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Run-D.M.C. 35th-anniversary flashback: When the Kings of Rock met the King of Pop

Run-D.M.C. in the 1980s. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives)

When Run-D.M.C. released their “King of Rock” video in 1985, it was prophetic — and ironic — in three ways.

First, the clip depicted the hip-hop pioneers bumrushing a Hall of Fame-like rock museum, a full year before the first-ever Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony actually took place.

Second, an ornery museum guard (played by David Letterman sidekick Larry “Bud” Melman) in the video told group members Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and the late Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell that they “didn’t belong” in the museum — when Run-D.M.C. would in fact later become the second rap act to be inducted into the real-life Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2009.

And, finally, the “King of Rock” video featured a then-shocking scene, in which D.M.C. snatched Jackson’s signature sequined glove off a display stand, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it with his famous Adidas shoe. But, as it turned out, later on the Kings of Rock and the King of Pop actually discussed recording together.

“We met Michael Jackson two times. And people probably don’t know this, but Run-D.M.C. was going to make us a record with Michael Jackson,” McDaniels reveals. “And if you ask me the reason why it never happened, the joke is Run-D.M.C. was too busy to make a record with Michael. He wanted to record with us, but [our third album] Raising Hell was killing; ‘My Adidas’ had us running around, getting the endorsement deal; and [the Aerosmith collaboration] ‘Walk this Way’ just took us to another stratosphere. But the two times that we met with Michael, we sat down and we talked.”

While Run-D.M.C. didn’t seem too thrilled by the prospect of working (or even dining) with Jackson when they dissed him in their December 1986 Rolling Stone cover story, McDaniels fondly remembers their encounters now and even seems regretful that they never did collaborate.

Darryl McDaniels steps on Michael Jackson’s glove in the “King of Rock” video. (Photo: Profile/Arista Records)

Recalling having dinner with Jackson at a Hollywood recording studio, McDaniels chuckles, “I even got to meet [Jackson’s pet chimpanzee] Bubbles. Yeah, I was hanging out with Bubbles; he was running around, he had on overalls. I remember we ate swordfish, cauliflower, broccoli, and we had brown rice. And Michael Jackson was just talking about, ‘Yo, we gon’ make this record,’ this and that. … But every time we was ready, Mike was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m in Europe.’ And then when Michael was ready, we’d be like, ‘Yo Mike, we in Japan now.’ Bless his soul, we never got to record with him.

“But it was funny what he said. He was like, ‘Yo, everywhere I go’ — the mighty Michael Jackson said this — ‘Everywhere I go, Run-D.M.C. and this hip-hop is in every living room!’ Mike said Run-D.M.C. should have took away all the [Grammy] awards in ’86, but think about it: There wasn’t no [Grammy] rap category in ’86,” McDaniels continues. (Raising Hell was instead, by default, nominated for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, losing out to Prince & The Revolution’s “Kiss.”)

“But you know, Mike said we should have won them all,” says McDaniels. “Then, Mike was like, ‘There was no way [the Grammy voting committee] was going to give it to y’all, because they didn’t want to be wrong.’” (Run-D.M.C. did in fact receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy accolade many years later, in 2016.)

Yes, hard as it may be to fathom now that hip-hop is officially the most popular musical genre in the U.S., when Run-D.M.C. released their first single, It’s Like That/Sucker MCs”, 35 long years ago, many snobs and critics didn’t think rap was “real” music. “Every time we did a press conference, there was somebody who that would put they hand up and say, ‘Darryl, Jason, and Joseph, where will you be in five years?’” McDaniels laughs. (The answer, of course, was they’d be on Yo! MTV Raps: That groundbreaking series, the pilot of which was hosted by Run-D.M.C., premiered in August 1988 and helped introduce hip-hop to the masses.)

Run-D.M.C. were the perfect rap ambassadors for the MTV generation because of their genuine love of MTV’s predominant genre at the time, rock ‘n’ roll. McDaniels was raised on eclectic New York radio station WABC (“When I was growing up, I never cared anything about soul music. Like, everybody was into Afros and high heels and black power, I cared nothing about James Brown and Sly. For, me, it was Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin!”), and Run’-D.M.C. sampled classic rock records and performed with live musicians.

And of course, Run-D.M.C.’s 1986 collaboration with rockers Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” changed everything.

“What [Aerosmith frontman] Steven Tyler did in that video, people say, ‘Yo D, when Steven Tyler took that mic stand and knocked down that wall that was separating y’all, that didn’t just happen in a video — it happened in the world,” says McDaniels. “Kid Rock told me, ‘Man, when Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith got together, they had a baby and I popped out!’” (Kid Rock would go on to perform “Walk This Way” at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards with Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith.)

While rap/rock duets are par for the course now — Kendrick Lamar will perform with Imagine Dragons at the Grammys, or Jay-Z will release an entire album with Linkin Park — back in 1986, “Walk This Way” seemed downright “blasphemous” to some crusty rockists, “because you know, rock ‘n’ roll is sacred,” shrugs McDaniels. He even recalls being nervous about the public reaction when a rock radio station in Aerosmith’s hometown, Boston, tested the track. However, when the station’s switchboard lit up with mostly positive feedback, he knew they were onto something.

“The reaction was 80/20,” McDaniels recalls. “Eighty percent of the audience was calling in saying, ‘Play it again! I think I loved it! I think I like it better than the original!’ Then there was 20 percent calling in, like, ‘Who the hell do these Run-D.M.C. rap guys think they are? This is blasphemy! How in the hell?’ [But there] was just a bunch of people that knew that this was the coolest thing ever.”

Throughout the ‘80s, Run-D.M.C. gained the attention and admiration of everyone from Michael Jackson to future rap-rockers like House of Pain, Limp Bizkit, Korn, the aforementioned Kid Rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who — fun fact! — enlisted Run-D.M.C.’s Simmons and McDaniels to supply uncredited “funky handclaps” on their 2002 hit “Can’t Stop”), Metallica/Suicidal Tendencies/Infectious Grooves bassist Robert Trujillo… and a little punk group called the Beastie Boys.

“Everybody was so, so amazed at when the Beasties came along,” marvels McDaniels, who remembers being introduced to the Beasties by Raising Hell producer Rick Rubin. “We was in the studio, and what’s funny about it was we was a hip-hop group working in a metal studio. The studio we worked out in New York City was Chung King House of Metal. You had all the metal and punk bands working in there — Slayer, everybody was up in there. And there was this group called the Beastie Boys up in there, and their producer/DJ was this guy named Rick Rubin.

“He brings these three white guys in the studio. And this is the Beasties before they got into Buddhism and was all reserved. Y’all remember the Beastie Boys? Rick looks over at Jay and says, ‘Yo, Jay. Do you think these three dudes could make a hip-hop album? And Jay, being the visionary that he was, looks over at Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA, and says these words: ‘Why the f*** not?’” (Rubin produced the Beasties’ 10 million-selling debut album License to Ill in late ‘86; two of its tracks, “Paul Revere” and “Slow and Low,” were co-written by McDaniels and Simmons.)

McDaniels also cites 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack — which paired Run-D.M.C. with Living Colour, Cypress Hill with Pearl Jam, Sir Mix-a-Lot with Mudhoney, Faith No More with Boo-Ya T.R.I.B.E., and De La Soul with Teenage Fanclub — as an example of that fearless “why not?” attitude.

“It was just a presentation of the potential of what can happen when you take away titles and labels and stuff like that and just put these creative entities together in a room, doing what they all do. Magic happens. That album had me speechless. I don’t think anything has been done on that level right now. We need another one of those right now,” he says.

And McDaniels just may create “another one of those” with his forthcoming next rap/rock solo album, Dynamic Musical Creations, which will feature a jaw-dropping array of guest stars, including Joan Jett, Sammy Hagar, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Motley Crue’s Mick Mars, ex-Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, Slaves on Dope,Alter Bridge/Slash singer Myles Kennedy, and Blink-182’s Travis Barker.

“I just describe it as ‘Walk This Way’ tripping on steroids,” McDaniels says of the project. Surely even Michael Jackson would be impressed.

Audio of this full conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app, on Volume channel 106.

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