Run-DMC star, 37, was hip-hop pioneer
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Jam Master Jay, whose innovative turntable scratching helped the rap group Run-DMC break into the pop music mainstream, is being remembered as a pioneer and groundbreaker by friends and colleagues.
"These are our Beatles," Public Enemy's Chuck D told The New York Times. Public Enemy had paid tribute to Jam Master Jay in a song, with Chuck D rapping, "Run-DMC first said a DJ could be a band."
Jam Master Jay, who was born Jason Mizell in the middle-class Queens neighborhood of Hollis, was shot in the head and killed Wednesday night at a recording studio in the borough's Jamaica neighborhood. He was 37. Another man, Urieco Rinco, 25, was shot in the leg and taken to a local hospital, police said. (Full story)
Police are investigating the shooting, which took place inside a studio on Merrick Boulevard about 7:30 p.m. EDT.
No arrests have been made in the case.
'[Run-DMC] came at a time when rap was not fully embraced by [even] the urban culture. ... People can't understand how important they were in pop music history," said Jim Tremayne, editor of DJ Times, a trade magazine for DJs. "They were absolutely as revolutionary as Elvis" when it came to popularizing rap, and it was Jay who provided the beat, he said.
Jam Master Jay was born January 21,1965. He linked up with Run (Joseph Simmons) and DMC (Darryl McDaniels) -- also from Hollis -- scratching turntables for the two rappers who had just graduated from high school.
Simmons is the brother of entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who founded Def Jam Records and later the Phat Farm clothing empire, and it was Russell Simmons who encouraged his sibling to form a group.
Mizell became a DJ because he "just wanted to be a part of the band," he told DJ Times in 2000.
"I was a drummer and I played the guitar," he recalled. "Then I just moved into being a DJ when that turned into the hottest thing."
At the time -- the late '70s and early '80s -- rap was just gaining commercial traction. Thanks to artists such as Davey D, pioneer rapper Kurtis Blow's DJ, DJs were starting to become a key part of a rap group and also gaining their own fans.
But even then, Run-DMC was different. Other rap groups had more of a dance feel and cleaner beats. Run-DMC used riffs from rock records and had a grittier sound, and Jay was noticed for his work.
"First and foremost, he was one of the first DJs to be recognized by the general public as a DJ," said Tremayne. "There had been DJs from the old school, such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, who were known to aficionados, but Jay was the first to be seen by a lot of people."
In 1983, Run-DMC released its first single, "It's Like That" with a B-side, "Sucker MC's," which spawned a phrase used in rap songs decades later. The group's first two albums, "Run-DMC" and "King of Rock," established them as the biggest rap group in America.
"As the 'King of Rock' title suggests, the group was breaking down the barriers between rock 'n' roll and rap, rapping over heavy metal records and thick, dense drum loops," notes the All Music Guide's Steven Thomas Erlewine.
Known for their loose Adidas-brand shoes and thumping beats, the trio is credited with beginning the trend of combining rap music and rock 'n' roll in their hit remake of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" (from the album "Raising Hell") in 1986, teaming up with the band's lead singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry.
In the DJ Times interview, Mizell took credit for Run-DMC's distinctive style, including its Adidas footwear and black hats.
"How I dressed in high school is the way we dressed," he said. "My vibe is our vibe."
Several of Run-DMC's songs boast about Jam Master Jay's DJ skills, including a song named after the turntable spinner. "They were always giving attention back to the DJ," said Tremayne.
Death evokes memories of other rapper shootings
Run-DMC met with problems as the '80s waned. The group put out "Tougher Than Leather" in 1988, but it did not sell as well as "Raising Hell." The members' personal lives were in turmoil: McDaniels had to overcome a bout with alcoholism, and Simmons was accused of rape, but the charges were later dropped. Both artists later become born-again Christians.
Mizell formed his own label, Jam Master Jay Records, in the late '80s. In the 1990s, he was in a car accident and was wounded by a gunshot. But the group overcame its obstacles and reformed in the late '90s, recording "Crown Royal." This year, the group toured with Aerosmith and Kid Rock.
The shooting death was met with shock by the group's fans.
"May Jay remain an inspiration for us all -- a man with vision, creativity, generosity, and talent, one who condemned and spoke against violence and was taken away from us and his family far too soon," one fan posted on the group's Web site.
"He was the most down-to-earth guy you'd ever want to meet," said Tremayne. Mizell came to two of his magazine's International DJ Expos, and "I'd never seen such abounding love for a DJ," Tremayne said.
Urban stations in New York and elsewhere were paying tribute to Mizell Thursday by playing Run-DMC songs.
News of Mizell's death evoked memories of the shooting deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s.
Unlike other rap artists whose lyrics glorified gangsters and "thug life," Run-DMC distanced itself from that image.
"They say we're putting out bad messages to the kids," Simmons told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1986 interview in response to violent outbursts at several of the group's concerts. "Our image is clean, man. Kids beat each other's heads every day. They are fighting because they were fighting before I was born. ... We're role models."
When asked by DJ Times what he was most proud of, Mizell didn't hesitate.
"Believing in something and being a part of something you believe in and watching it work and coming from it," he said.
"Back in the day, if someone said that hip-hop and rap was a fad, that was a joke to me because they just didn't know what they were talking about. ... Now it is on the No. 1 this, No. 1 that. And it isn't just about making hip-hop; we were able to make hip-hop for everybody."