Thursday, June 25, 2009

D.M.C. the teacher: Life lessons from an old-school rap legend

Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, in unlaced Adidas kicks and a black gazelle hat, once raised hell in a museum much like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He broke Elton John’s oversized shades and stomping on Michael Jackson’s sequined glove in the video for his band Run-D.M.C.'s 1985 hit, "King of Rock." This mayhem has proved more ironic than iconoclastic, since Run-D.M.C was inducted into the actual Rock Hall this year -- and McDaniels was back last night to speak to a crowd of educators from across the country and fans.

McDaniels, now 45, appeared as part of the Rock Hall’s Summer Teacher Institute “Electrifying the Classroom” program. Wearing designer jeans and a T-shirt, his head clean-shaven, he stood up for old-school hip-hop in a gangster-rap era and recounted his life story's highs and lows.

Run-D.M.C. mainstreamed hip-hop and created rap-rock — without glorifying drugs and violence. McDaniels, a hard-working, deep-thinking father of hip-hop, cringes at the modern hip-hop era of “slangin’ cane” and “sippin’ outta’ pimp cups” -- all justified as merely art imitating the harsh reality of ghetto life.

“You’re a goddamned liar," McDaniels says to hip-hop acts who use this defense. "Even in a dirt-poor ghetto, there’s some good. Everyone in the ghetto's not a pusher, everybody’s not a pimp, and everybody don’t like to go to strip clubs.”

Gangster rappers may sell ten million albums, but the negative images destroy ten million lives, he says. He questions why they don’t rap about the old woman who cleans houses for 50 years to send her children to college. There are songs about using guns, but none about choosing not to, he points out.

McDaniels grew up as a straight-“A” student at an all-boys Catholic school in Queens. He filled stacks of notebooks with rhymes emulating his heroes Grandmaster Flash and Kool Moe Dee. They used hip-hop as a device for education and communication, and ultimately evolution, McDaniels says. “They lived in the roughest place, and you never heard violence, profanity, or disrespecting women.”

Those notebooks were discovered by a young Russell Simmons, who had made a name for himself opening for Bronx rappers. The rest is rock history, and a lesson for the many children he talked to through the program, including more than 90 schools via Web chats.

“The reason why you pay attention to your studies is you never know who’s looking,” he told them.

It took hard times for him to become such a vocal proponent of education. Fading fame and a feeling of emptiness left a heavy-drinking McDaniels with thoughts of suicide -- until a cathartic cab ride listening to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.”

“One whole year, all I listened to was Sarah McLachlan,” he recalls. After finding out he was adopted, McDaniels called up the singer/songwriter, who he’d met at a party, and who was also adopted. The two collaborated on “Just Like Me.” McDaniels went to co-found the Felix Organization, a camp for foster children run by grown-up, successful adoptees.

McDaniels' new message inspired at least two of the 60 teachers in attendance.

“He reaffirmed what I think most teachers believe, that each child has such potential and we’re doing whatever we can to bring that out in those kids,” says Janet Myers, a high school communications teacher from Joplin, Mo., with 33 years of experience.

Debbie Supplitt, an elementary teacher in Battleground, Wash., had never heard of Run-D.M.C. before. But she sees, even in first-graders, the negative hip-hop imagery McDaniels rails against. “We think we’re isolated in the suburbs, but we’re really not," she says. "TV crosses all cultures. So does music.” --John Hitch

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