The Making of Run-DMC's Classic Debut, According to Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels
In honor of Black History Month, we talked to the legendary Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels about the pivotal role he played in constructing one of the greatest albums of all time: Run-DMC’s 1984 self-titled debut.
By the early ’80s, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, Joseph “Run” Simmons, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell were on the cusp of becoming the torchbearers for an emerging, innovative style.
After spending years working to perfect the art of interpersonal wordplay and skillful delivery, Simmons and McDaniels felt they were ready to showcase their talents on wax. Simmons commanded the attention of his older brother, then promoter and manager Russell Simmons, to give him a chance to record a song. The elder Simmons relented to his younger brother’s wishes. And after Joseph Simmons convinced him that Darryl — who was going by the name Easy D then — was the right rhyming partner, Run-DMC was born.
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As a result, the group started to work alongside legendary hip-hop architect, Larry Smith to craft a trailblazing mixture of rock and hip-hop that would establish them as a force to be reckoned with. On March 27, 1984, Run-DMC released their self-titled debut on Profile Records. It became the first in a string of highly successful albums for the trio throughout the rest of the decade. The album would spawn four hit singles: “It’s Like That,” “Hard Times,” “Sucker M.C.’s” and the iconic “Rock Box.” We were able to speak with the legendary Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels about the pivotal role he played in constructing this iconic debut.
What is the story behind the forming of your group?
Well, originally Joe was going to be a solo artist. He was known as the “Son of Kurtis Blow.” He was there watching Kurtis Blow explode from “Christmas Rappin’” to “The Breaks.” He was only 12-years-old at the time. Back then, hip-hop was in the streets at block parties and parks, but it was also being taken into the clubs by promoters like Russell Simmons. He would go get Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Hollywood, and rent the club and promote the show and make his money and pay the DJs and the MC. Since he was already in the business, Russell was able to become a manager. Joe was always under Russell’s collar. He would always tell him, “Yo, Russell. I can make a record.” Russell would always reply, “No, Joey. You need to focus on school.” But Joe was persistent, and Russell finally said, “Here’s the deal. If you get your high school diploma, I’ll let you go into the studio.” So, during all the time that Joe was under Russell’s collar, Joe and I were going to the same school, playing basketball at the same park, and I would go to his attic to DJ and MC, and he would come to my basement to DJ and MC. For me, it was about playing with my G.I. Joe’s, Army men, and comic books; it was all make-believe. For him, it was something that he was honing his skills in. Eventually, he graduated from high school, and Russell told him, “Now, you can make a record.” Then Joe remembered about me. Joe didn’t want to be alone.
Originally, Russell was going to have DJ Run and the OK Crew. The OK Crew was this white DJ lady from England, who had a pantomime pop lock break-dancer. When Joe saw them, he was like “Oh, hell no!” So, he continued to stay in Russell’s ear, and when he told Joe that he could make a record, Joe told him, “I’m going to put Darryl McDaniels in the group.” Russell said, “Darryl doesn’t do any of this. He can spit a freestyle and bop his head to the beat, but he’s fucking Darryl. What the hell do you want to put him in the group for?” Joe held his breath until he almost turned blue and died, and Russell saw that he was serious, so he let me in the group. Joe called me up and said, “D, I need to write a bunch of rhymes about how the world is.” I went home and did that, and he had his rhymes and we put them together. Our first single ended up being “It’s Like That.” He was originally going to do “Sucker M.C.’s” by himself. That’s why he rhymed three times, but he told me, “D, since you’re going to be in the group, I want to debut you and introduce you as my partner.”
How did Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell come into the picture?
When we did “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s,” Russell took the tracks to every label in the city at the time. Kurtis Blow was the first rapper signed to a major label, which was Mercury Records. So, Russell was thinking that since he got Kurtis on a major label, why not get his brother and his buddy on a major label. But we were turned down by every major label. The only person that gave us a chance was Profile Records. Russell had a meeting with them and they were a little independent label, and they heard the songs. They said, “It’s kind of weird because there’s no music on it. Who is going to buy a record with a guy rhyming about St. John’s University, fried chicken and collard greens?” But they ended up taking a chance on us.
Russell managed to get our song on the radio and told us that we had to go do a show. Russell said, “Joey, y’all have to go do a show. Who is your DJ?” Joey told him, “Me and D didn’t even think about that part.” Joe searched all the DJs who were doing block parties in Hollis, and he chose Jay. Jay was a double-edged sword. He could play all the records that our mothers and fathers used to dance to, but he could also do what Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grand Wizzard Theodore were doing. We decided we needed him because he could do both types of parties. That’s why I nicknamed him the jam master. When Jay came into the group, his name was DJ Jazzy Jase. I told him that he couldn’t bite or copycat and that he couldn’t have the same name as somebody who was already out [DJ Jazzy Jay.] I told him, “Give me a minute.” I said, “Jay is the master of the jam. The jam was the party itself or the song that got played at parties. Jay was the master of anything that had to do with jamming.” So, I named him Jam Master Jay, and the rest is history.
Since this was the group’s debut album, did you and Run have an idea about how you wanted the music to sound, or was Larry Smith integral in that process?
The sound was all Larry. We had an idea on how we wanted the records to be. We didn’t want to do what the Sugar Hill Gang was doing or take a typical hot R&B record and rap over it. We didn’t want to take anything that was familiar to regular Black radio and make a record over it. Run and I wanted to do beat jams; we wanted to rhyme over the breakbeats that the DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizzard Theodore, Charlie Chase, and Tony Tone were dropping on those cassette tapes before records were made. We wanted to make our records like hip-hop show tapes. The sound that Larry produced was his sound, but the arrangements and delivery were all us. We basically did park jams on records. If you listen to “It’s Like That,” it was basically a “Planet Rock” flow over a beat. Even though “It’s Like That” had a bass line, we felt like we needed to make records like Kraftwerk’s “Numbers.” Our whole thing was we wanted to make beat jams, and Larry and Russell were clever enough to turn our beat records into songs that would fit a radio format. We made “It’s Like That,” “Sucker M.C.’s,” and then we made “Hard Times” with Jam Master Jay. Then, Russell told us we were going to make an album. The only problem with making an album was that motherfuckers didn’t want to listen to hip-hop singles.
At the time, everyone was saying to Russell: “Hip-hop music is a fad. It’s not going to be here in five years. What makes you think people are going to buy an album?” So, when Russell came to us with this idea of making an album, Joe said, “OK. We have to make sure we make dope beat jams.” The album was basically the first four singles with a bunch of new songs. When we did “Rock Box,” I wanted to do Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” over. So, Larry pulled out the DMX drum machine and he said, “D, play the beat.” I made my beat, because I didn’t want to bite a sample, so I made it sound different. I laid the beat down and Run and I dropped our whole rhyme routine over it, and we left the studio. When we came back, it had the bells, guitar, and bass line on it, and Larry turned it into “Rock Box.”
How did the popular records of the time period influence the group and your approach in crafting a different sound that would strike a chord in the marketplace?
We wanted to do something different. When The Crash Crew came out with “High Power Rap,” which used a sample from Freedom, they recorded it right out of the park. We wanted to do what was being done on the live tapes of all the pioneers before us, but we also wanted to make records like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “Superrappin,’” The Treacherous Three’s “New Rap Language,” and The Crash Crew’s “Breaking Bells.” We wanted to put the park jams, street block party routines, and rhymes on records like Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three, and Afrika Bambaataa were doing before “Rapper’s Delight” became the commercial template.
Can you discuss your collaboration process with Run and Jam Master Jay during the making of this album?
Sometimes, I would have rhymes that Larry would have to create a beat for, or we would hear the beat and we would write the rhymes for the song. It was that easy. I had books of rhymes, and I would come into the studio, and Russell asked, “Yo, D. Let me see your rhyme books.” He would go through my rhyme books and he would tell me, “Say that one, that one, and that one.” Then, he would say, “Joey, go in there and do an eight bar intro, and Larry, you make the music.” It was that easy.
When you compiled these songs in your rhyme book, how long did it take for you to accumulate rhymes?
I was writing rhymes every day of my life. That’s all I did was write rhymes. I would go to school, come home and read my comic books, and write rhymes. Up until Raising Hell, all of those rhymes I wrote were when I was in eighth, ninth, and tenth grade. I was in my basement pretending I was battling The Treacherous Three, The Cold Crush Four, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five by myself. If you listen to “Jam-Master Jay,” when I heard that beat, I really wanted to rock over Cerrone’s “Rocket in the Pocket,” but Larry played it over and put the Larry Smith touch on it. All of the legendary hip-hop groups used to do routines over Cerrone’s “Rocket in the Pocket.”
When you were using the rhymes from your rhyme book, and when Run was writing his, was he feeding more off of you or were you feeding more off of him?
As soon as I heard something in the studio, I was always ready. Whatever Larry had played, I could go in there and use a rhyme from one of my rhyme books and then go back home. I was always prepared. I never had to sit there and write a rhyme or get writer’s block, because writing rhymes was all I did. As soon as I dropped a rhyme on a record, I had to re-up and fill the book back up with new rhymes, so I would never run out. That was my strategy. Run would write his rhymes the day before, a few weeks prior, or right then and there. If he came into the studio and heard me spit something hot, he’d be like, “Damn. My rhymes from a week ago ain’t dope like these. I have to write something new.”
How long did it take for you guys to be in a studio session and finish a song?
We could do five songs in a day. Most of the time, we were able to finish two or three songs each day. The album was recorded in a week. It was up to Larry and [engineer] Roddie Hui to mix and master it. This was before we started working at Chung King House of Metal. A lot of Raising Hell was done at Chung King. The first two albums were done at Greene Street Recording Studios. Roddie Hui and Larry Smith would spend time editing, mixing, and cutting the tape. We have Pro Tools now, but back in those days, you literally had to cut the tape and put the pieces of tape together to edit the record, so that’s what took forever. Recording an album was so easy because we had the rhymes already. We just needed music to put them on.
And this is where Larry Smith enters into the equation.
Jay never went to recording school. When Joe and I would leave, Jay would stay with Larry and spend those countless hours with him. Jay would ask him, “What is that button for? What are you doing right there? What is that knob for? How did you do that?” That is how Jay learned. Jay was a DJ, and he was interested in learning more. Joe and I didn’t care about that. Jam Master Jay was a student of Larry Smith. If Larry stayed in the studio for 500 hours…Jay was in the studio for 500 hours.
What was your studio routine when you were recording each song from this album?
We were in there early. Our routine was we would get to the studio at 11 am or 12 pm and be done for the day by 3 pm. Jay would stay back with Larry to put his scratching on and do the echoes. If Jay heard something, he would call and tell me, “D, you need to come back tomorrow and do your part over because you didn’t say this word right.” Larry and Jay basically did all the work. We just wrote the songs and laid down the vocals, and we were out.
Can you describe the chemistry that the four of you had during the making of the album?
The real chemistry wasn’t solidified until Raising Hell. But originally, it was just Joe doing what he did and me doing what I did, and Larry doing what he did and putting it all together. Stuff we did live on stage would become parts on the record too. It was like having a pot of boiling water and all four of us putting something into the pot, and whatever came out, we hoped it would be good.
The advantage was…we had structure because Larry was a great musician…If you listen to “Rock Box,” I could rhyme the whole record, but Larry would instruct us by saying, “OK, so right there, Jay, you have to pause right there and let the record breathe.” [Without Larry] “Rock Box” would’ve been like Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap” or Jimmy Spicer’s “Adventure of Super Rhymes.” They would just rhyme. The “Rock Box” scheme was I rhymed all the way to the end of the record, but the part in the song where it breaks down to the bells, Larry would cut the tape to edit it, so that even though there was no chorus, Larry would tell us to make sure we let the record breathe. To fit the song structure for radio, you have to let the record breathe. When we started getting played on [radio stations] KISS, WBLS, and KTU, we had to let the record breathe for the radio audience.
What are some of the interesting behind the scenes stories that occurred during the making of the album?
We did the first two singles, “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s” and the formula worked. So, we did “Hard Times” and “Jam-Master Jay” and the formula worked again. After making those four songs, we had to go into the studio and make an album. It was really simple. The coolest thing during the process was we would make a single and then go on the road. We would make another song and go on the road.
On the onset of the album, we were playing in roller skating rinks, and then eventually, we started getting booked in these theaters, and then we were getting booked to do shows in bigger places like the Ritz Theater, which is called Webster Hall now. We started playing at all the live rock venues. By the time “Rock Box” exploded, we went on the Fresh Fest One Tour. My routine for the early days was I would get up, go grab my 40 ounce [beer], go to the studio, lay down our records, leave and go home with Joe, and Jay would stay with Larry and Roddie in the studio to put the damn album together.
Before your group secured a record deal with Profile Records, what were your creative interactions like in Larry Smith’s attic and your basement?
When Joe was the “Son of Kurtis Blow,” he would come over and we would smoke weed and drink 40 ounces. Then we would go in my basement and use my brother’s equipment, and Run would DJ for me, and I would rhyme for hours. After we were finished, he would go home. Everybody in Hollis could rhyme. The thing with me was I was incredible, but I didn’t get on the mic to rhyme at the park. Joe would always say, “D, you should get on the mic.” I would reply and say, “Nope!” Joe would get on the mic because he had a reputation. In Hollis, everyone knew he was the “Son of Kurtis Blow.” At the block and house parties, he would get on the mic. For me, it was all make-believe. I was a shy kid; I went to Catholic school. I was a straight-A student; I read comic books and played with my Army men.
When I first went to Larry’s attic, Joe was rapping like Kurtis Blow on “It’s Like That.” In the eighth grade, he discovered I could rhyme, but it was just a hobby. Then, when I got to Rice High School in ninth grade, I got introduced to the Cold Crush, The Jazzy Five MCs, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, Funky Four Plus One, and Sha-Rock. Kurtis Blow and DJ Hollywood were older disco style rappers. Everybody thought that you had to talk and rhyme like Frankie Crocker. So, when Joe finally got the chance to make a record, he remembered that I had that underground edgy shit that the masses would like. I didn’t care about what was on the radio; I cared about what Afrika Bambaataa and them did in Soundview at the park. Russell didn’t hang out with Joe and me because he was older. If he had hung out with Joe and me from eighth to twelfth grade, he would’ve known that I was dope. He really didn’t know I could rhyme until the first studio session where we laid down “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s.”
What made you, Run, and Larry Smith such a formidable team during the creation of this album?
At that time, Larry was hanging with Russell and playing with his bandmates. Larry was around drummers, musicians, and horn players. Larry knew all the R&B singers at that time, but Larry was also hanging out at The Disco Fever with Cold Crush, Busy Bee, Kool Moe Dee, drug dealers, gangsters, and street dudes. Russell would go to The Disco Fever, but his hang out was down in the Village. Larry was going to the Bronx and hanging around all the dudes I was listening to, and that how Larry and I connected. Larry didn’t go downtown. Larry went Uptown to 125th street. Downtown was a mixture of Europeans, disco, artists, and all of that. The Disco Fever was hip-hop’s core. Larry was around all those dudes. So when I asked Larry, “Can we do this on a record?” He immediately knew what I was talking about. Larry was a musician. Even though he was programming music, he wanted to be open and free. If I hadn’t spoken up in our first studio session, our records would’ve sounded dated. I said, “We weren’t going to rhyme like DJ Hollywood, we’re going to rhyme like Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force.”
What were some of the instruments used to create the overall sonic template for the songs?
The main instrument was the DMX drum machine. We used a real bass, real guitars, real tambourines and cowbells, and keyboards. The funny thing is, whatever was in the room after we laid down vocals to a beat, we would use. If there was a keyboard, cowbell, or something else in the studio, we would see what could do and put it on the record. For a band, it’s different. You have the bass player, the guitar player, and the drums are mic up. Our process was we would make the beat with the drum machine and we would look around the studio and we would use the synthesizer and anything else that was there. We experimented with different things. The only thing that wasn’t real on our records was the drum machine. Larry would play a live bass or guitar. The live guitar on “Rock Box” was played by Eddie Martinez from Quiet Riot.
Let’s delve into the making of a couple of songs.
We did the song “Jam-Master Jay” because people started questioning, “Who is this other motherfucker on stage with the two emcees?” So, I decided to write a record about Jay so people could identify the two emcees rhyming about their DJ. After we cut this record, Russell said that we should do an album.
With “Wake Up,” we were trying to make a message record. This song was written with the only white guy in Hollis Queens after all the white people moved away. It was a dude named Danny. He helped write this song.
With “Hollis Crew,” we were trying to make a follow-up record to “Sucker M.C.’s” When we recorded “Hollis Crew,” I rapped, “Run and Kurt was down with me.” I wrote that rhyme before we had a DJ. When we were doing this album; Joe was still the “Son of Kurtis Blow.” He didn’t break out from underneath Kurtis Blow until King of Rock dropped. Why do you think Joe rapped, “Dave cut the record down to the bone?” Davy D was Kurtis Blow’s DJ, because Joe had to leave to form his own group. He didn’t say Jay cut the record because we didn’t have Jay as our DJ, yet. The same thing happened with Joe when he rapped, “Dave cut the record down to the bone.” Dave was the cutter for everybody at that time. Jay didn’t join our group until 1984.
How do you feel about the impact this album has made, not only on innumerable hip-hop artists, but popular culture as a whole?
Well, a lot of people have forgotten about this record. Many people only look back to Raising Hell and our song “Walk This Way” But [there are] people like Travis Barker who say…when he heard “Rock Box” his life was changed. If you ask all the metalheads and punk rock heads, they’ve told me the same thing. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon with “Walk This Way” and Rick Rubin. If you talk to Jermaine Dupri, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Jazzy Jeff, they all say it was “Rock Box” and Larry Smith, dude. This album is kind of forgotten. The only significance that “Rock Box” has is it was the first rap song on MTV because of the video and the guitars on the song. The reason why Run-DMC was successful is because we put the old school on TV. It was old to us, but new to the world.
I realize that it’s a forgotten album because of the success of “Walk This Way,” but if you put the two albums side by side, Run-DMC did what Raising Hell did before Raising Hell was made. This was the precursor and that’s why it’s so important.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.