Groundbreaking DJ Jam Master Jay dies
Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 10:14 p.m.
NEW YORK - Jam Master Jay's sonic experiments with spacious drum breaks and grinding guitar riffs helped make Run-DMC the first hip-hop group to break into mainstream music.
He joined 20 years ago with Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels to form the group that would be more responsible than any other for spreading the idea that one person - a disc jockey - could provide the entire musical backdrop for a song.
"You draw the comparison to when John Lennon was shot," Public Enemy frontman Chuck D said Thursday, hours after the 37-year-old was shot to death at a recording studio near the neighborhood where the group grew up. "It's an enormous loss to the genre."
DJs like Jay, whose real name was Jason Mizell, became adept at scratching vinyl records forward and backward in time with a beat, working one turntable with each hand, to create new sounds the original artists never imagined.
The rise of the technique enabled thousands of people to express themselves musically even if they lacked the instruments or resources to put together a full band.
The number of DJs shot up dramatically in the 1970s, as many New York public schools were cutting music programs and children had less access to musical instruments, Chuck D said. He once rapped, "Run-DMC first said a DJ could be a band."
"We always knew rap was for everyone," Mizell said in a 2001 interview with MTV. "Anyone could rap over all kinds of music."
The three members of Run-DMC grew up in middle-class homes in the Hollis neighborhood of New York's Queens borough. Simmons and McDaniels started out rapping at parties, and later invited Mizell to form a group with them.
Simmons' brother, Russell, had formed a small label with producer Rick Rubin and signed early hip-hop stars including Kurtis Blow. The new group Joseph Simmons had formed with McDaniels and Mizell soon joined the roster.
While many early '80s hip-hop artists rapped over clean dance beats, Run-DMC and producer Rick Rubin chopped up riffs from classic rock records for a grittier sound. The risk paid off with several rock- influenced hits "Rock Box" and "King of Rock."
But the sound finally exploded with audiences when the group remade the Aerosmith hit "Walk This Way," creating hip-hop's biggest crossover success of the time.
Many fans and artists cite the song as the first rap record they ever heard, and rap and rock groups alike continue trying to recapture the song's mix of raw hooks and big beats punctuated by half-shouted lyrics.
Though rap videos were rare on MTV at the time, "Walk This Way," with its elaborate story line of a comical grudge match between rappers and rockers, was a constant fixture on the station for months. The members of the group made an unforgettable impression with their black outfits and hats and white Adidas sneakers.
"Raising Hell," the 1986 record that included "Walk This Way," "My Adidas," and "It's Tricky," sold more than 3 million copies, becoming the first rap album to go multiplatinum. The group's self-titled debut album in 1984 was the first rap album to go gold.
Mizell wasn't the first to manipulate records by scratching them in time under a needle. But he did become one of hip-hop's best known and most respected DJs through his deft scratching and the group's spirited promotion of his skills.
A song called "Jam Master Jay" announced, "We got the master of a disco scratch/there's not a break that he can't catch. . . . Behind the turntables is where he stands/Then there is the movement of his hands/So when asked who's the best, y'all should say/Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay."
The group's cheerfully competitive wordplay had always promoted education and clean living, but members were nonetheless linked to gang violence when fighting broke out on several stops of their national tour in support of "Raising Hell."
Critics blamed the group and rap music for inciting fights between members of the Crips and Bloods gangs at California's Long Beach Arena. The trio condemned violence and in 1986 called for a day of peace between warring Los Angeles street gangs.
"This is the first town where you feel the gangs from the minute you step into town to the time you leave," Mizell said.
The group later went on major tours with the Beastie Boys, Def Jam label mates who would eventually break the sales records they had set for hip-hop, and Public Enemy, which would create another musical revolution with its devastating beats and lyrics promoting black empowerment.
Violence continues to haunt hip-hop: some of the genre's biggest stars, including Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, also known as the Notorious B.I.G., also were shot to death.
The group has attempted several comebacks since "Raising Hell," and had just completed a tour with Aerosmith and Kid Rock, one of the many performers who has tried to cop their mix of rap and rock.
Mizell is survived by his wife and three children.
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