Run-DMC is considered one of Hip Hop’s early pioneers. Jospeh “Rev Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and the late Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell made history several times with albums such as their self-titled debut (1984) , King Of Rock (1985) and Raising Hell (1986).
The Hollis, Queens trio was the first Hip Hop group to earn a gold, platinum and multi-platinum records, first to have multiple singles debut in the Billboard Hot 100 and first to appear on MTV — and that’s just the beginning. But despite all of their success, DMC was crumbling behind the scenes as he struggled with alcoholism and his mental health. After getting sober in 2004, DMC wrote a book called Ten Ways Not To Commit Suicide, which has proved to be a beacon of hope for so many on a similar journey.
In a recent interview with HipHopDX, the living rap legend was joined by Anna Maria College professor Dennis Vanasse — who recently held an event with DMC at the school — for an open discussion about mental health, addiction and some potential solutions to overcoming outstanding obstacles. Here is that conversation.
HipHopDX: Darryl, you have a way of connecting with people so quickly. You truly care about people. I can see that every time we talk.
Darryl McDaniels: That shit is rare.
HipHopDX: We’ve seen so many rappers pass away in recent years from addiction — Mac Miller, Juice WRLD, DMX, Lil Peep. Is that a big reason behind you getting so involved with these conversations? You don’t want to see that happen to other kids?
Darryl McDaniels: Yes, but they didn’t listen. The big problem is nobody in this current generation of rappers is constantly making records about the issues. Think about it. Out of all the top rappers, all of them, of this generation, did any of them make a message of self destruction? No. All of these successful dudes and girls, nobody’s doing songs about Peep, Mac Miller and Juice WRLD.
Look at that void right there. Imagine if Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim OD’d. Every artist from Ice Cube to De La Soul would’ve made records addressing the issue. So this generation is being silent. So I’m like, “Yo. This is my culture. These are my people.” Their age don’t mean nothing. What I’m doing now, as the OG, I’ve been doing this since 1983. Nobody wants to step up and take the responsibility for making sure another Juice WRLD and Mac Miller doesn’t happen again. Then I guess that I was given a microphone for a reason.
The problem is, nobody in this current generation has said anything or made any music. And I’m not talking about doing a tribute record. I’m talking about making these issues part of your curriculum on every album, every mixtape. They are being silent.
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HipHopDX: At this point, we know the dangers. We know what the end result is going to be. What can we do?
Darryl McDaniels: Hip Hop dictates what’s cool, and by them being silent and instead of saying, “Yo. We need to stop,” they’re saying it’s OK to do that. I was speaking at a teacher’s conference in Binghamton, New York in January. I was speaking at a conference for all the art teachers, and the art teachers said, “All of the young people in these inner cities and these Black neighborhoods, all of these high school kids, don’t see themselves living past 20.” That’s a huge, huge, huge problem that psychology, religion and pastors can’t solve but culture can.
The problem is harmful, addictive, unhealthy behavior is celebrated in our communities and even celebrated on the very records. Now, it’s different from censorship and freedom of speech. Future can make that song about Percocet, but the very next song on that mixtape or the very next Future song that the radio should play, in addition to the hit that everybody likes, should be, “But y’all, shouldn’t be taking these Percocets.” Y’all remember Run-DMC. We did hits like that and then we had B-side like “Sucker MCs.” If you make a record about a gun, the very next record should be about not using a gun.
HipHopDX: Or about the dangers of using a gun or the danger of doing drugs.
Darryl McDaniels: Right. You could tell those stories, but then you have to counter them. We was powerful because Rakim didn’t say, “I am a stickup kid.” He said, “I used to roll up” then said, “Hold on, but now I learned.”
HipHopDX:Macklemore is one of the only artists I can think of in recent memory, and it’s been years now, but he put out a song called “Otherside (The Fences Remix)” and it paints a really, really dark picture of addiction. But what’s funny is he didn’t get famous off of that. He got famous off of “Thrift Shop.” It wasn’t his record about drug addiction, how dangerous it could be and how it almost killed him. It was about how he liked to go to the thrift shop.
Darryl McDaniels: When you have a radio station say, “We’re the station that loves Hip Hop.” They played more of the records that’s actually harming their audience, so we need to be suing the stations. We should be suing Hip Hop radio, all of them that claim “We love Hip Hop.” Only feeding the content that is destroying the listeners, and you can’t tell me it’s not. Now, it’s different from saying… The music doesn’t cause it. No. These things exist, and all the hip hop radio stations play is the Percocet, shoot, fight records. Since everybody’s scared to say it, I’m saying it. That’s a problem, and the radio station is part of the problem.
Dennis Vanasse: College students, teenagers and adolescents are very impressionable, which is one of the most important things where, you look at somebody like you Darryl who is a celebrity, he has a very strong reach. When you come in and talk about your struggles, it reminds a student they’re not alone in confronting their challenges, their weaknesses, their illnesses.
I always love to watch the crowd when speakers come in. I reflected with my students afterward and I saw the change in them. They processed with me what they got out of it. I’ve been a college professor for 25 years and I have my class “Evolution of Hip Hop” and I use Hip Hop to connect with students. What’s been great about Hip Hop throughout the years, you connect with individuals who are unheard and through the music, you teach them about being unheard. I’ve noticed a huge change in the students, and what you’ve done is you gave him a voice.
HipHopDX:I interviewed Juice WRLD’s mother recently and we had a really candid conversation about addiction and mental health. I asked her, “Why do you think there’s still such a stigma attached to this and asking for help?” She said, “I think in Hip Hop, a lot of people see that as a sign of weakness, admitting that you need help.” It just kind of crushed me because she lost her son at 21 and it sounded like he was too afraid to seek help.
Darryl McDaniels: Exactly.
HipHopDX: Darryl, I got a message the other day about our podcast [Breaking Anonymity with MC Serch & Kyle Eustice] from somebody who saw us on Dr. Oz. Guess who it was?
Darryl McDaniels: Who?
HipHopDX: Mia Tyler [Steven Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter].
Darryl McDaniels: Wow, really!?
HipHopDX: She said we really inspired her. To affect anybody on that level is pretty powerful.
Dennis Vanasse: I’ve worked with students for years. You never know what people are going through. People don’t actually tell you, “Hey. I’m going through something.” But when you have somebody speak out, maybe they’ll speak up. Unfortunately, there still lies a stigma when we talk about mental illness. That needs to go away. But people are afraid to get teased.
Darryl McDaniels: They’re ashamed of it. Stigma exists because of shame. So even people who aren’t going through what the person is struggling is, they won’t tell me. They’re worried about how people are going to look at them. It’s a big problem with the person suffering to speak up. That’s huge. But the biggest problem is people around the person suffering is worried about what the people are going to think about them for having a family member, wife, son or brother who’s suffering. So they’re ashamed of the whole situation.
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HipHopDX: I interviewed Juicy J several years ago. I asked him, “Do you ever feel any social responsibility for the young kids that listen to your music?” He’s like, “Nah. Fuck that. It’s their parents’ fault.”
But after Juice WRLD’s death in 2019, he apologized and said something like, “I’m sorry if I ever gave the message that taking drugs was cool.” Maybe if more artists did that, we’d be in a better position. NLE Choppa is one of a few who started really embracing a healthier lifestyle. Do you think that we could somehow make that shift? Do you think that’s happening?
Darryl McDaniels: Pop culture and advertising are trying to steal our swag. That’s OK, but they are not using it to help us. They’re using it to be cool in front of the world, get more money and exploit the masses. They’re not using it like Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation did. They’re not using it like “The Message” [Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five], “Planet Rock” [Afrika Bambaataa], “It’s Like That” [Run-DMC], “The Breaks” [Kurtis Blow], “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me” [Geto Boys], all of Rakim’s records, all the De La Soul records, Public Enemy records or X Clan.
What the young people don’t understand is the reason why they don’t do it is because there’s no examples on their level doing it. Juicy J, Drake and them was only going to do it if the management and labels tell them to. And they’re only going to do it if all of a sudden positivity sells 10 million records. It’s a deeper disrespect to our culture. The artists and the labels don’t care about our people
Dennis Vanasse: This is the beauty of DMX. We use his voice. That’s what made him an amazing artist. He was open. He was open about his struggles with mental illness, drug addiction and that’s why he was so loved. When you have kids listening to X, people feel less alone. When they listen to X, they hear his prayers in every record.
Darryl McDaniels: Yup. But if more of us did it, it would resonate with more kids. When we were making all those [Run-DMC] records, there was change happening in the communities. People were stopping the gangs. Ice-T heard some Hip Hop and said, “I don’t have to be a pimp no more.”
Dennis Vanasse: Well, Darryl, you know what the thing is, I always believe, when you talk about athletes, celebrities and artists, kids are always watching. They’re very impressionable. If the community leaders, if celebrities, if they start to lead the charge, the kids will follow.
Darryl McDaniels: That’s what I’m saying.
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Dennis Vanasse: When I see students talking to you and they’re asking questions, they’re revealing some of their personal struggles, that’s change.
Darryl McDaniels: Right. Yes. One girl said, “My brother would tell me everything he was going through and when he went to my dad to tell him, my dad said, ‘Suck it up, and be a man.'” Imagine how that hits that young man.
HipHopDX:I hate that saying so much. I saw someone tell a young man the other day, “Man up.” It’s so conditioned in men to not express themselves, to not show their emotions. It’s another thing that stops us from growing.
Darryl McDaniels: How do we make what’s considered not cool make this world actually believe it’s the coolest thing in existence? Everybody’s afraid of it because it would change everybody’s curriculum and programming. They’re so far deep into nonsense and stupidity for it not being said. The same million dollars that you spend to promote this ignorant rap song, maybe spend $2 million to support the powerful songs, so that they could be change for the listeners. That’s what’s missing. For me, you know all of my great music. It’s more powerful to these young boys and girls when I turn the mic off and talk as a person.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction and/or mental health, please call (800) 273-8255.