We all heard the story, again and again. About how Run-DMC became the Kings From Queens. And how Jay cut the record down to the bone. But few really understand the influence Jam Master Jay, who would have turned 50 today, had on Run-DMC, and on fashion and music in general.
The story goes: Young Jason showed abilities as a musician. He played drums, guitar, and bass, and was down with a few garage bands. As hip-hop became an emerging urban genre, Jay flipped his music skills to deejaying. DJs were the livest cats at the park jams and house parties, and Jay was always the livest one. Live in that as his future partners Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) hailed from solid middle class families and were a bit more sheltered from the harsher realities of the then-mean streets of New York City. Jay was totally a part of it, soaking up game, and of course the flyest of street fashions.
And being fly in these New York streets meant staying up on the latest gear before they got played out. There was no Internet for you sissy-soft hypebeasts to cop your swag from, so swag was spontaneous and created on the spot. Mock-neck sweaters, British Walker shoes, Kangol caps and brims, tailored gabardine slacks and straight-leg jeans, quarterfield and sheepskin jackets, fresh Clyde Frazier Pumas or shell toe adidas kicks, Cazal eyewear, with or without the lenses in them. Jay stay dipped in all the above, plus more. And unlike the Disneyfied New York City that you snot noses have become accustomed to, New York was a living hell on Earth. Being fresh meant being at risk of getting robbed for your swag, shoes, hat, jacket, coat. Cats would set it on you for all of your freshest gear if you wasn’t live with your street cred and you hand game. Jam Master Jay was all of that, and cats didn’t test him because he wasn’t no poo-putt sucker out on the avenue waiting to get vicked.
For such a no-frills rap act, Run-DMC stayed doing the most with Jam Master Jay keeping them firmly anchored to the streets.
On top of the ill bangers like “Sucker MCs” and “It’s Like That” that made Run-DMC the definitive harbingers of rap’s then new school, they also looked the part. Our favorite rappers and MCs at the time emulated the swag of R&B predecessors. Melle Mel (of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five MCs fame) and them dressed like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and Earth Wind and Fire. Grand Master Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers dressed like the older, flashy Uptown hustlers. When it was time to create their image, Jam Master Jay was the determining factor in the young “Princes of Rock” dressing like they naturally did. As a young rap kid, me and thousands of others were shocked and amazed when we saw rappers dressing like we did, only with a better wardrobe budget.
The new school takeover was complete: the illest beats to the illest rhymes and a fashion sensibility that shouted “these new cats is representing any and every rap fan who wants to be down with the next generation of this rap shit.” In one fell swoop, the old school of rap was ethered. And whether it was intentional or instinctual, Jam Master Jay was responsible for that.
The single “Rock Box” was the very first rap video to appear nationwide on MTV’s video playlist. Shot mostly in gritty black-and-white film and sepia tones, with the trio dipped in matching leather pants, jackets, brims, and adidas, the imagery of the video captured the cool essence of New York’s downtown club scene. For kids across the nation, the “Rock Box” video was their first peek at what New York hip-hop cool looked like. And what was fucking with Jay’s cut-and-scratch cameo? Nothing, b. “Our DJ’s better than all these bands.” Run-DMC ain’t never lie to us, jack.
Like the best of DJs of that era, Jay played the background, but his presence was felt. Where Run-DMC’s first self-titled album was a game changer, their second album, King of Rock, released 30 years ago today, confirmed that Run-DMC season was upon us, and that all other rappers in the game had no other option than to watch their throne. The album cover only featured the tops of Run and D’s heads, crowned in matching fedora brims, D’s brim adorned with Cazal frames. Jay did that. And unlike most rap acts that landed deals and opted to forego the gritty sounds of cutting and scratching for synthesized beats, Jay made sure his turntable wizardry stayed at the forefront. Recently deceased Larry Smith, rap’s first super-producer, helmed the production for this sophomore album (as he did their debut), but the samples and scratches incorporated were curated and handpicked by Jay. Most rap acts, like most acts of any genre, were focused on going pop and leaving their humble beginnings. Jay, Run, and D knew it was essential that no matter how pop they became, they stayed hood. King of Rock’s impact on American and global culture is undeniable. The success of the album got them to be the first rap act to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and paved the way for their best-selling album Raising Hell, which, in turn, led to them being the first rap act to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. For such a no-frills rap act, Run-DMC stayed doing the most with Jam Master Jay keeping them firmly anchored to the streets.
Jay’s innovative influences didn’t just end with Run-DMC. I recently spoke with hip-hop fashion pioneer April Walker of Walker Wear fame. She spoke of how Jay was the very first celebrity to sport her gear. He loved the gear so much that he influenced his group to rock Walker Wear. That led to Walker Wear being sported by Treach of Naughty by Nature, the group Onyx, Snoop Doggy Dogg, heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, and countless other high-profile celebs. One night during a creative meeting, Jay suggested to April that she add stash pockets in her designs, which meant pockets large enough to stash a cat’s weed (pre-weed-carrier days, fam), gats, beepers, and whatever else urban cats needed to stash on their persons. The stash pockets were such a hit that they went on to influence European designers like Girbaud and Tommy Hilfiger.
Every king in the history books had an unsung king maker who helped them establish their respective kingdoms. On this very special day, lets all pay homage to the King of Rock’s own king maker Jason Mizell. We’ll always love Jam Master Jay!
Reggie Osse is the host of The Combat Jack Show. Follow him @Combat_Jack.