The most motherfucking gangster motherfucking thing I ever motherfucking see was Run DMC and Jam Master Jay come play the motherfucking Coliseum for two fucking hours and not cuss once. That's gangsta." Even those gangsters and the people running around living in that world, they want the other outlet. We started showing the world that the positive things is where the power was at. It's not like we're saying you're wrong if you're in a gang [or] if you sell drugs. We were never preachy, we just said, "Here's gang bangin,' and here are some other opportunities."

The oppression that [fans] was getting [and] the political structures that was causing the poverty in the communities, the music that we was making empowered the individuals that listened to it. So it's not about selling the record, [or] seeing the change on the end of the financial statement—it's about knowing that you're doing something to the community. That's what's missing right now. The only way we can have success is if we turn all of our energy into the arts. We need to focus more on arts in the school. I don't care if it's tap dancing, ballet, drawing, sculpting, painting, beat making, drum playing, or violin lessons. We need to focus on these art things because the arts succeed where politics and religion fail.

How do you feel about all of these schools trying to get rid of art programs?

Those little kids they think are underprivileged, illiterate children, [but] that's where you see what's inside of them. When I was in elementary school, all I did was read Marvel comic books, so everybody thought DMC was the weird nerdy kid that read comic books. But because I was reading comic books 24 hours, seven days a week, I was a straight A student. I only picked up the textbook and the workbook, so I could understand what was going on, so I could finish all my lessons, so I could go back and read my comic books. Jam Master Jay, my DJ, rest in peace, he said the only reason he loved going to school [was] because he knew he could be in the band so he could play music, so he had to keep his grades up, so he could go play the drums in music class. They don't get that. We can start tapping into the kids now—let's not wait till he, or she, is 18 and then graduates and goes to school for four years to get a degree. Find what's on the mind of this little kid at 10 and 12 years old [and] let's give them this paint brush, microphone, instrument, or mound of clay now.

Why is education a top priority for you?

School is just practice to see if you're worthy of receiving what's already yours. You may not be a straight-A student, but what gets you by in life is enthusiasm about yourself and people seeing that you're determined, motivated, and concentrating on your goal. That [spells] the letters DMC. That's what it means—it doesn't mean me, it means you. Chuck D from Public Enemy was at Adelphi University, and he was a graphic design student. He actually designed the PE logo, so that's what I mean—that education stuff pays off for when you get to where you're supposed to go. All of those little tests and processes and formulas come to use throughout your life. It's all about real life [and] real time. 

How should artists now handle voicing their opinions or speaking out about sociopolitical issues?

They would have to look at the advantage of addressing those issues in their music, but they don't have to. They don't have to put it in their music, but here's the thing—when the music is off and no cameras is on you, what are you out there doing? That's the thing people need to realize. Everybody who has been put in a position of high esteem, you're given that gift for a bigger reason than just to make a lot of money and winning awards and selling out theaters and all of that. It is expedient that we all be responsible, but that being said, nobody wants that responsibility. A lot of people only want responsibility of getting what they need to get and being there, but they don't want the responsibility that comes with it. Chuck D [once said], "The most powerful thing about this thing that we're doing is the power of communication. There's always a mic on us, in front of us, and there's always a camera in front of us. Whenever we get the opportunity, we gotta say something that's gonna impact the viewer or the listener." I've never forgotten that. With that higher position comes that responsibility. 

From your perspective, what artists have good examples of this?

So Neil Young is still doing what he did over 50 years ago—he was on the front line protesting the oil pipeline thing that they trying to build on the Native American land. Neil Young is out there probably coming up with a song about it right now. So not only did we see that, "Wow, these guys are rich, iconic, famous rockstars." What touched us was, "Woah, John Lennon slept in the bed naked to protest the war." Neil Young did a record called Ohio which is about the shooting of the students by the government at Kent University. 

Bob Dylan and John Fogerty talked about everything from racial, social, and women's rights in their records. Those are the things that really made those guys important. It's our responsibility because we got this vehicle called the performing arts to get the messages across. A lot of the stuff people really want to say about Trump, we can just start painting pictures, doing plays, and making music about it. That's the importance of the art. 

What motivated you to get involved with philanthropic endeavors?

When I found out that I was adopted, I immediately started doing stuff for adopted and foster kids. I started going to the group homes. I started going to the adoption agencies and the foster care agencies and telling these kids, "I'm not here 'cause I'm better than you. I'm not here as a celebrity. I stand in front of you as an example of what you can do if you take advantage of every creative educational artistic opportunity given to you.'" To all artists, no matter what it is that you do, there's always that responsibility to impact everybody who's looking or listening to whatever it is that you're doing. I'm not talking about just coming to the neighborhood and giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving. You need to be in that neighborhood every day that you ain't onstage. That's what it's supposed to be about.

How has working with foster kids specifically made an impact on your life?

One of the things that I've learned about working with the foster kids is, push the Bible [and] the psychology book to the side. The foster kid who's been in the system since she or he was two years old going through hell, sit them down and say, "What would you like to see happen?" Because if anybody has a solution of how it could be better, [it's them]. Even though they comin' from the worst place in life, they're always thinking how to make it better for somebody else. These are the young people that should be leading the world in the next 20 years because they got the vision, but it's always polluted when they get an opportunity. Somewhere along the way, we get hypnotized into believing you gotta pick one or the other... You have to be this or you have to be that. People need to just be. Hip-hop is telling these people—young and old—you need to be something. Figure out what it is that you want to be and be it, but you gotta do it collectively.

How do you feel about the current political landscape?

I'm looking at this world in the last 15 years, [and] everybody's so confrontational. I started paying attention to political and religious institutions when Obama got elected because a black man got elected and I thought that I would never see that in my lifetime. We'll never have [the government] right because right off the box, you've got Republicans and Democrats. If you're a Republican and I'm a Democrat, we got a beef. When you look out into the audience of a concert, you see people from all walks of life there because of that one thing—music. So we will never get it right until we have a political system that doesn't have a separate denomination.

As terrible as this current administration is already showing to be, the highlight will be the art that comes out of this period. 

You're 100 percent right. When things get crazy, that's when the arts have a boom. That's when the arts explode because we know this is our outlet, this is our time to express the truth.