Damn, That DJ Made My Day

I was in Amsterdam cooking a stir-fry for a house full of people when I got the news about 2Pac. I had stepped into the restroom for a moment. Mid-stream, a friend started pounding on the door hollering, "Oh, my God, they shot Pac! They shot Pac!" What, who, huh? "They don't shoot people in Amsterdam," I mumbled to myself in a fog of disbelief and confusion. I zipped up my pants, washed my hands and ran out of the bathroom still unsure of what was going on. It was true. One of rap music's favorite sons had been gunned down in a car in Las Vegas, while sitting next to one of the sketchiest men in the history of the music biz.

When I heard the news about The Notorious B.I.G., I was drunk in the St. Louis airport after the first leg of a first-class flight from Toronto to Austin. I had just sat down in the bar when I heard the report. What, who, huh? I thought maybe I had heard wrong. They didn't seem too sure in the news report, and I just wasn't ready to believe it. I immediately started making collect calls from a pay phone across from the bar -- something I used to do quite a lot when I was drunk. Every call resulted in the same answer: Biggie was gone.

It was about 10:30 p.m. on the night before Halloween when I got the news about Jam Master Jay. I was sitting in my room making some last-minute edits for my midnight-to-3 a.m. radio show when my phone rang and a DJ friend from New Orleans told me that one of the members of Run-DMC had been shot and killed in a Queens studio. What, who, huh? I immediately hit up the Internet in search of confirmation. Before I could type "www" my phone rang again. It was another DJ. Lil' Tiger was pretty shaken with the news that indeed someone from Run-DMC had been shot and that someone was Jam Master Jay. Then another DJ called. Then another. I turned off my ringer and started pulling out crates, looking for Run-DMC records to take to KPFT.

The murders of Pac and Biggie were sad, but all too believable, perhaps even inevitable. Those two -- especially Pac -- ran their mouths to no end. Pac even went so far as to release globally distributed records that talked about having sex with other rappers' wives and dissed Prodigy's struggle with sickle-cell anemia. Hell, somebody's mama might have pulled the trigger on Pac for talking so bad about her baby boy.

But the death of Jam Master Jay is different. He was never one to pose as a gangsta or to express any sort of negativity. Jay was a mentor to young artists the world over. He taught hundreds of kids the art of scratching at his DJ academy and helped young artists like Onyx and Rusty Waters (whose record he was producing in the studio the night he was shot) to bring their music to the masses. He was a pioneer who never forgot where he came from. While reaping the benefits of a hugely successful 20-year career in the rap game, he constantly found ways to give back to those who reminded him of himself when he was just getting started.

That night was a very different show for us at KPFT. What normally is three hours of underground Dirty South rap became a Jam Master Jay vigil. A dozen local DJs showed up out of the blue, heads heavy with woe, eyes droopier than their jeans, just to talk about the man who hipped them to the sounds of hip-hop in the first place. After all, it was Jam Master Jay who showed the world that deejaying was a viable art form. Sure, there were guys like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc before him who laid the foundation for what became the biggest musical revolution of the late 20th century, but Jay was the first superstar DJ. Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing, but Jam Master got loose and made DMC the king.

With Jay's mixes behind them, Run-DMC became the first rap act in heavy rotation on MTV and the first with a platinum album. Their albums inspired legions of kids to rap, scratch and wear Adidas and Kangol hats. They were responsible for bringing the rap section of the record store from the back corner to the front.

In 1985, King of Rock hit rock and roll fans almost as hard as it hit the hip-hop community with its driving guitar loops, in-your-face rhymes and deft scratching. And the next year, they were the first major group to experiment with blending rock and rap with their remake of "Walk This Way." The revolutionary mix -- Steven Tyler screaming the hook over Joe Perry's looped riffage on top of a slamming Queens beat -- is as important as any record in the history of rock. After that record, things were not the same.

Would there be a Linkin Park or even a Ludacris if it weren't for Jay? Would kids be hounding their parents for sets of turntables in the same way the kids of the '70s and '80s clamored for guitars? I don't think so. Run-DMC's music broke boundaries, expanded scopes and smashed down walls that had been in place since before any of them were born. And it continues to do so.

It's hard to imagine what would make someone walk into Jay's studio and shoot the man in the head. Was it a mistake? Was Jay into something that his public didn't know about? Did he screw someone's wife? Rip someone off? I can't imagine any of that. Jay was an artist, a family man and an inspiration. We can't be so naive as to believe that only sick thugs kill or get killed. But I would like to think that such a shining star in what can be such a dark business would have been exempt from the bullshit of this culture that sometimes seems as rife with murder and mayhem as it is with creativity and spirit.

Jam Master Jay left behind a wife, three children and a billion rap fanatics like myself who can only say goddamn, that DJ made my day.

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Matt Sonzala
Contact: Matt Sonzala