Hip-hop lost one of its founding fathers on October 30th, when Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC was shot and killed in what police described as an execution-style slaying at his recording studio in Queens, New York. He was thirty-seven. Jay was reportedly taking a break from recording with a new group, Rusty Waters, when two men climbed the stairs to the second-floor studio around 7:30 p.M. One of the attackers is said to have stood guard outside the door as the other man, wearing a mask, entered the lounge where Jay was playing a video game with an acquaintance, Uriel Rincon, 25, Jay was shot in the back of the head and died immediately; Rincon was shot in the leg. The attackers fled, and at press time no suspects had been arrested.
As news of the killing spread that evening, friends and hip-hop luminaries gathered outside Jay’s studio to mourn him. Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC, Chuck D of Public Enemy and Island Def Jam chief Lyor Cohen, among others, gathered in the cold rain to pay tribute. “I’m trying to tell myself this isn’t true,” said Cohen, whose first job in the record business was as Run-DMC’s road manager in 1982.
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While the motive is still a mystery, police reportedly provided security for the rapper 50 Cent that same night as a precaution. 50 Cent, who is signed to Eminem‘s label, Shady/Aftermath, was a protégé of Jay’s. According to reports, 50 Cent – who himself was shot two years ago, allegedly because of his battle rhymes insulting other rappers – received a threat shortly after the killing. The rapper canceled a Manhattan show scheduled for that night.
Starting in 1983, Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay racked up a long string of hip-hop firsts: first hip-hop video on MTV (“Rock Box,” 1984), rap’s first platinum album (Raising Hell, 1986), first rap song to reach the Top Ten (“Walk This Way,” 1986). As Run-DMC rose to pop stardom in the mid-Eighties, Jay was the first DJ that most Americans had ever seen or heard. “The best songs they did were about him,” says the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, citing cuts such as “Peter Piper” and “Jam Master Jay,” which celebrated Jay’s crisp, percussive scratches.
Jay helped produce the group’s later records, but perhaps his greatest talent was as a concert DJ. He was the prime mover of Run-DMC’s furiously paced, pounding sets: “He orchestrated probably the best hip-hop show of all time,” says Chuck D, whose Public Enemy opened for the group on the 1988 Run’s House Tour. “Their show was all about timing – it was like when you saw James Brown‘s band stop on a dime.”
Run-DMC was founded twenty-one years ago in Hollis, Queens, by high school friends Joseph “Run” Simmons and McDaniels; Jay, born Jason Mizell, was an old basketball friend of Simmons’ and, at the age of eighteen, was already an established local DJ.
In their early days, when many rappers were wearing elaborate stage costumes, the band stood out by dressing like New York teens, in unlaced Adidas sneakers, black jeans and Stetson hats. Bill Adler, the author of their biography Tougher Than Leather, credits Jay with creating Run-DMC’s look. “He had a tremendous sense of B-boy style,” says Adler. “He was wearing a version of their classic all-black look two or three years before there was a Run-DMC.”
More significantly, at a time when many MCs used live bands in the studio to replicate disco grooves, Run-DMC affirmed the importance of the DJ. “They wanted to make records that sounded like the kind of music you would hear in the park,” says Adler. “Run-DMC insisted that they had a band, and his name was Jam Master Jay.”
After the group’s record sales started to dip in the late Eighties, Jay became one of the first hip-hop stars to set up his own label, JMJ Records – signing Onyx, among other bands. He also became the first rap star to delve into the fashion biz with his clothing line, Walker Wear, in the early Nineties. The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy credit him and the band with getting them their first breaks. “If Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC hadn’t looked out for us way back when,” says Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz, “I don’t know where we’d be now.”
Jay was unfailingly described as low-key and friendly. “He was a tough guy but a lovable guy,” says Chuck D. “He’d greet you with a smile.”
Jay is survived by his wife, Teri Mizell, and three children.
This story is from the November 28th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.