...and only practice makes a real Jam Master.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002. I stood frozen in front of my television set. It was the top story on the ten o'clock news, and details were sketchy. The only certainty was that Jason Mizell, known to the world as Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C., had been shot in the head in a recording studio. My heart hit the floor soon after my jaw. When my legs regained mobility, I raced into the living room, pulled my copy of King of Rock from the record crates, and flipped it over. The back cover photo features all three members with matching black fedoras. Both Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (D.M.C.) have their faces illuminated. Jay stands in between them, his arms around them both with his head down. His face is hidden in shadow. The image was far too fitting for my comfort, and made the following morning very difficult to get through.

"He's a one-man band in his own right
Jam Master jams to the broad daylight
No instruments needed, just two record players,
A stage, a crowd, and two rhyme sayers
The ingredients are here, so have no fear
Definitely defined, definition is clear
You couldn't be late, hesitate to debate
Jam Master is here and you could not wait."
- Run-D.M.C., "Jam Master Jammin'," 1985.

In the fall of 1985, back when I attended 7th grade, I was under the mistaken impression that I could rap. I started scribbling verses onto paper and would record them to cassette, shouting into the condenser mic on my boom box while another radio blasted an instrumental behind me. You know what my MC name was? Master Jay. That took some originality, didn't it? I was one "Jam" away from defiling another man's name. And it gets worse: shortly after "My Adidas" was getting regular airplay, I wrote a similar cut for a friend of mine who thought Converse sneakers were the flavor. "My Converse?" What the hell was I thinking? They weren't even the Chuck Taylor joints, either.

The day before the one-year anniversary of the September 11th tragedies, Arista Records released Run-D.M.C.'s Greatest Hits. It's the unquestionable validation of their contributions to hip-hop (as if they needed to be proven) and every song that needs to be on it is there. The collection of tunes has now become a soundtrack for the end of an era, with "Jam Master Jay" (the first of the group's tribute cuts to their one-man band) sounding like a defiant eulogy of sorts, celebrating the life of a seasoned DJ. Jason Mizell completed the crew; his cuts and scratches added the perfect sonic spice to Darryl and Joe's rhymes. He mastered the classic intro to their live shows, flipping his own name in the mix, then doing the same for D.M.C. before he came out on stage. And then, the moment we all remember well…

"RUN…R-RUN…RUN, RUN, RUN…R-RUN…" And I KNOW y'all know what I'm talkin' about.

You could tell that Jay was a good-natured brother who liked to have fun. Go back and check the writing credits for Run-D.M.C.'s more light-hearted material like "You Talk Too Much" and "You Be Illin'" - Jay had a hand in it. People don't talk about the group's sense of humor that much. To this day, I still fall out while listening to "It's Not Funny":

"It's not funny when you buy a TV off the street
You take it home, plug it in…BAM! You got beat."

"It's not funny when you see three cars you like
And your pocket can only buy a three-speed bike."

I don't care what anybody says, that is straight comedy.

Later on in Run-D.M.C.'s career, Jay started to play drums and keyboards on a few songs. Then, there's his production and puttin' other groups on the map. More than likely, he will be remembered for Onyx in that regard…much to my chagrin. When Bacdafucup was first released, I was hoping that it was all a big mistake. No matter what I did, I couldn't escape "Throw Ya Gunz" in my house - my stepbrother loved that album. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what Jay would want with these screaming, bald-headed banshees fluent in glockspeak. In my opinion, the most amazing moment in Onyx's career was releasing "Slam" as a single for urban audiences. Think about it: they introduced slam dancing to a group of people that used to get pissed off when you stepped on their sneakers. That's pretty damn impressive.

Oh wait, I've got one for you: anybody remember The Afros? They also had the Jam Master production seal, and the group featured DJ Hurricane (originally the DJ for The Beastie Boys back in the day). Around 1990 or so, they put out an album called Kickin' Afrolistics. The single and video for "Feel It" was absolutely hysterical. Basically it was a big pool party out in front of a mansion with the group donning Afro wigs and actin' a fool. And they got a whole bunch of other heads to act a fool with them: Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, Slick Rick, M.C. Serch of 3rd Bass…all wearing Afro wigs. And holdin' it down on the drum kit was our beloved Jason Mizell, with an assured smirk and a wigged-out blowout.

"I'm Jay, I make up the tre
Now, check out the dance that I display
It's called the PAUSE…
A new thing on the dance floor
First ya move, then ya stop
Combine the hustle, foxtrot, pop and wop
Put 'em all together and why, because…
It's called the PAUSE."
- Run-D.M.C., "Pause," 1989.

My personal bouts with being a part-time MC followed me right up until 2001, when I hung up my intermittent microphone for good. I don't have the heart to be as hungry as heads are nowadays. Above ground, it's about material things, player status, or thugged-out nursery rhymes. Contrary to popular opinion, the underground isn't much better. Granted, there are still some great lyricists within the under, but don't let heads fool you. It's also full of small-time pimps, players and hoods, as well as lyrical combat cats that constantly wanna battle, constantly looking for another rep to destroy. This is precisely why I don't rhyme anymore - there's no place for humility in hip-hop lyricism. Besides that, putting me in a freestyle battle is asking for trouble. Not only because I'm no good at it, but if someone disrespects me in front of a crowd of hundreds, they're not making it home. It's as simple as that. So my choice to spin records and write rants is a good thing for all involved parties. I'm not trying to donate myself as another black body to finance the prison industrial complex. And I think we can all agree that we've had more than enough senseless killing in the rap game.

But the murder of Jam Master Jay was the last straw. Just like my need to turn away from rhyme schemes, some might be set to walk away from hip-hop all together, especially the old school fans that saw the music being birthed and begin to mature. Present-day drama has taken the life of one of our heroes, an esteemed member of the genre. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see fans of the music - both old and new - look today's hip-hop nation squarely in the face and say, "Depart from me; I know you not."

The day after Jay's funeral, a number of hip-hop's most popular figures gathered at a press conference in support of the Mizell family, making contributions towards their children's education and the mortgage on their home. My hope is that Russell Simmons will sit down with those in charge over at Adidas and ask that they do right by a brother partially responsible for a sea of hip-hop fans rocking their shell-toed sneakers. Because long before product placement would find its way into every other rap song, Run-D.M.C. wrote a tribute to their favorite kicks. It was Russell who had the foresight to invite some Adidas reps to one of their concerts. I wish I could've seen the looks on their faces when the group got the fans to throw a shell toe in the air and wave it like they just don't care. Chuck D. said it more than a decade ago on "Shut 'Em Down": "I like Nike, but wait a minute / the neighborhood supports, so put some money in it." Corporate compensation is overdue. If not now, then when?

Wednesday, October 30, 2002: My television wears a live shot of Jamaica, Queens via the 11 o'clock news. People are spilling onto the street in front of the recording studio where Jam Master Jay's murder took place. Various solemn and shocked faces include D.M.C., Chuck D., and Lyor Cohen. Big brothers who'd look hard on any other day now have tears streaming down their cheeks or are staring at the ground, unable to speak. I envision Jason Mizell standing over them all, his arms around them just like that back cover photo with Darryl and Joe. His head bowed, his face in the shadows.

"His name's Jam Master, call him Jay
The crowd goes wild when he starts to play
Everything is correct and A-O.K.
Jam Master's on a move, but his sounds will stay."
- Run-D.M.C., "Jam Master Jammin'," 1985.

{jason randall smith}

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