Darryl McDaniels, the DMC in legendary rap group Run-DMC, has left his mark on popular culture with his booming voice, creative rhymes, trademark attire and imposing physical presence. He continues to do so today, not only in the studio and onstage, but also as an author, speaker, comic book publisher and, for the better part of two decades, a difference maker in the lives of foster children. I talked with the Morris County resident recently:
Q: I was speaking with your rep earlier and she said, “Darryl just loves music so much. You can literally talk to him about any type of music and he’s into it.” Then I read your second book …
A: “Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide.”
Q: Yes. And quite the bold title, by the way.
A: Everybody says that. (laughs)
Q: Well, an interesting thing I took away from reading it is that you paint yourself as a completely accidental superstar. You really weren’t “all in” when you hit it big.
A: Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about hitting it big in the least. All of that was just like make-believe. I kid you not, I thought I was pretending. I was just trying to do what Kurtis Blow and all the other people that I looked up to in hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Soulsonic Force and Melle Mel were doing. I thought I was just making believe. I was imitating them the same way I used to imitate Superman and Batman, by putting my favorite blanket around my neck. By picking up the aluminum trash can lids from back in the day and being Captain America. From picking up my father’s hammer and becoming Thor. I didn’t realize that when I was doing Grandmaster Flash, I was doing exactly what he does for real. Run (Joseph Simmons) knew. Run knew because he saw hip-hop being born right there in his living room. His brother Russell was managing parties in the hip-hop scene long before there was recorded rap. Flash, DJ Hollywood and Kurtis Blow would go knocking on Run’s door asking Russell for their money from the gig the night before, you know? So Run saw it being birthed and he thought, “Wow, I could go into this. I could be in showbiz.” For me, I never had those goals. I didn’t know from show business. It was just an escape, like my comic books.
Q: Even as you started signing contacts and booking studio time and eventually earning money, you were still sort of shrugging your shoulders.
A: Right. When I first walked into the studio I was still into my Godzilla movies and monster movies and my comic books and drawing and stuff like that. I didn’t know what a studio was for. The only goal of success for me was, “Wow, they played our song on a Friday night or Saturday night hip-hop show.” Because remember, hip-hop wasn’t on the radio 24 hours. It was only on Friday and Saturday nights. So our success was “Wow, Mr. Magic played me, Red Alert played me, Awesome 2 played me.” Whoever had a radio show playing hip-hop for three or four hours on a weekend and played our record? Done. Story’s over. That was success. I didn’t know our records were going to hit nationwide and I definitely wasn’t thinking about them becoming popular around the world.
Q: A lot of people in our society become obsessed with certain goals and sort of set themselves on fire pursuing them. Do you think not wanting it as badly as others may have helped you in some way?
A: Yes, exactly, it did help … by not caring about it. But Jay (the late Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell) knew. Jay was one of the guys who said, “Yes, we have to work and we have to do this and we have to chart and we have to get money.” For me? I didn’t know how powerful my imagination and mouth was. You know there’s a saying in the Bible, “The power of life and death is on the tongue.” Well, on the “Jam-Master Jay” record (from Run-DMC’s self-titled 1984 debut album), I say, “We’re live as can be but we’re not singing the blues/We got to tell all y’all the good news/The good news is that there is a crew/Not five, not four, not three, just two/Two MCs who are claiming the fame/And all other things won’t be the same/Because it’s about time for a brand new group/Run-DMC, to put you up on the scoop.”
Q: A self-fulfilling prophecy.
A: When I said that, we went to the top of everything.
Q: So eventually, it started to dawn on you that Run-DMC’s potential was for real.
A: My not caring about it made it so much easier. It was when I started paying attention to other people, and paying attention to the results and getting pulled outside of myself, that things changed. Trying to be truly successful at something can be hugely stressful, life-draining and humanity-destroying, but some people go through those things to get there.
Q: Have you ever — and this includes your time of heavy alcohol and substance abuse — had trouble remembering rhymes?
A: Never! Never ever. I stopped writing rhymes down in, like, ’87 maybe. I never needed to write them down for me, but I would write them down to show Run. You know, how we would switch off back and forth. He would bug me out about it. I was always writing, so it was easy for me to remember what I just said a minute ago — even through all of my substance abuse. I truly believe, even when I’m 89 years old, that I’m not going to need a teleprompter. Because when I’m onstage, it’s just a spontaneous explosion of, “I’m not performing my records for money. I’m performing them because I love them.” And they’re always in my head.
Q: Any music fan who lived through the early ’80s can remember that there was almost no rap to be seen on MTV in that era, and no mainstream radio play of it anywhere. Then, the next minute, not only was there some rap to be seen, but more than half of it was Run-DMC. Knowing how competitive things in the industry could be, how did other rappers take your success, and how were you treated in the streets of New York when you came back from tours?
A: There was no jealousy in the street, because nobody there really cared about early hip-hop. Even though we was getting good money, we wasn’t getting money like the drug dealers were getting money. We had our business, but nobody in the streets was against us because all these folks were making millions selling drugs.
Q: How about fellow rappers?
A: The early rap groups, like Treacherous Three, Cold Crush, Melle Mel & the Furious Five, they didn’t like us. There was static. There was a misconception about Run-DMC in the beginning, because they didn’t know us. They thought we stole their attitude and their presentation: folding the arms, the hoods, etc.
Q: Did you?
A: We didn’t steal, we imitated. (laughs) A lot of DMC’s presentation, we definitely got from them. It was flattery. But when we became stars with it, it hit them the wrong way. They hated us until they started reading our interviews and meeting us in person. In every interview we went out of our way to say, “Yo, we just want to be Grandmaster Flash, who was doing it. We want the Cold Crush to like us. We want to impress Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel.” Then they felt bad for hating us, and there was no jealousy. Most of our animosity was actually coming from black bands who were successful at the time — groups like The Gap Band, who treated us badly when we opened for them. But you know who loved us from the start? The Ramones. Springsteen. Lou Reed. All the rock dudes. They didn’t see us as a fad. They knew what we were about.
Q: You opened for Marvin Gaye, which had to be interesting.
A: Yeah, we opened for Marvin. We also opened for Parliament-Funkadelic.
Q: I could see you with P-Funk because you both had a high-energy party vibe, but how did Marvin’s crowd treat you?
A: They were okay. They just sat there. And we only had like three records to perform at that time. “It’s Like That,” “Sucker MCs” and the “Here We Go” version of “Jam-Master Jay.” That’s it. We would come out and you could hear a pin drop. I mean, here come some dudes in tracksuits playing records, and everybody was just looking at us with blank faces, like, “Okay, where’s the drummer? Where’s the keyboard? Where’s this music even coming from?” But all of that would change when Jay would say, “Yo, what’s up y’all? I’m Jam Master Jay, we’re Run-DMC and I’m gonna call D up … D … D” And I would come out, “Yo, mic check one, two, clap your hands everybody. To the people in back, clap your hands.” We would start to get everyone going and perform to Marvin Gaye fans for 20 minutes with three records on about three feet on the stage. On the tour they told us, “This is all y’all got, do the best you can with it.” So we did. By the time we finished shows, we were getting standing ovations.
Q: You were a big rock fan growing up and now, in many ways, you are a rock artist. Did it bother you when Run-DMC would be dismissed by some for not playing instruments?
A: We wasn’t making our own music, but the white people that we were stealing the beats from, like Aerosmith, Rush, Bob Dylan and all of those cats — they protected us. Lou Reed said, “I respect Run-DMC because when they came out, they reminded me of me when I was a young musician in my garage beating on pots and pans to everyone’s music.” The black musicians didn’t like us because we were getting a thousand dollars a night, which was a lot of money back then. A thousand dollars just to play some damn records! But the rock dudes loved us and our socially conscious attitude. We was rebellious, just like rock ‘n’ roll. We had the anti-everything attitude that they had.
Q: A big part of Run-DMC’s appeal was your appearance. I’m not sure if many people know that much of the group’s iconic look, especially the lace-less Adidas sneakers, came about accidentally.
A: It did. In me and Run’s first promo shoot — this is before Jay was the DJ — me and Run, we wasn’t, um … we wasn’t coordinated. (laughs) We wore different shoes. I wore Pumas, actually. I had on trench coats and hoodies in those days, and Run would wear leather. We just wasn’t coordinated. In the beginning, Run’s brother Russell was our manager, and he was always telling us that we need wardrobe. But we weren’t thinking about wardrobe because hip-hop to us was the way you woke up that morning. What we put on in the morning, was what we were wearing onstage that night. Sort of like what grunge did after the hair metal bands.
So one night, before a show we had here in New York City, we were going to pick up Jason Mizell — aka Jam Master Jay, may he rest in peace. Jay had actually missed out on the first show in New York. We played a place called The Disco Fever, which at the time was the most famous hip-hop club in New York City.
Q: In the Bronx.
A: That’s right. And when we went to pick up Jay for the first show, he wasn’t home. He was out shopping, buying the gear. He actually missed the first show! So the second show, he was not going to miss, right? We pull up to Jay’s house and he comes out of his front door and steps out on the stoop and we’re all looking at him … with his white Adidas Superstar sneakers with the black stripes, right? No laces in them. He has on black Lee jeans. Not Levi’s, you understand. Lee. And he has on a black Adidas track jacket with the white stripes, a gold chain around his neck, and the Run-DMC Stetson hat on. Me and Run are looking at this guy, and you know what we had on? Some polka dot jackets. I think I had on some green Pumas. Run had on some white-on-white Adidas and some gray Lees. I may have had some Pierre Cardin pants on as well. You understand? That night, Jay stepped out looking like the way Run-DMC is still known for. It was Jam Master Jay who was the style and the sound of Run-DMC. If Jay never would have stepped out looking like that, we probably would have been dressed like the Osmonds.
Q: Run-DMC’s look was immensely popular with suburban kids, which was unprecedented. Why do you think it caught on so far and wide?
A: Our fashion wasn’t about looking at people like “Hey, these clothes show that I’m richer than you or better than you.” When people saw Run-DMC, they saw something they could relate to. Our style was another way of communicating. That’s why Adidas gave us a sneaker deal. They saw something going on with us that was bigger than just marketing and sales. They saw that it was good and it was positive and nothing existed like that at the time.
Q: The three of you dressed somewhat collectively, but yours was the look that became the most identifiable. Your image has been blown up to cartoonish proportions over the years. It’s been parodied on television, we see variations of it on knock-off clothing, it’s one of the most graffitied images in cities around the world …
A: I made the cover of Mad magazine! Alfred E. Neuman put on my glasses, and they even put the goatee on him.
Q: There is also an annual ’80s music cruise that has costume nights, and there are 50-something-year-old men running around the boat dressed as you. I’ve been you for Halloween. (DMC laughs) How do you feel about all of this?
A: It’s humbling in a way, and it made me more responsible. Run, in a loving way, will say, “Damn, every time there’s something done on hip-hop — whether it’s a trophy, Mad magazine, ‘Saturday Night Live’ or whatever — anything that shows the universal goodness appeal of hip-hop — it’s always D.” I feel the responsibility of that. For me to be the face of hip-hop and the image of hip-hop? It’s hot, but it’s also scary to me. So I worked hard to not act out, you know? To not tarnish what the hip-hop from the beginning means.
Q: Speaking of beginnings, if you’re in your car and a Run-DMC song comes on the radio, do you listen to it?
A: Oh no, I’ll change it. I don’t like listening to myself.
Q: Why is that?
A: Run used to hate me. Like when the Raising Hell album was done and completed, I would listen to the mix and make sure my vocals were right. But after that, I would go off and listen to some Public Enemy or Brand Nubian. Run would keep listening to himself. He would listen to himself on the train, while he was driving around, everywhere. My thing is, after it’s created, it’s done. On to the next one. And I think that had a lot to do with my frustration of being in such a big group on Profile Records. If we put out “It’s Tricky,” it will be “It’s Tricky” for the next year. My thing was, “Hey, I made ‘It’s Tricky’ on July 31. It is September now and I just made another new song last night. Let’s move on.”
Q: What do you think of hip-hop today?
A: It’s a lot different. We had to struggle to get positive, well-liked, respectful music played in the mainstream. Compare that to the journey of gangster rap or show business stars today. A lot of people are celebrities but their art just ain’t shit. I always thought hip-hop was going to be something unique. No ghostwriters, no stylist, no special effects, no smoke and mirrors. But, once it became a big commercial part of the recording industry, it suffered the same effects. Britney Spears — I love her. She’s talented in her own Britney Spears pop music way. But what’s unique about Britney Spears? What’s unique about Britney Spears is that she needs a choreographer, and she needs somebody to write for her. All she’s gotta do is show up. But on the other hand, there’s Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow don’t even need a big production. You can give Sheryl Crow an acoustic guitar and a stool, sit her onstage in front of 30,000 people and she will entertain you for hours and you’ll leave there feeling empowered. I never thought the Britney Spears entertainment model would exist in hip-hop.
Q: I mentioned “Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide,” which is one of the most vulnerable and heart-wide-open music biographies I’ve read from any genre of music. Your being bullied as a kid, the substance abuse, the therapy, your finding out that you were adopted when you were well into adulthood … if those vulnerabilities were front and center when you were first trying to make it as a rapper, do you think that you would have had the courage to reveal it?
A: Everything would have been so different. If I would’ve known I was adopted back then, or if I was in therapy, or I had the substance abuse problems I had, it would’ve been in my music. The macho hip-hop, broken glass in the ghetto, “I got guns, bitches and hoes, and I got money so fuck you” would have just been about me going to therapy instead. For real. Because when I first came out, I came out saying, “I’m DMC, in the place to be, I go to St. John’s …,” and the hardest dudes out there were like, “This motherfucker is rhyming about St. John’s University?” I’m talking about gangster types saying this to me. “This motherfucker is rapping about chicken and collard greens?” That was always my power. The very thing that people considered weak about me were the things I rapped about, and they gave me power.
Q: I assume that is what made you so confident.
A: Definitely. I was always brutally honest about who I was. I could talk about puppies, ducklings, and lollipops with the same authority that somebody talks about shooting a gun, and I could beat them.
Q: You discovered that you were adopted when you were in your mid-30s. There was a really great turning point in the book when you were enjoying a relationship with your newfound birth mother while still having a great relationship with your mother, but they both wanted to host you on Christmas day. This created a great deal of stress for you, so you brought the issue to your psychologist. What did she say?
A: She asked me “Darryl, what do you want to do?,” and I was surprised by the question. I thought about it for a second, and said, “I just want to stay home with my wife and kids.” So she said, “Then just do that.” I was shocked. I said, “You mean it’s that easy?” She said, “Sure it is.” So, I stayed home and everything was okay with everyone. It had never occurred to me that might work.
Q: It’s a simple story, but really explains who you were up to that point, and why some things in your life had gone the way they had.
A: Right. Those scenarios happened when Run-DMC was successful, but I didn’t know I was supposed to turn to Darryl and say, “Darryl, how do you feel about all of these things that are going on?” Instead I reached outside of myself and started confiding in a guy named Jack Daniel’s, and another guy named Jim Beam, and those were the worst things that I could have done. I should have said, “Jack and Jim, I can’t hang with you guys right now because I’m talking to Darryl and he’s telling me to just go home and relax.” I didn’t, and that put me down a long road. That’s why, when she said that to me, a weight was lifted. I understood it. I can take care of me first. I can put me first.
Q: Frankly, Run didn’t seem like he was a very good friend to you, or even a good business partner during this stretch. What is your relationship with him like now?
A: You know, it’s actually good. There was friction, but it wasn’t like Run, Jay, Russell, or anyone at the label woke up and said, “We are going to hurt Darryl.” They were doing what they needed to do for them. My therapist said to me, “Run, Russell and Jay do what they do for them. Why don’t you do the same for you?” And I couldn’t answer her.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: It goes back to a deep-seated thing where, even when I didn’t know that I was adopted, there was something in the back of my head saying, “I don’t want to be abandoned. I want people to like me.” So, with Run, he never forced me to do anything, but I did things because I didn’t want to upset him and Jay, and that was the wrong way to go. People always ask me which record I didn’t want to make with Run-DMC. Well, there was a multitude of records that I didn’t want to make. Every record that flopped from Run-DMC was a record that I didn’t want to make. Every record that worked, only worked because it was Run being Run, Jay being Jay, and Darryl being Darryl. Not Darryl being who Run and Jay wanted him to be on these records. But I went along with it because I didn’t want to fight about it.
Q: What period was that in your career?
A: It was around the time we were working with Naughty by Nature and Tribe Called Quest and EPMD. We worked with all of the acts that looked up to us who were now successful themselves. We went into the studio and they would produce us, and we ended up sounding like them. The Pete Rock “Down With The King” record was the only record that sounded like what Run and D do. It was the last great Run-DMC record. I knew it was over after Tougher Than Leather.
Q: What told you that it was over?
A: Because Run and Jay started asking to see my rhymes. They had never done that in the five years we’d been together. Jay would just put the music on and I would say what I wanted to say, but then it got to a point where they said, “D, your rhyming about lollipops isn’t going to go with what we are doing today.” So that’s what it was. Run would call me, I would show up and they would say, “This is what we’re gonna do,” and I would do it, and leave the studio mad without speaking up about it. Run and Jay argued all the time. They cussed each other out, like “Fuck you — I ain’t doing that!” But I never did that with either one of them, which is not healthy. I didn’t want to be a troublemaker. I wanted Jay and Run to like me. I wanted all people to like me, because somewhere in my heart, I didn’t want to be alone.
Q: So now it’s different because you have changed?
A: Yes, because now I do this: When Run says, “Hey D, do you think …?” I’ll just say “Nope.” and that’s that. I ain’t got to explain it. And if I have to explain it, I might then say, “Fine, you go do that by yourself. You go do your reality show. You could go work with those people. I don’t want to be nowhere around those people.” I’m saying our relationship is good. Run-DMC could have broken up because of creative differences, but it wasn’t a “fight” over creative differences because I didn’t fight. Run DMC broke up because Jam Master Jay got shot and killed.
Q: Run-DMC’s story has many of the elements of the classic rock bands you love. Your nickname has long been “King of Rock” but I’m not sure people know how much you love rock, or that you’ve put out several rock records, the latest being “Fight!” (see video below)
A: Yeah, when I came out and said I was the “King of Rock,” it was because that was the music that truly appealed to me. Seventies rock radio created me and it’s one of the major factors that brought me success in hip-hop. In the beginning of hip-hop, everybody was using jazz and James Brown beats and disco and funk records because those had bass lines and drum beats to rap over. But “Walk This Way” is a breakbeat. I would hear that. I’ve always loved rock because the sound was more superhero-ish to me than the Bee Gees’ songs. R&B sounded like Batman to me, but rock sounded like Thor. (laughs)
Q: In regard to your version of “Walk This Way,” how did you guys get along with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and the rest of Aerosmith? Was the collaboration a business-only thing or did you truly enjoy working together?
A: Oh, no. We enjoyed it. I can say we truly enjoyed it. Steven was so inviting. Joe Perry was very quiet, but he wasn’t standoffish. And the same way we are with them now, after building all this beautiful stuff, is the same way they were open to us from that first recording day. Steven calls me more than everybody else because I guess I’m the nice guy in the group. So he always calls me. When they came to do a sold-out show in Jersey, he said “Hey D, come perform the record with me.” He called me from Japan to play Hyde Park in London with them, because he knew I was running around Europe. He called me to ask Run if he’d do the Grammys with them earlier this year, because he knew I would do it. Steven said, “I know you’re gonna come, D, but we need to get the other guy, too.” He didn’t even say Run’s name. Just, “You need to get the other guy.” (laughs)
Q: No easy task?
A: To get Run to do something? No. He has to ask you a million questions first. “How much money can we get? Who’s gonna be there? Is this gonna make me look good? I can’t have nobody backstage.” He’s got all these rules and regulations. It gets to the point like, “Motherfucker, just show up, do your part, then you can go wherever the hell you want to go!” (laughs)
Q: Can you compare Run and Russell for me?
A: Oh, that’s a good question. Okay, well, they are both very talkative. Russell is the one who is always in a rush, even though Run is the one we call Run. “Run” is called Run because he always runs his mouth. Russell has an entrepreneurial spirit. When Russell thinks of an idea, he is gonna start on it, and he is gonna go with it. Run will know it’s a great idea, but he is going to sit with it for the next 20 days trying to remove anything negative, anything that might stop it from happening, and anything that is going to make him look bad. Run is the type of guy that won’t do stuff unless he’s 100 percent sure that the world thinks the same way about it that he does. Russell’s the guy that is just going to go and do it because it’s a great idea and he’s got to get it done. Run is cautious. Russell is advantageous.
Q: You’ve had a lot of entrepreneurial experiences yourself. “Darryl Makes Comics” is one of them.
A: That’s right. DMC: Darryl Makes Comics. When I was young, all I did was eat and sleep Marvel comic books. I was a straight A student in Catholic school, always on the honor roll. Kids called me Brainiac and Professor and Four Eyes and Binoculars, so as a kid my life was miserable because I was smart, little and geeky. The only time that I saw smart, small and geeky people be powerful was in a comic book. I never saw myself in this real world that we are all in. I only saw me in comic books. Even my introduction to New York City, the place where I actually lived, wasn’t through going outside, or even through “Shaft” and “Super Fly” and Pam Grier movies. It was through Stan Lee. He didn’t do what DC did, creating Metropolis and Gotham as fictional places that were like Manhattan. He put these superheroes in the actual New York City. So it was real to me, you understand? I learned about Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen and Park Avenue and 42nd Street from Stan. And he gave me a world where smart people like me were badass, not awkward geeks. That was in comic books.
Q: It was only natural that you would get around to making your own.
A: Darryl Makes Comics came about because I met a young man named Riggs Morales. He was Eminem’s rep over at Shady Records for the rise of Eminem’s great empire, and I was supposed to have a meeting with him about music. But what is the first thing Riggs says to me? “D, I’ll probably never get a chance to say this again, but you was like a superhero to me. The way you looked, the way you sounded, and your whole persona.” And then he asked me about my childhood and I told him exactly what I told you about the comic books. Well, we thought hip-hop was going to be our connection? Nope. We sat there for three hours and talked about comic books, and what they did for both of us. And then he said, “D, you should do your own comic book. You could do the very same thing you’ve been doing with your music for the last 35 years.” And I asked, “What is that?” And he said, “Inspire, educate, motivate and entertain.” Then he asked me, “If you were to create a company, what would you call it?” And I said, (rapping) “D is for doing it all of the time. M is for the rhymes that are all mine. C is for cool, cool as can be. I wear glasses and contacts so I can see.” Darryl (D) Makes (M) Comics (C). Now we have three graphic novels out, with a fourth on the way.
Q: I think it’s fair to say that your longest running achievement may be your much praised foundation for kids, The Felix Organization.
A: Yes, 15 years. We started The Felix Organization so that we could create opportunities and provide resources for foster kids. I started it with Sheila Jaffe, who is one of the biggest casting directors in Hollywood. She had been on a journey to find her birth parents and I found out I was adopted when I was 35 years old, so we were both at places in our lives where our adoptions were affecting us. When I met with Sheila, I realized, “Wow, I’m not alone.” We agreed that we were fortunate and thought about all the foster kids and orphans who might not ever get adopted, who deserved a chance to become the people they were put here to be, regardless of their situation. So, we created a sleepaway camp called Camp Felix where a foster kid could come to camp for a week and we could not only expose them to beautiful nature, but also ask them, “What problems are you going through?,” “Who or what do you want to be?” in a setting around other foster kids, where they do not need to feel ashamed talking about those things. From that first week of camp, we start on getting them to college or trade school or dance school or acting school or photography school or art school or whatever fits them. We created the camp so they can have a chance for a week to just be a kid, you know? And to have a lasting positive memory that will not only touch them for a week, but will have a big effect on them far beyond.
Q: You’re trying to prevent negative outcomes for not only adopted kids, but adopted urban kids, which has to be particularly satisfying for you because you saw a lot of negative outcomes in your community. And now, 18 years after the fact, two individuals were finally charged with Jam Master Jay’s negative outcome.
A: Everybody was coming at me about it when the arrests were made for his murder, but I can’t say nothing until y’all hear from the family. The feds ain’t calling me, the FBI ain’t calling me, and the police ain’t calling me. What everyone sees in the paper is what I’m seeing.
Q: Details of the arrests aside, do you have a perspective on the situation that we may not have heard?
A: One thing I do want to say is that Jay was not a drug trafficker. Jay didn’t move kilos. Jay wasn’t a drug dealer. Jay was a DJ. He was Run-DMC’s DJ and he had a studio and he was running JMJ Records. That’s who he was. Now, how did these other elements infiltrate there? I’m waiting to see how that’s possible. I will also say this: Jam Master Jay could have put his studio in Hollywood, around the corner from Dr. Dre’s beautiful studio. Jam Master Jay could have put his studio in Manhattan, down the block from Diddy’s beautiful studio. Instead, Jam Master Jay chose to put his studio five minutes from where he grew up. He opened the door — the very door that he originally made it out of — and left it open so that everybody from our community could follow him through it. The very things that Jay made it away from, because of our success, Jay went back to, so he could lead other people away from it. Those are the things that killed him.
Q: What exactly are those things?
A: Crime. Poverty. Lack of education. When Jay first got killed I put out a statement saying that I wasn’t mad at the guy who pulled the trigger and killed Jay. I should have never done that. The whole world cursed me out! I had to go back and say, “Okay, you’re 100 percent right. Let me rephrase that.” But the people that shot Jay? I’m not mad with them because there are certain things that caused these people to do it. My fight is with the mindset that would cause them to pull that trigger. That’s where my fight is. Meanwhile, our radio stations continually play the young men and girls calling themselves bitches, hoes and niggas. They continually play the young men and girls talking about how cool it is to have illegal weapons and sell illegal drugs. So my fight is way bigger than the individuals that shot Jay. My fight is our overall struggle.
Q: Let’s go out on a high note regarding Jay. He’s obviously still in your heart, because you remain protective of him, even two decades after the fact.
A: That’s right. If you see me in photos over the last 18 years, I wear this JMJ belt buckle — Jay’s initials — every day. “You see this belt buckle, I wear it every day/So you can still see me chilling with Jay.” Everybody loves that rhyme.
Q: When do you miss him the most?
A: That is a good question with a funny answer. I think of him every time I go shopping. (laughs) That’s a special connection that I have with him. After awhile I would never go shopping with Jay for anything. Because if you went shopping with Jay, you would be in the damn store for five hours, with him in the mirror the whole time, asking, “How does this look? Does this fit? What do you think about this?” It was like I was shopping with a woman.
Q: It’s often the little things about a person that stay with you.
A: It is! Here is a connected story you’re not going to believe. The night Tupac got shot and killed — the very night he was killed in Vegas after the Mike Tyson fight — Suge Knight had hired Run-DMC to perform at the after-party for Death Row Records. Suge called us while he and Tupac were in the BMW that they would be shot in and said, “Hey, y’all should ride to the fight with us.” But my manager Erik (Blamoville) said, “Yo that’s cool but y’all go ahead, we’ll meet you there.” Suge asked, “Why? Why can’t you come?,” and Erik had to tell him, “Because Jay is getting dressed.” Suge had no idea that meant for three hours. If it wasn’t for Jay being Jay, we would’ve been in that car, man.
A: Right? A close call for us, but we have to prevent all these people from shooting each other and committing suicide and thinking substance abuse and self-abuse is the only way out.
Q: How do we do that?
A: The only way that we can do it, I believe, is to not be ashamed to say when we are weak, not be ashamed to say when we are scared, and not be ashamed to say when we have fallen.
Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley of Kiss, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.
This interview originally appeared on Ferraro’s website, OfPersonalInterest.com. You can follow Ferraro on Facebook here or see his stories and interviews with charitable artists at TheGivingArts.com.
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