The King and I

Sometimes, when conducting creative writing workshops, I get to have conversations with young people about hip-hop. Depending on their age, they often have a difficult time remembering legendary rap groups like Run-D.M.C. At that point, in my mind, they demote themselves from hip-hop fans to rap fans because they lack the history of hip-hop culture.

I tell them Run-D.M.C. is the reason corporations include hip-hop elements in their marketing strategies. Run-D.M.C. is the reason KFC made Colonel Sanders into a caricature and had him dance the cabbage patch while chanting, “Go Colonel! Go Colonel!” Run-D.M.C. is the reason Stuart Scott, one of two African-American anchors on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” news program, can sprinkle hip-hop terminology throughout his news reports and come off hip, not rebellious.

I tell them that, had Run-D.M.C. not projected hip-hop culture onto the world stage, I may not have a job. The world may never have heard Boogie Down Productions or Rakim en masse. The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac may never have enjoyed superstar treatment in places as far abroad as Japan and friggin’ Budapest. Who can forget how Run-D.M.C. kick started Aerosmith’s waning career with its 1986 remake of “Walk This Way”?

As Chuck D said outside the Queens, New York, studio where Run-D.M.C. DJ Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, 37, was murdered on Oct. 29, “They were our Beatles.” Run-D.M.C. is to hip-hop what Little Richard is to rock ’n’ roll. They weren’t the first to do it — rapping, backed only by a DJ — but they were the first to make it acceptable to the world. They didn’t sugarcoat hip-hop either. They showed the world how hip-hop lived.

I remember local rhyme crews whose DJs cut like Jam Master Jay. Many of you reading this remember where you were the first time you heard “Sucker MCs.” On that same album, Rock The House, we marveled at the way Run and D.M.C. pulled Jay to the forefront, saying, “Kick off your shoes! Jump on the jock! Listen to the Jam Master as he starts to rock!”

The sound that followed rocked fat-tired Cherokees for years. Zh-Zh-Zhnn! Zh… Zh…Zh-Zh-Zhnn!

Jam Master Jay was the big beat blaster — turntablist, percussion, keyboard and bass player. He shared equal billing with his rhyme partners and, when he chilled at the back of the stage during their live shows, he always seemed like the backbone, not the background.

One-third of a group known for messages like “Hard Times,” “It’s Like That,” and “Proud To Be Black,” Jay also discovered and developed Onyx, the group that to this day is not credited for introducing ‘grimy’ rhyme styles, slam-dancing and bald heads as fashion statements in hip-hop.

Run-D.M.C. opened so many of the doors that led to hip-hop’s current status as the world’s most lucrative form of musical entertainment. Sure, the world came to know them when they covered “Walk This Way,” thus laying the groundwork for the marriage of rock and rap. But before that, they were the newcomers who unexpectedly ripped the stage alongside superstars like David Bowie, Paul McCartney and U2.

Remember Live Aid, the Woodstock-style benefit concert to help end starvation in African countries? One year later, when the seminal single “My Adidas” dropped, Run-D.M.C. reported how they “stepped on stage, at Live Aid. All the people gave. And the poor got paid!” Jay’s determined scratches and a distant rim shot provided the only percussion in the song.

You never want to compare the magnitude of any person’s passing but this is as big, if not bigger, than Pac and Biggie. They were closer to us in age, genre and philosophy. But Jay’s crew was their foundation, and they proudly stood on Run-D.M.C.’s back.

I remember begging my mother to buy a jar of Afro-Sheen, not because I had a lot of hair. Hell, I had a crewcut then. I wanted it because of a special Black History Month promotion that gave away a free cassette tape of Run-D.M.C.’s extended “Black History Rap” with every jar. Kurtis Blow even had a tune on the B-side.

When you put Jay’s life in succinct context, his death is arguably hip-hop’s single most riveting loss ever. Many will ask why it happened this way, in wrenching fashion, as if to shake from a comfortable slumber. At the time of this writing, authorities in New York City have no motive, but it appears that whoever walked into that studio intended to kill only Jay. Now many of us pray that he, of all hip-hop icons, does not leave us holding a tarnished legacy.

And if it is, so what? We don’t fault Dr. King’s or Bill Clinton’s record because their personal lives have blemishes, do we?

Certain things hold value, like diamonds. Run-D.M.C. is a diamond to hip-hop. They are pieces of Hollis, Queens, coal who stuck to their job, and shined for it.

They shined for us. Rest in peace, Jay.

Khary Kimani Turner drops words and spits rhymes for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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