"It's like that": The murder of Jam Master Jay (left) spurs hip-hop reflection.
"It's like that": The murder of Jam Master Jay (left) spurs hip-hop reflection.

Jam Master Jay: 1965-2002

I was in Amsterdam cooking stir-fry for a house full of people when I got the news about Tupac. "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. 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. I had just sat down in the airport bar when I heard the report. What, who, huh? I thought maybe I had heard it wrong. They didn't seem too sure in their report and, man, I just wasn't ready to believe it. I started making collect calls from a pay phone across the bar. Every call resulted in the same answer: Biggie was gone.

It was about 10:40 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-3 show on Houston's KPFT, when my phone rang. 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, forgot about the cuts I needed for the night's show, and hit up the Internet in search of confirmation. Before I could type "www," my phone rang again. It was another DJ. Lil' Tiger called sounding fairly shaken with the news that someone from Run-DMC had been shot, and that someone was Jam Master Jay. Then another DJ called. Then another. Then I turned off my ringer and started pulling out crates, looking for Run-DMC records to take to the station.

The murders of 'Pac and Biggie were sad but all-too-believable. Those two -- especially 'Pac -- ran their mouths to no end. 'Pac even went so far as to release records that talked about having sex with other rappers' wives and dissed Prodigy's struggle with sickle cell anemia. Hell, somebody's mama might have pulled the trigger on 'Pac for talking so bad about her baby boy.

The death of Jam Master Jay, born Jason Mizell, is different. He never posed as a gangsta or expressed negativity. Jay mentored young artists. 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) 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 20-year career in the rap game, he found ways to give back to those who reminded him of himself when he was 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. It was Jam Master Jay who showed the world that DJing was a viable art form. Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc laid the foundation for what became the biggest musical revolution of the late 20th century, but Jay was the first superstar DJ. Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing, 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. Their albums inspired legions of kids to rap, scratch and wear Adidas -- Run-DMC's footwear of choice -- and 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 'n' 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 was the first group to experiment on a major level with blending rock and rap with the remake of "Walk This Way." 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, things were not the same.

Would there be a Linkin Park or even a Ludacris if it wasn't for Jay? Would kids be hounding their parents for sets of turntables in the same way the kids of the 1970s and '80s clamored for guitars? I don't think so. Run-DMC's music broke boundaries, expanded scopes, and smashed down walls that had been in place since before any of the members had been born. And it continues to do so to this day.

It's hard to imagine what would make someone walk into Jay's studio and shoot the man in the head. Was it a mistake? Was Jay into something that his public didn't know about? Did he screw someone's wife? Rip someone off?

I can't imagine any of that. Jay was an artist, a family man and an inspiration. We can't be so naive as to believe that only sick thugs kill or are killed. But I would like to think that a shining star in such a dark business would be exempt from the bullshit that plagues this culture, which sometimes seems as rife with murder and mayhem as it is with creativity and spirit.

Jam Master Jay left behind a wife, three children and a billion rap fanatics like me who can only say, "Goddamn, that DJ made my day."


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