Monday, Sept. 1, 2008

My Lunch with DMC

By Evan Rytlewski
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[I was told this weekend that DMC appeared at some of Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson 105th anniversary festivities, and I was reminded of my last-minute lunch with the guy two years back. I dug through my archives and found the blog post I hastily wrote-up after the encounter and have republished it here.]

Oct. 5, 2006

The vague voicemail message that tipped me off wasn't a hoax after all: DMC—as in Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, of Run-DMC fame—was indeed in Milwaukee, and he was indeed dining at Sauce, a restaurant just around the corner from the Shepherd Express office. When I asked DMC what brought him to Milwaukee, something the voicemail hadn't made clear, he invited me to sit down with him as he and his entourage finished their meal.

Dressed in all black and his trademark fedora hat, he was friendly and talkative, his eyes lighting up with childish enthusiasm whenever the conversation shifted toward a subject he found particularly interesting. Along with his dining partners, we discussed sports, politics (specifically his distain for George W. Bush), and motorcycles, the reason for his latest visit to Milwaukee.

He explained that he flew into our city to take a tour of the Harley-Davidson factory. After learning to ride just about six months ago, the rapper is now an avid biker and a proud owner of a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Harleys, he explained, are the perfect fit for his imagine, a bad-boy synthesis of hip-hop and rock and roll culture.

He was dining with representatives of Harley, who chimed in to say they hoped to work with the rapper on some sort of promotional campaign, which struck me as fitting. At the motorcycle company's lavish 100th anniversary celebration and conference a few years ago, dealer forums examined how to reach younger audiences, something the company has had difficulty doing.

While Harley has a lock on aging bikers and on established professionals with ample disposable income, their name doesn't carry quite as much clout with the prospective future bikers of tomorrow, so, wisely, they're exploring hip-hop as a recruiting tool. I was too polite, of course, to point out that using a rapper who hasn’t had a hit in 15 years really doesn’t do much to combat the company’s stodgy image, but then again, for a company still associated with Steppenwolf and Foghat, DMC is probably a baby-step in the right direction.

It was, to say the least, odd having casual conversation with the one-time king of hip-hop. Although he made a career around rapping about himself and how great he is, in person DMC is humble and a great listener who couldn’t ask enough questions about me. The sycophants around him frequently brought up his superstar heyday, but he never boasted or even reminisced. Instead, he shifted the conversation to more personal topics. He talked to me at length about how he learned he was adopted just five years ago and detailed how he was fostering a relationship with his newly discovered birth family.

I resisted the urge to flatter DMC by telling him how much his music meant to me. Run-DMC was the first rap music that I ever made a connection with, and the gateway to all the rap music I've listened to ever since.

But I never got to see Run-DMC during their heyday. By the time I finally caught them in concert, at the Eagles Ballroom in the late '90s, they had become a nostalgia act. The rappers spent time between their songs lecturing the audience how trendsetting and important their aging hits were. It was disheartening to see them desperately defend a legacy that should stand on its own.

I was even more disheartened when, during one of the many long pauses between songs, they told the crowd that they'd stick around to sign any T-shirt purchased from the merchandise stands. They were charging $25 a shirt, a ridiculous price given the state of the Run-DMC brand at the time.

Run-DMC themselves may not have aged gracefully—their final albums were awkward concessions to a turning commercial tide they couldn't keep up with, and their subsequent appearances on reality television specials haven't exactly been in keeping with the street-proud hip-hop ideals they once preached.

Their seminal records, on the other hand, have aged more gracefully than anyone could have imagined. Unlike most rap records from the era, which sound dated at best and primitive at worst, their ’80s records still hit hard and confidently.

Chatting with DMC, I couldn't help but lament how his glory days are behind him. The very hip-hop culture that he laid the groundwork for tossed him to the tar pits while he was still young, and he’s been an irrelevant novelty ever since. While the history books will certainly be kinder to him than modern audiences, that's a small comfort in the meantime.

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