Darryl McCray, better known as Cornbread, is one of the unsung pioneers of Hip Hop culture. He started daubing his name on the streets of Philadelphia back in 1967. Little did he know that what he started would become a cultural phenomenon and spread to every corner of the world. It’s difficult to understate the influence this man had on the world of graffiti. He is widely considered one of, if not the, first true graffiti writer. A legend that never got his dues and who’s personal journey has taken him to hell and back.
“I first started writing graffiti in the halls of a juvenile institution when I was 10 years old. I got my name from the cook, Mr Swanson. He thought I was a nuisance ’cause I used to go into the kitchen and insist that he put cornbread on the menu. He really got fed up with me testing him and one day he grabbed me by the shirt, walked me out to my counsellor and said “keep this cornbread out my kitchen , he’s a pain in my ass.” After that, all the guys teased me and called me cornbread but I didn’t think of it as teasing, I liked the name. When I got back to my unit I wrote it on the back of my shirt and everybody started calling me Cornbread. I started writing the name all over the walls of the institution, on the books, in the bathroom, in the visiting room, everywhere. Everybody knew who I was. I got a lotta respect from the gang members for that but also ’cause I would write love letters for them to send to their girlfriends. Later on I would visit them in their neighbourhoods and they would drink wine with me and let me write on their turf. I was released in 1967 and that’s when I started writing in the streets.
When I got out I met this girl in school named Cynthia. I used to like Cynthia a lot. I would walk her home from school every day ’cause I was trying to be her boyfriend. I started writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” all over the neighbourhood. She didn’t know Cornbread and I were the same person, she just knew me as Darryl. It played on my mind ’cause Cornbread seemed to get more attention from her than I did. One day many months later, she saw “Cornbread loves Cynthia” written on my school book and she realised who I was. That’s when she fell in love with me. We were so young. Her parents didn’t approve of me, me being the young jitterbug that I was. I was a product of the street and I carried myself like a product of the street. They thought that she deserved someone better than me so our relationship was short lived. When she transferred to another school and moved out the neighbourhood, I stopped writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” and just started writing “Cornbread” again. I see Cynthia from time to time. She’s still a very good friend of mine.
In the two years after my release I became the world’s first modern day graffiti artist. No one else was really writing on the walls when I started. In 1969 I saw other names on the walls, they wanted to receive the same notoriety that I received. I was appearing in newspapers, on the radio, in magazines, I received a lotta media publicity. These other guys thought “if he can get that from writing on walls, then so can I.” By the following year, there were thousands of wall writers, by 1972, there were tens of thousands. It spread from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago, all the major cities and eventually, all over the world.
I really hit the spotlight when a rumour was published about me being shot dead. The guy that really died was a friend of mine, Cornelius. Everybody called him Corn for short. When he got his brains blown out in the street, people crowded around shouting “Corn got shot, Corn is dead!” When the press got to the scene, they heard this and thought it was me. After that I knew I had to do something bizarre or my name would be buried with that guy. That’s when I broke into Philadelphia Zoo and spray-painted “Cornbread Lives” on an elephant. I didn’t stop there. I wrote on cop cars, paddy wagons, 30 storey skyscrapers, even on the side of the Jackson 5’s private jet.
I stopped writing on walls when I was 17 years old. I had done it for seven years and I had no idea that it would spread like wild fire. My life then became consumed by drugs for a lotta years. During this time my son was killed. I witnessed two guys blow my son’s brains out and it took so much out of me. I was knee deep in drugs, I just couldn’t face the reality of what was going on in my life and it plunged me deeper and deeper. My reputation always preceded me. People would say: “man, you need to be in Hollywood, you need to be paid,” but I was embarrassed of what I’d become so I stopped telling people who I was. It wasn’t until I realised that I was gonna die a drug addict that I started to try and change. I did a lotta soul searching, I pleaded with God to help me. I asked him why he’d allowed this to happen to me. Then I heard a voice in my head tell me: “clean yourself for 30 days.” I checked myself in to rehab for 30 days and came out clean. That was almost 4 years ago and I’ve never looked back….”
Darryl McCray is now a social worker in the city of Philadelphia. A documentary called “Cry of the City part 1 The Legend of Cornbread” is available from cinema-alliance.com.