This article originally appeared in the May 1988 issue of SPIN.
When the car wasn’t at the airport to pick them up, they figured something might be wrong. It was Saturday, November 21, of lat year, and Run-D.M.C. were in Raleigh, North Carolina, to play a homecoming concert at Shaw University. The show had been inadequately promoted, and ticket sales were disappointing.
At the Dorton Arena on the North Carolina State Fairground, the rappers found that the promoter hadn’t supplied the backstage provisions they’d agreed upon. More significantly, he was having financial problems: He’d come up with the group’s front money, but couldn’t fulfill the rest of the contract. Refusing the perform, Run-D.M.C. and their road crew returned to their hotel.
A few minutes later, a group of Shaw students and fans who’d followed the group over from the area filled the 14th floor hallway of the Radison Plaza Hotel. At first the two factions talked. The fans blamed Run-D.M.C. for the cancelled concert. Then fists started to fly. The rappers, with the help of technical director Garfield McDonald and the rest of the stage crew, drove the fans back into the elevators.
The elevator doors closed, then opened again. When they did, a man raised a pistol and shot Garfield McDonald in the head. The man fled; McDonald spent Thanksgiving at Wake Medical Center. When he checked out a week later, he had no lingering ill effects from the wound, not even a headache.
A little over a month later, Christmas night, Jam-Master Jay (Jason Mizell), Run-D.M.C.’s deejay, was driving in his Jeep with two friends from the rap crew Serious-Lee-Fine, when a car coming in the opposite direction swerved into their lane. Jay jerked the Jeep to the other side to avoid the oncoming car, but the other driver mirrored his move. The two cars hit head-on, throwing Jay through the windshield of the Jeep. He survived the accident with cuts and minor bruises.
For Run-D.M.C., the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, these have been the tough years, the yers of living dangerously. The joke in their camp now is that you have to be willing to face death in order to sign on. Since releasing Raising Hell two years ago, the group has been denounced by Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Director John Norton as being “ruinous to the morals of our young people,” and accused by Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), of making music that “says it’s okay to beat people up.”
Even rapper Kurtis Blow, with whom Run (Joesph Simmons) had started out (as the Son of Kurtis Blow), said that “What Run-D.M.C. is doing is perpetrating [a fraud], acting like they’re tough gangster kids when they’re not. And the kids see Run acting that way, so they try to be gangsters.”
At a Halloween, 1986, anti-crack concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, the audience that applauded David Crosby’s war on drugs hurled insults and obscenities at Run-D.M.C. And in Paris, where an audience of punk rockers spat on the group and eventually shouted racial slurs, a concert turned into a fight between the rappers, their entourage, and members of the audience.
These have been the years of success and frustration, two years of being partly on hold. Raising Hell broke into the Top 10 and sold over three million copies; after the collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” however, it never yielded a second major hit single.
Tougher Than Leather, the film vehicle which the group partially financed themselves—and which was scheduled to finish shooting on December 9, 1986—still doesn’t have a distributor. Run now projects that it will come out in June, about a year later than originally planned. In the interim, a song the group recorded with Michael Jackson for his Bad album never came out.
Nor did the sequel to Raising Hell. Last July, Run-D.M.C.’s management company, Rush Artist Management, sued the group’s record company, Profile, and its publishing company, Protoons, for $6.8 million, for non-payment of royalties and publishing incomes. One month later, Profile countersued for $2 million because Run-D.M.C. failed to deliver an album. When the parties finally agreed to pay Profile’s six-figure legal costs, and to stay with the label for ten more albums, under new, lucrative terms.
These have also been the years of giving prodigiously, at times, perhaps, even indiscriminately. Since performing at Live Aid, Run-D.M.C. have become an international public interest organization, lending their support to nearly every good cause on the circuit: anti-drugs, anti-violence, money for the homeless, money for education, Reading Is Fundamental. They’ve set up their own scholarship fund, a $100 savings bond awarded to the graduating senior in every high school in Queens who has the best attendance record. When they go on the road again, they’ll have NAACP voter registration booths at all concerts. And they performed at a rally in support of Joe Clark, the Paterson, New Jersey, high school principle who has drawn support for patrolling the hallways with a bullhorn and baseball bat, and flak for chaining closed his school’s fire exits and expelling a good part of the student body.
In the wake of the backlash against violence at some of their shows, Run-D.M.C. became so exemplary that Russell Simmons, Run’s older brother and the group’s manager, publicly worried they were getting too soft. He told a Rolling Stone reporter, “I look at them and say, ‘Stop being a pussy.’ Let’s hope a year from now people don’t think they’re suckers.”
Now the wait is at last over, and any speculation about the crew’s image retains only its recreational value. Tougher Than Leather, the album, is finished and set for May release, with the movie to follow in June or July. We may never see an album with a better chance to repeat the success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
The Rush Artist Management offices are storming with activity on a Tuesday afternoon—people yelling across the room or into telephones, some stray b-boys drinking beer and answering criticisms that they’re too fat—as Run and D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) calmly retreat into a back office. It’s two months before Tougher Than Leather is due out, and Run tries to keep D.M.C.’s attention on a stack of typewritten lyrics.
“D,” he says, “you paying attention to this shit? There’s a lot of mistakes here.” He begins to rap out the lyrics with all the intensity of a live performance. “I feel sorry for all those other emcees,” he says. D.M.C. takes a bite out of his fish sandwich and says, apropos of nothing, “I gotta get some wrestling magazines after this.”
“Saw you on the Grammies chilling with Michael J,” shouts a Rush employee, bursting into the room. He slaps hands with Run and D.M.C., and he’s out again. Run goes back to the lyrics.
“You know,” he says, “I had that line [on ‘King of Rock’], ‘There’s three of us but we’re not the Beatles.’ I thought there were three Beatles. Didn’t you, D?”
D.M.C. shrugs. “Naw.”
“You knew I was fucking up?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t say anything if there was four.”
D.M.C. smiles. “Well, one of them died.”
They both crack up. Today, Run is feeling loose.
RUN: I’m ready for the highest eights of my life, and I know I can handle it. But you know, I’m a “no pain, no gain” type of guy, and this system is a real motherfucker, boy, ’cause I been paining hard, real hard pain. More pain than anybody could ever understand. I just be fucking dusted. I just cry out of nowhere. I’m the town fucking cryer.
I’m telling you man, I been through some shit this year. At one time during this year, I wasn’t really sad and I was making records, and I was coming up with the deffest shit. This is what nobody understands, why I’m always sad now. Then I was telling ‘em that I was sorry for all the other emcees, the way my records was coming out, the way everything was happening. Then all the sudden I just dusted. My brain just clicked. My brain has been clicked for a while now. Ain’t nothing been going trough my mind but bullshit thoughts of “Fuck Man, when my shit coming out?” And this and that, and just dusted, mean, fuck it, man. Like a real crazed maniac lately.
It disillusions me about life. I got to ask everybody, “What the fuck is life all about?” You know? And I’m supposed to really know. Kids look at me like, “What the fuck is this guy talking about?” I’m looking at a kid, wondering why’s everybody smiling and shit. Ain’t nothing funny.
What’s been the best part of the last two years?
RUN: I could tell you the happiest day of my life. I got off the [Madison Square] Garden stage [July 19, 1986], and we had just ragged the motherfucker. I mean ragged it. I came out and said, “I beg your pardon, this is my motherfucking Garden.” The crowd went out of their mind.
I got off the stage, and Angelo Anastasio [National Director of Entertainment Promotions for Adidas U.S.A.] was standing there, and he told me that no matter what, he’d put his life on it, I’ma have my own line of sneakers, Run-D.M.C. Adidas. And I got in the limo, all the way home there was this feeling of, “Oh shit, I don’t believe this year. I’ma have my own line of Adidas. Michael Jackson wants to make records with me.” I gave the fucking limo driver a $100 tip. That had to be the highlight of my life.
How about you, D?
D.M.C.: I had a lot of best days. My recent best day was when I bought my $7,000 [stereo] system for my Chevy four-by-four.
RUN: Were you that happy, D?
D.M.C.: I’m happy to this day because of that. I can’t wait to get in there and turn the music up so loud, people look.
RUN: That’s your happiest day recently?
D.M.C.: Very, very happy. I don’t go home at night-time, just drop all my friends off and drive around—take the long way home.
RUN: That’s incredible. I could cry. That you take the long way home by yourself and just listen to your shit real loud? In your car? That is incredible. ‘Cause all the pain I’m going through lately, I just can’t understand anybody being happy.
Did you ever imagine when you were starting out that you could get this far?
RUN: Yeah, in my visions. Me and D.M.C. were always visioning things like this to happen and they just happened years later. I notice Spike Lee’s talking the same thing almost every day, about his visions.
It’s just something you get into when maybe you’re out in the street and all of a sudden you break into a cold sweat, you say, “You’re the fucking king, D. You don’t understand. You’re the kind of this whole shit.” Just all the sudden, something takes to your brain, something takes to the atmosphere, and this shit comes true, exactly what the fuck you was telling D.
I told him them glasses was the number one shit in the world. He wouldn’t put the motherfuckers on. But when I get motivated vision it’s all over, because I told D, “You’re the fucking kind of the whole shit. D.M.C. will go to the front of the stage and say, ‘i’m D.M.C. of the party.’ Whomp. Everybody gonna go crazy.”
A lot of the visions just seem to be coming true. He was like a little kid, didn’t want to wear his glasses. I said, “Those glasses are the biggest shit, put ‘em on. Your glasses, your hat.” We were just little kids, 16, 17, walking down the block. It wasn’t even dreaming. This was the serious shit I was telling D.
Are you under a lot of pressure to keep topping yourself?
RUN: I don’t know. We always outdo ourselves the next time. I respect all the artists that come out, but I always expect to come out and kick faces in, because I think people are sitting around every year, waiting for me to get soft. Never happens. It’s just disgusting, shit like this, year after year. I don’t know when I’m gonna give up the crown. I don’t think it’s gonna be any time soon.
Two years ago, Russell said he was worried that your image was getting too soft, with all the benefit shows.
RUN: I don’t remember that.
D.M.C.: That’s a manager’s worry. That’s not any of our worry.
RUN: We love doing stuff like that. That’s the real shit, when you can give something. That’s better than making money, you know, when I see somebody else happy. If I come home with something for my daughter tonight, it’s just going to make me happier than if I came home with something for myself. We just came from doing a show for orphans out in L.A., just hopped on a plane, spent our own money, brought our whole crew, just to see these kids happy.
You mentioned your daughter. You have two girls now, right?
RUN: That’s right.
D.M.C.: Two beautiful daughters.
RUN: Angela and Vanessa. I just be chilling in the crib taking care of my business.
D.M.C. And Jay has a son, Jason.
Do you ever get a chance to relax, go on vacation?
RUN: I don’t enjoy myself too much. I only enjoy myself when…let’s see, when do I enjoy myself? I’m happy when I’m asleep.
You look like you’ve lost some weight.
RUN: Yeah, both of us have lost weight. I lost all my weight in two weeks, just by I stopped eating. I actually dusted out a couple times. I was in L.A. for two weeks, Mike Tyson punched me in the stomach and told me I was out of shape, so I just lost all the weight in two weeks.
But I found myself in the middle of the night, on the middle of the floor, trying to get food. I didn’t tell you this, D. I’m over by the peanuts and shit. I went into the sauna and just sat there til my face got skinny. You wouldn’t see Joe, this whole two weeks. The next time you see me I’m just getting all deteriorated, started looking real good.
How about you, D?
D.M.C.: I eat my dinner and that’s just about it. I don’t eat in McDonalds no more.
Joe, I understand you like to go to the track.
RUN: I don’t go to the track no more. I used to bet horses. I was a hard bettor and a eater, and I bet on all the horses. I used to bet so much horses, it was the most incredible shit in my life. Crazy winner, man. I used to know how to beat them down. I was big time on horses. I used to bet probably a hundred a race, maybe sixty. I had a triple twice, three times. I had a science with this shit.
Tell me about the movie.
RUN: Kinda ill.
D.M.C.: It’s ill.
RUN: It’s like a movie from back in the days. It’s like The Mack or something. Bug you out.
D.M.C.: Like the old black exploitation flicks.
RUN: I just wish it would come out.
Are you your hardest critic?
RUN: Yeah, I’m pretty hard on my music, all day long. Because I need it so bad. I need to fucking take over my whole shit, pop and everything, by a large margin.
But I’m pretty happy when my record hits the radio. I like to be steaming hot at all times, so lately I’ve been kind of down in the dumps, just waiting and waiting and wondering, “Well, what’s next to do?” Call the office. “What’s up?” Be wanting to know what are the next developments. It fucks me up. Busts my head open.
What I would really like to do, to tell the whole truth—fuck the whole business. I think that I should just be able to drop records when I want, and when I got these hits, or these notions come. But man, shit is hectic in this business. We got to put out our album a certain time of year, and this type of money. I wish I could just sell the motherfucking record from my door, and put the money in the safe, and give D and J their cut. I made “Mary, Mary” [based on the Monkees’ song] so long ago, this jam would have bust their face. A record called “Dedicated” [to Runny Ray], when I first made it—could have dropped that. I’d have been busting everybody’s ass so bad by now. But “Mary, Mary” got to sit and wait. Fucking headaches.
I’m surprised I’m still here—didn’t pull a garage job: car in the garage, radio on, going to sleep. You get suicidal for the longest time. Dusted out my mind. Because I can’t take it when I’m not fucking doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing. But sometimes shit goes that way. I guess it is kind of ready now. I’m still on that tip a little bit. I ain’t shaved today.
Maybe after my album drops and I’m back on the road and doing what I’m supposed to do in this world, I’ll be happy. But I think this interview was good for me. Maybe it will break some of my depression, just talking about this whole year, reflecting on great things.
BILL ADLER (Rush publicist): You should be looking to the future.
RUN: I’m looking for the future, Bill.