DJ Kay Slay, Fiery Radio Star and Rap Mixtape Innovator, dies at 55

DJ Kay Slay, who served as a crucial bridge between hip-hop generations, growing from a teenage B-boy and graffiti artist to an innovative New York radio personality known for his pugnacious mixtapes that fueled rap jams, broke artists and helped change the music business, died Sunday in New York. He was 55 years old.

Slay had faced “a four-month battle with Covid-19,” his family said in a statement confirming his death.

Few hip-hop figures could trace their continued presence from the early days of the genre to the digital present like him. In late 1970s New York City, Slay was a young street artist known as Dez, sticking his spray-painted tag on building walls and subway cars, as chronicled in cult documentaries “Wild Style” and “Style Wars”.

Then he was the Drama King, aka Slap Your Favorite DJ, hosting the late-night “Drama Hour” on influential radio station Hot 97 (WQHT 97.1 FM) for more than two decades before his illness made it impossible. to issue.

“Cats know there are no limits with me,” Slay told The New York Times in 2003, when the newspaper dubbed him “Hip-Hop’s One-Man Ministry of Insults.” In addition to providing ringtones and roaring cheers for the battles between Jay-Z and Nas, 50 Cent and Ja Rule, Slay gave a first platform to local artists and teams like the Diplomats, G-Unit, Terror Squad and rapper Papoose, both on his show and on the mixtapes that made his name as much as theirs.

As mixtapes evolved from homemade DJ mixes on real tapes to a semi-official promotional tool and an underground economy of CDs sold on street corners, flea markets, records, bodegas and barbershops, Slay moved with the times, eventually releasing his own compilation albums on Columbia Records. Once illicit and unauthorized, mixtapes are now a staple of the music streaming economy, with artists and major labels releasing their own official album-style showcases that top Billboard charts.

“You were really the first to bring personality to the mixtape,” Funkmaster Flex, another Hot 97 DJ, told Slay during a radio interview. “It was very unusual. We were just used to the music and the exclusives.

Slay, who dabbled in drugs and spent time behind bars before making music, replied, “I had to find an angle and run with it.”

He was born Keith Grayson in New York on August 14, 1966 and grew up in East Harlem. As a child, he was drawn to disco, dancing the Hustle; When early hip-hop DJs began turning the breakbeats of these songs into proto-rap music, he traveled to the Bronx to observe and participate in the rising culture.

“I had to see what was going on and bring it back to my borough,” he told Spin magazine in 2003. “So I would take the 6 train and go up to the Bronx River Center [projects] to see Afrika Bambaataa and the rock of the Zulu Nation.”

He quickly embraced the affiliated art forms of breakdancing and graffiti, even casually rapping with his friends. “Every element of the game that I participated in,” Slay told Flex. But street art became his main passion, first under the tag Spade 429 and later Dez TFA, which he shortened to Dez.

“I wanted a cute little name that I could get up all over the place and do it quickly without getting caught,” he said at the time. “You’re telling the world something – like, I am someone. I am an artist.”

Amid the city’s graffiti crackdown, Dez took on the name Kay Slay (“After a while you get tired of writing the same name,” he said of his years of street art) and developed a fascination with turntables. “Boy, you better spin those books,” he recalled of his disappointed parents. But lacking money and uninterested in school, he quickly turned to drugs and burglary.

In 1989, Slay was arrested and served a year in prison for possession of drugs with intent to sell. As he walked out, he told Spin, “I started noticing Brucie B, Kid Capri, Ron G. They were doing mixtapes, having parties, and getting paid well.” He sold t-shirts, socks and jeans to buy DJ equipment and worked at a Bronx facility that helped people living with HIV and AIDS.

“I can’t count the number of people I’ve seen die,” he told The Times of this period. “Working there really made me start enjoying life.”

By the mid-1990s, Slay found the professional music industry still unwelcoming and he began calling out, in colorful language on his releases, those label executives he considered unnecessary. “I told myself that I would be so big that one day the same people I was begging for records would beg me to play their records,” he said.

It was this irascible spirit that helped endear him to rappers who had their own scores to settle. In 2001, Slay had a breakthrough when he created “Ether,” Jay-Z’s searing Nas dis that revitalized hip-hop beef in the wake of the Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG murders. His radio slots and mixtapes became a proving ground, and he later launched a magazine called Straight Stuntin’.

“He’s like the Jerry Springer of rap,” one DJ told The Times. “All the fights are on his show.”

Slay’s gruff manner and mid-song screams would go on to influence his contemporaries, like former rival DJ Clue, and those who followed, like DJ Whoo Kid and DJ Drama. Alberto Martinez, the Harlem drug dealer known as Alpo, who was killed last year while in witness protection, even harbored a tape of Slay from prison.

“The game was boring until I came back,” Slay said.

He is survived by his mother, Sheila Grayson, and his best friend and business manager Jarrod Whitaker.

In Slay’s on-air conversation with Funkmaster Flex, the other DJ marveled at the creativity of Slay’s boasts and threats – “If you rob the bank, I rob the bank!” – and asked his colleague if he ever regretted the shocking things he bellowed.

“I’ve said some rude things, man, on some mixtapes when I wasn’t fully in touch with myself,” Slay replied. “But I don’t blame myself for doing that, because the boy I was made the man I am today.”

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