Hip-hop didn’t save Darryl “D.M.C.”’ McDaniels’ life; it damn near killed him.
On stage, Darryl McDaniels of the hip-hop trailblazing trio Run-DMC, had an energy and confidence that defied gravity. Draped in gold chains with a fresh pair of white untied Adidas, DMC’s lyrics led a generation into hip-hop, a budding music genre that would later influence global culture.
But off stage, he was a man with demons.
Depression is a sneaky son of a b***h. Sometimes, it is a slow, undiagnosed realization that comes when a person is at their ugliest, or never at all. For Darryl, his depression was trapped between his personal happiness and other people’s expectations.
In his memoir, Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide, Darryl writes, “My introduction to hip-hop – the very thing that would one day make me rich and famous – came as a result of me giving up something I loved for someone else’s desires.”
Depression doesn’t always give the benefit of self-awareness, which makes the downward spiral even more dangerous to those who suffer from its grip. Darryl didn’t know what to call what he was experiencing; he just wanted to make people happy.
“I didn’t know it at the time. It was easy for me to create, but something deep down inside me silently was looking for other people’s approval and acceptance. Hip-hop made me feel accepted with the down crowd and with the in crowd. It made me feel legitimate,” said Darryl.
Before Run-DMC, Darryl was a catholic school comic book geek from Queens, New York. In his book, Darryl notes that, “comics were an escape, a way to make myself feel strong and invincible rather than like the quiet little four-eyed nerd I essentially was.”
Darryl's first love was comics. Hip-hop came second. His older brother, Alfred, introduced him to turntables and sound systems. Darryl even leveraged his comic book collection in order to raise money for brand new turntables for his older brother, in what he describes as one of the first instances of pleasing other people at his own expense.
But it wouldn’t be until his junior year of high school when he grew closer the Run that Darryl fell madly in love with hip-hop.
“Hip-hop [became] my new haven, another alternative reality that I could slip into and pretend to be somebody, anybody, other than the quiet kid who got straight A’s at Saint Pascal’s," Darryl said in his book.
Rather it was comic books or hip-hop, Darryl’s passion was an escape, a crutch precluding him from chasing his personal happiness. The spotlight and stage of hip-hop provided an audience to witness Darryl’s escape from reality.
In his first on stage performance as part of Run-DMC, Darryl remembered being so drunk to the point where he didn’t recall performing at all.
“That [rhyming] was my private, make-believe play thing. Like I don’t do that in front of people. Hip-hop to me was play time. So, when he [Run] put me in his first show, I knew I needed some courage and the alcohol would give me some courage,” said Darryl.
Darryl, together with Joseph Simmons [Run] and Jason William Mizell [Jam Master Jay], would go on to make hip-hop history in 1984 with their groundbreaking self-titled debut album Run-DMC. The LP was the first rap album to sell more than half a million copies.
The group would continue its legacy with their third album, Raising Hell, the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum, with three million records sold in 1986.
"It’s tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time. It’s tricky…it’s tricky, tricky, tricky, tricky" became the chant of an emerging culture of hip-hop lovers.
But Darryl’s success on the charts didn’t translate over to his personal happiness. He felt unheard in the group and that his untapped creativity was overlooked by Run and Jay.
“Many of my years in Run-DMC were spent feeling like an unneeded third wheel. After our first album, my role in the group steadily diminished. I still recorded, but Run and Jay had little use for any of my creative ideas,” wrote Darryl in his memoir.
Darryl turned to alcohol to hide his emotions, which soon developed into a full out addiction. His drinking only intensified with every successive album. By the time Run-DMC dropped their fifth album, Back From Hell in 1990, Darryl was drinking entire twelve-bottle cases of malt liquor a day, which led to acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. After a month and a half in the hospital and not being able to ingest solid foods, Darryl had two choices – don’t drink and live, or drink and die.
Darryl chose to live.
It would be nearly a decade before Darryl had his next drink. For Darryl, the beginning of the millennium marked a fresh start of getting his life and health back on track. 2000 was also the year Darryl found out he was adopted. The revelation took Darryl back to a place of feeling alone and ostracized, because he wasn’t “really family” in his eyes. Once again, he turned to the bottle.
“When I started drinking again, I felt like I was celebrating. I found a new part of my identity. I thought I’ll talk to other people who are adopted. I thought it was a celebration,” said Darryl.
Depression doesn't act as in containment. It infiltrates. When Darryl found out he was adopted, he felt alone. Darryl contemplated suicide and drinking was how depression manifested itself in his life. It was Darryl’s wife, Zuri, who challenged him to confront his demons head-on.
With the aid of a private eye, Darryl was able to find his birth mother and forge a relationship with her. He also developed a summer camp, the Felix Organization, that provides foster children with the proper resources and experiences needed to move forward in life. In September of 2006, Darryl was presented with the Congressional Angels in Adoption Award for his work with foster children.
But depression's grip is one that is strong, and the death of a loved one would send Darryl spiraling back into its path.
When Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002, Darryl’s fall back into alcoholism was even more aggressive. While Run was a group member and businessman for Darryl, Jay was more of a friend, a mentor, and a source of musical inspiration. Darryl brands Jay as “what Run-D.M.C. was all about at the very center…the heart and soul” of the group. In his book, Darryl writes, “Jay loved life and was murdered, while, ironically, I was the one consumed with trying to kill myself. Suffering through the loss changed my views on what it means to be alive.”
Self-love is essential to living, not just existing. And Darryl learned about self-love through is wife Zuri. And it was through self-love that Darryl came to realize his true value in life independent of the concert halls he filled or the music albums he sold. Zuri’s love and patience made Darryl a better man.
“Finding Zuri expanded my ability to love. After I met her, it grew deeper. My self-love grew through my love of her. By that I mean, I learned that I had to take better care of myself, [and] to fully love her the way that she deserves,” said Darryl.
Darryl didn’t know he was depressed. He just wanted to fit in and please people — not uncommon desires. Darryl’s desire to fulfill others’ expectations were deeply rooted in his own insecurities, which drove him to alcoholism and suicidal thoughts.
Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no depression in hip-hop. Darryl’s drinking served a dual purpose to mask his depression and give him courage, both which protected his masculinity in such a male-dominated space as hip-hop. Darryl’s struggle with depression isn’t an anomaly among Black men, it just goes unnoticed and not talked about.
His story is one about self- actualization, and realizing your value and purpose is not attached to anything outside of yourself. Darryl’s intrinsic potential and value wasn’t found in Run-DMC, the stage, or the platinum records. It was found in himself and the journey to become who he was meant to be. Run-DMC, though amazing, was merely a part of larger existence for the superstar.
Darryl has been sober for twelve years now.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites according to the national Alliance of Mental Illness. Life is messy and it’s not short, especially when depression is involved. The nuances around depression and getting out of it are a lot more intricate than just reaching out for help when you’re sad or something is wrong.
But for every person willing to share their story, we become one step closer to healing ourselves.