The members of RunD.M.C. grew up in Hollis, Queens. As a teen, Joseph "Run" Simmons was introduced to hip-hop by his older brother, Russell, who was then a hip-hop promoter. Simmons made his first appearance onstage as a DJ for rapper Kurtis Blow, who was managed by Russell. Known as "DJ Run, Son of Kurtis Blow", Simmons began performing with Kurtis Blow regularly.
The second group member, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels had been more focused on athletics than music, but after buying a set of turntables he began to DJ. Simmons convinced McDaniels to start rapping, and though not performing in public, he soon began writing rhymes under the name of "Easy D."
Simmons and McDaniels started hanging around Two-Fifths Park in Hollis in late 1980, hoping to rap for the local DJs who ran competitions there; the most popular of who was Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, then known as "Jazzy Jase". Mizell was known for his flashy wardrobe and 'b-boy' attitude, and had minor run ins with the law as a teen.
Eventually, Simmons and McDaniels got the chance to rap front of Mizell and the three became friends. Following Russell's success managing Kurtis Blow, Simmons hired him to help record his first single, Street Kid. The song went unnoticed but Simmons was undaunted and he soon wanted to record again but this time including McDaniels. Russell refused, citing a dislike for D's rhyming style.
It took some time but after they completed high school and entered college in 1982, they finally convinced Russell to let them record as a duo, recruiting Mizell (who now called himself "Jam-Master Jay") to be their DJ.
In 1983, Russell agreed to help them record a new single and land a record deal, but only after he changed McDaniels' stage name to "DMC" and marketed the group as "RunD.M.C.", a name the group hated at first.
After signing with 'Profile Records', they released their first single It's Like That/Sucker MCs, in late 1983. The single peaked at 15 on the R&B charts. their self-titled debut, RunD.M.C. followed in 1984. Featuring hit singles like "Jam-Master Jay and Hard Times proved that the group were more than a one-hit wonder. The single Rock Box proved to be a fusion of hip-hop and hard rock that would become a trademark of the group's sound and paved the way for the rap-rock movement of the 1990s. Indeed, the band's swift success of mixing rap with a new sound and style meant that old-school hip hop artists were becoming outdated. Along with pushing rap into a new direction musically, RunD.M.C. changed the entire aesthetic of hip hop music and culture. Discarded was the glam attire of tight leather, spikes, motorcycle boots, et. al. of the rap bands of the early 1980s and in came Kangol hats, leather jackets, and unlaced Adidas shoes heavily influenced by Mizell's own personal style. When Simmons saw the flashy, yet street b-boy style, he insisted the entire group follow suit.
King of Rock (1985) saw the group furthering their rap-rock fusion on songs like Can You Rock It Like This and the title track; while Roots, Rap, Reggae was one of the first rap/dancehall hybrids.
In late 1985, RunD.M.C. were featured in the hip hop film Krush Groove, a fictionalized retelling of Russell Simmons' rise as a hip-hop entrepreneur and his struggles to get his own label, 'Def Jam Recordings', off the ground.
Raising Hell (1986) became the group's most successful album and one of the best-selling rap albums of all-time, it certified double-platinum and peaked at number three.
But, just as they were almost done with the record, famed producer Rick Rubin thought that it needed something that would appeal to rock fans as well. Walk This Way, a cover of the classic hard rock song by Aerosmith was the result. The original intention was to just rap over a sample of the song, but Rubin and Mizell insisted on doing a complete cover version. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were called to join RunD.M.C. in the studio to add the needed vocals and lead guitar. At first Aerosmith rejected the idea, but decided to jump on board after hearing the professionalism of Run-D.M.C.. The song and video became one of the biggest hits of the '80s, reaching number four on the Hot 100, and cemented RunD.M.C.'s crossover status. It also resurrected Aerosmith's career. That album also yielded the single My Adidas that got the group a $1.6 million endorsement deal with athletic apparel brand Adidas. Adidas would form a long-term relationship with RunD.M.C. and hip hop. The success of this release is often credited with kick-starting hip hop's golden age, when rap music's visibility, variety, and commercial viability exploded onto the national stage and became a global phenomenon. Their success paved the way for acts like LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.
In 1987, following on from the Raising Hell Tour, Run-D.M.C embarked on the Together Forever Tour with the Beastie Boys.
Tougher Than Leather (1988) saw the group discarding much of its rap rock leanings for a grittier, more sample-heavy sound. Despite not selling as well as its predecessor, the album boasted several strong singles all the same.
Later that year, the band made their second film appearance, Tougher Than Leather, a would-be crime caper that was directed by Rick Rubin and featured special guest performances by the Beastie Boys and Slick Rick. The film bombed at the box office, but strengthened the indirect relationship between RunD.M.C. and the 'Def Jam' label.
Changing times and sliding sales were the demons dogging Back From Hell in 1990. The album was the worst-reviewed of their career. The band tried to re-create itself musically with ill-advised forays into new jack swing (a then-popular style of production that merged hip hop and contemporary R&B) and sometimes-preachy lyrical content.
Feeling their first taste of failure, personal problems began to surface for the group. McDaniels, was losing control to alcoholism. Mizell was involved in a life-threatening car accident and survived two gunshot wounds after an incident in 1990. In 1991, Simmons was charged with raping a college student in Ohio, though the charges were later dropped.
With so much personal chaos and professional uncertainty, Simmons and McDaniels joined the church, with Simmons becoming especially devoted following his legal troubles and the toll it took on his finances.
After a three-year hiatus that seemingly saw rap music move on without them, the rejuvenated RunD.M.C. returned in 1993 with Down with the King. Building on the gritty sound of Tougher Than Leather, and adding some subtle religious references and boosted by the title track, the album entered the rap charts at 1 and number 7 on the pop charts. Even though the album went platinum, the song proved to be their last hit.
Jam Master Jay also found success on his own label 'JMJ Records', and discovered and produced the group Onyx.
Though the group continued to tour around the world, they recorded little. A decade of living a rap superstar lifestyle was beginning to take a toll on McDaniels. He was beginning to tire of RunD.M.C., and there was increased friction between him and Simmons, who was eager to return to recording.
In the wake of the exploding popularity of rap-rock/'Nu-Metal' artists like KoRn and Limp Bizkit, Simmons wanted to return to the aggressive, hard rock-tinged sound that made the group famous. But, McDaniels had become a fan of singer-songwriters like John Lennon, Harry Chapin, and Sarah McLachlan, wanted to go in a more introspective direction. The continued friction led to McDaniels sitting out most of the group's recording sessions in protest. Simmons, in defiance, recorded material anyway, inviting several guest stars; the resultant album, Crown Royal, was delayed due to the personal problems, and when it was finally released in 2001, it featured only three appearances by McDaniels.
After the album, the group embarked on a worldwide tour with their "Walk This Way" biddies, Aerosmith. The tour featured all members cooperating and was a complete success. McDaniels, however, had been suffering from an inoperable vocal disorder that had rendered his once-booming voice a strained mumble. Simmons, however, had been growing increasingly tired of hip-hop. His family was growing, and he was assisting with his brother Russell's 'Phat Farm' clothing imprint, and when Aerosmith proposed extending the tour during a meeting while on the tour bus, he announced he was quitting.
On October 30, 2002, Jam-Master Jay was shot and killed at his recording studio in Queens; the murder has never been solved. In the aftermath, the remaining members made it official that the group was officially disbanding, and they retired the "RunD.M.C." moniker to follow other pursuits.