Keeping It Real
It's funny that I've become so closely associated with rap's images. Because I never really planned on a career as a rapper.
When I was growing up, I wanted to make horror movies and bang-bang shoot-'em-up-style films. Car wrecks and the cop-and-robber movies, James Bond-type stuff. Actually, I wanted to make and act in movies, just what Quentin Tarantino's doing at this stage of his career. I wanted to be the creator, from start to finish. I didn't own a camera, but I had a vivid imagination. Every day of my life was a movie and I was acting out a part. My life, starring me. I would sit at home in my mom's living room, stare out the window, and draw for hours. My hometown is New York City, but there are several subsections to that description. I tell people I'm from Hollis, which is part of the larger borough of New York City known as Queens. It's a middle-class neighborhood, lots of working people. Growing up in Hollis, the biggest thing to do was hang out in the park. It was the center of public social life, a place where you would go when you had no specific plans but wanted to hook up with a bunch of your friends. It was part of my life at one point. The first thing I would do every day when I was a teenager and didn't have school was go up to the park. I'd arrive around ten-thirty, eleven in the morning and then play basketball all day. There was always someone around, looking for a game. They'd range in age from about twelve to twenty-two. At the upper end, they'd usually start going to bars, or someone had a car and they'dstarthanging around outside the neighborhood.
There were actually two places that qualified as "the park" in my neighborhood. One was Jamaica Park, a public park located on Jamaica Avenue. The other was 192, actually the yard to Junior High School 192, right on Hollis Avenue. But they were both "the park" when you were asked where you'd been that day. Make no mistake, neither park was a place where you could totally let down your guard. It was dangerous. You could definitely get into trouble. You could get robbed. You could get shot. At times, it was a tense environment. Trouble could jump off, and a shoot-out could happen any minute. Somebody could like your sneakers, and then they're taking them. It was crazy. But that was probably also part of its appeal.
I started going up there around age twelve, heading up there to play ball. But I would be out of there by the evening. It was such a tense environment, I was worried that they would take my basketball. During the summer, it would start to get dark at around eight in the evening. Then you'd go home, take a shower, change clothes, and head back up to the park. Your hope at that point was that someone would be DJing in the park. Then you knew the party was on.
The DJ usually arrived in a van. It got to the point that when people saw the van, they would get really excited. They knew it was going to be a special evening.
The equipment was unloaded, they'd tap into a light pole and steal the electricity from the city, and then it was time for the party to begin.
Word would get around quickly that the van had come, and then the park would get packed. By nine-thirty, ten at night, the place would be jammed. You could hear the music for blocks, so anyone who wasn't told by a family member that the van was in the park would usually pick up on it really quick. Music was a big part of every celebration in the community, and the park wasn't the only place you could see a live DJ. Throughout the summer, the block associations would have parties where everybody would bring their little grills out and the police would come and block the whole block off. Like for instance, on 202nd Street, between 111th Avenue and 112th Avenue, that stretch of block would participate in a massive community party until about maybe seven or eight at night, when a young DJ would show up to do the same thing they would do at the park. He would set up the equipment and all the grown-ups would go inside and the younger people would take over, listening to the music, hanging out, socializing with the neighborhood kids. That's where I saw my first live DJ, at a block party. I saw him at a time when I wasn't even really thinking about hip-hop. It was before I heard one of the first hit rap songs, "Rapper's Delight," pretty much before I had any notion of the hip-hop culture. Seeing it was so different from my other music experience, which was basically listening to the radio, that it kind of caught me off guard. I thought a DJ was a guy on the radio who played records. This was something different, something exciting.
The live DJ showed me that making music didn't necessarily mean playing in a band. It was something where anyone with some equipment and some talent could make music and control a crowd's mood. I found that notion incredibly exciting and energizing. When I saw my first DJ, I thought it was amazing, but it didn't strike me at that moment that that's what I wanted to do. That came later, when I heard a tape someone had of "Superappin'" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. That's when I made the connection and knew I wanted to be a DJ. My goal was to become Grandmaster Get High, a name I bestowed on myself because that's what I was doing when I was younger.
My first hands-on music experience came as a DJ in my basement I had two twelve-dollar turntables and a fifty-dollar mixer, and I pretended to be Grandmaster Flash, one of the first guys I heard about who was DJing by using two turntables to mix the records. That was like the biggest thing to me, the ability to cut, scratch, and otherwise manipulate the sounds contained on the records into a music composition that was wholly different. Back in those days, DJs would play music and speak to the crowd through the microphone, an all-in-one unit. Rap later evolved into two separate jobs, DJ and MC. I was an aspiring DJ at that point in my life, riding the wheels of steel, my mimic of what Grandmaster Flash called his turntable collection. At some pointI'm not sure when or whyI decided that merely spinning the records wasn't enough. I put my turntables aside and picked up a pen and paper. It proved to be the perfect outlet for my other creative energies. I had fun just writing rhymes for the sake of writing rhymes. It reminded me of my English classes at school, where they gave us creative time to just dream.
But my friend and partner, Joe Simmons (Run, as he's known worldwide, a childhood nickname because he always ran off at the mouth) wanted to be more than someone playing around in the basement. He wanted fame. He wanted to dominate in this new craft. And, fortunately, he wanted me to come along for the ride.
Run was already in show business, thanks to his brother, Russell Simmons, who since those early years has evolved into one of the most powerful people in the entertainment business. Russell now produces movies, makes records, starts magazines and advertising agencies, and generally lives large as he takes the beat from the streets and puts it on TV and elsewhere, to paraphrase one of our songs.
Back in the day, I was always over at the Simmons house. I had known Joe since kindergarten, but we really didn't become close friends until we were teenagers because we were never in the same class together. When my father put a basketball hoop up in my backyard, that's when Run and me started hanging out together, playing ball and going up to the park, doing what kids do.
And every time I was over there at the Simmons house, it seemed Russell was there. He was about six years older than us, so he had this mystique about him, something that older brothers always have. Russell was extremely funny. He may not think so, but to me, he was fun-ny. He was a good person to be around. Not as hectic as Run, who was always bouncing around. He was high energy, but really normal, not manic. What's unique about Russell is he was a Renaissance man of the streets. I mean, he was into hip-hop. He was into partying and had his own company, Rush Productions, that organized and promoted parties in various locations. He was into selling fake cocaine. He was into everything that a young B-boy growing up in Hollis would be into, but he was also in college and highly ambitious. He made me understand that it's possible to be from the streets yet not get caught up in the craziness of them. Russell thought, everything B-boys (the name that became popular for the kind of guys you'd see hanging around neighborhoods) did was interesting, and he was into various styles of the emerging art form known as rap. He liked everything from party rappers like Kurtis Blow to more serious, message-oriented guys like Melle Mel. Larry Smith was Russell's first business partner in Rush Productions and the bass player on Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'," one of the first big rap hits. Larry always said Russell was able to come up into the Bronx and hang at a nightclub called the Fever, but also could go downtown and be at home in the Village. He could relate to both worlds and be comfortable dealing with the various characters that worked in each one. By the time we were in our teens, Russell was already well known for his work on the party circuit shows with Rush Productions. He had also starting managing artists like Kurtis Blow, who became one of the first well-known rappers in the music industry. Russell and Kurtis became tight, and Run soon became an apprentice DJ to Kurtis. Besides doing shows with Kurtis, he also began appearing on his own as DJ Run, the Son of Kurtis Blow, DJing at parties, often as the opening act for Kurtis. Run and I spent a lot of time hanging out in my basement during this period. We would go over tapes from his show, make up rhymes, ride the turntables, make up all sorts of things and plot and plan. That's what we did for recreation in those days. We were never the guys who had a lot of women in high school, or played sports, or were involved in some kind of shady activity. Sadly, if you weren't on the basketball team or running with the crew that was making money by selling reefer or whatever, girls didn't pay attention to you. That would have to wait for later in our lives.
You had a choice in our neighborhood about what kind of fun you could get into. Hollis was a nice area, but you went a few blocks in either direction and it was a lot different. A lot different. All sorts of drug sales, that kind of life. As a result, my parents, Byford and Bannah, were really strict with me. They wouldn't allow me to go out to the clubs and hear shows by rappers, or hang out all night. We had a mostly black neighborhood, but I was comfortable with all sorts of people. Even though there weren't a lot of white people in my immediate neighborhood, we'd go into those neighborhoods when I would tag along on errands with my mother and father, so I would see other sides of life. My mother was a nurse. She'd do home visitations, and occasionally I'd go with her. One of my favorite television shows when I was younger, maybe because it was set in Queens, was All in the Family. I remember several times going into someone's home in our territory and saying, "Dag, this is just like Archie Bunker's house," or "This man is just like Archie Bunker." What also helped broaden my perspective was reading the encyclopedia. I read the whole encyclopedia, even words I didn't know, when I was a little kid. I just found it fascinating, and each day I would go through it, volume by volume. I think that was the most fun I ever had. Although our neighborhood had its rough parts, that was good for me. I wasn't overwhelmed by it, but I got to see enough about it to know what that life was like. I know it up close and personalI had a lot of friends who ended up dead or in jail. But Run and me were going to school and avoided that sort of thing. Jay, though, was part of a really rough crew.
Even though Run and me weren't in that life, a lot of people thought we were after we became successful as Run-DMC, because we always seemed to have money and hung out with a crew that was rough. All our friends were convicts and murderers and drug dealers, but we were hanging with them anyway. We'd stand up on the corner and smoke-reefer and drink beer in broad daylight for everybody to see. We sort of got a pass from people, because they were so happy to see someone from the neighborhood on TV, delivering a positive message to people.
During the initial stages of our career, I used to just walk up and down Hollis Avenue, and parents in the neighborhood would stop me to tell me that they were so proud of us. The idea was, he may still be here hanging out on Hollis Avenue, but I heard his records, and he's saying some really nice stuff.
So, go ahead, young man, smoke your reefer and hang with the guys. Because what you're saying is more important to me than what you're doing. There was definitely a stir in our neighborhood when Run-DMC first started to get attention. Community pride. Suddenly we were everyone's sons. Even the people who didn't exactly embrace us before were casting aside old problems and letting bygones be bygones.
There was this deli around the block from me where we used to always get our forty-ouncers. Dolly's Deli, named after the woman who manned the counter every hour of every day, trying to eke out a living. That didn't matter to a lot of kids. Every now and then there was an opportunity to steal one of the bottles, and it was an opportunity that never was passed on by a lot of us. I never did it, but it was the thing to do in the neighborhood. So it was inevitable that I would be around one day when one of my homeboys got caught. So, in essence, I would say we got caught. He ran in there and took two, then brought them around the corner, went back in and got another two. Then he did it again, a total of six. I guess on the last go-round they saw him. So Dolly came around the corner with her gun and began yelling at all of us. "Don't y'all ever come in here again, never!" Really mad and upset. So, at that moment, I was banned from Dolly's.
That happened when I was sixteen years old. Two years later, it was the last day of high school, which had seemed like it would never arrive. My friend Douglas Hayes and I were feeling cocky, what with school ending and all. So we decided to try our luck and see if Dolly's had either forgiven or forgotten.
They hadn't. They told us we couldn't come in there. So a few months go by, and I'm in college. Our record starts blowing up on the radio, and so we decided to check it out and see if Dolly's lifetime ban was still in effect.
Well, we walk in there, and it's a whole different story now. I'm no longer Darryl, the accomplice. I'm now Mr. DMC from Hollis, Queens, the man with the record on the radio. Whole different attitude, take anything you want, do what you want. It's strange how that goes. Everybody wanted to be my friend. People that wouldn't give me the time of day before were suddenly eager to help me out. Most of the guys that I couldn't hang with back in the day, all of a sudden, I'm down. All of a sudden I am able to ride with them to Jamaica Avenue. All of a sudden I'm able to come on their side of the park. That happened pretty much immediately after the album came out. Once that album came out, the video followed, it was over. Everybody wanted to fall down and cater to us. Women suddenly wanted to be with Darryl from Hollis. All of a sudden they want to be my friend, they want to be my homeboy, they want to drink a beer with me. One of the main things that happened was that people started asking me for money. A lot of people in the neighborhood, the hoodlums, the lowlifes, a lot of the older girls. Everybody.
And you get them real pissed off when you don't come across with it. "Oh, you think you're so big! You think you somebody? Well, you ain't nobody!" I got that routine a lot. I always thought, "If I'm nobody, why the hell are you nagging me!"
Basically, it all boiled down to a simple lesson: if you've got something somebody wants, they start acting differently. I noticed that aspect of life even before it happened to me. That's why the attention never rubbed off on me. I had already given it some thought and was prepared to understand what was happening and why it was happening. I understood that it wasn't like I woke up one morning and suddenly was transformed. It wasn't even that I was a wonderful person before that no one had noticed, but that they suddenly became aware of because of the record. No, it was the fact that it was now safe to voice your opinion of me. I had been validated by the mass audience, so now it became easy to be my friend. There was no risk involved, and potential rewardsmoney, the chance to do something that you wouldn't normally do, maybe meet a few stars. I held the key to a new kingdom, and everyone wanted to step through that doorway with DMC, getting a little of the spoils. My family helped keep me grounded. My family was always normal, never started acting different once I made the record. In fact, my mother would warn me, "Watch out for those people, because they're only around you now because you're famous."
A lot of today's athletes and musicians don't have someone like my mother around to tell them that. I see how a lot of these young basketball players and young football players can become caught up in all the attention. I remember watching one guy on TV saying how his family just flipped on him.
I understand where he's coming from. Even though my family remained normal, the world seemed ready to roll out the red carpet. And if you're not prepared for that, it can really play with your head. Even today, I still get that treatment. I can walk into any store, they'll find out it's me, and they'll probably give me stuff free. The opposite is true as well. People will still come up to you as though you're a walking ATM.
The other day I was in Atlanta, walking through a mall there that I like to shop at when I'm in town. And as I was walking through the mall, this guy came up to me, giving me all these props, laying it on real thick. Then he pulls out his little cassette and says, "Yo, buy a cassette for five dollars."
I'm like, "No, I'll take it and listen to it and give you some advice." But buying it wasn't something I was down with. He wouldn't take no for an answer. "Aw, no, man, you rich," going on and on, this and that. It got to the point where I had to set him straight. The bottom line: don't think I'm rich. A lot of people coming up in the game now, they the ones making millions. But back in the day, when I came up in the eighties, we were struggling. Most of my money is made by doing live performances. I'm not making money off my album sales. A lot of people just don't understand that. Maybe if more of them did, they'd start to examine whether they want to be friends with DMC, or Darryl. I want people to like me because I'm Darryl. The other guy only exists at the live shows.