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"Behind the turntables is where he stands
Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell (1965-2002) was a DJ, but that simple description doesn't do justice to his enormous influence on popular music. Jam Master Jay wasn't just any DJ—he was the DJ and producer for Run-DMC, the first hip-hop group to enjoy massive mainstream success. Their 1986 album Raising Hell turned hip-hop from a cult music dismissed and ignored by the mainstream into a popular and lucrative genre. Run-DMC landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, sold out arenas and stadiums worldwide, and played Saturday Night Live and the MTV Video Music Awards. That may not sound unusual by today's standards, but Run-DMC was the very first hip-hop group to do any of those things, and the industry was far more hostile to hip-hop back in the '80s than it is now. Sadly, as groundbreaking as Run-DMC was, their career suffered some setbacks over subsequent years. Although they would eventually be recognized as pioneers, the group came to a tragic end when Jay was brutally shot to death in his recording studio in 2002. To this day the murder has yet to be solved, but 2 Turntables and a Microphone is an attempt to investigate it. The film isn't as thorough as it could be because it's essentially presented and commissioned by Jam Master Jay's family, so while it's not exactly a hagiography, it doesn't quite probe as deeply as it could have. Also, the film's low budget means that it's forced to make some detrimental compromises. Still, for a low-budget DVD documentary, 2 Turntables and a Microphone is surprisingly thoughtful. Unlike most hip-hop DVD documentaries (the ones about Tupac Shakur come especially to mind), this one is actually a solid and informative film.
Phonz, Jay's younger cousin, hosts the documentary, and succeeds in painting a solid picture of Jay as a person. Relatives, friends, and associates all tell stories about Jay's life, from his childhood to his days as a member of the biggest hip-hop group in the world. All describe a man who was generous to a fault, who helped people out from his neighborhood in Hollis, Queens, whenever possible, and who was more devoted to Run-DMC than even rappers Joey "Rev. Run" Simmons and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels. Russell Simmons, Run's older brother and Run-DMC's original manager, recalls that Jay would spend the money he earned on better equipment for the group, instead of blowing it on clothes and jewelry like Run and DMC would. He also explains that it was Jay who really managed the group in the studio, spending hours meticulously mixing and recording each track after Run and DMC had gone home. Similarly, photographer Glen Friedman, who shot many of Run-DMC's early photos, describes how it was Jay who would take the lead in Run-DMC's business meetings, how he would attend every meeting on time, listen carefully, and guide the group's decisions. This part of the documentary is a bit chaotic and it does tend to overdo the hyperactive MTV-style editing, but it does give a very good idea of what Jay meant to his family and friends, so in that respect it does do what it was meant to.
At about the 40-minute mark, 2 Turntables takes a much darker and more unsettling turn. Here Phonz and Jay's friends discuss what happened the night Jay was murdered and single out the person they feel was responsible: Randy Allen, the vice-president of Jay's record label JMJ Records. Without exception, Jay's friends and associates describe Allen as a quintessential scam artist, a street hustler who abused Jay's trust and ripped off the label for millions. Artists who worked with Jay, from the hardcore rap group Onyx to solo MC Jayo Felony, recall how greedy and even duplicitous Allen was during their time at JMJ. Several of Jay's associates strongly imply that at the time of his murder Jay had grown tired of dealing with Allen's extremely questionable business deals and that this may have led to his murder. Allen himself does not appear in the documentary, so how true these allegations are is hard to say. Also, though federal prosecutors have recently named a suspect who isn't linked to Allen at all (see Accomplices section), all the interviewees seen here (and there are many) assert this new suspect is a patsy selected by Allen to throw suspicion off himself. This section is sometimes painful to watch and viewers will be want to keep a dose of skepticism about some of the charges made against Allen, but for the most part the film does make a surprisingly damning case that Allen is somehow involved.
The documentary isn't flawless. For one thing, it doesn't really do enough to explain why Jay and Run-DMC were so important to hip-hop. Much of the problem is that DMC himself did not agree to be interviewed, nor were the film's producers able to license any of Run-DMC's music or videos. This makes the sections on Run-DMC's career distant and sketchy. Viewers will have to recall their memories of Run-DMC to fill in the gaps, and those too young to remember just how reviled hip-hop was by the music industry of the 1980s will have to do some research to see why Run-DMC was so groundbreaking. What's more, some of the less flattering stories and speculations about Jay's life and death are not mentioned. During Run-DMC's later years, Jay himself freely admitted that he used to participate in some dubious activities during the time that the group was struggling. You won't hear a word about this at any point here, which is a shame. Why not actually give a complete picture of Jay? It won't make his murder any less reprehensible if Jay had really cleaned up his act, and if he hadn't, then it's important to understand how his murder could have been prevented.
Image Entertainment only provided a bare-bones screener copy for review, so it's hard to say what the actual quality of the finished film is. The screener had a decent anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, but that may not be on the final issue. Image also promises that the final release will come with an extended interview with Russell Simmons.
In any event, 2 Turntables and a Microphone is an absolute must for hip-hop fans, with the caveat that those viewers should already be familiar with Run-DMC's career and music, since the film doesn't quite fill that in as well as it should. Those who are, however, will be rewarded with a serious film that tells an important and tragic story with a commendable lack of either sensationalism or sentimentality.
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