As I walked behind Ingle Auditorium, slowly making my way to the green room, I was nearly overcome with nerves. It’s not every day you get to meet a genre-defining pioneer, so the greeting had to be perfect. I needed to convey a respectful sense of reverence while maintaining the necessary professionalism. After an endless trek through the bowels of the Student Alumni Union, I arrived. There sat the man himself, resting nonchalantly on a couch. Swallowing my nerves, I introduced myself to a legend.
On Wednesday, February 16, legendary rapper Darryl McDaniels visited RIT to present on the history of Hip Hop. Standing before a packed crowd in Ingle Auditorium, he gave his own unique perspective. It’s a subject he’s well qualified to discuss; as a member of legendary group Run-D.M.C. during the 1980s, he helped defined the genre.
Sharing the Past
It was clear from his relaxed attitude that McDaniels is a veteran interviewee. He maintained that calm demeanor until the interview started. Then, the energetic pioneer within awoke, answering my questions with ferocity and passion.
Hearing McDaniels speak about the history of hip-hop is a much different experience than merely reading it. He spoke with such energy, pacing back and forth on stage with his microphone and waving his hands to animate his thoughts. It’s clear that touring for so many years has increased his stage presence. No aspect of hip-hop history was left uncovered; he recalled everything from the era of disco, where hip-hop has its roots, to the very first record scratch, performed by DJ Grand Wizard Theodore.
McDaniels’ own story started humbly. He grew up in the suburbs of Queens, N.Y., and experienced his first taste of hip-hop at the age of 12, when a boy named Billy Morris played a rap record to him on a boombox. Soon after, McDaniels met and began collaborating with Joseph Simmons, who would later be known as Run. Joseph’s brother, Russel Simmons (best known as the founder of Def Jam) promised the duo they could create a record if they graduated from high school.
Come high school graduation, Joseph Simmons rushed to McDaniels, who was already accepted to St. John’s University, telling him they could finally create that record. McDaniels, who went by Easy D at the time of the first recording, then recited one of his most famous rhymes: “I’m D.M.C. in the place to be/ I go to St. John’s University/ And since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge/ And after 12th grade I went straight to college.”
Defining a Genre
With every word Darryl McDaniels said, I listened, hoping not to miss a single drop of wisdom. He covered areas from how N.W.A.’s message was only fully explained and realized after Ice Cube left the Compton-based group and linked the Bomb Squad - an influential group of hip-hop producers - to his tours with legends such as Public Enemy, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, EPMD, and Eric B and Rakim.
In terms of Run-D.M.C.’s music, McDaniels said they were simply doing what had been done for years. They channeled the story of life in the ghetto exemplified by people like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five while expressing the hope of a better world inspired by groups like Afrika Bambaataa.
He also spoke briefly on “Walk This Way,” a collaboration with Aerosmith that is widely accepted as one of the greatest rap/rock songs of all time. There was no intention to make a smash single; it was done for the sake of creativity.
Speaking on hip-hop’s present state, McDaniels presented a strong critique. “Hip-hop blowing up as a business was inevitable,” he said, “but the evolution of hip-hop has gone backwards in terms of content.” When asked for clarification, McDaniels pointed to the source of the problem: “lyrics and concepts.” He explained that while songs such as Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” didn’t necessarily have a positive message, it was disguised by witty lyrics and a creative concept. He used Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin Tricks on Me” as another example of creative and clever wordplay, noting the emotion in Scarface’s rhymes and power behind the song’s theme.
Nothing was off-limits to McDaniels. When I asked him to name his favorite rapper, he named Jay Electronica, a New Orleans artist who has been making waves with rhymes reminiscent of early ‘90s hip-hop, a time many fans call “The Golden Era.”
McDaniels’ message was clear: “Young people don’t know they have the power to make it right for us.” His belief that the most powerful thing about hip-hop is communication. The actual music, not the artist, should be thought-provoking and give a small insight into their mind. He cared about the music, not the business.
During the talk, he brought up a very important point — hip-hop is about evolution. It is an art form created to escape the reality of life in the ghetto and founded on the ideas of communication, information, education and evolution.
While it is unclear how many people will change their perception about hip-hop the next time they quote a Lil Wayne song, one thing is certain — Darryl McDaniels spoke and the audience listened. Hip-hop’s history is vast and grand, and to hear it from the perspective of someone who lived it only makes this legacy greater.