Since its beginnings, hip-hop has operated on an insanely accelerated timetable. Styles, slang, trends, careers, and subject matter flow, morph, and change shape faster than a Snoop Dogg lyric. In these days of Eminem and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, where the only taboo topics are those imposed by the limits of one’s imagination, it’s more than a little amusing to recall just how squeaky-clean most early rap records were. ”I’m DMC/In the place to be/I go to St. John’s University,” rapped Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels on 1984’s ”Sucker M.C.’s,” just laying out who he was: a former Catholic schoolboy boasting about attending a Catholic college. It seems unlikely stuff to have inspired the gangsta brigade, yet in the rap world, the unabashedly middle-class Run-DMC are still viewed through the same sort of rose-colored lenses through which rock-weaned baby boomers peer at the Beatles and the Stones.
King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility, and My Life With Run-DMC is decidedly out of step with the current, harder-than-thou hip-hop zeitgeist. In places, it seems more a spiritual treatise than a superstar bio. Yet it’s a strangely compelling, bravely honest little book, and a far better read than you might suspect, largely because McDaniels — the ”quiet one” in Run-DMC — emerges as so totally at odds with the generic public image of a rapper. What comes through most clearly is his hard-won sense of self, tempered by humility; he’s like the Carlos Santana of rap.
It wasn’t always that way. Before he became DMC, McDaniels christened himself Grandmaster Get High, a name he would do his best to earn after fame gave him license to indulge his appetite for drugs and booze. He ruefully recalls the days when he’d give antidrug lectures to kids while high on cocaine. And he makes the hair-raising admission that before pancreatitis forced him to quit drinking, he was polishing off twelve 40-ounce bottles of Olde English ”800” malt liquor a day (the rough equivalent of two to three fifths of hard liquor).
McDaniels is one of those supremely blessed ex-substance abusers who successfully picked himself up from the road of excess to move into the palace of wisdom, and he’s on a mission to impart a bit of what he’s learned to others. That he’s able to do so without coming off as a clean and sober Pollyanna is testament to the power of his plainspoken, BS-free prose style. McDaniels, now a family man with a 6-year-old son, takes a dim view of most modern-day rap, and he’s not shy about denouncing the gangsta mentality. ”They’re saying it’s okay to lead this lifestyle,” he writes. ”I say they’re leading people off a cliff.”
A refreshingly anti-career-ist streak runs through the text. Recalling Run-DMC’s arrival at 1999’s MTV Video Music Awards, where the group joined Kid Rock for a roiling medley of its hits, McDaniels confesses his primary thought was ”I don’t want to be here.” And he makes no apologies for the fact that though he’s still technically a member of Run-DMC, his heart is very much elsewhere. ”There’s just nothing there for me anymore,” he says of his decision to opt almost completely out of contributing to Run-DMC’s upcoming album (due April 3). His main interests now? Spiritual growth and classic rock. ”This may surprise you, but I don’t listen to rap anymore,” he writes. ”All I listen to now are English bands from the 1960s and 1970s, the Beatles, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Elton John.”
Despite its occasional tendency toward a Bill Cosby-ish didacticism, King of Rock is hardly a straight morality polemic. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes about life back in the day — the groupies, the feuds, the business wrangling — to keep you turning the pages. Yet it’s McDaniels’ loopily appealing persona — at once child- and guru-like — that is the book’s most captivating aspect. Like Will Smith (who wrote a foreword for the book), McDaniels is a born charmer. He seems so unaffectedly openhearted, you come away from King of Rock believing that this guy could, as he claims, ”get a Ku Klux Klan man to really like me.” Well, almost believing it.