This Rap Group Fought Tooth And Nail To Be Recognised — And Now They’re Telling Their Story

Run DMC is here to show us the “tricky” and humble beginnings of their stardom in a new three-part docuseries, Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story, which premieres Thursday on Peacock.

Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell came together in 1983 in the Hollis, Queens, neighbourhood of New York City and helped usher in the golden era of hip-hop with other big acts throughout the ’80s.

Known for being one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time, Run DMC had to fight tooth and nail in order to be recognised by the mainstream public as the burgeoning hip-hop movement started to grow.

The rap group broke barriers and made history as the first hip-hop act to appear on “American Bandstand,” to have their videos play on MTV, and the first rap act to receive a Grammy nomination. To this day, people are rocking Adidas due to the influential group. Their song, “My Adidas,” helped pave the way for the first brand endorsement deal in hip-hop culture.

In the docuseries, Simmons and McDaniels reunite to tell their story in their own words, with the help of several other hip-hop greats including Chuck D, Ice Cube, MC Lyte, Jermaine Dupri and others.

Jam Master Jay, the DJ of the group, was fatally shot in 2002. Two men accused of the killing are currently on trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City. They have pleaded not guilty.

Simmons and McDaniels chatted with HuffPost to discuss how storytelling in hip-hop has changed, if the genre needs gatekeepers and why it’s important for hip-hop veterans to have a seat at the table in this new era of hip-hop.

First rock stars of rap. First movie stars of rap. First rap group played on MTV, to go platinum, get your own sneaker and sell out arenas worldwide. To be a huge pioneer and really bring rap to the mainstream, what was one challenge and one immediate triumph during your rise to fame?

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels: The only challenge was people didn’t believe in hip-hop culture as a legitimate form or genre in the entertainment or music industry. What they didn’t realise was with or without the music business, there was going to be hip-hop because we were doing it before y’all put us on record. I feel they allowed us into the music business because they didn’t want us to create a business that was bigger than them.

There was a lot of opposition to us in terms of belief, but we believed in ourselves. Even though we were sampling the artists we grew up on, we knew we had a responsibility to create great works of art, which allowed us to overcome the nonbelievers.

I was recently at a high school and the kids asked me my thoughts on mumble rap; I told them I could relate to it. They wanted me to be the old man that would hate it, but I relate to it because the same thing they said about mumble rap, they said to us. I shared the only difference between my generation and their generation, when we were criticised, we would stop what we were doing and show the world we could be better.

In the docuseries, you shared that when you were younger, all you cared about were comic books. Essentially, you were one of hip-hop’s heroes as well and every hero has its own set of rules. What were some of the rules you promised yourself when you began to rise?

DMC: The first rule to abide by is the same rule Aunt Mae told Peter Parker: with great power comes great responsibilities. We are pioneers of hip-hop in the recording music industry. When I started making my records, I related it to the superheroes that I looked up to. When you look at all the superheroes that I liked from the Hulk, Batman and Peter Parker — they’re all superheroes who have personal issues that they’re gone through, just like all the boys and girls in the Bronx and Manhattan and Harlem who created this hip-hop thing.

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Live Aid concerts were called out for having few Black talent on the billing. Then the organisation added Run DMC to the star-studded concert and you shared that you felt “accepted.” Can you describe your relationship with validation and acceptance as you navigated in your career and reached higher heights?

DMC: Well, for us to be asked to participate in the Live Aid concert means that somebody considered us legitimate in a whole industry that said nobody wants to hear you. For us to be invited to play at the Live Aid concert on the same stage as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones along with a whole multitude of so-called legitimate artists was not only validating me as an artist, but it was validating my people in my culture. Now that I was able to do that, it was my responsibility to continue in the vein of operation that I was doing. I had to tell kids at the high school I was recently speaking at to not get it twisted — I didn’t just become successful in hip-hop, I changed music. One kid agreed, telling his peers they can ask his grandfather how we changed music.

Hip-hop has changed in terms of its artistry, delivery and even the messaging. What are your thoughts on today’s storytelling in hip-hop? Could you see yourself wanting to enter the genre today?

Joesph “Rev. Run” Simmons: I mean, it’s going down. I keep telling people to listen to that new Nicki Minaj record called “Everybody.” I’m into artists doing what they do. I love that record by SZA called “Snooze.” I like when an artist comes in that makes a record and can make it to the top of the charts with great production. Even Snoop Dogg had a hit a couple of years ago. I’m with it. Get in where you fit in.

When you became an ordained minister, how did that affect you and your relationship with the group?

Rev. Run: We made the record “Down With the King,” and I was in church. It had a double meaning saying be down with God and Run DMC, the gods of rap. Being a reverend, I was still out there kicking rhymes, but I was deeper into God.

The doc explores a bit of your cockiness early on in your career. Was there a moment that made you check yourself? Or one that made you change the way you present your confidence?

Rev. Run: I think the way me and DMC came in and attacked the stage was good in many senses, but you have to be careful at all times when you do anything. The record “Run’s House” turned into a television show, so it ended up being a double entendre. It’s been a beautiful ride.

After signing your Adidas deal, what did that teach you about power, business and your overall branding?

Rev. Run: The great thing is that I like to tell people, you think someone is doing something to make a brand popular, to make themselves money, and that’s not the way to go about it. If it’s authentic to you, people can feel it. I didn’t wear Adidas to make it popular or make money from it, it was a swag we just had. If you want to make anything happen in this world, it has to come from your heart.

Life wants you to show people your authenticity, and once you show people your authenticity, good things come out of it. I didn’t expect the deal, but I wore the sneakers because they were fly. Look at Pharrell; he’s a creative director at Louis Vuitton right now. Who else would you want to make the Timberlands mixed with the Louis Vuitton label? You just have to be authentic.

DMC: I was rhyming about my Adidas that were sitting in my room. When you watch this Run DMC documentary, this is about you, me and all of us from past, present and future. Everything Run DMC did was about all of us. When you look at the documentary, look at who’s interviewed for it: everybody from Ice-T to Chuck D, Public Enemy and everybody in between.

McDaniels, Simmons and Mizell at the American Music Awards in the 1980s.
McDaniels, Simmons and Mizell at the American Music Awards in the 1980s.

Fotos International via Getty Images

Hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. What are your hopes for the next 50 years?

Rev. Run: I’m interested in seeing an artist develop and make hit records that will resonate — not only on the internet, but also on the radio — that break charts and make people feel good. I’m into the structure of listening for genius material.

DMC: As for the next 50 years, we proved we could sell records and now we need to take all of this power and become part of our public, our communities, our educational systems. This is how we right every wrong and change all the conditions that we’ve been rapping about for the last 50 years, that made us create hip-hop in the first place. People are celebrating all the negativity and all the bad darkness and destruction like it’s cool — and kids don’t realise we created hip-hop so you don’t have to do and live the way that you’re living. It’s the arts that succeed where politics and religion fail.

Do you think hip-hop needs gatekeepers?

Rev. Run: I’m happy with what LL Cool J is doing with his platform, Rock the Bells, in making sure people understand that hip-hop is actually a genre that can be around forever. He has the old-school rappers intertwined with the new-school rappers, so I believe LL Cool J is doing a great job in keeping hip-hop as an authentic genre.

DMC: Hip-hop doesn’t need gatekeepers, but what it needs is everyone who was successful in hip-hop, prior to the generations that are still operating in hip-hop, to have seats at those tables. We need to be in the boardrooms. It’s like in sports, if I played for your team and retired, you need to hire me to still be included in the team in a different way because I was the one that made the culture of that team what it is at that time.

With hip-hop, we changed the world; we made history, and we were very positive, but they don’t want to have us have a seat at the table. They are taking hip-hop and profiting off of it. Ninety-nine point nine percent of what you call hip-hop isn’t hip-hop, but if you leave that to the public, they won’t ask any questions. We don’t need gatekeepers, but they need us in the room so we can tell people when they’re wrong.

Hip-hop artists tend to “cross over” into other spaces to gain more of a fan base, tapping into the “mainstream.” Do you think hip-hop artists have to cross over to other audiences in order to reach major success?

Rev. Run: It all depends on what you want to do with your life. I made the show “Run’s House” and LL Cool J was on the series “NCIS.” It’s what you want to do and how you want to feel. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane are still out performing and making rap records. Whatever you’re comfortable doing, you should do. I don’t think you need to cross over to go further or become bigger. It’s all how you feel and how you want to present yourself in this world.

“Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story” streams on Peacock beginning Thursday.

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