From Run-D.M.C. to 50 Cent: The Extraordinary Legacy of Jam-Master Jay
By Stereo Williams
(editor's note* this story was originally published Aug. 18, 2020)
What DJ is more iconic than Jam-Master Jay?
Turntable guru of legendary rap group Run-D.M.C., Jay has always been one of the most famous spinners in the world. And since his tragic death in 2002, Jay's stature has only grown; both via Run-D.M.C.'s gigantic legacy, and via Jay's singular contributions to music, style and culture. There is only one Jam-Master Jay, and he looms large, with an imprint that spans more than 20 years of Hip-Hop history.
On August 17, two men were formally charged with Jay's murder. The indictment of Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan, Jr. may finally begin the process of bringing closure to Jay's family, as everyone waits to see how and if justice will be served. Almost 18 years after his death, Jam-Master Jay's legacy remains one of Hip-Hop's most significant. Both as deejay for Run-D.M.C. and in his work outside the group, Jay cast a shadow that has always stood as one of the rap game's most unique and most important.
His bandmates Run and D.M.C. knew Jay from his DJing in Two Fifths Park in their Hollis, Queens neighborhood; and the pair recruited the popular turntablist after they'd gained a manager in Run's older brother, soon-to-be-impresario Russell Simmons. It was Simmons who told the two rappers they should start dressing like their DJ, who rocked laceless Adidas sneakers, big gold chains and a black fedora. Jay's style was pure Queens hustler, and it gave Run-D.M.C. an image that married them to the streets, even though Run and Dee's upbringing was quite suburban. Jay's image – and by extension Run-D.M.C.'s pushing of that image into the mainstream – helped move Hip-Hop away from the early funk and punk-inspired outfits worn by artists like The Furious Five and The Cold Crush Brothers, towards something less flamboyant and more street. The look became a staple.
Jay'd been musically inclined since his childhood, and played drums, bass and synths on various Run-D.M.C. tracks, in addition to his trademark scratching. And by the late 1980s, Jay was branching out on his own. He produced "The Ruler's Back," the popular Slick Rick track that would later be interpolated by Jay-Z for his own song of the same name. And in 1989, Jay launched his own imprint -- JMJ Records.
Once JMJ got off the ground, Jay immediately made it clear that he wasn't interested in the predictable. His label's roster would feature an eclectic collection of artists. The first two acts signed to JMJ Records were The Fam-Lee, a funk band out of New Jersey; and The Afros, a big-haired trio (inspired by a memorable scene from comedy spoof Hollywood Shuffle) that included DJ Hurricane of the Beastie Boys. Kickin' Afrolistics was released in 1990, and the group's videos were in constant rotation on music networks.
Kickin' Afrolistics wasn't a huge seller but it helped establish JMJ Records. In 1992, The Fam-Lee dropped the Jam-Master Jay-produced It Runs In the Fam-Lee, a New Jack Swing album that also wasn't a major commercial success. Nonetheless, Jam-Master Jay had found a creative voice outside of his famous group, even as Run-D.M.C. hit a slow period commercially.
The foursome of Fredro, Suavé, Big D.S. and Sticky Fingaz would sit at the forefront of a new generation of hardcore New York rap, but they had yet to become fully formed. As a trio, Onyx had released an unsuccessful single called "Ah, and We Do It Like This" in 1990 on Profile Records, and rambunctious emcee Sticky wasn't even officially in the group yet.
"Onyx was together before Sticky Fingaz got in the group," Sticky explained to Who? Mag. "It was Fredro, Big DS, and Sonsee – which his name was Suave at the time. They had a single out called 'Ah, and We do it Like This' on Profile Records. They weren’t happy with the record label, so they got off it. They started shopping for another deal. They came across Jam-Master Jay and his JMJ label. He was feeling the Onyx stuff, but he wanted to hear some more material. At the time Big DS and Sonsee got stranded in Connecticut. Our manager at the time told Fredro 'You and your cousin Sticky go to the studio and make something. We have to give Jay some more music before we lose this deal.' We went to the studio and made a few songs, but only one song was the one that really stuck – which was 'Stick and Move.' Of all the songs we gave Jay, that was the one that made the album. When it came time to sign the group, he was like 'Hold up! Where’s the guy with the deep voice?' I wasn’t even in the group. I was just doing them a favor and that's how I got abducted into Onyx."
On JMJ Records, the group had a much more distinct sound and image. In 1992, the label released the single "Throw Ya Gunz" and it became a much-requested radio hit on East Coast rap stations. It eventually rose to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Rap singles chart and floated around the lower reaches of the Hot 100.
“When we first met him, [on] the first day he was like, ‘Yo, I got a label and when shit pop off, I’ma put y’all on,’” Fredro Starr told HipHopDX in 2015. “When he got his label, it popped off, he put us on and we rocked with [Jam-Master] Jay and Jay became a brother. An older brother, a mentor, teaching us how to do everything."
Onyx's bombastic next single "Slam" became the group's major breakthrough. The moshpit-friendly anthem took over radio in spring 1993, going all the way to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group's debut album, Bacdafucup, was a platinum-seller, and JMJ Records was seeing its first major success, alongside a resurgent Run-D.M.C., who'd seen their own Billboard Top Ten hit with "Down With the King" just a few months prior.
JMJ was rolling. Following Onyx's success, Jam-Master Jay signed San Diego-based rapper Jayo Felony to JMJ. The West Coast rhymer dropped his debut album Take A Ride in 1995, with production from Jam-Master Jay; and that same year, Jay scored a single from the platinum-selling Def Jam soundtrack for Hip-Hop doc The Show. "What's Up, Star?" saw veteran rapper Sweet T (formerly of Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor's Idol Makers camp, who'd rechristened herself Suga) teaming up with Jay on a bubbly party track.
Jam-Master Jay's roots and his heart were always tied to Queens, and in the late 1990s, he found another diamond-in-the-rough in his home borough. A brash battle rapper named 50 Cent was making a name for himself, and Jay was struck by the emcees confrontational style. “I started writing lyrics full time in 1997," 50 wrote in an open letter for The Big Issue in 2015. "I met Jam-Master Jay from Run-D.M.C. and he had his label, which would take people on and develop them until they were ready to go to a major.
"Jay taught me how to count bars – and when the chorus should start and stop. And I kept practicing. Sometimes hard work beats talent. I wrote all the time, and so I got better and better."
50 would eventually land with Eminem on Dr. Dre's West Coast-based Aftermath Records, but it was Jay who first discovered this eventual superstar. After a stint on Columbia, a 2000 shooting that almost cost the rapper his life and several indie and mixtape releases, 50 Cent's breakthrough would finally come in 2002. Sadly, Jam-Master Jay was killed in October of that year. 50 would release his multiplatinum major label debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin' in 2004. Jay never got to see his most famous protege's rise to to multiplatinum success.
The arrests made in the murder of Jam-Master Jay brought an exasperated, collective sigh of relief from Hip-Hop fans who love Run-D.M.C. and revere the legendary DJ who Run and Dee famously declared was "better than all these bands." In the years since we lost Jay, his legacy has only become more evident. He founded the Scratch DJ Academy just before his death, and The Academy hosts events, tutorials and tours, with flagship locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. The Scratch DJ Academy is dedicated to furthering the art of deejaying around the world, all in the name of its legendary founder.
It's all a stirring testament to the vision of Jason Mizell.