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Jam Master Jay
Jam Master Jay
Photo Credit: Tina Paul (all images)

Jam Master Jay, born Jason Mizell, has been the backing force behind the decks for the powerful rap triumvirate Run DMC since the band's inception in 1982.  Over the past 20 years, Run DMC has done nothing less than break an entire nation on the infant sound of hip hop.  Ever since day one, when the first beats of "Rock Box" and "It's Like That" came blasting through the boomboxes, Jay and Run DMC have been proving that all it takes to rock a crowd is two turntables and a microphone.

No one can question the influence of Run DMC on modern hip hop.  The fusion of rock and rap that walked down the steps (in adidas shoes with no laces, mind you) in the "Walk This Way" music video alongside Aerosmith have since trekked around the world and back, as hit after hit made the airwaves.  Jay and the crew donned the leather, and always brought the house down no matter where they went.  Who's house?  True fans know the answer to that question.

StarPolish Art Director J Bills had the opportunity to speak with Jay shortly before he performed hosting duties at the 2002 DMC National Scratch DJ Finals in New York City.

"Let this interview serve as a tribute to one of the pioneers, the true innovators.  Jam Master Jay was a role model to the hip hop community.  A teacher, father, and artist who's achievements will no doubt be marked as legendary in the archives of hip hop.  Our utmost sympathy, thoughts, and prayers are with his family and those who surrounded him.  I personally am honored to have met the man, and wish him peace where he rests." [-J Bills]

Jam Master Jay; Jason Mizell (1965-2002)

"...that DJ made my day."

 

Jam Master Jay
Jay with DJ Red Alert

STARPOLISH:  It's no secret that Run DMC is singled out as being the band that broke hip hop to the mainstream while still maintaining every ounce of credibility along the way.  First and foremost, I want to hear your thoughts on what you've helped lay the blueprint for.  How do you feel about the current state of hip hop?

JAM MASTER JAY:  I think hip hop is progressing like most things.  It's doing what it's supposed to do.  When I was younger, I felt like no one knew about our art form - hip hop - as a whole.  I always knew that the part of hip hop that I was down with was going to bring up everything else.

When they were making a big deal out of breakdancing, they started calling it a fad, I was saying "that's not a fad, that's dance, man - it's art!"  Then about that time, they started saying rap was a fad.  How could they call rap a fad?  I took that type of thing personally...  that's like saying that singing is a fad! 

The fact is rapping broke out, and there's no way it can move backwards.  I always believed rap would make it.  It's here to stay.

Ha!  And now it's pushing to the point that you can rap over anything!  Know what I mean?  You can rap over folk music if it's got a beat!  (laughs) 

STARPOLISH: Ha!  I'm with you on that.  It seems like hip hop is now at the cyclical point that it's pushing into new territory -- where even the mainstream tracks are constantly reinventing themselves!  We're finally seeing things move away from heavy sampling, which is long overdue in my opinion.  All of the new hot producers...  the Timbalands, the Neptunes, and the DJs...  oh, man, the DJs are really making their mark.  Mixmaster Mike and some of the others we've seen on this stage in the DMC competitions in the past few years are proving that they can have a voice and can use the turntable as an instrument.  Take Mike -- in my mind he may be the perfect example of a DJ who's really pushing the limits.  It's interesting that his innovation on the turntable completely revamped the Beastie Boys live sound at a critical moment in their career when they really needed that secret stage weapon.  And then to top it off, the guy goes down to his basement and cuts wicked solo records that push the envelope of experimental hip hop.  Let's talk about that -- what's your take on the DJ's new voice and some of the experimenting that is starting to come out of it?

JAY:  It's all evolution, you know?  What you hear Mixmaster Mike doing is incredible, but I want to stress that it's what DJ's have been doing since the beginning of time.  Since the first DJ put on headphones and spun it up -- we've been pushing it ever since.  It's just now starting to come out on record and become public, ya know?  We've always been doing what you hear right here on this stage...  makin' our own tapes at home.  It's only now that hip hop is big that we start to see this type of thing on the record shelves.  Now, you don't just see the Puffy type of ideas, but you see all of the little crazy ideas that are really hot and have never been heard before.  And it's all very cool to watch go down.  Yet, the whole time we're still making progress.  Never stopping.  These DJs keep getting more and more ridiculous -- and it's good!

And I'll say this - Eminem was as big step for us.  Back in the day, 100,000 was successful for an MC or DJ type of artist.  100,000 was successful because the genre was a small market.  Now the market is as big as ever, and so are the expectations.  There's more money behind it all.  So, you know, it's not just songs, it's films.  It's grown into a lifestyle.  Hip hop.

So, yeah, to answer your question:  I love the state of hip hop, because I'm a product of it and it's a product of me.

Now, I strive on longevity.  I've got a gig tomorrow!  You know what I'm sayin'?

STARPOLISH: Well put.  Let's talk about the state of Run DMC and dispel the label nonsense rumors right now.  What's the latest?

JAY:  Yes, we got dropped from Arista about 7 months ago.  But Def Jam just made us an offer, well, yesterday!  So, we're signing to Def Jam.  So it's like "welcome home."  It's true it's the first time we've ever been signed to Def Jam, but as you may know we helped to create the label.  We were hot, and it helped Russell [Simmons] to start Def Jam.  Now, 20 years later, it comes back together.  The whole family.

We're on tour with Aerosmith and Kid Rock.  At the end of our show, Kid Rock comes out and does "King of Rock" with us, and then at then end of the whole night, we all do "Walk This Way" with me setting it off on the turntables! 

It's funny to me, because people always ask me, "what's the biggest highlight of my career."  And I guess they expect some old school answer or something.  No! Last night was pretty close!

Get this!  I have to tell you about this, man. Last night!  So we come on the stage and do our thing.  Kid Rock comes on, and then Aerosmith comes on to a packed house.  But after all of what Aerosmith does.  After the show, and the encore, and three more songs...   then all of the sudden there's turntables out there on the stage.  Then I walk out there on the tables...    Joe, Steve, everyone's still backstage.  Everybody's screaming.  You hear Steve say "Yo Jam Master Jay!"  And the shit goes down!  Aaaaaaaaarrrrrgggghhh!  (makes crowd noise)  And then I get the same love from a whole nother genre.

And then I can walk into a little club, and do a whole show, and not even play that song.  You know,  by myself.  And kill.  And rock the house.  So from the first gig to the last gig...   I'm living hip hop; I'm breathing in it.  I love it.

There were a few years where the business end of things started to get to me.  It was frustrating to see the money being made off of the art form during a period of us finding ourselves.  So we decided to just sit down and do it.  No playing around. 

Thankfully, the respect is there.  The Gap would call up and ask for a commercial, or Ted Turner wants you to do something with TNT, or the NBA will call up.  Or Jason Nevins will make a record that sells 6 million. [editor's note: referring to the house remix of "It's Like That"]  Big things come into our life, and we keep it alive.  God is saying, "here's a 2003 tourbus out here, with big TVs...  and your name on it," you know?!  (laughs)

STARPOLISH: I'll second that -- the respect is there.  As a DJ myself, I have a great deal of respect for the road you helped pave.  In fact, I'm curious -- have you ever thought of putting out a solo record?

JAY:  I get asked that all the time.  I've thought about it, and I think if I were to do something like that, it would be a big collaborative project with MCs and DJs that I've always wanted to work with.  It's tough, because I'm so busy and having a lot of fun with it right now.

DMC took that step -- he has a solo record coming out on Arista right now. I participated a little bit, but you know, he did what he wanted to do.  I haven't attempted anything like that yet.  I put Dukes out.  Jayo Felony.  I put Onyx out.  50 Cent was my artist.  New Paula Abdul...   Rusty Waters on Virgin Records.  [editor's note: Jay launched JMJ records in the mid-90's and also has done A&R for Profile]  I have found a way to express myself without attaching the name Jam Master Jay, but I do solo performances every night, and I suppose one day it will progress into something I'll have to consider.

Jam Master Jay
Jay hosting the 2002 DMC Finals

STARPOLISH: That's right, that's right.  Behind the decks, doin' it every night.  And you're killing it!  Let's talk about your considerable turntable skills for a second.  Seriously, for all of the amateurs out here, myself included...  how do you get so damn good?  Did you just lock yourself in a basement and have food shoved underneath the crack in the door?

JAY:  (laughs)  Yeah, man, for a long time...  for a long time.  Ya know, I just had to keep trying and trying to get it right rhythmically.  For a long time...   but it was fun!

STARPOLISH: And now you're passing the knowledge along to your students.  Tell us about the Scratch  DJ Academy.

JAY:  It's incredible.  The first of it's kind.  Get this:  you walk into a room -  instead of desks, you have decks!  All in a circle, with one of our instructors in the middle.  With his assistants.  We start everyone at 101.  Fundamentals.  Turntables, how to plug them in.  How the beat pulses.  Then the curriculem advances.  Kids want to do it.  But you be surprised at who else signs up.  Wall Street exec types all the way down the line!  And what's that show with the dates?  Where the couple goes out on the date and they follow them around with the cameras?  Yeah, they wanted to take a Scratch class!  Ha!  So we did that for some publicity. 

We had to raise the money to make it happen, but people didn't see what we saw, so there was a lot of promotional work.  Free classes to get the press behind it.  A free semester to get the word out.  Then our first class had 60 students.  And then 120.  My students see the DMC tapes, and they say "I want to do that."  Now you can learn from some of those cats!  We're probably the only institution that can make that happen.

STARPOLISH: It's a great idea.  It surprises me you met with a little friction at the beginning.  Has the support been there from the manufacturers and press?

JAY:  Numark has been very supportive.  They appreciate what we're attempting to do.  DJ Times has been very supportive.  DMC as well.  Also, the Truth campaign has been great to us, and we've returned the favor. We're on tour with them now, and I DJ'd the first Truth campaign kick off party. [editors note:  Truth is the anti-tobacco industry campaign]

"Show everyone major love as much as you can. Try. If you try and they don't understand, then, well, move on. That's Murphy's law, man. But always try, and be true to that."

STARPOLISH: While we're on the subject, what kind of gear are you using with all of the new technology that's dropping on us?

JAY:  I use Vestax turntables.  Numark distributes them.  I've used Numarks, too.  Man, the straight arm really comes through when I'm playing these gigs in the wind.  I can press a button and it's going backwards.  Perfect speed.  Lots of little things.  The support from them has been great, as well.

Needles -- it all depends on what mood I'm in and the system I'm working with.  I have a new tech guy, and I trust his input as well.  Shures, whatever fits for the night.  We figure that all out at soundcheck.  I have them color coded.  I say "Gimme the pink ones...   gimme the blue ones..."  whatever.  Some have a little more bass on em.  You really just have to get a feel for that on your own.

STARPOLISH: As a teacher, what's the advice you find yourself telling us younger DJs and MCs out there who are just getting into the game?  Any stumbling blocks you hit along the way that we should look out for?

JAY:  You know, I can't think of any big stumbling blocks.  I'm feeling totally successful -- totally blessed -- to be 37 years old and still doing it.  I'm running up and down the court still!  The DJ thing really keeps you young.

My best advice is try to stay level headed.  You can be on the top today and on the bottom tomorrow.  Recognize that when you're on top, you're the same person with better luck at the moment.  If you're not careful, when you level out, you could go crazy!

Don't dis on nobody.  Seriously.  Don't get down on anyone, because the person you cut today could be the President of the United States tomorrow.  For real.  That's the best thing I can tell a DJ.  Show everyone major love as much as you can.  Try.  If you try and they don't understand, then, well, move on.  That's Murphy's law, man.  But always try, and be true to that.