Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (December 2002)
The Turntables Might Wobble But They Won’t Fall Down: A Jam Master Jay Fan Remembers
by Peter “Piper” Relic
A few minutes before four o’clock on Halloween afternoon 2002, I realized I’d better do the crosstown hustle in grandma’s Nissan if I was gonna bumrush rush hour to Beachwood Place Mall. Cooped up in the lab all day, I ran outside—foliage in full flame and wind whipcracking off Lake Erie—Cleveland represent!—and drove east past the granite gryphons lording over Carnegie-Lorain Bridge.
Fiddling the radio dial of the broken cassette deck, I struck immediate jackpot as the “blazin’ hip hop and R&B” station spun Missy Elliot’s new single, giving me my fix of elephant trunk calls, backmask raps, and well, that chubby cheeked happy feeling Missy’s voice always gives me. Thing is, my favorite bit in “Work It” is the part at the end when Missy shouts out “to muh lay-deez!” and Timbaland’s track flips into the beat from Run DMC’s “Peter Piper.” Woomp! Damn if radio plays anything anymore that hits as hard as Jam Master Jay’s cuts—you know that sound, like carpet needles cutting through a bituminous bite plate? Of course, that sheer fierceness may be the reason the ending is usually chopped and faded by some dumbo-eared radio bungler to make way for a Liberty Ford commercial.
Eff ‘em. Hearing that snatch of “Peter Piper” got me hyped. I snapped off the radio and busted the verse embedded in a shell-toed part of my memory bank:
“Doctor Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing
but Jam Master’s getting loose and DMC’s the King,
Adult entertainer, child educator,
Jam Master Jay king of the cross fader,
He’s the better of the best
Best believe he’s the baddest
Perfect timing when I’m climbing on my rhyming apparatus
When he cuts girls move their butts
His name is Jay, here to play, he must be nuts
On the mix real quick and I’d like to say
He’s not last but he’s fast and his name is Jay!”
Maybe those aren’t the letter-perfect lyrics, but hey. I also doubt that my Run DMC experience was wildly different than that of many other kids lucky enough to tune in during the salad days of Hollis, Queens finest, but here goes:
It was the fall of 1985. I was a freshman at a suburban Connecticut public high school. Out of nowhere one day a way-beyond-me junior girl came up to my locker and without saying anything just handed me a tape. It was not Huey Lewis & the News. This 60 minute Memorex piece of black plastic included Beastie Boys’ “She’s On It,” Original Concept’s “Knowledge Me,” Skinny Boys’ “Jock Box” and Run DMC’s “Sucka MCs”—all songs that crunched. I listened to it on my Walkman while delivering the New Britain Herald (pumped me up to break my fastest time record on my route), on a D-battery powered Tandy tape recorder while playing driveway hockey against my brother (it made my slapshot nastier). I listened to it endlessly, and when Run DMC Raising Hell came out the following year, I bought the cassette at Strawberry’s. It took me forever to get through the entire album because I kept rewinding “It’s Tricky” and “My Adidas.” (I remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her “You be illin’.” The first time was the last.) But finally I made it to the awesome closing track, “Proud To Be Black.” Jam Master Jay’s slashing stab-scratches cut like brass tacks through a whitewashed history text as Run proclaimed “George Washington Carver made the peanut great, showed any man with a mind could create!” I loved peanut butter and I loved funky beats, just like Run DMC! They became the first heroes I ever had who weren’t pro athletes.
Thinking about it now, Jam Master Jay’s beats and cuts were essential for Run DMC to get their message across. Heck, Run and DMC knew it—they shouted Jay out all the time. Run DMC and Jam Master Jay exemplified synergy, syzygy and symbiosis—like Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, their music hit as hard as their lyrics. It had to. I doubt today’s average teenage hip hop fan can appreciate how awesome Run DMC were, because I don’t hear anything that comes close to their power on commercial rap radio. I mean maybe I’m an ageist kook, but damn…
Back to Halloween ’02. As I pulled into the mall parking lot, an announcement came on the radio: “We will now have 60 seconds of silence for Jam Master Jay who was shot and killed this morning.” The words hit like a brick to the head. I parked and walked dumbstruck into Dillard’s. The first two brothers about my age I saw I went up to and said, “I just heard…Jay Master Jay….” One fellow lowered his eyes while his buddy shook his head slowly and whispered, “I know.” I drifted over to a 70% off reject rack and found a black t-shirt that said I’VE GONE TO FIND MYSELF—IF I GET BACK BEFORE I RETURN KEEP ME HERE.
At the video store, I did what I’d come to do: buy Donnie Darko on DVD. I asked the girl ringing it up, “Are you a hip hop fan?” She looked at me. I went on: “Can you believe…Jam Master Jay?” She gave me a sorrowful, sympathetic smile and said, “He brought a lot to the game.”
He brought a lot to the game.
I drove home, flipped the stereo on and got into the shower. The Chronic 2001 disc I’d left in the player started up and I heard Dr. Dre’s voice: “I moved out of the hood for good, you blame me? Niggas can’t hit niggas they can’t see, I’m out of they sight now I’m out of they dang reach. How would you feel if niggas wanted you killed? You’d probably move to a new house on a new hill and choose a new spot if niggas wanted you shot…I ain’t a thug—how much Tupac in ya you got?”
That’s when I cried. Bad meaning bad not bad meaning good. Jam Master Jay, not being a gangsta, must have felt safe staying in the hood with his wife and kids. When Tupac and Biggie died, it wasn’t a shock like this, and didn’t hurt the same. I guess because with Jam Master Jay, it hurt the fourteen year old inside me. And that 14 year old who fell in love with hip hop (and the girl who gave me that tape; thanks Mary) is still fundamentally me. I feel Run DMC’s records like I feel my younger self: dated but never played out.
Watching Donnie Darko that night, I noticed that at one point in the movie Donnie—a suburban kid living in the mid ‘80s—is rocking shell toes. I can only assume Donnie also agrees with the on-record unison appraisal of Jam Master Jay by Run and DMC: “Goddamn that DJ made my day!”
For my friend Jeff Seifert. Rest In Peace.