“The Run DMC Story” Gives Voice to a Rap Group

Run DMC is here to show us the “complicated” and humble beginnings of their rise to fame in a new three-part documentary series, Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story, premiering Thursday on Peacock.

Yusuf “Rev. Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell got together in 1983 in the New York City neighborhood of Hollis, Queens and helped usher in a golden era of hip-hop with other major artists throughout the ’80s.

Known as one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time, Run DMC had to fight tooth and nail to be recognized by mainstream society as the hip-hop movement developed.

The rap group broke barriers and made history as the first hip-hop artist to appear on “American Bandstand,” whose video was played on MTV, and the first rap artist to receive a Grammy nomination. To this day, people rock Adidas because of its influential group. Their song, “My Adidas,” helped pave the way for the first brand endorsement deal in hip-hop culture.

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

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

Simmons and McDaniels chatted with Talk News to discuss how storytelling in hip-hop has changed, whether 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.

The first rock rap star. The first rap movie star. The first rap group played on MTV, went platinum, got your own sneakers, and sold out arenas all over the world. To become such a big 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 is that people don’t believe in hip-hop culture as a legitimate form or genre in the entertainment or music industry. What they don’t realize is that with or without the music business, there would be hip-hop because we were doing it before you guys recorded us. I feel like they let us get 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 beliefs, but we believed in ourselves. Even though we sample from the artists we grew up with, we know that we have a responsibility to create great works of art, which allow us to rise above the naysayers.

I was recently in high school and the kids asked me what I thought about mumble rap; I told them I could understand it. They want me to be an old man who will hate it, but I understand it because the same things they said about mumble rap, they said to us. I share the only difference between my generation and their generation, when we are criticized, we will stop what we are doing and show the world that we can be better.

In the documentary series, you share that when you were young, all you cared about were comic books. Basically, you are also one of the hip-hop heroes and each hero has his own rules. What rules did you promise yourself when you started to rise?

DMC: The first rule to live by is the same rule Aunt Mae told Peter Parker: with great power comes great responsibility. We are hip-hop pioneers in the recorded music industry. When I started making the record, I connected it to superheroes that I admired. If you look at all the superheroes I love from Hulk, Batman, and Peter Parker – they’re all superheroes who have personal problems they’re going through, just like all the boys and girls in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Harlem who created things this hip-hop.

The Live Aid concerts were cited for having little black talent. Then the organization added Run DMC to its star-studded concert and you shared that you felt “accepted.” Can you describe your relationship with validation and acceptance as you navigate your career and reach greater heights?

DMC: Yes, if we were asked to participate in the Live Aid concert it would mean that someone considered us legitimate in the entire industry and said no one will listen to 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 so many other so-called legitimate artists not only validates me as an artist, but also validates my people in my culture. Now that I can do that, it is my responsibility to continue the operations I do. I had to tell the kids at the high school where I spoke recently not to twist it — I didn’t just become successful in hip-hop, I changed music. One kid agreed, and told his friends that they could ask his grandfather how we changed the music.

Hip-hop has changed in terms of its artistry, delivery, and even message. What do you think about today’s hip-hop story? Can you see yourself wanting to enter this genre today?

Joesph “Rev. Run” Simmons: I mean, it’s going down. I keep telling people to listen to Nicki Minaj’s new record called “Everyone.” I love artists doing what they do. I love SZA’s record “Snooze.” I love when an artist puts out a record and hits the top of the charts with great production. Even Snoop Dogg was successful several years ago. I agree. Get where you fit.

When you became an ordained minister, what impact did it have on you and your relationship with the group?

Pastor Run: We recorded “Down With the King,” and I was at church. The word has a dual meaning, namely communion with God and Run DMC, the god of rap. As a pastor, I’m still out there singing rhymes, but I’m deeper into God.

The doc explores a bit of your hubris early in your career. Was there a moment that made you check yourself? Or something that made you change the way you show confidence?

Pastor Run: I think the way me and DMC came in and attacked the stage was good in a lot of ways, but you have to be careful at all times when you do anything. The recording of “Run’s House” was turned into a television show, so it ended up with a double meaning. What a beautiful journey.

Having signed the Adidas deal, what has that taught you about your strengths, business and overall branding?

Pastor Run: The great thing is I like to tell people, you think someone is doing something to make a brand popular, to make money for themselves, and that’s not the right way to do it. If it’s authentic to you, people can feel it. I don’t wear Adidas to make it popular or make money from it, it’s just some swag we have. If you want to make something happen in this world, it has to come from your heart.

Life wants you to show your authenticity to others, and once you show your authenticity to others, good things will come from it. I didn’t expect the deal, but I wore those sneakers because they were flying. Look at Pharrell; he is the current creative director at Louis Vuitton. Who else would you like to see Timberlands combined with the Louis Vuitton label? You just have to be authentic.

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

International Photo via Getty Images

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

Reverend Run: I’m interested in seeing an artist take off and make a hit record that resonates — not just on the internet, but on the radio — that cracks the charts and makes people feel good. I love the structure of listening to genius material.

DMC: In the next 50 years, we proved that we can sell records and now we need to take all this power and be part of society, our communities and our education system. It’s our way of fixing every mistake and changing all the conditions that we’ve done over the last 50 years, which is what led us to create hip-hop. People celebrate all the negativity and all the bad darkness and brokenness like it’s cool — and kids don’t realize we created hip-hop so you don’t have to do it and live your life. It is art that succeeds, while politics and religion fail.

Do you think hip-hop needs gatekeepers?

Pastor Run: I love 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 last forever. He has old school rappers intertwined with new old school rappers, so I believe LL Cool J is doing a good job in keeping hip-hop as an authentic genre.

DMC: Hip-hop doesn’t need gatekeepers, but what it does need is for everyone who was successful in hip-hop, before the generation that still does hip-hop, to have a seat at the table. We should be in the meeting room. It’s like in sports, if I play for your team and retire, you need to hire me to still be included in the team in a different way because I’m the one who made the culture of that team what it is.

With hip-hop, we changed the world; we made history, and we were very positive, but they didn’t want us to have a seat at the table. They took hip-hop and profited from it. Ninety-nine point nine percent of what you call hip-hop isn’t hip-hop, but if you put it up 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 a larger fan base, tapping into the “mainstream.” Do you think hip-hop artists have to reach other audiences to achieve great success?

Pastor Run: It all depends on what you want to do with your life. I did the show “Run’s House” and LL Cool J was on the series “NCIS.” It is what you want to do and what you want to feel. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane still perform and make rap records. Whatever you feel comfortable doing, you should do. I don’t think you need to cross over to go further or get bigger. It’s all about how you feel and how you want to present yourself in this world.

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

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