As one of the forefathers of rap, with a history of social activism, Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay was an unlikely target for the kind of violence that killed rappers Tupac Shakur or the Notorious B.I.G.
He was married with three kids, and a fixture in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. Yet authorities were searching Thursday for the gunman who killed the 37-year-old disc jockey with a gunshot to the head inside his recording studio.
“Jam Master Jay was a longtime family man and one of the founders of the group that knocked down all the doors for hip-hop, and a dear friend of mine,” said Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario whose brother Joe was Jay’s bandmate.
“I loved him,” said a devastated Simmons. “I will miss him. He is irreplaceable.”
Chuck D, frontman for rappers Public Enemy, agreed with that sentiment.
“You draw the comparison to when John Lennon was shot,” he said. “It’s an enormous loss to the genre.”
The DJ – whose real name was Jason Mizell – was the man behind the music, working the turntables as Joe “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels rapped over his hard rock beats on hits like “Rock Box,” “King of Rock” and their Top 40 cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”
“He was family to me,” McDaniels said. “He stuck to the true essence of what a DJ in a hip-hop performance should be. The whole music industry has lost a great talent.”
He spun and scratched records on twin turntables simultaneously, creating a new style and sound that was copied by endless disc jockeys. “If Grandmaster Flash was the first famous DJ, Jay had to be the second,” said Andre Harrell, a Mizell contemporary who now heads Nu America Music.
While breaking new ground, Run-DMC made hip-hop commercially viable, becoming a platinum-selling act that earned a 1987 Grammy nomination.
In a 2001 interview with The Associated Press, Mizell talked about how some initially said rap was a passing fad.
“I hated that, because even before we were making records, I knew it couldn’t be a fad because it was the biggest thing in the world to me,” he said.
Run-DMC created opportunities for untold rappers to follow, expanding their work into movies and a line of clothing.
“It’s a terrible loss,” Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, who joined Run-DMC on a national tour in the mid-1980s. “If Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC hadn’t looked out for us way back when, I don’t know where we’d be now.”
Run-DMC, three friends who hailed from the Hollis section of Queens, was always above the thuggishness that later came to dominate hip-hop. “It’s not like we just have scrambled brains and gold chains,” McDaniels once told the AP.
Last year, Simmons said: “We never talked about nothing that was ungodly too much anyways. Run-DMC was no thugged-out gangsta killers, cursing all over their records.”
They were the only rap act at Live Aid, the fund-raising concert for African famine victims, and they joined Little Steven Van Zandt (news) for the anti-apartheid anthem, “Sun City.” They also contributed the track “Christmas in Hollis” to the Special Olympics project, “A Very Special Christmas.”
Run-DMC did anti-drug concerts, established scholarships and set up voter registration booths at its live shows.
“They represented everything good and positive about hip-hop,” remembered Russell Simmons.
The band achieved a level of fame previously unheard of for rappers. Their list of firsts is staggering: first rappers with a gold album, first with a platinum album, first on American Bandstand, first on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Their videos became MTV staples. And though their record sales had waned in recent years, they remained a formidable concert draw: the group recently completed a tour with Aerosmith and Kid Rock.
“They’re the Rolling Stones of rap,” Ice Cube said recently.
In a 1987 interview with the AP, the trio sipped tea in a Manhattan hotel room. The band revealed, giggling, why they decided to bring Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler in for their remake of “Walk This Way”: because none of them knew the lyrics.
Mizell recalled scratching the song for Tyler, repeating guitarist Joe Perry’s riff without ever getting to the vocals – evidence of their fascination with beats over lyrics.
In Queens, fans had created an impromptu memorial to Mizell outside his recording studio, just a short distance from the neighborhood where he grew up.
“We’ve lost a legend,” said fan Terrence Chadwick, 37, standing outside the studio. “Jam Master Jay was truly a legend to this community.”