November 04, 2002

That DJ Made My Day

No links or anything of that sort this time.

I'm sure you've all heard about the murder of Run-DMC's DJ, Jam Master Jay. The term "senseless" gets tossed around a lot with regards to street violence and hip-hop violence, but this is the first time one of these murders made absolutely no sense to me. 2Pac & Biggie, after all, regularly claimed to have enemies and routinely spoke of their own mortality on their records. Their deaths, while still shocking and awful and painful, seemed almost foretold in their own lyrics.

But Jam Master Jay? Who ever heard of somebody putting out a hit on a freaking DJ?!?!

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about. As I was listening to all the tributes and retrospectives about Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC in particular, I remember a quote from DMC, where he said "We don't need a band. That's our band, right there". He was pointing to Jay as he said this. The press has made the point of referring to Run-DMC as a "hip-hop band".

Once upon a time, you had nothing but bands in hip-hop. KRS-One once said that the 4 pillars of hip-hop are breakdancers, graffiti artists, MCs, and DJs. Back in the day, virtually every hip-hop group of any kind of merit consisted of both an MC AND a DJ. Run-DMC. Eric B. & Rakim. Public Enemy. BDP. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. NWA. And, even into my college years, with the golden age of the Native Tongues, there was A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, Gang Starr, Brand Nubian. Even solo artists like Ice-T had their own DJs who were present on every single cut of their album. All groups that consisted of MCs and DJs, because originally, hip-hop music was about "rockin' parties", and I don't care how much skill you have on a microphone, no MC can entertain a party by himself all night long without some music to back him up. These guys travelled from club to club, they had their own signature tracks & scratches & breaks & riffs. The same James Brown LP became a vastly different thing when it passed from the hands of Terminator X to Ali Shaheed Mohammed to DJ Premier. And, ultimately, the DJ was the guy who created musical consistency across an album, or albums. My brother, a child of the funk era, says that he would buy albums from The Time or the Gap Band or Earth, Wind, & Fire sight unseen, because, as long as it was the same musicians, you knew what you were getting into with each album.

Today, in the age where the producer is the king of hip-hop, an individual artist's album is a complete crapshoot. Just because that one single you hear on the radio is great, that may be the only song like it on the whole album. Who knows what the rest of it is like. To find that kind of consistency, I've really limited myself to buying albums from the producers themselves (i.e. N.E.R.D. from the Neptunes, or Tim's Bio from Timbaland, or Soul Survivor from Pete Rock). The only hip-hop band I can think of these days is Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek). Although Rawkus Records has the distinction where alot of their artists, like Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch, produce the albums themselves, and it shows in the quality of their work.

But the disappearance of the band/DJ is indicative of something else in Black culture. Without the "garage band" aspect of hip-hop that the MC/DJ pairing brings, you don't have young brothers coming up together as a unit, bringing the music and providing a fabric to a neighborhood or a community. A hip-hop band can become a community standard bearer, creating the sound and a rally point for their neighbors. And a band can be the first place that these young brothers can learn about unity, the greater good, community, and family where they may not find it at home, and where they shouldn't have to find it in a gang. The emerging hip-hop scene has, instead, filled itself with young men who want to be the musical equivalent of a pre-Larry Brown Allen Iverson. Lone wolves who have no sense of the team around them. And, in the end, most of them turn into John Starks or Allen Houston. And you see what happened to the Knicks, right?

So, what am I saying? I'm saying we have more than enough P. Diddys and Master Ps and even Eminems. We need more Jam Master Jays. And Grand Master Flashes. And Terminator Xs. And DJ Premiers. And Ali Shaheed Mohammeds. And King Britts. And Jazzy Jeffs.

And, for God's sake, we desperately need some more Spindarellas.

And, instead of a CD player, go out and buy your kids a set of turntables for Christmas.
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