Jam Master Jay
Born in New York City in 1965, pioneering hip-hop artist Jam Master Jay was already an accomplished DJ when in 1982 he joined two high school friends, Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels, in their group, Run-D.M.C. Backed by Jay's artful blending of beats and records, the band became the first rap group to earn mainstream success. Jam Master Jay was murdered in his Queens studio on October 30, 2002. His killer has not been found.
Born Jason William Mizell on January 21, 1965, in Brooklyn, New York, Jam Master Jay was drawn to music at an early age. By the time he was five, he was playing drums and singing in the church choir. In high school, he played the tuba and trombone, and later turned to the keyboard and bass guitar. But it was the turntable that would become his instrument of choice. Following his family’s move to the middle-class black suburb of Hollis, Queens, when he was 13, he began to experiment with record scratching.
Backed by his collage of beats, Jay threw small parties and deejayed at others in his neighborhood and began to win people over with his unique style and sounds. The first big turning point in his life came in 1982, when he teamed up with high-school friends Joseph “Run” Simmons (the younger brother of rapper and future Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons) and Darryl “D.M.C. McDaniels, who had already begun making music together under the name Run-D.M.C. Jay wanted to be a part of the band and agreed to DJ for his pals.
Dawn of a Rap Revolution
His addition to the group proved critical. Calling himself Jay Master Jay, the young DJ lit up nightclubs with his turntable work as he deftly toggled between beats and records. For many pop-music fans, Jay’s work became the first vinyl scratches they’d ever heard. In addition to anchoring Run-D.M.C.’s revolutionary sound, he is also credited with establishing the group’s signature style, with black hats, gold chains and Adidas sneakers.
In 1983, Run-D.M.C. signed with Profile Records, collecting a $2,500 advance, and then quickly churned out its first single, “It’s Like That/Sucker MCs.” The song peaked at No. 15 on the R&B charts and helped pave the way for the band's self-titled debut album in 1984.
Branded by the group’s sportswear attire and hard-nosed street language, the album solidified Run-D.M.C.'s reputation as the leaders of the new hip-hop sound. One of the album’s biggest hits, “Jam-Master Jay,” also made the man it was named after the most recognizable DJ in music.
The group’s 1985 album, King of Rock, continued Run-D.M.C.’s momentum. But it was 1986’s platinum-selling Raising Hell—which featured Jay on bass, drums and keyboards—that became a signature record both for the band and hip-hop in general.
Produced by Rick Rubin, Raising Hell featured the highly touted single, “Walk This Way,” a rap version of Aerosmith’s 1975 smash hit of the same name. The track was a whole new kind of force to hit the airwaves, blending Run-D.M.C.’s hard-edged rap style with Steven Tyler’s powerful vocals and Joe Perry’s driving guitar riffs.
The song soared up the charts, pushing hip-hop into the mainstream and making Run-D.M.C., and its famous DJ, music superstars. Across America, the band became a household name.
During the group's short but important heyday, there were many firsts: first rap group to have its music video played on MTV; first hip-hop group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone; and first non-athletes to endorse Adidas products. In 2016, Run-D.M.C. received rap's first Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“These are our Beatles,” Chuck D., the founder of Public Enemy, once said of Run-D.M.C. He also credited Jay with giving him his first real break in the music business.
For Jay and his two bandmates, the period following the release of Raising Hell—as well as the acclaim and critical notice that accompanied it—was the apex of their careers. Run-D.M.C. broke up temporarily in the late 1980s, and during that time Jay kept busy by starting his own record label, Jam Master Jay Records. The trio reconfigured in 1993 to release a new album, Down with the King, before taking another hiatus.
In 2000 Run-D.M.C. got back together and put out the album Crown Royal (2001). The tour that followed included appearances with Aerosmith. Jay also continued to discover and record artists of his own, including 50 Cent. Months before his death, he also opened Scratch DJ Academy in his native New York in order teach aspiring turntablists the artistry of his craft.
On the evening of October 30, 2002, Jay was working at his studio in Queens, New York, when two men broke into the complex. Jay was shot and killed during the invasion, at the age of 37. The murder has invited countless theories on who killed Jay and why, but the case remains unsolved.
At the time of his death, Jay was married to Terri Corley-Mizell. Jay was the father of three children. In 2009, Run-D.M.C. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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