Om’Mas Keith, The Chosen One

Om’Mas Keith remembers the first time he met Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

It was the mid-’90s. ODB was at the height of his success. Keith, a 19-year-old punkass kid music producer, found himself in a recording session at the Music Palace, a premiere music facility out on Long Island, with 88-Keys (yes, that 88-Keys) as his assistant. He recalls: “Dirty rolled in with an entourage of 15 to 20, from top-level A&Rs and executives to street-level thugs. And their women.” The crew was, per Keith, “indulging in all the devices associated with rock ‘n’ roll.” Operative word there? Devices.

“When he met me, I looked him right in the face, shook his hand, and I said, ‘Peace,'” Keith remembers. At that “record-scratch moment,” ODB narrowed his eyes. “[Dirty] looked at me like I was crazy—for like two seconds—and then he was like ‘Oh, that’s the god right there. He greeted me with the universal greeting: ‘Peace.’ What can I say to that but peace?’ ” ODB went on to get “wild” that night, and they recorded “Dirt Dog,” which eventually appeared on Dirt’s Nigga Please.

The producer chuckles as he tells this story. It’s one of the many tales he’s gathered over the past two decades, a time during which the 36-year-old has quietly become an influential force in the music industry. On Sunday, he’ll attend the Grammys with two nominations as a producer and engineer for Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE. Keith also just released his debut album City Pulse online, for free. His influence on Ocean is apparent: Both records offer stitched-together, smoothed-out r&b that illustrates emotion in a tangible way. Keith candidly chats over the phone from his Hollywood recording studio, but the story of Om’Mas Keith isn’t a West Coast one: It starts—and probably will end—in New York City.

Born on January 20, 1976, at St. John’s Hospital in Brooklyn, Keith grew up in Hollis, Queens, an “enclave” of the “most amazing musicians.” The son of a jazz guitarist, he ran around with the children of Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. His mother called him a “magical jazz baby.” Then, around the age of 15, he met one of his heroes: Jam Master Jay, the groundbreaking, influential DJ of Run DMC. Keith squeaked his way under Jay’s wing and became his “young ace.” He saw “how a soon-to-be-inducted-to-the-Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-peon conducts his business at home.” He made a beat for Ultramagnetic MCs. They loved it, flew him to L.A., and he got picked up at the airport by a Bentley Continental driven by Ice-T. The group recorded music at Ice-T’s famous Crackhouse studio over three weeks, where he met Shafiq Husayn (with whom he’d later form the hip-hop group Sa-Ra). The first night in Los Angeles, he slept on rapper Kool Keith’s floor without a blanket near a stack of very expensive pornos that reached the ceiling.

“Three weeks of the biggest mind-fuck ever,” Keith recalls. “[Ice-T] was my first multimillionaire. Jay was rich to me, but we were in Queens. This was L.A.”

That whirlwind gave Keith a taste of the life he could one day live, and he went back to New York with success fresh on the brain. He pushed more with Jay, ODB, Busta Rhymes. He traveled to Houston to work with famous Suave House producer Tony Draper. He moved back east, made beats, worked for an ad firm, but again felt the tug of the west, and went back to L.A.

It was a smart move. He partnered with Shafiq and Taz Arnold, forming Sa-Ra and racking up production credits for the likes of Jurassic 5 and Pharoahe Monch. Kanye West signed them to G.O.O.D. Music, and Keith has been sought after ever since.

In 2009, through his intern Michael Uzowuru, he met a little hip-hop collective called Odd Future and a dude named Frank Ocean. The two developed a relationship that would eventually lead to Keith’s work on channel ORANGE. Keith was thrilled and, in another smart move, threw himself into the work with Ocean, putting his solo project on hold.

“Frank’s understanding of what a producer does is true to what it really is, that a producer ensures the physical manifestation of intellectual property,” Keith says. “However we arrive at the final goal, whether it be by me playing instruments, adding things, adding insight, talking to Frank, or supervising every single occurrence of his voice on the record: This is producing on the high level. This is my opportunity to produce on the Quincy Jones level.”

In the wake of ORANGE‘s success and critical acclaim, his opportunities to work at Q’s level continue. He’s assisting with rapper Azealia Banks’s forthcoming record and Ocean’s next album, and is in talks with Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt for their joint debut—all while readying for the response to City Pulse.

“All I wanted to do when I started this game was make great music and create and have an outlet,” he says. “But they chose me. All these kids, everybody chose me. So when someone does that, you have to really say to yourself: ‘I have to be the best I can be for them, to ensure that the final result is what’s in their head.’ That’s what’s being a service provider. That’s Om’Mas Keith at your service.”




Gallery-style art installations, live graffiti exhibitions, and a skate park?! The MBP Urban Arts Fest 2009 is a one-day-only social gathering, presented by Mark Batty Publisher and benefiting Art for Progress, to showcase the thriving urban community at its best. Check out special appearances by photojournalist Martha Cooper (author of Going Postal), Chris Stain, Motomichi Nakamura, DJ Statik Selektah, and DJ Jason Mizell (son of Jam Master Jay), among others, as well as the arts and crafts area, where you’ll be able to create your own canvas laptop case and design tote bags out of recycled materials. Then, starting at 8 p.m. is a dance party with DJs and free beer. How could you refuse?

Sat., Oct. 3, 1 p.m., 2009



  • wins the National Press Foundation’s Excellence in Online Journalism Award.
  • Aiming to aid New York City’s recovery in the aftermath of September 11, The Village Voice releases Love Songs for New York, an 18-song compilation CD with 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sale donated to the September 11th Fund.
  • Nat Hentoff is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
  • Michael Kamber wins the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Mike Berger Award for “Crossing to the Other Side.”
  • In a transaction with New Times, Village Voice Media agrees to shut down its Cleveland Free Times and New Times agrees to shut down New Times Los Angeles to strengthen their competitive positions in the two markets. In 2003, a Department of Justice consent decree is signed by both parties.
  • Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was named best album and Missy Elliott’s “Work It” was named best single in the Pazz & Jop Music Critic’s poll.
  • Tony Kushner wins the Obie Award for best playwriting for Homebody/Kabul, George C. Wolfe wins best direction for Topdog/Underdog.
  • John J. Gotti, head of the Gambino Crime Family, dies of cancer. He is laid to rest at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens.
  • After 33 years of decentralization in New York City’s schools, the Legislature gives Mayor Mike Bloomberg substantial control over the city schools—with authority to pick both the chancellor and the majority of the school board.
  • The 2nd Annual Village Voice Siren Music Festival. Due to the festival’s growing popularity, a second stage is added, Sleater-Kinney, The Donnas, The Shins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mooney Suzuki, Liars, Les Savy Fav, The Von Bondies, Shannon Wright, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Bob Log III, and Rye Coalition perform.
  • Run DMC founder and DJ, Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay), is shot in the head and killed in a Merrick Boulevard recording studio in Queens. His unsolved murder has been linked to fellow Queens-rapper 50 Cent.
  • The Village Voice mourns the passing of editor Ron Plotkin, a 24-year veteran.
  • The Village Voice mourns the passing of former columnist Casper Citron.
  • The Village Voice mourns the passing of former receptionist Mary Wright.
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    World War of Words

    It was the news that shocked the hip-hop nation. The night of October 30, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, one-third of the genre-shaping rap group Run-D.M.C., was found dead—shot in the head at point-blank range. As with the controversial murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, the mainstream media began looking to the music for clues. Police revealed that they had evidence that another rapper’s life was also in danger; they feared that Jay’s murder might have been meant as a message to his protégé, 50 Cent. The sluggish murder investigation has prompted the likes of Puff Daddy and Russell Simmons to plead with the public to come forward with any information. Recent reports point to a drug deal gone wrong and name as a suspect Curtis Scoon, a man said to have been feuding with Jam Master Jay over $15,000 in lost drug money from eight years ago. Officially, police would not release any information; at press time, Scoon has not been arrested. “If anything has materialized,” said one police spokesperson, “it hasn’t been anything substantial.”

    In another turn of events, a SWAT team invaded Suge Knight’s offices (Tha Row Records) last week to collect one of 17 warrants for alleged crimes ranging for homicide to conspiracy to commit murder. Though published reports say Knight is not wanted, many are wondering if there is any association with Tupac and B.I.G.

    Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ conservative talk show host, has wasted no time jumping on the blame bandwagon. “The (O’Reilly) Factor has been telling you for years that the world of rap and hip-hop is full of dangerous people and harmful messages,” said O’Reilly. Never mind that by all accounts, Jam Master Jay’s hip-hop life was far from filled with dangerous people or harmful messages.

    Mizell’s death, coupled with a recent Los Angeles Times article that charges B.I.G. with orchestrating Tupac’s death, has further polarized the hip-hop nation and the mainstream media. But before the hip-hop community begins to fight battles outside of the culture, there are wars to be won on the home front.

    This year, battles plagued rap—some just superficial verbal jabs and others deep-seated rivalries: Jermaine Dupri vs. Dr. Dre (producers’ peeve); KRS-One vs. Nelly (ol’ school underground vs. new jack commercialism); Ja Rule vs. DMX (who’s biting who?); and Snoop Dogg vs. his former label head, Suge Knight (David and Goliath). ‘Pac and B.I.G.’s deaths, for a time, necessitated an unofficial truce. But rap has once again returned to verbal shoot-outs, and messages are mixed about whether this is just for the sake of a good battle, or if more blood will be spilled as a result.

    The most notable wax war—the one that broke the wall of silence—stemmed from two of New York City’s most respected MCs. Ugly words were exchanged as Jay-Z and Nas released albums within weeks of each other late last year. Tearing a page out of Tupac’s war tactics handbook, Jay-Z went for the jugular, claiming he’d had sex with the mother of Nas’s daughter. (Tupac had made repeated claims that he and B.I.G.’s wife had an affair.) Jay-Z later apologized for “going too far.” Nas planned to hang a Jay-Z effigy onstage at Hot 97’s “Summer Jam” concert this summer. When his plans were uncovered and prohibited, he refused to perform.

    But since the Jay-Z-Nas conflict has died down, a slew of battles has offered more reasons for concern. In 1999, Ja Rule and 50 Cent came to blows in Atlanta. In 2000, during a scuffle at NYC’s Hit Factory, Ja Rule, or members of his team, allegedly stabbed 50 Cent.

    Meanwhile, a quiet rivalry between Ja Rule and DMX, his Def Jam labelmate, has been steadily progressing. Each has been criticized and commended for evoking Tupac-style emotion. And early in his career, Ja Rule was often mistaken for a DMX protégé—or clone. Ja Rule wasn’t happy living in the shadows, and in a March 2001 Source interview, he decided to set the record straight, explaining that Def Jam had originally wanted to sign him; when he wasn’t available, they settled for DMX.

    A brutal, highly personal battle has ensued. DMX’s “Do You,” a high-energy single that admonished someone to stop following his lead, was widely believed to be aimed at Ja Rule. Ja Rule’s new “F**k With Us” turns the light on rumors of DMX’s drug addiction: “Your problem ain’t really with me/It’s with them drugs/Now you have lost a good n***a, DMX/One love.”

    With the global hood shrinking and more news outlets probing into the private lives of hip-hop artists, opportunities for rappers to dig up personal information about foes have fueled their fiery battles. “It was once good for rap to show lyrical skills, but it’s beyond that now,” says AZ, the rapper who stamped Nas’s critically acclaimed 1994 debut, Illmatic, with a verse since considered classic. “It’s harmful. With all the intensity and blatant disrespect, somebody’s going to get their head taken off. And that’s gonna set us six years back.”


    Rap contests and battle records have been instrumental in keeping the form moving along. In the movie 8 Mile, Eminem’s character, Rabbit, goes toe-to-toe with a bevy of adversaries, taking verbal low blows and serving up some of his own. And every Friday, on BET’s 106th & Park, a freestyle competition features two challengers matching wits for 30 seconds each. It is this kind of lyrical sparring that old-schoolers remember.

    “The battle between me and MC Shan would have never come to violence,” says KRS-One. “The whole reason we were battling was a way to settle disputes within the culture. If it really would have got wild, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation would have stepped in.” KRS believes verbal disputes between rappers would not threaten lives if hip-hop had such a leader today.

    “Any battles I was involved in were just purely rap battles,” recalls L.L. Cool J. “It was just about the art and the sport of hip-hop. It was no different than Michael Jordan trying to dunk on Pat Ewing.”

    L.L. was noted for his famous battles with Kool Mo Dee around the same time as the legendary battles between KRS-One and MC Shan. Though they did take their battling seriously, they took care to keep them contained onstage and between grooves on wax.

    “I don’t see anything wrong with competition,” says L.L. “I don’t want to judge anybody; I’ve been involved with battles too. I’ve made albums that are as aggressive as everybody else’s out there. However, I do think that it should be left on the records and it should be left as entertainment. You don’t have to hurt one another in order to prove that you’re real.”

    When the lyrics touched sore spots in those times, there was little concern among listeners that their favorite rappers could lose their lives. The landscape has since changed as more rappers begin to take sides in what is shaping up to be a hip-hop world war.

    Suge Knight has been vocal about his disdain for Snoop and Dr. Dre and, by extension, Xzibit and Eminem. In retaliation, Snoop has recorded “Pimp’t Slapped,” a scathing dis record calling out Knight. (He raps: “Suge Knight’s a bitch and that’s on my life/Your rappers and artists, tell ’em shut it up/’Cause I’ll fuck every last one of ’em up.”)

    Nas has formed an unofficial alliance with Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc.; Gotti, Knight, and Rap-A-Lot’s James Prince are reportedly teaming up to form a record label. (On “The Pledge,” from the compilation Irv Gotti Presents . . . , Ja Rule asks, “What up Suge?” before starting his verse.) These extended families can make the hip-hop battles complicated. Gone are the days when choosing sides was easy—whoever came up on your end of town or went to your school was your crew. Now bicoastal stepfamilies are making the beefs harder to decipher.

    50 Cent thinks Ja Rule’s recent connection with Suge Knight is all about choosing teams. “Weak n****s need a crutch,” says 50 Cent. “They’re trying to align themselves so they’re strong enough to go against me.” But 50 Cent doesn’t want to be defined by his adversaries. “Yeah, me and Ja Rule don’t get along, me and Irv Gotti don’t get along. But that’s not what my career is based on.”

    50 Cent has his share of enemies. After releasing “How to Rob,” a comical tutorial on robbing successful rap artists, he found himself on the outskirts of an entire community of rappers. In turn, he established himself as a witty and inventive lyricist, one worth a reported million dollars to Eminem’s Shady Records.

    Battling continues to be an entrée into the rap music world. 50 Cent owes his success to his ability to clown mainstream rappers; newcomer Jin, a winner of a rap contest on BET, has since signed a record deal with Ruff Ryder/ Interscope; and rapper Benzino has received airplay with two obviously staged dis records, baiting Eminem and 50 Cent.

    While Jay-Z has recently said that hip-hop battles are about as real as WWE wrestling, artists like 50 Cent, who happens to be an ex-boxer, take things more seriously. When asked if he is concerned about being a target, 50 Cent answers, with no hesitation, “If n***s wanna shoot each other up, we can do that.”

    Obviously, while rap itself has grown beyond the streets, many rappers have not. So the street rappers struggle to find balance in a commercial industry. “I just learned how to differentiate the music from the street shit,” says AZ. “A lot of brothers can’t differentiate. Everybody’s claiming they’re real; eventually, somebody’s going to have to show and prove.”


    Prompted by the Jam Master Jay murder and the shooting death three days later of lesser-known rap promoter Kenneth Walker, according to a New York Post source, the federal government is working with the NYPD’s gang unit to determine if there is a link between the two killings. Furthermore, the source notes, the feds are investigating rappers and their connection to organized crime.

    The link between rap music and murder goes beyond gun-toting gangsta rap, falling along the familiar lines of race and socioeconomic categories. Rappers have been falling to violence since Kool Herc put a needle to the groove. When Scott La Rock was killed in 1987, no one blamed combative rap lyrics. In 1999, when Lamont “Big L” Coleman was shot and killed, no one questioned his musical affiliations. When Raymond “Freaky Tah” Rodgers from the Lost Boyz was murdered in Queens later in 1999, there were no reported tie-ins to his profession. These victims were all a part of a demographic that runs a high risk of being murdered: black males.

    According to a 2001 Justice Department report, blacks were six times more likely to be murdered than whites. Of the 7903 black victims of homicide in 1998, none were famed rappers—a fact that might help blame-seekers like O’Reilly search deeper before making oversimplified claims of “dangerous people.” When it comes to murder, to borrow from rap duo dead prez, it’s bigger than hip-hop.

    The deaths of B.I.G. and Tupac have lost much of their initial sting, and the climate in rap is becoming more volatile. “It’s not any different than problems that happen in our community every day,” says Talib Kweli. “People get shot and violence is high, but I don’t think it’s the words in rap that are inciting beefs. It’s the conditions of the community.”

    Related story:

    Jam Master Jay, 1965–2002: Rhythmic Heart of the Kings of Rock” by Harry Allen


    Horns and Halos

    I don’t know what the big deal about CMJ is. Things are exactly the same as they always are in these parts—just more crowded. At the opening-night party at the Bowery Ballroom last Wednesday, drunken rock ‘n’ roll twosome Boozy Jo and the Bag Lady found themselves getting more inebriated than usual, no thanks (or, maybe, lots of thanks) to Soulwax, a/k/a 2 Many DJs, who decided that the balcony setup, which had no monitor, was sub par and that they would only play on the stage at the end of the night. This left the ladies to their own vices—they had to spin between the sets of every band that night, which meant a steady intake of alcohol. Downstairs, the Northern State girls schmoozed with the industry schmucks and handed out newly finished copies of their eight-song EP, Dying in Stereo. They escaped the hoo-ha—parents in tow—by rigging up their own “dressing room,” actually a cordoned-off booth next to the upstairs bar. That’s rock star for ya.

    Ghouls made out with goblins, Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson bumped and grinded, and Edward Scissorhands poked his pointy fingers at a naughty maid. All just par for the course at Motherfucker’s Halloween bash last Thursday night. I figured that of all the devilish parties that evening, this would be the one with the best costumes—and I was right.

    All the boys who dressed as the Crow seemed to be the luckiest: They were the ones swapping spit with hotties on the dancefloor. Another guy came as a horny devil—literally. Topless and painted all red, he sported horns on his head and another giant horn on his crotch, playfully thrusting his business at all the ladies in the crowd. The most popular hipster persona was Richie Tenenbaum—there were three or four clones of Luke Wilson’s headband-clad character running amok. Misstress Formika, as a zombie version of co-promoter Michael T, hosted the scary costume contest. Maybe it’s the war thing, but two toy soldiers, painted entirely in flat green and brandishing binoculars and rifles, got the biggest response, winning out over the horny devil and Mr. Scissorhands. Later, Mr. Scissorhands was spotted outside, sitting dejected on the sidewalk.

    The MF partyers came dressed as their favorite rock stars, too. I spotted David Bowie, circa Ziggy Stardust, and a member of Devo, complete with potted-plant hat and whip. Yours truly donned a Paul Stanley getup. A real-life rock star from the Foo Fighters turned up after their Supper Club gig, where they dressed like their favorite rock stars, too—in matching suits and ties, they came as the Hives.

    Jam Master Jay‘s senseless death is a huge loss for the hip-hop community. I asked heads what Jay meant to them.

    DJ JS-1, DJ for Rahzel: “He was an idol to me. I spent half my life trying to be like him. Rahzel’s first demo was produced by Jay back in the ’80s. Rahzel grew up in Hollis, Queens, directly around the corner from D.M.C. We are both speechless about this tragedy. It is a horrible thing for hip-hop.”

    Hank Shocklee, producer: “Jay wasn’t into violence and he never preached violence; his music was fun and positive. And that legacy as a great DJ and as part of Run-D.M.C. earned him adoration and respect from fans all over the world. It’s a shame that hip-hop and violence have become synonymous with one another. Artists have to be more careful of the messages they are sending out to the public through their art.”

    Grouchy Greg, co-founder of Allhiphop. com: “I really got to know him this past year. We were going to be doing stuff with Scratch Academy. He had launched a class where he and all the influential turntablists teach the craft of DJ’ing. I actually spoke to him after Sugar Hill Studios burned down three weeks ago. I’m so lucky—I felt this way even before he passed away—to have known him. It’s a bad thing for hip-hop to lose anyone, but to lose someone of Jam Master Jay’s caliber—I never thought I would see this day.”

    Ernie Paniccioli, photographer of Who Shot Ya?: “In all the years I knew him, he never shook my hand—he always gave me a hug. This is about as low a blow that’s ever been struck to hip-hop. I think this will be the last killing in hip-hop. People are going to turn around; you can’t go no lower than this. I haven’t felt this bad since John Lennon got killed. For hip-hop, this is like John Lennon’s murder. This is somebody that wasn’t trying to hurt nobody.”

    DJ Premier, producer-DJ: “He was always a down-ass dude, always cool, and gave me advice on staying power in this shitty game that we call the music business. I’m definitely going to miss him.”


    Jam Master Jay, 1965–2002

    As both a technician and craftsman, DJ Jam Master Jay (a/k/a Jason William Mizell), who was murdered last Wednesday night at the age of 37 by an assassin’s single bullet, will probably be remembered less for the showy innovations and poly-hyphenated tricks that mark the modern “turntablist” arsenal than he will be for a personal style marked by deference and selflessness.

    His was a manner uniquely suited to the era that, as a part of the hip-hop supergroup Run-D.M.C., he dominated culturally. The supporting role he performed—making his vocalists look their absolute best, just as hip-hop, in pursuit of wider audiences, shifted its focus increasingly from the DJ to the MC—also enabled him to act as a global ambassador for the music. He did so in a manner absent of ego, absent of the typical “ugly Americanisms” that frequently mar such contacts. He and rappers Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels were the first to perform hip-hop in countless locales across the planet. His was a position that Jam Master Jay served with what many who knew him note as a characteristic form of kindness.

    Of course Run-D.M.C. are the most influential crew in hip-hop history, and one of the most influential in the history of popular music. Jay was their instrumental and musical backbone, their melodic voice and rhythmic heart. Like markers dividing time into B.C. and A.D., they literally stand at the nexus of hip-hop’s old and new schools: the first artists in the genre to enjoy a career in the style most widely emulated today. Here’s the formula: sell African American music by the multimillions to validating Black buyers, but predominantly to relatively empathetic, liquidity-providing white ones—the so-called mainstream. Do so in a manner accentuated by product merchandising, endorsements, radio and music video marketing, and wide national and international touring. Run-D.M.C.’s progeny, thus, are every hip-hop act that has since partaken in any aspect or effect of the above—and any white musical group that, at the very least, has taken hold of rock and hip-hop’s concubinage.

    Mizell was killed in the lounge of his Queens studio by one shot to the head from a .40 caliber weapon. News reports said that the large, powerful round left both an entry and an exit wound, and that the killer shot him behind his left ear so close that ignited powder from the blast burned Jay’s shirt. In other words, he was not just killed, but slaughtered. Brutally.

    In the subsequent investigation, NYPD attention has mainly focused on a revenge motive: possibly for unpaid debts, possibly for Jay’s association with hip-hop rabble-rouser 50 Cent, a/k/a Curtis Jackson, whose “gangsta rap”-mocking single, “Wanksta,” Jay produced, and who has previously been the victim of gun violence. Though newspaper columnists continue to beat the glue out of the notion, and though a federal probe of rumored organized crime ties within the hip-hop industry is said to be underway, detectives have scoffed at suggestions that the murder is connected to an “East Coast-West Coast rap war.” They have also deemed the weekend killing in White Plains of Kenneth Walker, a hip-hop promoter with a criminal record, as having no connection to Jay’s murder.

    Born in Brooklyn on January 21, 1965, the youngest of three children, to the late Jesse Mizell and Connie Thompson Mizell, Jason was playing drums and singing in the Universal Baptist Church’s Young Adult Choir at the age of five. After moving with his family to Hollis in 1975, he discovered DJ’ing at age 13, and began to practice under the name Jazzy Jase. It was while in Hollis—attending Jackson High School, playing drums and bass in local bands, and learning to disc-jockey—that he would meet future partners Darryl and Joe. The crew officially joined forces in their late teens, then signed with Profile Records, under the management of Joe’s older brother, Russell Simmons, who would later have enormous success of his own as head of Def Jam Recordings. Their first single, “It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.’s,” came out in 1983.

    At the peak of their powers, Run-D.M.C. were like the leading technological edge of an advanced missile program. The sound of their beats alone, compared to what had come before—Sugarhill Records’ horn-berserk bridges and choruses, for example—were the audio equivalent of low-kiloton-yield bunker busting. The titles of their flinty tracks read like chapter headings for an impending apocalypse: “Hard Times.” “30 Days.” “It’s Like That.” Even their own name was odd—in 1983, amid crews with fluorescent, superhero-style monikers like the Funky Four, the Furious Five, and the Treacherous Three, “Run-D.M.C.” sounded less like the name of a group than that of a metallurgical solvent.

    How fitting. Because, with the release of their eponymous debut album in 1984, followed by 1985’s King of Rock, Run-D.M.C would more surely dissolve and dispense with the previous musical age than any hip-hop artists before or since.


    How? Simple: By basically inventing the modern hip-hop music business. It’s probably difficult for those born in the age of Run-D.M.C.’s revolution—pretty much anyone under the age of 25—to clearly see its effects, so fundamental are they to what we consider popular music today. They possessed the aura that would make the hip-hop industry’s growth spurts possible. Much has been made of their long list of firsts: hip-hop’s first gold album (Run-D.M.C.); hip-hop’s first platinum album (King of Rock); first hip-hop artists to be nominated for a Grammy; first rappers to appear on American Bandstand and on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    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.

    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.”