Damn, That DJ Made My Day

Jam Master Jay, 1965-2002

I was in Amsterdam, cooking a stir-fry for a house full of people, when I got the news about Tupac. I had stepped into the restroom for a moment. Midstream, one of my best friends started pounding on the door, hollering, "Oh my God, they shot 'Pac! They shot 'Pac!" What, who, huh? "They don't shoot people in Amsterdam," I mumbled to myself, in a fog of disbelief and confusion. I zipped up my pants, washed my hands and ran out of the bathroom, still unsure of what my man was saying. It was true. One of rap music's favorite sons had been gunned down in a car in Las Vegas while sitting next to one of the sketchiest men in the history of the music biz.

When I heard the news about the Notorious B.I.G., I was drunk in the St. Louis airport after the first leg of a first-class flight from Toronto to Austin. I had just sat down in the airport bar when I heard the report. What, who, huh? I thought maybe I'd heard it wrong. They didn't seem too sure in their report, and, man, I just wasn't ready to believe it. I immediately started making collect calls from a pay phone across from the bar -- something I used to do quite a lot when I was drunk. Every call resulted in the same answer. Biggie was gone.

It was about 10:40 p.m. on the night before Halloween when I got the news about Jam Master Jay. I was sitting in my room, making some last-minute radio edits for my midnight-to-three show on Houston's KPFT, when my phone rang and a DJ friend from New Orleans told me that one of the members of Run-DMC had been shot and killed in a Queens studio. What, who, huh? I immediately closed Cool Edit and hit up the Internet in search of confirmation. Before I could type "www," my phone rang again. It was another DJ, Lil' Tiger, who sounded shaken as he told me that, indeed, someone from Run-DMC had been shot, and that someone was Jam Master Jay. Then another DJ called. Then another. I turned off my ringer and started pulling out crates, looking for Run-DMC records to take to the station.

With Jam Master Jay's mixes behind them, Run-DMC brought the rap section of the record store from the back corner to the front.
With Jam Master Jay's mixes behind them, Run-DMC brought the rap section of the record store from the back corner to the front.

The murders of 'Pac and Biggie were sad but all too predictable -- perhaps even inevitable. Those two -- especially 'Pac -- ran their mouths endlessly. 'Pac even went so far as to release globally distributed records on which he bragged about having sex with other rappers' wives and dissed Prodigy's struggle with sickle-cell anemia. Hell, somebody's mama may have pulled the trigger on 'Pac for talking so bad about her baby boy.

But the death of Jam Master Jay is different. He was never one to pose as a gangsta or express any sort of negativity. Jay was a mentor to young artists the world over. He taught hundreds of kids the art of scratching at his DJ Academy and helped young artists such as Onyx and Rusty Waters (whose record he was producing in the studio the night he was shot) to bring their music to the masses. He was a pioneer who never forgot where he came from, and, while reaping the benefits of a hugely successful twenty-year career in the rap game, he constantly found ways to give back to those who reminded him of himself when he was first getting started.

That night was a very different show for us at KPFT. What normally is three hours of underground dirty-South rap became a Jam Master Jay vigil. About a dozen local DJs showed up out of the blue, heads heavy with woe, eyes droopier than their jeans, just to talk about the man who hipped them to the sounds of hip-hop in the first place. After all, it was Jam Master Jay who showed the world that DJ-ing is a viable art form. Sure, Afrikaa Bambaata and Kool Herc may've laid the foundation for what became the biggest musical revolution of the late twentieth century, but Jay was the first superstar DJ. Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their things, but Jam Master got loose and made DMC the king.

With Jay's mixes behind them, Run-DMC became the first rap act in heavy rotation on MTV and the first with a platinum album. The trio's albums not only inspired legions of kids to rap, scratch and wear Adidas -- Run-DMC's footwear of choice -- they were responsible for bringing the rap section of the record store from the back corner to the front.

In 1985 King of Rock hit rock & roll fans almost as hard as it hit the hip-hop community with its driving guitar loops, in-your-face rhymes and deft scratching; the next year, Run-DMC dropped its remake of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" and became the first high-profile group to experiment with blending rock and rap. The revolutionary mix -- Steven Tyler screaming the hook over Joe Perry's looped riffage on top of a slamming Queens beat -- ranks in importance with any record in the history of rock. After that record, pop culture was simply never the same.

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