Jam Master Jay, RIP

As far as I’m concerned the beat that begins “Sucker MC’s” is as important and recognizable as Keith Richards’s opening phrase in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I first heard it at ten years old, though I had no history of music to draw on, I knew I was hearing something new and different, something raw and direct and yet futuristic. The voices that slung quick slang over a bare drum machine had a heart and soul that I didn’t hear on the radio. I was quickly addicted. It’s safe to say that Jam Master Jay and his group Run-DMC changed my life.

They certainly changed my family’s life. My parents refused to get a tape player in their cars because they didn’t want to have to listen to my rap tapes. I have vivid memories of playing Kurtis Blow for my grandmother (she liked the piano in “8 Million Stories”) and lying on the living room floor on Christmas Day and listening through almost all of LL Cool J’s Radio album on my “ghetto blaster” before my dad asked me please to plug my earphones in. My first concert at 11 years old was New Edition but I didn’t care about them. Opening the show were The Fat Boys and Whodini. My best friend’s father took his children and me. God bless him. I’m sure that being in a minority of pale faces in Municipal Auditorium was not his idea of a great Saturday night. On the way to the show, we listened to Run-DMC’s King of Rock record. I knew every word though my friend Eric had only copied the tape for me a week or so earlier. My Fat Boys “Jailhouse Rap” painter’s cap I bought at the concert was destroyed from constant wear. Thankfully the hat and some parachute pants that were worn a few times were the only sartorial nods I made to hip-hop culture. I was, after all, a skinny white dude growing up in a Nashville suburb.

Rap galvanized my music fandom. I listened to 92Q exclusively. I would record hours of their broadcast. I bought as many rap compilation cassettes as I could. It was all I listened to. My Michael Jackson and Men At Work cassettes were ignored.

High school was spent with “alternative” music. It wasn’t until I discovered De La Soul almost ten years later that I rekindled my love for rap. Gangsta rap left me unfulfilled and the increasing noisiness of the genre lacked the simplicity and directness that Run-DMC had once delivered. Though De La, Black Sheep and a few others scratched my itch, I was no longer as obsessed as I used to be.

Run-DMC were without equal. Their rhymes were simple and effective — they cut right to point. So did their beats. The songs on their first two records have little accompaniment besides a drum machine, turntables and occasional guitar. They boasted but it was playground stuff. They never bragged about vices. In their entire catalog of dozens of catchy songs, none involved sex, drugs, guns, violence or crime. At least two singles, “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That,” delivered social concern without sappiness or directionless anger. The foulest their language ever got was “butt,” “hell” and maybe “damn.”

At the time (1983-1985), the music was a shock but in retrospect, it’s aged better than any of the noisy bling-bling rap of today will. Like the Ramones, Run-DMC cut through the bull and wrote pop songs in their own simple style. Also like the Ramones, Run-DMC ignored fashion trends and accoutrements and opted for basic black — black jackets, black hats and black jeans — with one exception: their white Adidas.

They never hated anybody and were credited with helping out numerous aspiring musicians. Yet, still they were humble. You never caught any of the three of them talking about their good works. Joseph “Run” Simmons went on to become a minister. Jay founded a label and helped produce young rappers. By all accounts, their only extravagance was shoes.

On Wednesday, 30 October 2002, someone entered Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell’s studio and shot him in the head. The person who did this stole from us all. When I hear the news coverage, I shudder every time someone mentions Tupac or Notorious B.I.G. in the context of Jay’s death. When people discuss Pac and Biggie, they are forced to say things like “violence was just something he rapped about,” “he wasn’t like that in life,” “he was a gentle person.” They have to justify the violent, criminal persona with the private person. With Run, D and Jay, you never have to. Their personalities on tape were just as gentle, polite, gracious and peaceful as they were in private. The worst they ever called someone was a “sucker.” Unfortunately, I can come up with much worse for the person who took Jay’s life.

There’s something about the nature of pop music that makes us feel as though we know personally those who made our favorite songs. When one of our favorite musicians dies, it’s as though a friend has passed away. There’s music that I like more than Run-DMC’s. There are other records I play more often. But there are precious few who mean as much to me as Run, DMC and Jay.

Godspeed, Jay. You were the best.