Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, hip-hop pioneer, talks about coming back from the brink

In his powerful new memoir, the founding member of Run-DMC describes the series of blows that demolished his life – and how a Sarah McLachlan song gave him the strength to go on

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 8:00pm

As the “Devastating Mic Controller,” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels revolutionised rap with Joseph “Run” Simmons and Jason (Jam Master Jay) Mizell in Run-DMC, famous for such hits as King of Rock and their cover of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way.

But Run-DMC’s success masked tensions within the group and in McDaniels’ life. That struggle is at the heart of the 52-year-old’s new memoir, Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide.

It’s got to be shattering for people to think about what you went through to get here. That you were suicidal.

The thing with the book is, all of this happened to me while everybody else’s life was still going on. And nobody took time out to say, “What’s up with D?” Run went to make his album because I lost my voice. Jay is doing his label. In the midst of that, I’m so far down in my own s*** that I’m realising, all these motherf***ers don’t care about me. I’m thinking, without a voice I’m worthless. My whole Run-DMC existence, that’s all I knew.

If only it was just your voice. You went through a lot more.

I lost my voice, found out that I was adopted, Jay got shot [and killed in 2002] and then my father died. So I didn’t know what was going on.

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The first time you quit drinking, in the early 1990s, you ended up in the hospital. It’s astounding that you drank a case of Olde English a day, those 40-ouncers.

I had nothing else to do. Run was at home with his family. I was just drinking until there was another Run-DMC show. Everybody was drinking. I was just drinking more than anybody else.

The thing you say eventually pushed you to a relapse is finding out you were adopted.

Jay was funny. Jay was like, “D, you could be Dominican.” Run, he didn’t know better. He was like, “Suck it up, and [adoptive parents] Banna and Byford are your mother and father.” He was right, but I was like, “You don’t understand what this means.” That’s when you try to do the shows, get the cheque and go home.

You sound fine now. Is your voice better?

It’s almost like if you get an injury in a war. It’s not, like, destroyed. If I get shot in my leg, it’s going to take you eight months to get better. But it’s almost like that.

Your vocal cords spasm. Is that it?

It’s called spasmodic dysphonia. It has two symptoms. There’s abductor and adductor. It either does outward spasms or inward spasms. The doctor, when he finally diagnosed me, he said, “We’re sorry to tell you you have both.”

When did the voice go bad?

During the Down With the King run, there were nights when Joe would go, “D, what happened to your voice last night?” I’d say, “I don’t know.” Then the next show I’d probably get through it. We’re thinking it’s normal wear and tear. After the Jason Nevins [remake of It’s Like That in 1997], that took us to getting US$80,000 a night. We was getting our riches off the whole shebang. That’s when my main personal stuff was going the other way. I lost the voice.

So were you faking it onstage?

I was in a lower tone, barely audible, and Jay was screaming over me. I go on YouTube now – I can’t even listen to it.

You talk about The Beatles in this book. You say, back in 1993, we should have wrapped it up then.

That’s right. We should have done a Beatles or Cream.

When did it all begin to go bad with the group?

I remember the day. We were doing [1990’s] Back From Hell and I went to Run and Jay and I said, “Yo, I got this song idea. It’s called Chill with the Mill.” I wrote this song and I came in with all this enthusiasm. The s*** was dope. You know how it was dope. The day before, I had run to Long Island to Erick and Parrish Smith, who was [the group] EPMD, and spit the lyric.

You were excited.

Yeah, I got some dope s***. And Run and Jay said, “No, D, get that bulls*** out of here and do what you got to do.” And I remember being hurt but not wanting to disappoint my boys. I was worried about pleasing them. I now look back and what I should have said was ‘F*** you, I quit’.

I don’t think people understand you and Joe, who were childhood friends – from reading this book it sounds like you guys don’t talk much now. Is it sad to you?

It’s like this. We were boys. But this is how it is now. We’re like two guys from the championship team. He’s like the guy I went to high school with. But the only reason why it’s like that is because of what transpired. Everything that happened to get to this point makes me realise what I’ve got to do now. The most important person in all of this, the most important feelings, are mine.

You just played a Run-DMC gig and you’ve got another gig later this summer. I hear you and Run don’t exactly hang out, right? Separate buses, separate hotels.

Everything. Listen, the funny s*** is I’m the one who got the negotiations to where it’s worth doing the shows. They came with bulls*** offers. Rock the Bells wanted to give us 50 grand. Jay Z’s Made in America wanted to give us some minuscule [amount]. I said, motherf***er, I’m f***ing DMC.

But you hate it?

I hate the performance of it. I enjoy singing my records. But I hate the performance of it because it’s not being presented in the state I am now. When we did the first show at Fun Fun Fun Fest [in 2012], it’s not special. This is the same thing we did in 1990 when Jay was alive.

I think people might be surprised to learn that for about a year, the only song you wanted to hear was Sarah McLachlan’s Angel. Explain that.

It was the void in me. The voice gone. Jay doing all my lyrics for me and me pretending. I could not speak. I get in the car after coming back from Europe. And the driver, he turns the radio on and he turns it to Hot 97. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. I hear Method Man and Busta just saying because of the success of hip hop we’ve got liquor companies, clothing companies, our own labels. They were saying, “When I’m 40 years old, I ain’t going to be rapping no more.” I said, “Yo, turn it off, turn it to anything other than that station. He turns it to I think Light FM. I just heard “Fly away from here, from this dark cold hotel room” and when I heard that something inside me said, “You know, D, you might not know what’s going on but it’s good to be alive and just exist.” For one whole year, she’s all I listened to. It was the only thing that made me feel good.

Do you look back at Run-DMC and are you grateful for what it gave you? Now you’re doing graphic novels, volunteering with schools and doing your own thing.

Yeah, it has empowered me. Not from a rich-and-famous standpoint. It empowered me with people. I didn’t realise the DMC thing was the set-up for what I was really supposed to be doing.