Formed in 1979 and playing their first gig in April 1980 they were one of the three bands in Austin, Texas, who pioneered hardcore punk in the early '80s alongside The Dicks and Big Boys. Prior to 1982 they were known as The Stains. These bands frequently played together and established the hardcore scene in their hometown. They self–produced one single under the name of the Stains in 1981, a slower version of future MDC song "John Wayne Was A Nazi" backed with "Born to Die". Both songs were later released on the debut MDC album.

By 1982 the band had relocated to San Francisco, California, a city and state with very vibrant music scenes, and renamed themselves MDC. By this point the band were active participants in the growing hardcore scene, and released their debut LP Millions of Dead Cops on the band's own label, R Radical, and Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles who helped with distribution. The album is now widely considered a punk classic, and features songs such as "John Wayne Was A Nazi", "Dick For Brains", and the harsh criticism of the police, "I Remember". As well as capitalism ("Corporate Death Burger"), homophobia and American culture ("Violent Rednecks") were all criticized, without irony, by the band.

During the summer of 1982 they became involved in the Rock Against Reagan Tour, during which time they fell out with the band Bad Brains over accusations of homophobia due to Bad Brains' new–found Rastafarian religion. 1982 ended with a tour of Europe with the Dead Kennedys which brought the band greater exposure in the punk scene outside of the USA, especially in the UK.

Their involvement in the Rock Against Reagan activities continued through 1983 and they returned to recording with the EP "Multi–Death Corporations" which was distributed in the UK by British Anarcho Punk label Crass Records and R Radical in the US. The EP broke new ground by addressing, in the lengthy liner notes and artwork, the growth of corporations and the violent suppression of Communism in Central America. In 1984 they released another EP, Millions of Dead Children (also known as Chicken Squawk), this time dealing with Vegetarian and Vegan issues via a country hick punk tune.

Smoke Signals was released in 1986, their sophomore effort featuring a more diverse style than previously, with a foray into '70s rock with the song "South Africa is Free". This album also saw Gordon Fraser's first appearance as main guitarist. Their third album, "This Blood's for You", followed in 1987 and saw them returning to a more orthodox hardcore punk style with themes again including intervention in Central America and criticism of the Reagan Administration. MDC toured Europe in 1988, where the live album "Elvis – In The Rhineland" was recorded. The band released the album "Metal Devil Cokes" in 1989.

The 1990s opened with a number of line–up changes, swiftly followed by the 1991 album "Hey Cop! If I Had A Face Like Yours...", featuring Bill Collins on guitar and Matt Freeman (of Operation Ivy) on bass. The acclaimed "Shades of Brown" album was released in 1993, published by 'Red Archive' in the US and 'We Bite' in Europe. The album featured the Hip–Hop vegetarian song "Real Food, Real People, Real Bullets". The band marked the album with a tour of the former Soviet Union, but it began a lull in the band's activity. The lack of new recorded material and live performances after 1993, plus personal problems of band members, points to an informal break–up of the band.

MDC's singer, Dave Dictor, returned with an entirely new backing line–up in 2000, and MDC released a new album ("Magnus Dominus Corpus") in 2004. Recently they took part in a 25th anniversary world tour in 2005, with an all–original lineup.