Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels talks mental health awareness and helping troubled kids: ‘If you remove guilt and shame, you remove the pain’

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This interview includes a frank and graphic conversation about suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Rap legend Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, of Run-DMC, just released a new children’s book, Darryl’s Dream, which tells the tale of a bullied kid who ultimately embraces his true quirky self, harnesses his inner superpowers, and wins a school talent show with his freestyle-rhyming skills. While there are certain elements to the story that are pure fiction (like, say, when the titular Darryl journeys to outer space), the real-life Darryl tells Yahoo Entertainment, “The whole bullying and getting teased thing is a hundred percent [true].”

McDaniels, who grew up in Hollis, Queens, recalls being taunted for wearing eyeglasses; one school bully even once grabbed his glasses and stepped on them. “But when I got into hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll, it gave me a superpower. I was able to let ’em know these glasses are part of me and I’m not ashamed of them anymore,” he says. “The book’s purpose is this: You kids are perfect the way you are — your freckles, your red hair, your height, all the things kids think is wrong with them — because that’s who they are. They’re perfect. And DMC was just like you, and you could be whatever it is that you wanna be. …The book is actually not nothing new. It’s just a different form. It’s actually what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years with my music: inspire, motivate, educate.”

The cover of Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels's new children's book, 'Darryl's Dream.' (Photo: Random House)The cover of Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels's new children's book, 'Darryl's Dream.' (Photo: Random House)

The cover of Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels’s new children’s book, ‘Darryl’s Dream.’ (Photo: Random House)

Darryl’s Dream is McDaniels’s first children’s book, but he has already penned two memoirs, King of Rock: Respect, Responsibility, and My Life with Run-DMC and Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide, in which he was very open about his life struggles — at a time when showing vulnerability and discussing mental health was still largely taboo in the hip-hop world. The 57-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee recalls being suicidal around the time of writing the first book, when he felt external pressure to repeat or top Run-DMC’s early success and “started thinking I’m not enough, so I turned to Jack Daniels and Jim Beam to give me the confidence to accomplish what I already accomplished. … I didn’t need the alcohol to do anything that I did, but I thought I did.” It was then that he phoned his mother to get some facts about his childhood for his first autobiography — and he found out something that exploded his life.

“I woke up one day and I wanted to kill myself. I just had these suicidal thoughts. Just felt something was wrong. Things wasn’t right,” McDaniels begins. “So, what happened was I said, ‘I wanna leave a book.’ … I knew my birthday was May 31, 1964, but I didn’t know no details. I called my moms up and I had three questions: ‘Hey, Mom, I’m writing this book. How much did I weigh? What high school? What hospital I was born at, what time?’ … She calls back with my father. I’m 35 years old. I’m an alcoholic suicide, a metaphysical wreck who’s about to jump off a building. And they tell me, ‘We have something else to tell you. You was a month old when we brought you home, and you’re adopted. But we love you. Bye!’ Click.”

As McDaniels later explained in the fittingly titled Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide, this revelation plunged him even deeper into despair. Shortly after the murder of his bandmate Jam Master Jay in 2002 and while in his self-described “crazy zone,” he even considered leaping off a hotel roof after a photo shoot in Yugoslavia. “I went back up to the roof and I was getting ready to jump,” he says. “I looked down and I said, ‘Do I really wanna jump?’ And I said to myself, ‘Man, what if I jump and I don’t die? It’s gonna hurt!’” McDaniels fought off his suicidal urges that day, but later while on tour in Japan he attempted to buy rat poison with the intention of drinking it. He also considered shooting himself (“but my manager wouldn’t give me my gun”) and “jumping on the third rail and electrocuting myself. … I thought about every way to try to kill myself.”

Thankfully, McDaniels says he “not at all” in that dark place anymore, and he credits “Angel” by fellow adoptee Sarah McLachlan, which was written about the overdose death of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, for helping save his life. (“I listened to the record for one whole year,” he gushes.) McDaniels and McLachlan later met and recorded a duet remake of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” an experience that was a key part of his healing process. Another major part of that process was co-founding the nonprofit Felix Organization, which has served more than 10,000 children in the foster care system, with fellow adoptee and Emmy award-winning casting director Sheila Jaffe. He also attended group sessions with other adoptees, during which he was encouraged to seek out his birth parents and attend rehab.

“You never start a book from chapter two. I was living my life from chapter two,” he says, explaining that he felt like he’d skipped the first chapter of his life by not knowing about his adoption earlier. “Everything that the world knew about me, that I knew about me up to that date, that I heard, that was all chapter two. The void in me that I started feeling, that started all of the suicidal thoughts, the void in me was that I didn’t know what chapter one was. … So, I said, ‘If I’m gonna go down that road, I gotta be of sound body and mind. So, I’ll go to rehab.’ People was trying to get me to go to rehab for five years! … So, I went to rehab, and it was in rehab where I discovered therapy.”

Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels today. (Photo: Jonathan Mannion)Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels today. (Photo: Jonathan Mannion)

Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels today. (Photo: Jonathan Mannion)

McDaniels has been sober since 2004 and has reconnected with his birth mother, even spending Thanksgiving with her alongside his adoptive family; he made the documentary My Adoption Journey about that experience. As for whether he ever resented the parents who raised him for withholding information about his adoption until he was 35, he admits he was “very” angry at first, but now realizes, “The anger was not particularly at them. I have a saying now about anything for anybody going through anything, mental, all these mental health issues, since I’m the greatest rapper that ever lived, whether you believe it or not. The saying is: ‘If you remove guilt and shame, you remove the pain.’ So, my anger was mad at [myself] for being ashamed.”

McDaniels’s new partnership with Nickelodeon includes a publishing deal with Random House Children’s Books as well as a collaboration with Noggin, Nickelodeon’s interactive learning service for preschoolers, for the animated music series What’s the Word?. After experiencing the lowest of lows and highest of highs over the past four decades, he is the most positive mindset of his life and still finding new ways to inspire, motivate, and educate.

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“Everything that I did as DMC was just to set up for what I was put here to do,” McDaniels declares. “That’s why the gods had to reveal [my adoption] to me: ‘He has to find his purpose.’ And in that, I found my purpose and destiny — which led me right back to what I was already doing.”

Watch DMC’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which he discusses Darryl’s Dream, What’s the Word?, the Felix Organization, mental health advocacy, his bond with Sarah McLachlan, and his thoughts on hip-hop today:

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