Jam Master Jay: His Sounds Will Stay



10519 Metropolitan Ave, Flushing, NY

Neighborhood: Jamaica, Queens

I would like to believe that I went out to Queens to leave the My Adidas sweatshirt in tribute to Jam-Master Jay, but I’d be lying.

I’ve long gotten a superiority chuckle watching “mourners” on television who bring hand-painted signs, 99-cent store teddy bears, daily newspapers with 64-pt. headlines announcing the celebrity death, and acres of chrysanthemums, roses and white lilies to lay on a sidewalk somewhere in the vicinity of where the deceased lived.

I would say to myself: When did public vigils with pine-scented candles and stuffed unicorns become mandatory? Does that crying woman think Lady Di cares that she painted a sign with angels on it? She is, after all, dead, right? If I was related to someone famous, would I feel better knowing an anonymous stranger sent his or her love via a Mylar balloon?

Though I would mock them, at least those folks brought gifts they intended to leave behind in honor of the person who meant something to them. I, on the other hand, carried my 15-year-old, red-white-and-black “My Adidas” Run-D.M.C. sweatshirt to Jamaica, Queens, in order to take pictures of it among the leather hats, gold chains, unlaced-three-black-stripe-shell-tops, Raising Hell album covers, posters, prayers, notes, flowers, turntables, mourners, gawkers and fans, and then take it back home.

The fact is that I am simply not prepared to part with it.

My Aunt Judy sent me the sweatshirt as a birthday gift, from a shop in Philadelphia, when I was a high school junior in Billings, Montana. It was, and still is, the coolest item of clothing I have ever owned. It passed the ultimate test: no other kid in town had one. I would venture to guess that most kids from Hollis during the depressing inner-city Reagan days would have been surprised to know that my circle — white kids from cattle country — couldn’t get enough of rap music. Bad rap, good rap, political rap, sex rap, angry rap, loopy rap — as long as black folks were on the mic (and yes, that includes the Beasties), we listened.

More than any of the others though, Run-D.M.C. blazed the trail. In the 1980’s, Billings was as white as it got, yet cassettes were worn out while rhyming along with “Calvin Klein’s no friend of mine/don’t want nobody’s name on my behind,” and “You told the Cavity Creeps to watch out for Crest.” We whiteys knew the cuts long before the rap-rock hybrid made Run-D.M.C. MTV-safe.

What was it about rap? I guess it was the other. The black other. There were no blacks in my high school, my neighborhood, and near as I recall, there were only a couple of black kids in town. Radio pop, Motown classics and heavy metal were in the mix (country was the only genre we disdained), but in my stereo, the Kings from Queens ruled. I loved it, and imagined that outside of po-dunk Billings, we all loved it, and each other. I was honest-to-God shocked when I got to a Midwestern Jesuit college and found upper-class white kids casually and bitterly throwing around the N-word.

I knew that things were darker and crueler than Run-D.M.C. made it sound. But the sound that Jam Master Jay pioneered was already imprinted on my brain as pure humanistic joy. Not that Run-D.M.C. ignored social questions; it’s just that they sounded like three guys who ate the apple, enjoyed life on their terms and made it happen their way. The verbal dexterity, the leather suits, the fedoras, the gold chains, the video with Larry “Bud” Melman, and the wizard of the crossfade, driving the engine with the wax and the scratch, and the scratchy wax — in my head, it all added up to some raucous party that I might not have been personally invited to, but that they wouldn’t care if I crashed.

I wore the sweatshirt out. The shiny Run-D.M.C. lettering on the back had long wilted away and the white cloth material ceased to be white years ago. It’s stained, frayed, shapeless and smells like an item that’s been in a closet for over a decade. I’ve saved other mementos from my adolescence, but they’re all boxed up, kept mainly for bookkeeping’s sake. That sweatshirt, however, has traveled with me to college, to the Bronx where I lived and worked as a volunteer for a year, to grad school in Snoop country, back to Gotham, and a few other spots in between.

I hadn’t worn it in years, but I always knew it was at the ready should I get the opportunity to see the Big Beat Blaster, the Reverend and the one in Goggles. I decided to break it out for a Beastie Boys 9/11 benefit show in October of 2001. Although it was a minor battle trying to pull it over my no-longer-teenaged midsection, it was a hoot to have it on again. Fun to wear, but I’d forgotten that the My Adidas throwback had a New York City skyline across the front prominently displaying the Twin Towers. The Beasties promised special guests, but to my chagrin there was no Together Forever tour reunion and Run-D.M.C. didn’t make an appearance.

On the way to Queens last week, I stopped and bought Run-D.M.C.’s Greatest Hits. I put it in the WalkMan for the ride to the F-train’s last stop, which dropped me nowhere near Merrick Avenue. I asked a black guy walking down the street if he could help me out and learned that I would have to take not one, but two buses. He was getting on the same bus and offered to steer me in the right direction. He introduced himself as Eryq and we talked throughout the half-hour tour of Farmers Boulevard. He asked if I was a reporter. I said no, I was a “a writer for myself.” I didn’t want him to think I was a news guy and not a fan. I wanted him to think I was a guy who would travel deep into an outer borough to pay respects to his hip-hop hero. I showed Eryq the raggedy-ass sweatshirt and explained how it just seemed right to take it to the Jam Master Jay memorial. He didn’t ask why. He knew.

It unfurled from my backpack and the first thing he said was, “It’s even got the Twin Towers.” He told me about having seen Run-D.M.C. at Fresh Fest years back. There was a stabbing, he said, so the band stopped while order was restored and Jay made up a rhyme on the spot rousing the crowd to act responsibly. Eryq told me he was a musician from Long Island and said that he’s a huge Eddie Van Halen fan; he went so far as to add white tape to his red Stratocaster. He told me how he took a lot of shit in his neighborhood for his Guitar God worship. I told him I grew up in Montana knowing only whites, but rap was king. At the end of the line, we exchanged information, two fans of both a murdered rapper and Diver Down.

In Jam Master Jay’s honor, I’d like to say their music bridges racial gaps and batters musical assumptions, or at least it did on one bus ride through the neighborhood where it had all started. The sweatshirt was a conversation piece, even if the conversation only reinforced the broad power of popular music and the hyper-awareness New Yorkers have of the missing World Trade Center. Still, talking to someone like Eryq was what the music had been all about for me growing up in Billings; someday I’d live in New York City and have black friends and we’d listen to Run-D.M.C., just like back home, and I’d be a man of the world and it would be cool. Silly teenage fantasy? Sure, but for that ride, it felt like what I had envisioned life in New York City to be like long before I ever set foot here.

I took my sweatshirt out at the memorial and posed it for a few photographs. Nobody seemed to mind and one guy stopped to note he had the same one “back in the day.” A mother told her young son how Run-D.M.C. had “started it all,” and more than one passerby noted that “it doesn’t make sense” or asked “who could do this?” It was bitter cold, so the crowd was minimal and few lingered. I stayed long enough to snap some pics, smile at the collection of worn-out sneakers and sign a poster monitored by a guy with a Sharpie. A mixture of guilt and nostalgia hit me for a few seconds and I considered tying My Adidas to the chain-link fence. But then it passed. I couldn’t do it.

The sweatshirt may be an old, shabby relic that I might’ve donned ironically before it became another reminder of 9/11, another reminder of a childish vision of a utopian community where blacks and whites partied together in Gotham with Run-D.M.C. as the backbeat, and now, another reminder of the brutal murder of their musical backbone, Jam Master Jay, father of three.

The ugly reminders are woven into the fabric, but to me, the sweatshirt is still listening to King of Rock while drinking cheap beer up on the Rims with my buddies. It’s imagining that someday I’d find a way to let Run-D.M.C. know that, to me, they were it, and that yes, “music ain’t nothing but a people’s jam/Run-D.M.C. rockin’ without a band.” All I can say is that I’m going to keep that sweatshirt in my closet. Every now and then, I’ll take it down, put it on, crank up “Peter Piper,” and bob my head in agreement with the two men who knew him best: “His name is Jay, to hear him play, will make you say, ‘God damn that DJ made my day.’”

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