They were the ones who brought hip hop to mainstream back in the ‘80s, changed the rapper style, and were the first rap group to be on MTV and Rolling Stone magazine. Heck, Eminem compared them to the Beatles. The talented trio – Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell – effectively changed the hip hop game.
The guys went to hell and back, and one didn’t make it out. Jam Master Jay was shot and killed in 2002, and it took 18 years to catch the two shooters. (The trial is set for 2023). Ever since the loss of their DJ, Rev Run and DMC have dealt with their own demons. Run became a reverend and DMC writes children’s books.
This is the story of Run-DMC.
Shoutout to Hollis, Queens
The New York natives liked to shout out to their hometown every chance they got. The lyrics to a lot of their hits, like It’s Christmas in Hollis, pay homage to their New York City district. All three of them grew up in the middle-class, Black neighborhood of Hollis, Queens, and it was there that they formed their hip hop trio in 1981.
Joseph Simmons, aka Run, was a DJ and beat-boxer who joined his childhood friend Darryl McDaniels, aka D.M.C., to start creating rhymes. Once the pair were in college, and their rhymes were ready to be rapped, they recruited their DJ.
They Wanted to Be Called the “Dynamic Two” or the “Treacherous Two”
Run and DMC recruited an already successful local DJ to spin the turntables for their new act. But in those days, Jason Mizzel, aka Jam Master Jay, was known as Jazzy Jase. Run’s brother, Russel, became their manager, and, thus, Run-D.M.C. was born. (Russell Simmons, as you may already know, was the pioneering hip hop promoter and founder of Def Jam Records.)
In the beginning, the trio wanted to be known as the Treacherous Two. Apparently, they didn’t like the name Run-D.M.C. “We wanted to be the Dynamic Two or the Treacherous Two – when we heard that s**t we was like, ‘We’re gonna be ruined!’,” DMC recalled.
Changing the Rap Game
Their debut album was the self-titled Run-D.M.C. and they were a new, refreshing, powerful force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, this group comes out of nowhere with a unique blend of bold and intense raps that were exchanged (usually yelled) between Run and D.M.C.
Add Jam Master Jay’s signature beats and you have a game-changer on your hands. “Before us, rap records were corny,” Jam Master Jay once said. “Everything was soft; nobody made no hard beat records… Before Run-D.M.C. came along, rap could have been a fad.” But Run-D.M.C. went beyond the boundaries of rap…
Blending Rap and Rock Together
Rap-rock is a genre in itself, and many people think that it was pioneered by ‘90s artists like Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. The truth is that Run-D.M.C. came around before those acts and were blending guitar-based rock elements into their rap music early on. Their second album, from 1985, was even called King of Rock.
Their most famous rap-rock crossover is their 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith, which was a remix of Walk This Way, and it appeared on their third studio album, Raising Hell. Music producer Rick Rubin can be thanked for the collaboration.
Walk This Way Put Them on the Mainstream Map
Aerosmith had hit a lull in their music while Run-D.M.C. needed to get on the radio. The results were magical, but Run-D.M.C. only did the remix because Rubin insisted. No one involved expected the single to be as explosive as it was. In fact, they never even intended to release it as a single.
In the end, Walk This Way became one of the first hip hop records to have incredible airplay on both commercial rock-based and rap-oriented radio stations. The track not only established the trio as a mainstream success, but it also revived Aerosmith’s career. More on this story later…
Changing the Fashion Game
Not only did they change the music game, Run-D.M.C. also changed the fashion game. Remember the other early hip hop acts like The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, and the Furious Five? They tended to wear glitzy outfits. You can’t really blame them as disco was the sh*t in those days.
But Run-D.M.C. wasn’t like the others. They had a different style and approach to fashion; they preferred a more down-to-earth, street style. Their Kangol hats, Adidas sneakers without laces, and black leather jackets became their signature look. Soon enough, other hip hop/rap groups started copying them.
My Adidas Brought Them a First-Ever Deal
You know their 1986 song My Adidas, where they directly address the shoes that were part of their signature look? Well, their love for the brand got them an official sponsorship deal with the sports brand. It happened to be the first such endorsement deal landed by a hip hop act.
Adidas offered the group its first-ever non-athlete million-dollar endorsement deal. Of course, many rappers followed suit in the years that followed. “Hip-hop fashion, streetwear, the cachet of sportswear brands and the increasingly inextricable relationship between music and fashion have all, in some way or another, been influenced and affected by the group,” Robin Mellery-Pratt wrote for Business of Fashion in 2014.
All Kinds of Firsts
Run-D.M.C. managed to reach some of music’s biggest milestones. Just look at all their “firsts”:
They were the first to have a platinum rap LP for their album Raising Hell.
They were the first rap group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.
They were the first rappers to earn a Grammy nomination, and the only rappers to perform at Live Aid.
They were the first rappers to have gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums.
They were the first non-athletes to get a sneaker endorsement deal.
They were the first artists to have a rap video appear on MTV and the first group to have a rap single on the Billboard Top 10.
Popping the Hip Hop Cherry on Rolling Stone
Being the first-ever hip hop group to make it on the cover of Rolling Stone is monumental to say the least. Since the magazine’s launch in 1967, Rolling Stone has always been considered the gold standard of music journalism.
Historically, though, the magazine has always had a preference for rock music. Then, in December 1986, Run-D.M.C. made history when they popped up on the cover. Afterwards, other hip hop acts graced the cover, like Eminem, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar.
It All Ended With Jam Master Jay’s Murder
During the ‘90s, Run-D.M.C. was struggling to keep up their momentum (besides the success of the 1997 Jason Nevins remix of It’s Like That). But the guys stayed together, nevertheless. That is, until tragedy tore them apart.
In late 2002, Jam Master Jay was shot and killed. Not long after that, Run and DMC confirmed that the death meant the end of the group. Believe it or not, the case went unsolved for nearly two decades. Finally, in 2020, the two shooters were arrested.
Here’s the story…
In His Father’s Footsteps
Jason Mizell was only 37 when he died, and it took far too long for the shooters to get caught and face the music for the murder they committed. For all these years, his family and friends had to accept the lack of closure on their loved one’s death. The DJ had three sons and a daughter.
His eldest child, Jason Mizell Jr., is a DJ himself and performs under the name DJ Jam Master J’Son. J’Son has even filled in for his dad on certain reunions that Run and DMC have put together in recent years.
A Rainy Day in Jamaica, Queens
Of all the places for the DJ to lose his life, it’s pretty fitting that it happened in a recording studio. He was killed on a rainy day on October 30, 2002, at his own recording studio in Jamaica, Queens. Witnesses reported that Jay’s long-time business partner and manager, Lydia High, buzzed two people into the building.
According to High’s account, one of the gunmen held her at gunpoint as the other shot Jay. He was shot point-blank in the head and died instantly. There was another man in the studio, who was shot in the leg.
The Case Goes Cold
There were two other people there at the time; one was in the control room and the other in the recording booth. But the shooters didn’t shoot anyone else; they casually walked out of the studio as soon as their target was accomplished.
According to investigators, the available surveillance footage didn’t help. Furthermore, witnesses were less than cooperative as they feared for their own safety. And so, the case went unsolved and eventually cold for over 20 years. Finally, in August 2020, the shooters were arrested.
A Drug Deal Gone Bad
Prosecutors said Jay’s murder was the result of a drug deal gone bad. The two assailants, Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan Jr., were found guilty of fatally shooting the famous DJ. It came to light that Jay, Washington, and Jordan were in the drug business together.
Jay was allegedly acting as the middleman in the business and conducted the cocaine distribution from New York to Maryland. Prosecutors believe it went bad when the two defendants sought revenge on Jay after he supposedly cut them out of a major deal last-minute.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Investigators say Jordan got into a fight with a connection of theirs in Baltimore, and when word got back to Jay, he decided to cut the two out of the deal. Also revealed through the investigation was the fact that Jay was having money problems.
He apparently owed hundreds of thousands to the IRS. It’s safe to assume that his financial debts led him to get involved in the drug business. The DJ reportedly began drug trafficking in 1997, about five years before his murder.
He Was Like a Godfather and Mentor to Them
Jay’s family members claimed that the two suspects were close friends of his. They also claimed that Jay saved Washington from the hard knocks of street life and helped him get on his feet. Jordan, who was barely even of legal age at the time of the murder, was like a godson to Jay.
Nonetheless, both Jordan and Washington pleaded not guilty to the murder. At first, the prosecution sought the death penalty on the basis that any drug trafficking-related killing qualifies for capital punishment. But the death penalty was not imposed in the end.
Money Was His Worst Enemy
Washington and Jordan are facing a minimum of 20 years in prison, but the trial is only scheduled for 2023. Until then, justice will have to wait to be served. As for Jay’s legacy, he contributed an enormous amount to the history of music.
He ran his own label, JMJ Records, which discovered rapper 50 Cent in 1996. The biggest problem Jay had was his mismanagement of his money. He would burn through cash and his lifestyle became unsustainable. He never really learned how to handle money in a healthy way.
Hooked on the Hustle
Jay had dabbled in crime when he was young, mainly through necessity. But once he hit adulthood, that all stopped. There was one incident with an armed security guard that almost cost him his life. Afterwards, he tried to convince his friends to avoid getting involved in criminal activities.
But desperation leads people down dark paths. According to many people’s accounts, Jay saw drug dealing as a way to get himself out of a hole, and he soon got hooked on the hustle. With all that money owed to the IRS, Jay felt trapped.
DMC Hit Rock Bottom
Jay wasn’t the only one dealing with demons. DMC was also struggling for years. During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, he developed a heavy drinking habit that took him on downward spiral. His addiction ultimately took its toll on his performance and his relationship with Run and Jay.
Due to his drinking, his health started to act up, which meant DMC developed another addiction to prescription medication. The rapper found himself severely depressed and even suicidal. The good news is he eventually turned it all around. But he needed to hit rock bottom first.
This is his story…
Ten Ways Not to Kill Yourself
Darryl “DMC” McDaniels wrote an autobiography called Ten Ways Not to Kill Yourself. (DMC, by the way, stands for Devastating Mic Controller). The book is raw and revealing, as you can imagine, and hits deep. “I’m an addict,” he wrote.
“For most of my early life, I smoked and snorted and guzzled my way through almost every day.” He also voiced the book for the audio version, for those who prefer to hear the grit in his voice when he says things like, “If your soul is not right with what you’re doing, you will fall apart, like I did.”
“They Are the Beatles”
It was Eminem who inducted Run-D.M.C. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and when he did, he called them “Something tough. Something dangerous. Something beautiful and something unique. They were the first movie stars of rap… They are the Beatles.”
To DMC, “That’s crazy.” But it’s not just Eminem who holds them up high. Busta Rhymes said, “Run-DMC didn’t change music, they changed everything.” It’s true, the group was on top of the world. But like many, many successful artists, the darkness inside of them spoke louder.
He Thought Run Was “Anal as Hell”
Despite all of Run-D.M.C.’s success, DMC collapsed into alcoholism, depression and OCD. Over time, he lost his voice to spasmodic dysphonia, where the larynx spasms during speech. For years, he had suicidal thoughts. His relationships with Run, Jay, and Russell Simmons were cracking.
There were creative and personal conflicts among them, especially Run, whom DMC referred to as “anal as hell.” The two had been friends since childhood, but it developed and then deteriorated into a dysfunctional business relationship. DMC even felt hustled by Run’s pastor, E. Bernard Jordan.
2002 Brought Him to His Knees
By the mid-to-late ‘90s, he was avoiding Run “like a virus.” In 1997, in Japan, pushing their remixes (including their international smash hit It’s Like That), DMC “felt used, pimped and dirty.” For him, it was akin to milking a cow “till there’s powdered music coming out the udders.”
2002 was one of the hardest years for DMC. Not only did Jay get killed, but he also found out he was adopted, and his father passed away. Already on a dark path, and despite suffering a bout of alcohol-induced pancreatitis years prior, DMC took his alcohol intake to the next level.
“Therapy Is the Most Gangsta Thing You Can Do”
He was downing a “case of 40s every day.” He even had a fridge to store them in in his SUV. And whenever he had to walk somewhere, someone in his crew would carry around beer in a portable chiller. DMC realized rehab was going to have to happen if he wanted to make it out alive.
He turned to therapy. “Therapy is the most gangsta thing you can do,” he said. What ultimately saved his life, though, was his wife Zury and his son Dson. DMC was raised Catholic, but he spent a “wild time on the road rather than worrying about my eternal soul.”
Jamming in Heaven
DMC found his faith again and now knows that a higher, personal power lives within all of us. “I don’t care what you wanna call God: Yahweh, Buddha, Almighty, Allah, whatever you wanna call her. I think God’s a woman ’cause my wife and mother are so cool.”
As for Jay’s murder, he didn’t think anyone would ever get charged. He does, however, believe in an afterlife. “You will see Jay again,” he quoted the last line of their song, Peter Piper. “You will. Right now, he’s jamming in heaven with Biggie and Kurt Cobain.”
Darryl Had a Dream
DMC recently published his first children’s book, Darryl’s Dream. The book is all about a third grader named Darryl (duh) who’s a poet. But the kids at school bully him because he wants to be a part of the talent show. With his thick-framed glasses, the book’s protagonist is a lot like the real DMC.
Minus the poetry (DMC wasn’t as passionate about poetry as Run was), Darryl is based on the real rapper. The bullying is also true to his life. DMC was picked on by bullies for his glasses, his love of comic books and his good grades. (He was on the honor roll).
Hey, Four Eyes
“Before I started bragging about my glasses on records, when I was a kid, it was ‘hey four eyes,’ ‘hey, binoculars,’ ‘hey, telescope,’… It was the worst.” It’s hard for DMC to forget all those “knuckleheads” who made him feel worthless, even to this day.
But DMC said his upbringing was a good one. His parents loved him. Then, when he turned 35, he learned he was adopted. He came to terms with it and eventually learned to tell his story. He figured, if people know him as going from high school to college to performing with Aerosmith, then he could talk about his hard days in school.
Telling His Story
But he didn’t necessarily want to tell his story via a song. “Maybe if I put it in a book so that when the kids read it, it’s in their scenarios,” he explained. “I’m just letting them know about the young DMC, who’s no different from any man, woman, boy or girl on the face of the Earth.”
We know now that his life wasn’t easy. “From 1993 to 2004, I was an alcoholic, suicidal, metaphysical wreck, drinking myself to death, wanting to commit suicide.” Discovering therapy was the best thing he did.
Preach, DMC, Preach
“If you remove guilt and shame, you remove the pain,” DMC says. An important part of the kid’s book is addressing those feelings that kids have at a young age – ones that can follow them through life if they never get addressed.
“That same anxiety that had you scared of going to fifth-grade class will come back to haunt you when you’re that doctor in that operating room or when you got to wake up the next morning and go to work.” Preach, DMC, preach.
Speaking of preaching…
Becoming Reverend Run
These days, Run is known as Reverend Run, as he became an ordained minister. Starting in 2004, he started going by the name “Reverend Run,” which came a year before his popular reality series, Run’s House, launched on MTV.
Those who have watched it know that religion was always present in the show. “We go to church and have constant meetings. I won’t tolerate any cussing from my children, and they respect that,” Run said. Run told NPR that his rise to fame wasn’t what most people think it was.
Here’s his story…
He Had a Spiritual Awakening
“When I finished that rhyme, in my heart, like I said, the pen was taking over. I couldn’t, it was almost like I wasn’t writing,” Run told NPR. Run said his reasons for becoming a minister revolved around a spiritual awakening he felt when he recorded the albums Raising Hell and Tougher Than Leather.
Around the time of making Tougher Than Leather, he started to feel “a little uncomfortable, saw some funny things happening around me.” He explained how records sales weren’t as high as they used to be. “I was a little unhappy with what was going on, so I started going to church.”
He’s Worth $60 Million
Once he started going to church, he started to feel better. “I started to see that learning the principles of God was helping to shape my life better,” he shared. Run had grown up in Hollis, Queens. His father was a poet, which is something he internalized. Beyond rhyme, Run always had a reverend inside of him.
He incorporated some of it into his rhymes, like in Christmas in Hollis, but now ministry is his “top priority.” He and Tyrese Gibson (from Fast and Furious fame) wrote a book together called Manology, which said might be a “raw, uncomfortable truth for some people.” According to Celebrity Net Worth, Rev Run is worth about $60 million.
Life After Death
Run-D.M.C. hasn’t released an album since 2001‘s Crown Royal. After Jay’s murder, Run announced the group “is officially retired” – that they “can’t perform anymore. I can’t find a way to do it without three members.”
Run and DMC, despite all their differences over the years, have reunited a few times. They performed their first show together in over a decade at the Made in America festival in 2012. They were also pleased to become the first rappers to earn a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2016. They also performed at the 2020 Grammys with Aerosmith.
A Deep Dive Into the Making of “Walk This Way”
In 1986, songs like That’s What Friends Are For and Greatest Love of All were dominating the radio and Billboard charts. By this point, Aerosmith, with their six platinum hits from the ‘70s and the hype that surrounded them, had died down.
Hip hop and rap were making their way into the industry, but still weren’t in the mainstream. Then, one day, Aerosmith’s manager Tim Collins answered the phone. It was hip hop producer Rick Rubin calling, proposing an interesting opportunity. He wanted Aerosmith to do a song with Run-DMC.
Collins’s response: “What’s rap?”
Legends Hitting a Midlife Crisis
It goes without saying that at the time, these two groups were in completely different worlds. The band from Boston were true and true music legends who were experiencing what could be compared to a midlife crisis. Their music wasn’t hitting like it used to. Worse, drugs started infiltrating the band.
Meanwhile, the rap trio from Hollis were fresh in the game, young, and very familiar with Aerosmith’s music. Jay had already been using Walk This Way between his decks and Run had already covered the track since he was 12 years old.
Enter Rick Rubin
Combining genres wasn’t new for Rubin. He had already sampled blended AC/DC’s Back in Black with the Beastie Boys’ Def Jam debut Rock Hard. Rubin felt like the 1986 Raising Hell album was missing something.
He needed something to take the rap group out of their comfort zone and into commercial success. “I was looking for a way to bridge that gap in the story of finding a piece of music that was familiar and already hip-hop friendly so that on the hip-hop side it would make sense and on the non-hip-hop side you’d see it wasn’t so far away,” Rubin explained.
A “White Song” That Can Be Turned Into a Rap Song
Rubin called former NYU radio jockey Tim Sommer with a very specific request: “I need a white rock song that can be turned into a rap song.” That’s when the idea of Walk This Way came up. There’s another account, though, from former Spin magazine editor Sue Cummings (who used to date Sommer).
Cummings said she was doing a profile on Run-DMC when she heard Run’s riff of Walk This Way and had a thought. “I wondered what a bunch of aging classic rockers would make of this recognition by a new generation,” she wrote in Spin in April 1986.
Whose Idea Was It?
She happened to be on her way to Boston to interview Aerosmith. So, she called Rubin and asked him for a tape of Run-D.M.C. to bring along. “When I met up with the band, I proposed the collaboration,” she wrote in the piece.
“Aerosmith had never heard of Run-DMC when I handed them that cassette, but they were willing to take the risk of working with a new artist.” So, we have her account and Rubin’s. While very different, years later Cummings suggested that both she and Rubin could have accurate stories considering she spoke to both Sommer and Rubin so often back then.
The Producer Who Ran His Label Through His Dorm Room
“I don’t dispute that Tim suggested it to him,” Cummins said, “but I suggested it to him too. It might have been that Tim and I thought of it.” Regardless of who gets the credit, the bands came together, and the magic happened. At the time, Rubin was so young that he was running his record label from his dorm room.
John Kalodner of Geffen Records, Aerosmith’s label, took a chance when meeting with him. “It looked like a bum slept there, and here’s this guy who looks like some young schlub,” Kalodner wrote. “Except he spoke so clearly, and he had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do.”
$8,000 for a One-Day Session
Eventually, everyone was on board. Steven Tyler was apparently very excited. “I loved rap… I used to go looking for drugs on Ninth Avenue… There would be guys on the corner selling cassettes of their music. I’d give them a buck, two bucks, and that was the beginning of me noticing what was going on in New York at the time,” Tyler said.
Joe Perry was less aware of the genre, but agreed, nonetheless. Besides, only the two of them were needed for the track’s re-recording. Aerosmith ended up making $8,000 for the one-day session.
A Meeting of Two Worlds
The collaboration took place on March 9, 1986, in New York City’s Magic Ventures studio. As for Run-D.M.C., they were more concerned about getting an overdue rental car back, so they wanted to get it done quickly.
“Run and D and Jay were huddled in a corner, really intent on something,” Tyler recalled. He asked Perry, “what are they doing?” to which Perry said, “Probably smoking crack.” They later went over to the corner and saw the guys were simply eating lunch from McDonald’s. It all went swimmingly, and the video for the song became an MTV staple.