It was a revelation that changed the name of the game, literally: DMC was adopted. He wasn’t born Darryl McDaniels (“son of Byford, brother of Al”), but Darryl Lovelace, and for the five years after he found out, it messed with his head.
“There was something missing from the picture of Darryl and DMC,” McDaniels said from his New Jersey home. “It was the adoption thing.”
On record, the story of Darryl McDaniels is hip-hop legend. Darryl Mac, from Hollis Queens, N.Y., went to St. John’s University. With Joseph “Run” Simmons and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell he shepherded rap from the streets into cable-ready living rooms and new levels of critical and commercial success. Run-D.M.C. was the first rap group to hit gold and platinum, the first to cross over, the first on the cover of the Rolling Stone. D cast himself as the king of rock, and for a long time, there was none higher.
But off record, the discovery of his adoption came in the midst of a tumultuous time for the 41-year-old McDaniels. It set off an identity crisis, affected his sense of his background, and to hear him tell it, eventually gave him reason for sticking around. It’s a story that culminates in his long-in-coming solo debut, “Checks, Thugs and Rock N’ Roll.”
“I learned from all this that yes, I am still supposed to be DMC” he said, “But now I have a greater mission now than just rhyming about I’m the king of rock, talking about my sneakers and telling people to walk this way.”
He’s got no shortage of material to work with. The search for his birth mother proved a five-year project followed in the VH1 documentary “DMC: My Adoption Journey” (by coincidence, Simmons, now as Rev. Run, dropped his first solo record last fall as a reality series based on his life debuted on MTV).
Within that time McDaniels both started drinking again (a debilitating bout with pancreatitis forced him to quit in the early ’90s) and went back into rehab. He suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a vocal disorder that lends his speaking voice an often-fragile tremble, a sadly ironic diagnosis for a man whose thunderstorm of a voice is synonymous with the birth of rap (on record and without help, it’s tough to identify the voice on the mike as his).
And along the line, Jam Master Jay was shot and killed inside his New York studio, effectively ending Run-D.M.C. His ex-partner contributes a verse on the new track “Come Together,” something McDaniels said he wasn’t sure whether or not to include. “It’s a new record by Run and D, which is important for our legacy” McDaniels said. “But it’s not a Run-D.M.C. record. I wasn’t even in the room when he did it.”
Like its predecessors dating back to “Run-D.M.C.,” “Checks” is hip-hop in name, but has a rock’n’roll soul. “As a little kid, everybody wanted to be the Jackson 5 and have afros. Everybody was into James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone,” he said. “I loved the Doobie Brothers’ ‘Black Water.’ I loved ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Bob Dylan.”
As such, opener “Watchtower,” which features Elliot Easton of the Cars and Josh Todd, is based on Hendrix’s. Kid Rock handles vocals on “Find My Way,” while “Come Together” salutes the Beatles. And first single “Just Like Me” finds Sarah McLachlan providing the hook, in the form of the chorus of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.” The pairing may seem odd to anyone but McDaniels, who credits McLachlan with his still being here. “For one whole year, all I listened to was Sarah McLachlan,” he said.
When he first sat down to write his “Checks,” McDaniels, then 35, found himself hung up on the fact that he was playing what’s generally considered a young man’s game. “How does a B-boy turn into a B-man?” he said. “Did it even make sense to talk about ‘My DJ’s better than your DJ?'”
Around this time Run-D.M.C. was on tour in Europe, but something was off in McDaniels’ head. “I woke up one morning thinking, something ain’t right here. DMC … eehhh. Fortune and fame … ehhhh,” he said. Thoughts of suicide snuck in. “I don’t think I’d have done it. But I knew something was wrong with me, just for having those thoughts,” he said.
Whatever was wrong started getting better the day he heard McLachlan’s track “Angel” on the radio. “That song made me say life is beautiful, and it’s good to be alive. I was an in-the-closet Sarah fan, because that record ‘Angel’ saved my life.” Three years later came the news about his adoption and he realized what the void was. “Money, fortune, fame, touring, it don’t get no better than that,” he said. “But I knew something was missing.”
In addition to setting off to find his birth mother, DMC also had a reason for the record now. “That was the day that gave me my blueprint of what to do as I moved forward,” he said. “I had to become like a John Lennon, like a John Fogerty. If there’s an issue, personal, political or social, that’s what I do. The hip-hop generation is lacking that.”
Feeling lucky, he dialed up McLachlan to provide the hook for “Just Like Me,” and she agreed implicitly, even bringing him up to her Canada home to lay down the track. “If I die tomorrow,” he remembered thinking at the time, “I can say that the greatest thing in my career wasn’t ‘Walk This Way,’ MTV, none of that. The best thing in all my life is making a record with Sarah McLachlan.” The catch, he said, was that after the record was finished, she told him that she too was adopted. “You gotta understand, I had no idea,” he said.
Things are back in place now. The identity crisis has been settled, his family life is again calm and he’s comfortable with his legacy. “Checks,” he said, was his therapy. And, he believes, the end of a journey that was preordained.
“If my [birth] mother never gave me up, my mother would have never got me [and] I’d have never moved to Hollis,” he said, pausing for effect. “I would have never met Run and Jay, we wouldn’t be Run-D.M.C. and hip-hop wouldn’t have started the way it did.”