NPR logo RUN DMC On The Birth Of Rap

RUN DMC On The Birth Of Rap

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Star File Photos/Sony Legacy

Many have told the story of rap's birth — how, in summer evenings in the late '70s, enterprising DJs would lug turntables and album-filled crates to outdoor locations in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and plug into the bottom of a light pole to make a moveable disco. How the DJs would keep the party going, spinning funk, disco and even rock; the wider and more surprising the variety, the better.

Now and then, a voice would be heard, rhyming rhythmically over an instrumental break in the music, talking up the DJ's spinning expertise and urging the party on with lines like "Throw your hands up in the air / Shake 'em like you just don't care."

"It wasn't even hip-hop or rapping yet; it was DJing," RUN DMC's Darryl McDaniels says of the impromptu dance parties of his teenage years in Queens, N.Y. "The DJs would play until the police would come and go, 'What are you kids doing? You can't have a concert in the park!'

"This whole hip-hop thing was a normal part of our youthful upbringing," McDaniels adds. "It was as common as playing basketball. I wanted to be a DJ, but I realized that the DJs had these guys called MCs that would get on the microphone and excite the crowd — tell the people this is the place to be, and, 'This is the party, say ho!' "

McDaniels started to write raps, and soon partnered with neighborhood pal Joseph Simmons. Simmons' brother Russell had begun to promote rap nights in various community centers, and to manage rap acts. The family connection proved helpful. After resisting the pair's entreaties to book and manage them, Russell Simmons relented, choosing the name that the world would come to know.

"We wanted to be the Devastating Two, or the Dynamic Two MCs, something like that, because there was the Furious Five, the Funky Four, the Treacherous Three. But Russell was like, 'No.' He said, 'You're gonna be RUN DMC now.' When we heard it the first time, we were 17 and 18 years old. We were crying, 'Russell, that's the fakest name ever! Oh, the Bronx and Manhattan is gonna hate us.' It didn't take too long for people to say, 'Yo, RUN DMC is a dope name.' "

Twenty-five years after RUN DMC's first single was released, McDaniels sees the group's success as coming from a deliberate decision to create music that was sparse, hard-hitting and extremely rhythmic — just the way it sounded in those city parks.

"See, when the [rap] pioneers like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash started making records," McDaniels says, "it was like, OK, we got to make a radio-friendly record. So let's rap over a song that's a hit right now, like [Chic's] "Good Times." ' It became more show-bizzy. But when me, Run and Jay started, we just did what we had been doing in the basements and on the streets.

"Another thing was, we didn't change our appearance," McDaniels says. "The first rappers dressed like the disco and funk stars. We just dressed like we always did — Adidas sneakers, Lee jeans, Kangols, the gold chains. We were the reflection of our audience. It wasn't about show-biz for us."

Having witnessed the birth of rap — and having played a major role in establishing its widespread popularity — McDaniels says he's proud of how far hip-hop culture has come. But he adds that an essential, universal message of the music seems to have been lost.

"When you look at hip-hop today, it's like, 'Do you see what this guy is driving? Wow, he's got a lot of money. Wow, he's dating a movie star.' Jay used to say that the thing about hip-hop, about rap, DJing and MCing — about break dancing, the way we dress, the way we communicated — he said it was all-inclusive. It wasn't about having to be rich. You ain't have to be a thug, you ain't have to be black only, you ain't have to break dance. Hip-hop was, 'Come as you are, because here we are for you.' "