Royalty? (for Jam Master Jay a.k.a. Jason Mizell)

Jason Mizell, known to the world as Jam Master Jay, the affable DJ of the groundbreaking hip-hop group Run-DMC, was senselessly murdered in his Queens, NY recording studio on the evening of October 30, 2002. Jam Master Jay was the balance, the foil really, to the hyper braggadocio of Run (Joseph Simmons) and the detached wry cool of DMC. In a word, JMJ was real. My own memories of the group’s early years were centered on the thoughts of my shortie at the time, who often referred to Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay in particular, as “boo-boo hardrocks,” meaning that the brothas might have looked all hard and thuggish with their Kangols and leather bombers, but we all knew that they were simply good-hearted brothers tryin’ to make a way for themselves in this thing we call “hip-hop.ya don’t stop.” As Run reminded folks “we got all the rhymes and all the rhymes/we don’t drop dime and don’t do crime” (“Rock Box”).

Longtime New York radio newsman Bob Slade, who did the first radio interview with the group nearly 20 years ago, recalled on the Tom Joyner in the Morning show that JMJ carried a camera with him the day of that first interview and took pictures of everything, just so he could document just where he had been, as if he knew he and his partners were headed for uncharted waters. According to USC professor Todd Boyd, author of the new book The New HNIC: the Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop, Run-DMC “took us from the underground to the mainstream and marked the territory that the music has been following every since. [Run] DMC was the bomb and Jam Master Jay was the fuse to set it off.”

This aspect of the group’s legacy has already been jettisoned as mainstream media pundits again begin to focus on the so-called violence that is supposedly endemic to hip-hop culture. As fellow Popmatters critic Felicia Pride observed, “I’m looking at AOL’s coverage of his death and right next t the article about [JMJ’s] death is a poll asking ‘Does rap music glorify real-life violence’. Let the media frenzy begin.” But Michael Eric Dyson, author of the forthcoming Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion is quick to counter mainstream judgments cautioning that “we must be careful to not sound the alarm bell about the violence of hip-hop.” The D.C. sniper and the sniper in Tucson who killed those three professors, are linked by being Gulf War veterans. They’ve collectively killed more folks in the last three weeks than have been killed in hip-hop over the last decade.

General feelings about Jam Master Jay’s murder was captured best by Reuters critic Franklin Louis Paul, Jr. (via an early morning message on my cell) when he states that “out of all of these, this is the one that got to me.” Paul was of course referencing the well known killings of Biggie and ‘Pac and countless lesser knowns like Scott La Rock and Freaky Tah. As Pride notes, “Senseless murders are becoming a part of hip-hop culture. Biggie and Tupac’s murders perpetuated the ‘reap what you sow’ anti-violent argument, now what can be said?” This is perhaps what is most maddening about JMJ’s murder-brotha had never been part of hip-hop’s thug-or-die clique. According to Dyson, JMJ was a “humanitarian, a profoundly giving brother who opened up his studio to the folk in the hood, where he continued to have his base of operations.” Murray Forman, author of The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop remembers when Run-DMC challenged gang violence within hip-hop during their Raising Hell tour: “At the time, they clearly and forcefully expressed their disdain for the antics that cast all of hip-hop in a negative light in the mainstream media and among law and order authorities. Despite the wave of negativity that they faced, they didn’t stop and they didn’t back down; instead, they threw down even harder for hip-hop that could unify people across the divisions of difference.”

For Pride, Jam Master Jay’s murder is telling: “when you lose an icon like Jay the entire hip-hop nation feels it. How do you kill Jam Master Jay? It’s hip-hop treason.” Yes, an icon. ‘Pac and Biggie were hip-hop stars and celebrities at a particular moment in hip-hop’s life-they only became legends and icons in death. But Run-DMC were living legends and icons — they were royalty. Never the best or even the most important of rap acts, they legitimately changed the game and have been duly celebrated within hip-hop for opening up the genre to the mainstream. Though simple comparisons between Run-DMC and legendary jazz and Soul performers do little justice to the significance of any of these artists, within the context of hip-hop music and culture the killing of Jam Master Jay is comparable to someone walking up to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and shooting them in the head. It is cultural treason. Beefs happen and folks have drama-we have a litany of important cultural figures like Lee Morgan, King Curtis, Eddie Jefferson and Marvin Gaye who died senseless violent deaths-but these are our icons and there supposed to be protected. While it is all too easy to again blame the death of Jam Master Jam on the so-called moral and ethical lacking of the hip-hop generation, if we have indeed come to the point that our cultural icons and legends can be shot dead in the street, then we are guilty of all the things that folks say that we are guilty of. It is a shameful day to be a part of the hip-hop generation.

Our Prayers go out the family of Jason Mizell, especially his wife and three children.