The Last DJ?

What rap lost when Jam Master Jay died.

Jam Master Jay, definitely not illin’

Killing people is wrong. But blowing Jam Master Jay’s brains out in his recording studio, as someone did Wednesday, seems especially wrong—like killing Bugs Bunny, or anyone else who brought pleasure to millions of people through bright-hued, good-natured cartoons, written or aural. 

In 1984, on their first album, Run-DMC cut “Jam Master Jay,” a track that now sounds like a gentle relic from an age that was already passing: “J-A-Y are the letters of his name/ Cuttin’ and scratchin’ are the aspects of his game/ So check out the Master as he cuts these jams/ And look at us with the mikes in our hands.”

This was back when DJs and not rappers were the true stars of rap, competing in fierce displays of skill on the turntables in public parks and block parties in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. In black velour hats, black leather jackets, plain hooded sweatshirts, and Adidas sneakers, Jay, Joe “Run” Simmons, and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels stood out in a world of Jheri-curled rappers in purple disco jumpsuits. Run-DMC were tough, but they weren’t criminals; all three members of the group grew up in educated, middle-class families in Hollis, Queens, and they preached positive messages about working hard and going to school. But what really made Run-DMC special was Jam Master Jay: Jason Mizell, the presiding stylistic and musical genius who helped to invent rap’s defining look and sound for the ‘80s, and became everybody’s favorite DJ.

King of Rock,” the group’s first truly great song, contained every element—stylistic, musical and otherwise—that would turn Run-DMC into the biggest act in rap. Run and DMC bragged about their skills—”I’m the king of rock there ain’t none higher/ Sucker MCs should call me sire”—and Jay provided beats to match. But it was all harmless, Halloween-costume stuff—especially when compared to the vivid, live-action lyrical scenarios that rappers and rap music executives would soon begin to live out in real life. When DMC rapped, “I am from around the way/ and Run goes to school every day,” he sounded like maybe the toughest performer at a high-school talent show.

The record sold like hotcakes, to hundreds of thousands of black kids in the cities and white kids in the suburbs alike, who dug the energy of the voices and the lyrics and were attracted to a hard street corner pose that set Run-DMC apart from  groups whose style was still stuck in the gilded age of disco. What was most striking about the group, though, was the original sound that Jam Master Jay created on “King of Rock” and subsequent tracks with Rick Rubin, the brilliant rap producer who started Def Jam Records out of his college dorm room at NYU. The spare, stripped-down playground beat that Jam Master Jay and Rick Rubin created was something new; it sounded like the bright-hued aggression of a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner cartoon turned into music, beneath which you could almost hear sneakers slapping on the sidewalk.

The next step in the alchemical process by which modern rap music was created was to combine the simple new beats with the familiar, guitar-driven rock of the Long Island suburbs where Rick Rubin grew up—the music of groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Slayer, and even Journey, that average white teenagers blasted in their cars. Run-DMC’s next record, Raising Hell, went platinum; the group’s performance with Aerosmith on the old guitar-rock chestnut “Walk This Way” put rap music on MTV and made Run-DMC a household name.

Raising Hell was Jam Master Jay’s masterpiece, a consummate display of his turntable skills and proof of the genius of the sound that he and Rubin created together. On “My Adidas,” Jay captured the sound of a sneaker sliding on stage; “You Be Illin’” invented the easy, bubblegum sound that would inspire youth-oriented rappers and producers like Young MC and Tone-Loc. On “Peter Piper,” Jam Master Jay left spare, cartoonish beats behind for a new and more complex, jangly sound that prefigured some of the better rap music of the ‘90s. Run-DMC became the first rap group to sell a million records; the first to make the cover of Rolling Stone; the first to appear on MTV; the first to play Saturday Night Live. The era of the DJ was over. The era of the rap star had begun.

After Raising Hell, Run-DMC released Tougher Than Leather—which sold but not quite as well—and then a succession of records to which no one paid much attention. I remember meeting Jam Master Jay at an industry function once, at the point where the group had begun its terminal decline. He had big hands and a warm, friendly smile, and he was no longer wearing his trademark gold chain. Shaking his hand gave me a thrill. No one else came up to Jay throughout the evening. The only artist that anyone talked about was Biggie Smalls—who did indeed turn out to be the future of rap. Biggie told profane stories of crack-dealer paranoia, depression, betrayal, loose women, guns, and expensive cars in a wheezy, asthmatic voice that seemed to issue directly from the streets of crack-era Brooklyn. A coal-black, moon-faced man who weighed well over 300 pounds, he was often pictured peering suspiciously out at the world through his favorite pair of midnight-black Gucci sunglasses. Biggie Smalls was the greatest rapper of the ‘90s; a rare artist in a world of fake toughs. Still, it was no surprise when Biggie was murdered.

Why would someone want to kill Jam Master Jay? The shooter was described as a young black male in his 20s, who appeared in an all-white sweatsuit, like a character from a song by Biggie or Nas, walked up to the DJ, and put a bullet in his head. Newsday used the headline “Run-DMC DJ Slain” and put a picture of the trio on the cover; the New York Daily News put Run-DMC on the cover with the more generic—and familiar—”Rap Star Slain.” Inside, I saw a picture of Jay’s adolescent son Jason looking straight at the camera; tears were streaming down his face, which seemed full of sadness and defiance at the knowledge that his father was dead. Maybe Jam Master Jay owed somebody money. Maybe it was a dispute over a woman. Rumors spread throughout the day. Lyor Cohen, head of the Universal Music Group and a close companion of Jason Mizell during his days as Run-DMC’s road manager, issued a moving statement in which he expressed his sadness at the death of his friend: “He showed me how to settle shows and fulfill my responsibilities to the group. I learned a great deal from him, and to this day, they are the lessons that I rely on in order to do what I do. … Jason engaged everyone and made people feel important. His eyes always made contact with you, and a smile was never far behind.”

Whatever happened, Mizell’s contributions to American music will survive. It would be heartbreaking to learn that he was killed by the violence that has become endemic to the musical culture that he helped to create.