The death of DJ Kay Slay, legendary New York staple and "Drama King," sent shockwaves across the Hip-Hop community.
Kay Slay, born Keith Grayson, died on April 17 after battling COVID-19 for months. Styles P of The LOX posted on Instagram, “@kayslay will live forever. He embodied what the words culture and support means!! !He truly truly, truly put on for the city and Hip-Hop. Energy nor legends never die.”
DJ Kay Slay is indeed the embodiment of Hip-Hop. Kay started as a graffiti artist who originally tagged as "Spade," and he was featured in the seminal 1983 Hip-Hop documentary, Style Wars. “My main name is 'Dez TFA,'" the young graf artist explains in the doc. "But the name I started out with was 'Spade 429.' After awhile, you get tired of writing the same name, and you want to expand."
“I wanted a nice small name that I could get up everywhere and do it quick. I took the 'D' and 'E' from 'Spade' and I wanted to use a letter that no one else hardly used, so I took the 'Z.' After 'Dez,' I started adding pieces on like 'Dezzy Dez.' That’s how graffiti goes.”
Even as a 17-year old Graffiti artist, the warrior spirit was evident in Kay Slay. “I never go (to the train yard) and do one piece and leave, I feel like that’s being a toy. If you gonna go, you go out to bomb and do four or five cars in one night. That’s where it shows a king. A king will go out to the yard with 30 or 40 cans (of spray paint). A toy will go to the yard with two cans."
When I go paintin,’ ain't nobody stoppin’ me...MTA – nobody. I’m Dezzy Dez TFA and I don’t play..."
- Dez aka Kay Slay (STYLE WARS, 1983)
Kay Slay witnessed the rise of Hip-Hop’s elements firsthand, and when Graffiti took more of a backseat to the culture's more musical elements in the mainstream, Kay took an interest in DJing. Slay told Gary Suarez of FORBES in 2019: “I didn’t set out to be a DJ, It was something fun that I enjoyed doing.” After a prison stint in the late 80s, Slay was released in 1990, and credits DJs Kid Capri and the late Lovebug Starski for motivating him to take his DJ career seriously. On "Intro" from Kay Slay’s 2021 release Soul Controller, he gives a glimpse into what it took to build himself; from his late prison stint to becoming Drama King.
“It was a time that I had stepped away from the culture," Slay testifies on the track. "I was soulless and confused with life, but in 1990 I decided to return, and the culture helped restore my soul. Hip Hop saved my life, so just know: when I say that I’m doin’ it for the culture, its not business—It’s personal."
When I say that I’m doin’ it for the culture, its not business—It’s personal."
- DJ Kay Slay ("Intro" from SOUL CONTROLLER)
In 2019, Slay told Remi TV that when he came out of jail in late 1990, he saw DJs like Ron G, S&S, Kid Capri and Brucie B “doing their thing with the music.”
“Let’s take it back to the 1980s," Kay Slay said. "We did it for fun! Now they were gettin’ money and I thought maybe I should out my feet back into it and I started doing mixtapes. The first one that I did was ’93 or ’94 and it was called 'Warning Part One' and the response I got from that was crazy.”
Slay would play spots like B&B Disco and Marina’s Bar at 104 St. and 2nd Ave in Harlem while his mixtapes made noise on the streets, so he invested in equipment to further pursue the mixtape.
By 2000, Slay was so hot that the late Chris Lighty of Violator Management and Steve Rifkin reached out to him to with an offer from Loud Records. Funkmaster Flex started to play freestyles from Kay’s tapes on the air. “Flex was playing my tapes, with my name shouted on them on the air, and he wanted to know 'Who is DJ Kay Slay? I’m hearing his name from every car that passes me on the highway.'” Kay was offered a job at Hot 97 on the strength of Flex’s persistence. Kay maintains that it was Flex who was responsible for him breaking into radio, but it was his own work ethic that brought the other successes his way.
If I give anybody props for my radio career, it's Funkmaster Flex. But as far as me doin' my thing, it was just me and my hard work..."
- DJ Kay Slay
In 2003, Slay released his first major label project, the highly acclaimed and successful Streetsweepers Vol. 1 on Columbia Records. In 2004, ...Vol. 2 was released. In 2004, Slay became head of Shaquille O'Neal's DEJA34 label, where he released The Champions. He signed Papoose and co-founded Straight Stuntin' Magazine in 2005; and he hosted "The Drama Hour" on Hot 97 for twenty years. More recently, Kay Slay pulled off the incredible task of assembling what started as twenty-five MCs for 2005's "Rollin' 25 Deep"—which morphed into "Rolling 50 Deep," and finally, "Rolling 110 Deep" in 2021.
On April 17, Van Silk—veteran concert promotor and DJ Kay Slay associate—reflected on his friend's passing and shared that Slay had been looking forward to continuing his "Rolling..." series.
"We talked last December because we were finishing up 'Rolling 200 Deep,'" Van Silk explained. "We were gonna do his video part with Sha Rock."
DJ Kay Slay had been hospitalized since December of 2021 due to complications from COVID-19. He passed in the late hours of Easter Sunday; his family issued a statement to Hot 97.
"A dominant figure in Hip-Hop culture with millions of fans worldwide, DJ Kay Slay will be remembered for his passion and excellence with a legacy that will transcend generations. In memory of DJ Kay Slay, our family wishes to thank all of his friends, fans, and supporters for their prayers and well wishes during this difficult time. We ask that you respect our privacy as we grieve this tragic loss."