African American Studies



INTERVIEWEES: John “DJ Jazzy Jay” Byas and Danny Martinez

SUMMARY BY: Andrew O’Connell

In this interview with John “DJ Jazzy Jay” Byas (b. November 18, 1961), the Bronx African American History Project obtains amazing insight into the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Born in South Carolina and having moved to Harlem at the age of either five or six, Byas soon became enthralled with music through his church, The Greater Zion Hill Baptist Church on 116th Street and Manhattan Avenue, singing in the church choir and finding a rhythm on the drums that would later be heard by millions on the turntables. After a devastating fire that forced his family to leave their Harlem home when Byas was just nine, the family moved to the Bronx River Housing Projects, where Byas would foster the skills that turned him into the musical legend that we know his as today.

Although the crux of this interview focuses on Byas’ impact on the modern hip-hop industry as it is today, his remembrances also give stunning details as to the nature of life in the Bronx during the troubled decade of the 1970s. Byas recounts an atmosphere in the Bronx River Housing Projects dominated by the ubiquitous threat of gang violence. Although he discusses an intense pressure to join one of these gangs, Byas points out that his father’s influence kept him off the streets and focused on his musical aspirations. Interestingly, Byas also paints a picture of his Harlem neighborhood (his home prior to moving to the Bronx) as one of the “respectful hustler.” Despite those members of the underground economy making their presence felt, Byas describes their impact on the neighborhood as neither beneficial nor detrimental; gangsters would stay away from schoolyards, assist an old lady up the stairs with her groceries, and even show respect for the cop walking the neighborhood beat.

The majority of the interview, though providing great insight into the historical Bronx, focuses heavily on the history and evolution of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s. Starting as a b-boy, Byas and his friend Danny Martinez detail how hip-hop came to be in the Bronx, describing their relationships with such hip-hop heavyweights as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Russell Simmons. Byas even contends that it was in his 1979 Chevy Caprice that Def Jam Records, one of the most influential labels in rap history, was started after he introduced Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.

Byas and Martinez give an intricate detail of several deejaying techniques, highlighting the progression and evolution of the discipline over the past few decades

Click below to download supplemental content.

Byas, John and Danny Martinez Part 1.mp3 (66139 kB)
Byas, John and Danny Martinez Part 2.mp3 (85715 kB)