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A pioneering figure in the development of hip-hop, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell provided the concrete, stripped-down beats for Run-D.M.C., the highly influential rap group he co-founded in 1982 and brought to stardom throughout the 1980s before his murder in 2002. Mizell's contributions to the rap genre were nothing short of transformative; with his bandmates, he brought hip-hop out of the disco and away from a dance-driven sound, favoring instead bunker-busting beats over aggressive vocals. Mizell also brokered some of the earliest collaborations between rap and rock with "Rock Box" and "Walk This Way," a Top 5 single for the band in 1989. His signature attire - black coat, black hat, white sneakers - also brought street sense to hip-hop fashion. When Run-D.M.C.'s fortunes waned in the early 1990s, Mizell launched his own label, which brought such hit acts as 50 Cent and Onyx to the forefront of the genre. His murder in 2002 was nothing short of a tragedy in hip-hop circles, which paid tribute to the musician as a fallen leader. Mizell's impact upon rap was among the most significant contributions to popular music of the late 20th century.
Born Jason William Mizell in Brooklyn, NY on Jan. 21, 1965, Jam Master Jay was the youngest of three children by Jesse and Connie Thompson Mizell. His connection to music began at the age of five, when he played drums and sang in his church's choir. When the family moved to the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, NY, Mizell played bass, guitar and drums in several bands before discovering the turntables. Billed initially as Jazzy Jase before adopting his more famous stage moniker, he began DJing at parties while still in his early teens, shortly before teaming with fellow Jackson High School students Darryl "DMC" McDaniels and Joseph "Run" Simmons. The trio stood apart from other New York rap crews in the 1980s, due largely to Mizell's contributions. His beats were simple but powerful and direct, drawing inspiration from '70s funk and rock rather than the disco track with which most rappers of the period would construct their material. Mizell was also responsible for the group's signature attire of leather coats, thick-brimmed fedoras, gold chains and unlaced Adidas, which was based on Mizell's own sartorial choices. Even their name distanced them from the florid, Marvel Comics-esque names of fellow rap acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three and the Get Fresh Crew.
When Run-D.M.C. released their debut single, "It's Like That/Sucker MCs" in 1983, the impact upon the growing hip-hop scene was immediate. Aspiring hip-hop artists saw that to reach the Top 20 on the R&B charts, as the single did, they did not need fancy costumes or dance routines or a large crew. Run-D.M.C. had delivered an intense, confrontational and unapologetic hit using just their voices and Mizell's bruising minimalist beats. The effect was not unlike the far-flung influence of Elvis Presley or the Beatles upon teenagers around the world: young black and white men across the country took up two turntables and a microphone to deliver their own variations on a Run-D.M.C. clarion call. Among those acts who could call Mizell and his bandmates direct inspiration were such legendary hip-hop artists and groups as Public Enemy, N.W.A., KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Their influence would later extend to rock acts like Faith No More, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, who would take a cue from the mix of rock and hip-hop beats on Run-D.M.C.'s landmark track "Rock Box," from their self-titled 1984 debut LP.
For much of the 1980s, Mizell and Run-D.M.C. were the pacesetters by which all other rap acts were measured. They were the first hip-hop group to be aired on MTV, as well as the first to earn a gold album and appear on the venerable pop-rock institution "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA/syndicated, 1952-1989). In 1985, their sophomore album, King of Rock was the first to achieve platinum sales status, but they soon surpassed that accolade with Raising Hell. Released in 1986, it was the first rap album to top the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hops, while their groundbreaking duet with Aerosmith on "Walk This Way" not only revived the veteran rock group's flagging career, but marked the first appearance of a rap song in the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their subsequent national tour provided widespread exposure for their labelmates The Beastie Boys, though incidents of violence at several shows marred the group's reputation as peacemakers.
Run-D.M.C.'s rise to the top of the music business was followed by an equally precipitous decline. Their fourth album, Tougher Than Leather (1988), did not match the success of its predecessor. Back from Hell (1990) fared even worse, adding considerable fuel to the group's immolation, which had begun with McDaniels and Simmons' growing problems with drugs and alcohol. Three years would pass before the band would record again, during which time Mizell launched his own label, JMJ Records, which scored major hits with the group Onyx. After Simmons and McDaniels gained sobriety and newfound religion, Run-D.M.C. released their comeback album, Down with The King (1993). Featuring a host of famous fellow rappers paying tribute to their forebears, the record debuted at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. The revival, however, was short-lived: McDaniels' growing disinterest in Run-D.M.C.'s signature abrasive sound led to a schism with Simmons that contributed to his absence from most of their sixth album, Crown Royal (2001). A dismal flop upon release, the group's fortunes was briefly resuscitated by a joint tour with Aerosmith and Kid Rock. But Simmons' abrupt departure put an end to this final shot at success, and in turn, began the final stages of Run-D.M.C.'s storied career.
After their departure from the tour, Mizell focused on his label, which by 2002 had come to include the breakout star 50 Cent. On October 30 of that year, Mizell was murdered by a single shot to the head while visiting a recording studio in Jamaica, Queens. A subsequent investigation focused on Kenneth McGriff, who was believed to have carried out the murder in retaliation for 50 Cent's song "Ghetto Qu'ran," which reportedly gave details about McGriff's past as a drug dealer. Though federal prosecutors would later name Ronald "Tenad" Washington as an accomplice to the crime, the murder remained unsolved. McDaniels and Simmons retired the Run-D.M.C. moniker in 2002, save for occasional reunions with Mizell's sons standing in for their father. In 2004, Run-D.M.C. were among the first rap groups to receive tribute from the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. Three years later, Mizell's wife, Terry, joined forces with McDaniels and Simmons to launch the J.A.M. Awards, which honored rap artists who contributed to social awareness through their music and action. In 2009, Mizell was posthumously inducted with his bandmates into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By Paul Gaita
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