For Run-D.M.C., Authenticity Is Everything

We talk to musical pioneer Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels about the group’s fashion, hip-hop today and more.

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Founded in 1983 in New York City, Run-D.M.C. paved the way for much of the hip-hop sound that has echoed across the world ever since. The group’s prophetic hits were not only prescient in their sonic style but in how they forged a connection between MC and DJ. The trio — made up of Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels and the late Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell — catapulted hip-hop into the mainstream.

And the group is still going strong, with McDaniels and Simmons having recently played at Las Vegas’ JBL Fest. “Since the ‘80s I’ve stayed true to myself, which has helped me stay authentic to my work, my fans and hip-hop culture in general,” McDaniels told HYPEBEAST during the music festival. “I don’t think this concept has changed much since the ‘80s — fans still gravitate towards artists that are authentically themselves.” But certainly if it wasn’t for Run-D.M.C.’s new school sound, much of today’s industry wouldn’t exist. 

Though primarily known as a hip-hop group, Run-D.M.C. also retook ownership of rock n’ roll. The genre has long since been clouded by white musicians despite originating from historically Black musical forms, a fact Pyer Moss recently examined in his Spring/Summer 2020 show. The group’s 1984 classic “Rock Box” exemplified this, employing heavy-metal guitar riffs and aggressive rhymes that veered hip-hop’s lens into more socially critical territory. They had laid the foundations for the Roland TR-808 drum machines, with then-manager and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and producer Larry Smith engineering a stripped-down version that allowed for a jolt of energetic fury. The group’s fervent hard-rock rhythms and critically-aligned sixteens laid the bedrock for Public Enemy, Nas, The Roots, Eminem and more to flourish.

But it wasn’t just a particular genre of music that the group popularized — it was equally so the accompanying hip-hop lifestyle. “For hip-hop specifically, the look is everything – you want to show that you’re still true to your roots even with your success,” McDaniels said. From laceless adidas Superstars influenced by prison shoes to full-blown tracksuits, D.M.C.’s eclectic take on fashion was far more street than the outlandishness promulgated by block-rocking acts Grandmaster Flash and Afrikaa Bambaataa. From the thick gold rope chains and fedoras, their eclectic take on style was as unique as it was daring. The group changed the hip-hop fashion landscape, with their influence still felt today. 

Recently, Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels and Joseph Simmons took to Las Vegas to partake in 2019’s JBL Fest, offering up an energy-pounding showcase of hip-hop’s raw and untethered values. They brought the same authenticity they did nearly 40 years ago, playing out an eclectic collection of D.M.C. staples, rocking the normative style they began with. HYPEBEAST spoke with McDaniels, who shared his thoughts on New York City, authenticity, rap rock, and more. 

HYPEBEAST: Why did you choose to partake in JBL Fest? What does JBL promote that aligns with D.M.C.’s values?

Darryl McDaniels: It was a no-brainer when JBL asked us to perform at the opening night of JBL Fest 2019. Performing at JBL Remix allowed us to give our fans an authentic hip-hop experience that only Run-D.M.C. can deliver. We like doing events with JBL because of the company’s history of being there for music’s biggest moments. JBL has great sound and really cares about the fan experience — and that’s something we can really relate to. It’s about the audience first!

Authenticity and “staying true to oneself” is often regarded as the basis for hip-hop’s cultural ideology. What are your thoughts on maintaining authenticity?

New York in the ‘80s was one of the most influential and innovative periods in history. The punk rock, hip-hop and art scene were consistently producing some of the edgiest and most culturally relevant work from Uptown to Downtown. Producing work alongside other ‘80s icons, like Lou Reed, The Ramones, Blondie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and many more helped me define what music, fashion, and art should be. These artists helped me find my own authentic style and voice, which I’ve represented through my work. Since the ‘80s I’ve stayed true to myself, which has helped me stay authentic to my work, my fans and hip-hop culture in general. I don’t think this concept has changed much since the ‘80s — fans still gravitate towards artists that are authentically themselves. Even though the genre has changed over the years, the present generation of hip-hoppers is true to themselves and the current era of music.

What do you think differentiates the idea of an MC versus the idea of a rapper?

For me, singing is what defines whether or not you’re an emcee or a rapper. Rap is your dialogue or your talk; it’s not unique to just rap music. Some of the most popular artists have used that technique in their songwriting. Steven Tyler has rapped. Billy Joel has rapped. Neil Young and a whole host of other artists have rapped in their music. Emcees, on the other hand, have a more vocal style and delivery, but we looked up to artists from all genres that inspired us to respect the craft.

How did you incorporate different influences, from the street and popular culture, into your work?

I like to listen to all different kinds of artists, so my musical influences and inspirations span a lot of genres. My influences include Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, [The Rolling] Stones, [The] Beatles, Led Zeppelin and a host of other folk and rock artists. That’s why I called myself the King of Rock! You can see these inspirations reflected in my music through the use of guitar and drums. A lot of the chords and riffs are a lot closer to rock, incorporated with hip-hop beats.

Run-D.M.C. has been labeled “rock rappers,” hip-hop pioneers and more. How do you stay motivated to keep reinventing yourselves?

I just wake up and make the songs that are in my heart, mind, and soul. That’s all ya gotta do!

Run-D.M.C. is arguably one of the first to catapult streetwear into mainstream fashion. How important is fashion to the hip-hop sphere, i.e. the concept of “looking fresh”?

I think the importance of “looking fresh” goes back to authenticity. If you’re wearing something that feels true to yourself, it’ll automatically take your performance to the next level. For hip-hop specifically, the look is everything – you want to show that you’re still true to your roots even with your success. That’s why we did our own thing with streetwear. We dressed the same way that the graffiti artists and breakdancers of the time did, and it felt good to be able to bring that culture to the mainstream. But the first emcees and deejays were the true pioneers of “the look.” They were inspired by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Temptations and Parliament Funkadelic, so they dressed like them when they got into show business. 

Hip-hop is now a global phenomenon, but when Run-D.M.C. began in the late ‘80s, it was a niche market. How do you feel about global newcomers to the format?

Hip-hop has always been huge globally, but it’s great to see the culture develop from the niche markets of Queens and The Bronx to other areas across the country and across the globe. When we were starting out, we were inspired by the artists and culture of our time, and the newcomers on the hip-hop scene are doing the same.

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