The records that line his shelves sing out to us that this is not a mausoleum and the history of hip-hop is not a ghost. It’s a living, breathing beat and no one knows this better than Jay. He’s brought life to some of the all-time classic jams to come up through the story of hip-hop.
Jay’s involvement in the early days of the Zulu Nation led him to work with Tommy Boy Records, where he recorded “Jazzy Sensation” with the Jazzy 5 and helped create the routine that was the backbone for “Planet Rock.”
He formed Def Jam Records with Rick Rubin and put his magic touch on tracks by T La Rock, L.L. Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. From there he went to work with Rocky Bucano at the Strong City label. They released joints from Ice Cream Tee, Ultimate Force, and Masters of Ceremony, featuring a young Grand Puba. Jay became a mentor of sorts to Diamond D and that friendship led to his association with the Diggin’ in the Crates crew (Lord Finesse, Showbiz & AG, and Fat Joe).
Now he’s gearing up to bring the past into the future with the re-release of the entire Strong City catalog, which will include a whole unreleased Ultimate Force album, along with other long-out-of-print treats.
And when he was asked to contribute to the Hip Hop Roots record for Tommy Boy, it was like coming home to a Sunday throw-down in the park where Bambaataa would bring eighteen of his heaviest crates and they would yield treasure after dusty treasure to be cut up by the inimitable Jazzy Jay.
What was the idea behind the new Tommy Boy joint?
Jazzy Jay: The concept came from Tom [Silverman] approaching me with the idea of putting something out with some of the classic breaks that we used to play back in the days and some of the classic songs that was responsible for the whole hip-hop culture’s movement musically. He wanted to dig into some of those crates. He made the selections and said: “Why don’t you extend them the way you cats used to cut it up. So that a DJ who may not have the skill level that you guys are on—catching quick breaks or whatever the deal is—he’d be able to put it on and the break would be long enough to select what he wanted to do before the break would die out.”
Did you do those cuts live or did you use Pro Tools?
Yeah, actually I took a page out of modern technology and called up the old Pro Tools. Got that shit runnin’ and it was a lovely thing! As you know, you can do anything you can think of with your mind with Pro Tools.
You’ve got to use what’s available to you now.
I tell you… [Jay gestures around his infamously vinyl-packed studio.] You can see how much I love my vinyl, but when I go out I play a lot of stuff right from the laptop.
Are you using Serato Scratch Live?
Yeah, Serato and Final Scratch. Which application depends on where I’m at and what I need to be doing.
Are you still carrying vinyl to gigs?
Aw, hell yeah! I always carry backup. I made that mistake once! It was some little press party and I said, “Naw, I don’t need the vinyl.” I got over there and the program wasn’t working! It was the first time I came naked, without records, and it just so happened that was the day it didn’t work. I feel you using all vinyl still, but my thing is when I land in England and my records don’t. I can go get another laptop and load my songs back up in there, but once you lose some of those rare cuts, you can’t get ’em no more. Now if people want me to bring all vinyl, I say, “Sure. But the price goes up.”
Let’s go through some of these classic breaks and talk about them in terms of your personal history with them: “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch.
That was one of the very first records I bought! I still got the old beat-up album cover; the album is gone, but I kept the cover because I remember me and my boy signed it. I went out and got it from hearing it in Bambaataa’s circle and sneakin’ out to Kool Herc jams. Plus as soon as you hear that horn, Dun-dun-dun-da du-du-du-du duh! You know it’s time to…[starts break dance moves]…it’s b-boy time! It wasn’t even called b-boying back then, it was the Boyoing or the Go-Off. “Oh yeah, they goin’ off over there. We goin’ up the block; they goin’ off!” It wasn’t till later on that they started putting tags on it. [in a nasal voice] “Oh, you’re a b-boy! You’re a scratcher!”
How old were you when you picked that up?
That was back in ’73, ’74. I was about thirteen.
Who was the first person you heard really cut it up?
The first person—you always hear—was [Grandmaster] Flash. Because Flash created that, then [Grand Wizard] Theodore came through and invented the scratch, which took it to another dimension. But you’d have to go to school, and Flash was the teacher. Herc was the creator, Bambaataa was the holder of the sacred crates, of course—you know, the master of records—and Flash was the innovator as far as new techniques on the turntable. So, if you wanted to learn it, you had to either take an extension of what Flash was teaching or you’d just sit there and come up with your own ways of doing it.
When was the first time you saw Flash?
Man, I’d say it was back in the mid-’70s. It was Flash and maybe Melle Mel—it wasn’t even the Furious Five. It was more like the Furious Two! It was back at PS 163 in West Farms—my little brother used to go to that school. And I saw Flash just do it up. One of the most memorable times that I had at a Flash party was at Roosevelt High School. You know the record by Karen Young, “Hot Shot.” Well, Flash and them was playing—Black Thought Productions, Tiny, who was the leader of the Casanovas, which was Flash’s security. So I got up in the party and I was expecting to hear some regular Flash jams. My man said, “Hot Shot, Hot Shot, Hot Shot, Hot Shot,” and he wasn’t picking up the needle! He wasn’t needle dropping, that’s when he first introduced the backspin. Needless to say, I was mesmerized! My mouth just dropped to the floor. He messed me up so much that—it was a snowstorm outside, and we walked home! My house from Roosevelt High School must be about two or three miles. People were like, “Yo! What’s wrong with you?!” I’m like, “Yo! Did you hear what the hell Flash was doin’ in there?!” I must have gotten home around three in the morning. I got the little speakers and put them on the side. Yo dude, I did not stop until I got it. That was it! The next day I called up the cats from Jazzy 5, like, “You gotta come over the crib! We gotta practice some routines doin’ this new shit Flash just started!”
That really opened up your mind to the possibilities. But you were already DJing by then. When did you start?
Yeah. I started, unknown at the time, back in, like, 1971. But I got my foot up into that booty in 1974. That’s when I first got down with Disco King Mario earlier that summer, and by winter we had parted ways. That’s when I did a party with Bam up in Yonkers. His turntables had broke and I loaned him mine.
Do you remember what kind of turntables you loaned him?
Bam was playing on some BIC Ventura turntables, I think it was called. They were like the first ones with the straight arms. They were some cheap plastic craps. I brought him the Technics 210s, which were the ones that inspired the 1200s. They were cheap plastic, but they were the ideal turntables for what we did. Just put some slip mats on there and go.
Who figured out that you needed slip mats?
I guess it was after that era when Flash did the backspin technique. Because before then, it was all the needle-drop technique that me and Theodore kind of perfected. It’s wild, because it happened out of the clear blue. They wasn’t making no slip mats, so people used all kinds of things. Take album covers, plastics—all kinds of things. They’d put 45s underneath. I never used to like my turntables so slippery. I remember I was playing on Charlie Chase’s set one time and I went to spin the record back and it went [makes fast circular motion with his finger].
That’s where a lot of this stuff came from, stealing your mom’s and pop’s old 45s. Yo dude, I used to go to everybody’s house!
So Bam recognized that you had the skills to rock that party in Yonkers?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! That was a milestone in my career. I was like, “Wow! Bambaataa’s actually letting me play.” He was just passing me records with the labels blacked out, “Play this one. Play this one.” So he recognized, because what happened was, me and Islam used to always go diggin’ ourselves. When I went over to Mario, Bam was like, “Now wait a minute! Mario ain’t never had none of these records. Where’s he gettin’ these records from out of the blue?” Then they looked and were like, “That’s that kid that lives in the other building, Bam! He giving Mario all of our beats! He’s turnin’ on the enemy!” I got a lot of flack behind that too. Monk was one of my brothers—God bless the dead—[but] he was one of those loud mouths: “You gonna get hurt giving up the Zulu beats to the enemy!” I’m like, “My man, I went and dug for these records. I paid my money for it.” I said, “The hell with you! I’m gonna play it! Y’all didn’t ask me to come over and play.” Later on that winter, when I got down with Bam, everything was hunky-dory, everybody loved me then.
Did you ever turn Bam on to a beat?
Yeah, but Bam wouldn’t let you know. I had a beat that I turned him on to. It was an Ike and Tina Turner joint. I was the only one playing it. I forgot which one.
“Bold Soul Sister”?
Yeah, it might be! I forgot. I turned Bam on to that, but of course he’s gonna say, [grumbles] “Yeah, I had that! I just couldn’t find it.”
What about “Big Beat”?
“Big Beat” was one of those joints that Bam discovered. Billy Squire was, like, going into the early ’80s at the Roxy scene.
It seems like a lot of the rock breaks came in when you started doing more downtown parties. Is that true?
Cold Crush [Crew] and all of them used to do routines off of “Big Beat,” so it was a little before the downtown era, but it was right in the soil of when we started movin’ downtown. One thing that was funny on the Tommy Boy joint was what happened with [ESG’s] “UFO.” The original speed was kind of slow, so we used to pitch it up to play it faster. Somehow, Tom had gotten a hold of a version that somebody had sped all the way up. When I made all the edits and sent it back to him, he was like, “Oh, I’m just gonna use the one we have, because there’s no need for us to really extend that. The whole song is practically a break.” Then when he played back the final version for me, I was like, “Did you actually want it that speeded up?” He was like, “Naw, that’s the way it comes.” I was like, “Dude! No, it doesn’t. I’ve been playing this record for twenty-some-odd years, I think I should know what it sounds like by now.” I played him the original and told him there was nothin’ wrong, ’cause we usually sped it up anyway. So, I think he put the [fast] version on.
One of my favorites from when we first started going downtown to places like Negril’s, the Peppermint Lounge, the Roxy, and all of that was the Monkee’s joint, “Mary, Mary.” That was one of the records that was it! It was poundin’—people heard it and they was ready to party!
That’s one of those tracks that just seems to come out of left field for hip-hop. It’s not a funk or soul track, but the break is undeniable. Are there some other tracks like that that you remember?
Tracks like “Honky Tonk Woman” from the Rolling Stones wasn’t supposed to be a hip-hop jam, but it was! “The Name Game” and [“The Clapping Song”] from Shirley Ellis. Jams were taken from everywhere to contribute to this thing we call hip-hop. I often say that hip-hop is like the illegitimate child of so many different types of music. I remember going into a jazz store to buy an album by Passport or a rock joint to get something like Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).”
Before you were digging for rock breaks, how much of this stuff did you discover from what you were hearing as a kid from your parents?
A lot of it! That’s where a lot of this stuff came from, stealing your mom’s and pop’s old 45s. Yo dude, I used to go to everybody’s house! Everybody else was asking like, “Yo, you got some Kool Aid?” Naw, I’m like, “Yo, you got some 45s?” “Yeah, we got some old records down there…” You never, never ever, ever want to let Bambaataa in your house! If you got some records, Bam will not stop until he’s leavin’ out of there with a shopping bag full of records. Bam’s notorious for that! It’s like, “Yo, Bam stole all my 45s.” Why’d you let him in?
Tell me about “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” by Bob James.
That’s a Flash sure shot! A funny story about that one: Back in the days, Elroy was the young record king at Downstairs Records. One day I came into Downstairs and they had just gotten that in. Elroy was rationing it out to his private clients and he was like, “Yeah, I got a joint you ain’t got.” I’m like, “Tsk! Lemme hear it.” He puts it on and [makes the beat with his mouth] I’m like, “C’mon, man, you gotta come better than that.”
He’s like, “You don’t know who that is!” I said, “B.J.” “Who are you? Aw, that’s why, you know, you down with Bambaataa!” Later on, me and Islam formed the Funk Machine and Elroy was one of our MCs. Elroy, Kid Vicious, and Donald D was Three the Hard Way and the Funk Machine.
When did you meet him?
I met Elroy about 1972.
That was at Downstairs?
Yeah. I used to [run] the whole circuit. We used to leave early in the morning, me and my partner Rufus, and then we would probably meet up with Islam, AJ, and all those cats down in the Village. I remember I caught a whole bin full of “Catch a Groove” on the Greedy label for, like, a dollar apiece. Me, like an idiot, I’m givin’ ’em away, I’m sellin’ them for like three or four dollars. I sold them all out to the point where I didn’t even have any left. I had two copies that I had scribed my name on them. Then when I went out to Chicago, somebody pinched me for them. Not only did they get originals, but they got my inscribing from the early ’70s! If that pops up on eBay…
We’ll all be on the lookout! What other spots would you hit back then?
All the little hole-in-the-wall spots up and down 8th Avenue: Vinyl Mania, Rock and Soul, and all the little down-low spots in the Village.
Where else were you digging?
We used to go to a couple little spots on 3rd Street in Mt. Vernon. We’d go anywhere. Like my man said in Beat Street, “There’s records in this town! I can smell ’em!” Right now I’m dyin’ to get back to Manchester [England]. They had me open in Manchester; they had so many records up there! I OD’d! I just came back from Tokyo and got me a couple of treats. They way overpriced out there, but I had to pick up a couple of things to make my trip memorable. Every time I stop somewhere, I make it a point with the promoter that we have some time to squeeze in to go get some beats. I was out there with Diamond D; he’s a digger and a half! He took me to this guy’s house in Tokyo; my man had record-store bins in two rooms of his house. It was all private shit, like, if you didn’t know somebody who knew him, you couldn’t go. DJ Muro took me over there. It was another time where I spent too much money on records! But these guys have much respect for the art of digging and getting dusty.
Back in the day, did they have many flea markets up in Harlem and the Bronx?
Yeah, that was where [Breakbeat] Lenny used to go. He’d go up to, like, Boston and Philadelphia. He’d go all kinds of places just to find records. Lenny was responsible for exposing all the stuff that we brought out to everybody with the Ultimate Breaks, but I figured like this: he was the king. A lot of people got mad at him when he first started doin’ it. “Hey, Lenny, man, you giving up the sacred crates!” But I’m pretty sure, with the technology going the way it is, if he didn’t do it, somebody else would have did it. God bless dead Uncle Lenny! He was the oldest teenager in the party. I first met him at the T-Connection in like ’74 or ’76. He used to come by and drop us off joints and just vibe off the beats. Everybody was like, “Yo! Who’s this old guy?” I was like, “Yo! That’s Record Lenny, man, y’all don’t know. You better recognize!”
Who were some other diggers who were outside the main circle?
I don’t know if you remember Kool Aid, but him and Bam used to trade back and forth. He was like the holder of the D.ST crates; they used to go diggin’ for a lot of the joints that [Grandmixer] D.ST would bring out. There was that guy Tape Master—not like the tape masters out there now; he was the original Tape Master. He was down with the Cold Crush. He was the one who was actually responsible for the whole mixtape idea. Everywhere a party was going, he’d come there with his recording paraphernalia ready to record. He had tapes of everybody! A lot of people wouldn’t let you record their show, but he used to come with all of the hookup ready. So, even if somebody else was recording, he’d be like, “Oh, I’ve got a split wire”—jack it right in. Those were like the unsung heroes, the people that was on the sides that a lot of people didn’t really know about. But they were into it heavily.
Was there a point where you realized you were going to have to go outside of the music that you were familiar with to find new jams?
It was already outside the music that I was used to when I first got involved in it. ’Cause you’re talking about Bambaataa! He was playing music by Fela Ransome Kuti! Before anybody even knew what reggae was, Bam was playing Yellowman and Sugar Minott. Playing the original rockers, the roots rockers. Me being exposed to that kind of knowledge on the record business put me on a different place in the food chain. I couldn’t very well go from that to being just average. So me and Islam and all the cats that go diggin’ from that era used to go in the stores and buy records just because the album cover looked different. We didn’t know what the hell was on it! Maybe one out of ten, you might get something good, maybe one out of twenty. But that’s what digging was all about.
Did you ever dig with a portable player?
I didn’t used to. Now I got the little portable up there, compliments of Vestax. I went to Tokyo, and Vestax said if you sign this mixer for us, we’ll bless you with whatever you want. That was good because we was in Denver after we came back from Tokyo and New Zealand. It was me, Z-Trip, and a couple of the guys from [the DJ tour for the documentary] Scratch. We all invaded this record store and we had like four portables. The guy seen us and was like, “Come here.” He took us upstairs to his private stash and let us set up and go through it. So, Z-Trip is sitting there in the Lotus position on the floor and I’m on my knees at another crate and we’ve got stacks of records everywhere. People was coming through snapping pictures like, “Look at these cats, man! They just record fiends!”