October 31, 2002
I wasn't going to write about it, but I can't seem to stop thinking about it, so maybe writing it out will get it out of my head... I'm surprised just how affected I am by Jam Master Jay's passing. You probably already know, if you didn't before, that he was the DJ For Run-DMC. Jason Mizell was also a husband and father of three children.
The thing I can't get past is that, from his hands, to my ears, there was a sound that changed how I saw music. I was never a huge fan of Run-DMC. Growing up in the suburbs in an area that pretty shamelessly disparaged hip-hop, I didn't really get turned on to it until Public Enemy. But I knew the songs; We all did. And, in an era when "DJ" refers to aesthetes who want to be known as turntablists, it's easy to forget how percussive, how ass-kicking those first few Run-DMC tracks were. Galvanizing, even to suburban kids who first heard them in a context that put them up against later efforts by the Beastie Boys or BDP.
This wasn't subtle beat-matching, intricate interjections of a few measures of an underground classic intended as a nod to the hipsters in the audience. This was rock-the-crowd, hands-in-the-air scratching. That's still the sound that stays with me. It was so bad, so wrong, it fucked with my head so bad when I heard it, that it seemed like it was almost breaking a law when I finally heard scratching on the radio on my local stations a few years later when Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" crossed over.
I don't want to slide into hagiography; There are those who know the music and the scene far better than me. There are those who were much more invested in Run-DMC as a part of their lives. I'm a dabbler, I never even had any of the 12" singles until a trip to L.A. a few months ago. But you can't ignore how much the sound of hip-hop's first mainstream act wasn't just defined by the rhymes and attitude of the guys out front, but by the skills and creativity of the DJ in the back. Hell, these guys even made Krush Groove seem credible.
You can't miss the music. Check out the current Top 5 on the Billboard charts, you'll find Missy Elliot's "Work It". The last minute of the song is a straight lift from Run-DMC's "Peter Piper". The incredible breakdown to Bob James' Mardi Gras, which Jay cut up for the song, is still so purely grooving and ass-moving that it can top the charts a decade and a half later. Chuck D said it best years ago in one of his rhymes, "Run-DMC first said a DJ could be a band." The "band" behind Run-DMC is still echoing out of people's rides in Queens today. There's no better legacy.