Darryl ”DMC” McDaniels is sizing me up.
”You look like a 2X,” he says, reaching into a suitcase on the floor of his hotel room. He extracts a black T-shirt with his image on the back and ”Checks, Thugs, Rock N’ Roll” on the front, and tosses it to me. ”That’s gonna be the title of my [solo] album,” he says proudly.
We’re in Fort Lauderdale, where Run-DMC is scheduled to headline one of those drunken spring-break bashes, and it promises to be more out of control than usual, falling as it does on St. Patrick’s Day. The seminal rap trio — which formed in Hollis, Queens, in 1981 and whose other members are Joseph Simmons (Run) and Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay) — are gearing up for the April 3 release of Crown Royal, their first album in eight years. The band has a whirlwind schedule of live dates, promotional appearances, and press interviews lined up. The comeback record itself is a guest-studded affair featuring collaborations with Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Sugar Ray, Everlast, Method Man, Jermaine Dupri, and others; the group’s label, Arista, is obviously hoping that the same venerable-legend-plus-hot-Young-Turks formula they used to propel Santana’s Supernatural into the multiplatinum stratosphere will work for Run-DMC.
For his part, McDaniels, 36, has little to say about Crown Royal, for the simple reason that he’s barely on it, and not just because he was too busy plotting his solo move. He admits his voice isn’t what it used to be — ”I just can’t scream no more” — but the reasons for his lack of participation on the album run far deeper.
For one, he doesn’t identify with much current hip-hop, either sonically or attitudinally. The frat-boy rap-rock of Limp Bizkit — whose Durst is a huge Run-DMC fan — leaves him cold. Having kicked a prodigious malt-liquor habit (twelve 40-ounce bottles a day!) several years ago, he’s been living a more spiritual laid-back life. And these days, the man who once proclaimed himself ”King of Rock” (also the title of his just-published autobiography) finds that the music that best matches his new aesthetic outlook is classic rock. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. The Doors. Neil Young. Bob Seger. He’s even been infected with a dose of ’60s-style antimaterialism, professing disdain for the flashy cars and bling-bling mentality of latter-day hip-hoppers.
To illustrate where he’s at musically, McDaniels pops a recent demo he made with a rock band into a boom box. A rhythm guitar hammers out a Stonesy riff and McDaniels begins bouncing around the room. ”This is like some Chuck Berry s—,” he shouts, bashing away at an air guitar.
”This could be on the radio right now!” he says. ”If Arista had wanted to, they could have had four or five of my songs on the [Run-DMC] album. But the truth is, what I had, they didn’t want. They would ask me, ‘Okay D, what do you have?’ And I’d say, ‘I wanna have a Bob Dylan sample and I want to say this,’ and they’d say, ‘Um, no.”’
McDaniels has no problem performing his old hits on tour with Run-DMC, as he is scheduled to do for most of the spring and summer—”I could do that with my eyes closed”—but insists that he won’t compromise his musical vision in the studio, commercial consequences be damned. If that means he’ll have to put out his own music ”like Ani DiFranco,” and be relegated to a purely nominal role in Run-DMC, so be it.
He maintains he has paid a heavy price for his stance. ”One day, all this Arista stuff was getting to me, and I started to think stuff I never think,” he confesses. ”I was driving, and I thought, ‘What if I pull over and shoot myself, then what? Let me show these motherf—ers what it’s like.’ I would never do that, but it got to that point.
”Run and Jay are like, ‘D’s buggin’,’ but it’s about my evolution.” Seizing on one of his newfound rock role model’s most legendary career moves, McDaniels comes up with a jaw-dropping analogy: ”It’s like when Bob Dylan first picked up the electric guitar, and everybody’s like, ‘Boo! Boo! He’s ruining everything.’ Did he care? No, because this is what he had to do. It’s the same with me.”
McDaniels may have served notice that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, but make no mistake—his bandmates, not to mention the suits at Arista, still want to get paid. With a new album to promote, the lightning bolt of DMC’s rock & roll satori couldn’t have struck at a more inopportune time.
The album—five years in the making—has been beset by difficulties from the jump, its original 1999 release date pushed back more times than the group has sung ”Walk This Way.” First, there were bitter inter-label squabbles over the rights to the Kid Rock and Fred Durst collaborations, which Arista had hoped to release as singles. Then, in the spring of 2000, Arista prexy Clive Davis, whose brainchild Crown Royal had been, was ousted, and incoming president Antonio ”L.A.” Reid inherited an album that was rapidly turning into an albatross.
Shanti Das, Arista’s senior director of marketing, attempts to put a positive spin on an awkward situation: ”Understand, we came in after most of the recording was done. Obviously, we would have liked to see more of DMC on the album, but he has been supporting the project. Even though he’s not really featured on the record, he’s been doing interviews and paid [concerts] for us.”
Still, the prognosis for the album—which, according to one insider, has thus far cost Arista close to $3 million—seems iffy at best. The first single, a raucous pairing with Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins called ”Rock Show,” was released in January but has so far failed to make much of a splash. In February, Reid initiated plans to shoot a big-budget, Hype Williams-directed video for ”It’s Over,” with Dupri, but that’s been put on hold. ”We decided it just didn’t make sense to spend the money on it,” says Das. ”Possibly, we’ll come back to it, but our next video [for ”Let’s Stay Together,” with R&B group Jagged Edge] is already in the can, so we decided to release that.”
Run’s power-wielding big brother, Russell Simmons, CEO of Rush Communications and the group’s former manager, sums up the situation with a bit of unintended humor. “This is a good Run-DMC album,” he insists. “It’s just that instead of D’s vocals, you’ve got Kid Rock or Fred Durst.”
Jam Master Jay and Run (who is now an ordained minister and prefers to be addressed as “Reverend Run”) are sitting at a conference-room table at Arista’s midtown Manhattan headquarters for a day of press interviews. DMC hasn’t bothered to make the scene. “He doesn’t show up all the time,” admits Jay. “But because he doesn’t show up, does that mean we’re not gonna promote the record?”
The pair autograph pairs of Adidas for the sports-shoe company while fielding questions about the making of Crown Royal and their creative differences with their partner. Though neither man comes right out and says it, you get the impression they feel DMC has, in effect, turned into that most derided of rap pariahs: a sucker MC.
“D isn’t really MC-ing in a competitive way,” says Jay, 36. “Plus, he just isn’t into hip-hop. He don’t know about Jay-Z, he don’t know about DMX, he don’t know about Mystikal. He don’t even know Nelly. He’s listening to Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton.”
“He’s on some other s— all right, playing the guitar and sitting on top of the mountain,” agrees the Reverend, 36, with a whiff of righteous wrath. “He didn’t wanna make a Run-DMC record, that’s for sure.” Will fans be disappointed that he’s scarcely on the disc? “They might have been more disappointed had I let him rhyme on the album with his voice in the condition that it’s in. His voice is gone. It just left him.”
McDaniels, who is working with a vocal coach, believes that he’ll be able to sing well enough to be a credible solo artist. You can hear his new singing style—slightly wobbly, like a lamb taking its first steps—on “Cadillac Cars,” the single he just released on his own label, the prosaically named Darryl’s Music Company. A low-key track dominated by a moody harmonica motif, it’s something of a manifesto for the rapper’s New Agey outlook (“Don’t hesitate to investigate/Take time out to meditate,” it advises). In truth, it doesn’t sound miles removed from what rap-folkie Everlast—a Crown Royal contributor—is doing now.
And, much like folk-hearted activists of another era, DMC is committed to preserving a fragile sort of peace while fighting his own good fight. He’ll tour with his mates, sure, but his mind is really on his own projected, as-yet-unscheduled solo jaunt: “I have a band: three guitar players, a drummer, harmonica player, keyboardist, everything. I want us to go out and perform in clubs, open for the Dave Matthews Band, do the raw thing, sleep in the van, that whole trip. I’m ready.”
Ready or not, others are preparing for the inevitable. “I think this might be the last Run-DMC album” is Russell Simmons’ grim assessment. “I don’t feel good saying that, but it might be. I think the next album will be a Reverend Run album, just Run and Jay collaborating.”
“The whole thing is just sad,” says Bill Adler, the group’s former publicist. “Run-DMC has meant so much to so many people, that this is like your parents splitting up. Hell, it’s like the Beatles splitting up.”
To which DMC might well reply, Let it be.