Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels tells us how Marvel comics gave him the confidence to rap and taking his storytelling to the next level with his own independent publishing house
Three decades ago, DMC – a comic book-obsessed rapper from Hollis, Queens – took the music industry by storm. With his group Run-DMC, DMC (real name Darryl McDaniels) made music history, putting gold chains and Adidas sneakers on the map and propelling rap music to previously unseen heights. From the cover of Rolling Stone to MTV videos, Grammys, and a hit single with Aerosmith, Run-DMC forced their way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and defined a generation.
McDaniels’ lyrical prowess and his unique control of the mic is out of this world – but every hero has his Kryptonite, and for DMC, there would be dark times ahead. First, the untimely death of his close friend and bandmate Jam Master Jay, then a long battle with alcoholism, and finally, the discovery that he was adopted. McDaniels’ world turned upside down, but he came back from adversity and carved out a solo career. Fusing his passion for comics and storytelling, he created his own independent publishing house, Darryl Makes Comics, in 2014.
Not that McDaniels is the first rapper to express his love of comic books. New York City was the birthplace of hip hop and breaking, but it was also home to Marvel. The first self-published hip hop comic, graphic artist Eric Orr’s Rappin Max Robot, dropped in 1986. Since then, we’ve had comics like the Wu-Tang Clan’s Nine Rings of Wu-Tang, MF Doom creating an aesthetic almost entirely based off Marvel villain Dr. Doom, and numerous collaborations between Marvel and rappers ranging from Chuck D and Public Enemy to Run the Jewels and Rae Sremmurd. And, like the comics they grew up reading, rappers have been adopting personas and create universes long before DMC fought crime with a gold-plated four-finger ring.
McDaniels talked to us about Marvel, Grandmaster Flash, and where it all began ahead of both the third issue and first UK gallery show of Darryl Makes Comics.
What was it like your first time on the mic?
DMC: When I started with Run-DMC, I was a nervous little nerdy kid – I didn’t want to get up in front of a crowd and rhyme. But what gave me confidence, out there on stage, was pretending that I was the Hulk on the microphone. Just like comics, hip hop gave me a world where I could create a personality. Where all of a sudden I wasn’t Darryl McDaniels, this mild-mannered school kid anymore. I transformed into ‘The Mighty King of Rock, there is none higher! / Sucker MCs should call me Sire!’
What made you want to become a rapper?
DMC: I was a comic book kid, but I wanted to be a DJ. Me and my brother sold my comics to buy turntables. I didn’t really want to be an MC at all, but when I heard (Sugarhill Gang’s) ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Big Bang Hank’s rhyme, it had this different energy about it. He was talking about superheroes, he was talking about Superman! So I started thinking. Then I heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 ‘Super Rappin’ and suddenly that was it. It was so different, it was so powerful! It wasn’t just a rhyme talkin’ about Superman, it was these rappers telling a story! I had all this creative energy but I had no way to let it out – and now here comes hip hop and Flash from over the bridge in Brooklyn and I was like, ‘You can tell stories over music?!’ It blew my mind! From there I just started writing rhymes.
“When I started with Run-DMC, I was a nervous little nerdy kid – I didn’t want to get up in front of a crowd and rhyme. But what gave me confidence, out there on stage, was pretending that I was the Hulk on the microphone” – DMC
Could you have ever imagined how big Run-DMC would get or that you would be considered a pioneer of hip hop?
DMC: No way man! I never really wanted to be in show business, or be in a music video. I just wanted to get a record on the radio like Flash did, like ‘The Message’ and ‘Planet Rock’. That was my only goal. Once that happened, I could’ve been done!
Even on tracks like ‘My Adidas’, I always go ‘Run-DMC ain’t really no pioneers!’ The people say ‘What the hell D! You’re crazy!’ But the real pioneers for me is everybody before us, man. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5, Cold Crush 4, Treacherous 3, Zulu Nation, Spoony G, Busy B Starsky, Kool Herc – they were the first ones to do it. People forget that because Run-DMC did it so big from a commercial standpoint. But these kids over the bridge had nothing and yet it was those guys who gave us this hip hop that said ‘Look inside of yourselves. What can you do? Who can you be?’ They showed us that hip hop was an outlet to let loose all this creativity that was already in us. The graffiti writers, the breakers, the DJs, the rappers.
Going back to comics, they were around long before hip hop came in the picture, right?
DMC: My whole life before hip hop was comic books. Comics was all I knew when I was a kid. In the 70s growing up, teachers were like ‘Don’t let the kids read comic books!’ But comics, for me, were an educational tool. I would learn about science in school, but Tony Stark, Batman and Spiderman would take me there. I would learn about the galaxy, the sun, moon and stars, but the Silver Surfer would take me there. I would learn about World War II in school but Captain America would take me there. All of that set me up to be a great student.
Marvel or DC?
DMC: Marvel, man – Marvel is New York City! When I started reading comics in kindergarten, I was a little kid who couldn’t go nowhere. But every time I opened up Marvel comics I got a geography lesson about the city I lived in. Times Square, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, 42nd Street, Uptown, Downtown, all that. DC comics is cool – I love Batman, Superman, the Flash, big shout out to Wonder Woman – but Gotham and Metropolis was fictional. Marvel wasn’t fake, it was real. Little things like Peter Parker – ‘Spiderman lives in Queens, I’m from Queens!’
What made you decide you wanted to start your own comic?
DMC: Hip hop has always been based on creativity, so what we’re trying to do with my comic book is not try to create anything that’s new, just show the world what's already there... the beauty and the creativity of it. The idea that every walk of life has heroes and stories worth telling. Issue One was set in the hip hop revolution, in the 80s. Wildstyle-inspired graffiti on every surface, the true grit of pre-Giuliani New York.
“Marvel is New York City... every time I opened up Marvel comics I got a geography lesson about the city I lived in. Times Square, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, 42nd Street, Uptown, Downtown” – DMC
How does a Darryl Makes Comics issue come together? As a kid who grew up drawing comics, can we expect a cover from you at some point?
DMC: I’ll do a cover eventually for sure, but for now, I do it how Stan Lee used to do. We get everybody around a table, create the whole storyline, who are the villains, who are the superheroes, what’s the setting. Then we get these incredible comic book artists and writers to put it together and make it official. (We have people like) Damion Scott from DC who did Batman, artists like Spider-Man artist Sal Buscema, and graffiti pioneer MARE 139 who did Style Wars.
DMC stars as the main superhero in your own comic. Having so many fans who look up to you, do you feel a responsibility to carry that over outside of the pages?
DMC: The comic first came together at a music meeting I had with Riggs Morales (Vice President of A&R at Atlantic) who is now also one of my editors at the comic. He said ‘You know I’m normally very professional, and I don’t fan out, but DMC, you’re like a superhero to me!’
A couple of years ago I was a metaphysical and spiritual wreck – alcohol and suicide; I found out I was adopted at 35... I didn’t feel strong at all. I felt like I was the only one like that. It wasn’t until I found out that there was other people, and other rappers like me that I started to feel strong and wanted to fight, and speak up for them too! Then another adoptee just blew my mind with these words. She said, ‘You never start a book from chapter two.’ I realised at that moment I was living my whole life from the second chapter of my story. I thought it all began in Hollis, Queens, New York with Run and Jay, but it didn’t. I was wrong. It began in Harlem!
Regardless of the consequences of meeting my birth mother, if it was good or bad, I had to do it. Without that chapter, the rest of the book wouldn’t exist. If she never gave me up, I would have never met Run, I would have never met Jay. There would be no hip hop, no ‘My Adidas’, no Aerosmith. Busta Rhymes and Eminem said there would be no hip hop if DMC hadn’t met Run, and none of that would have happened.
What are you most looking forward to from the show?
DMC: It’s the first UK show and (the first) time the artwork has been unveiled. We have an exclusive piece that we published just for this show. Issue three of the graphic novel is coming out next month, and then we’re also going to start doing monthly comics. But honestly, for me, it’s the art! You know it’s one thing to just be doing comics, and having my own comic but when people say ‘it's art’, that’s what it’s all about for me! That’s why you do it.
The Art of DMC runs at Hang Up Gallery until June 25