Jam Master Jay, 1965–2002

Rhythmic Heart of the Kings of Rock

But these were merely outgrowths of their real innovations:

Their blending of rock with hip-hop: This hybrid gave Run-D.M.C.'s music a supple, rhythmic density that rock had never enjoyed, and hip-hop a tonic brazenness that perfectly complemented that of the scratch. Their subtle blend attracted fans who might have found this chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter mix anathema, at least initially.

His Adidas are impossible to fill.
photo: Jonathan Mannion
His Adidas are impossible to fill.

The breadth of their touring and the depth of their touring lineup: By traveling widely in the early '80s, on the first Fresh Fest tours, then on their own Together Forever tour, and by maintaining a roster of acts who were all distinct from one another, the crew assured wide exposure, both geographically and demographically, for their ideas, and the growth of a relatively broad fan base.

The compactness of their ensemble: Run-D.M.C., compared to earlier crews, were a relatively small combo; two vocalists, one DJ. Basically, they scaled back the workforce, a trend later accelerated as technology and production styles increasingly worked to make the DJ superfluous. Not until the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan on the East Coast and Jurassic 5 on the West would hip-hop see much opposition to the downsizing they initiated.

The extreme dynamism of their live shows: Run-D.M.C. were the first hip-hop artists to yell on their records, to jump from hip-hop's smoothly conspiratorial, r&b-speckled timbres to pounding amplitudes of rage. This enabled them to readily duplicate the volume of their recorded performances in the live setting. (Try and imagine, say, Rakim or Fabolous doing the same thing.) It also helped them make records that a rock audience could embrace. This connected them to an enormous, previously untapped white ethos.

Careful selection and arrangement of graphical elements into a unified whole: The first time I saw the King of Rock LP, over at Rock & Soul on Seventh Avenue, I stared at the cover for what seemed like two hours. I remember thinking that it looked "real," as if Run-D.M.C. were real recording artists, as opposed to "just" rappers. They were also probably the first hip-hop act with a logo.

The austerity of their visual aesthetic: They rejected the polychromatic, Rick James-influenced full-body leathers of the Furious Five in favor of a minimalist, all-black, urban hard-rock look that youthful crowds found reasonable and accessible; whether you were a B-boy or a skatepunk, a black T-shirt, black Lee jeans, and Adidas made sense. (And can anyone forget the first time they saw Run-D.M.C. in those big, dookie-rope chains?) The pared-down look extended to their stage set. Jam Master Jay, for instance, was probably the first DJ ever to use Anvil Cases—as opposed to crudely cut, makeshift squares of foam—to support turntables during concerts. This gave his instrument a cool, machine-finished look.

Over the course of seven studio album releases with the group and after Run-D.M.C.'s heyday, Jay kept busy and visible with public appearances, live shows, production (his 1993 JMJ Records release by Onyx, Bacdafucup, a prime example), and running the studio in the heart of his old neighborhood, about a mile from the home in which he grew up—the studio in which, sadly, his life would violently end.

Aside from the millions of fans, friends, and colleagues he leaves behind, he'll be most dearly remembered by his wife of 11 years, Terri, 32; his sons, Jason, 15, Terry, 11, and Jesse, 7; his mother Connie (Mizell) Perry; his brother, Marvin L. Thompson, and his sister, Bonita Jones.

Jam Master Jay's pivotal role in the history of hip-hop culture is singular, his shoes impossible to fill—a point inevitably made, maybe, by the piles of empty Adidas left at a makeshift memorial outside his murder site.

However, this outpouring of love and fond memories, though enough for some, won't be for one.

"I don't want people to just mourn Jay for a month, and then we go back to doing the same things we've been doing," says his longtime friend and recording partner D.M.C., in a voice weary with loss. "We need to add something, in order to make change.

"After we give him his tribute, and bury him with dignity, his legacy's gonna live on. But as long as that legacy lives on, simultaneously, there has to be an idea that goes along with it."

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