Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Mark Howard James, better known as the celebrated hip-hop DJ and producer the 45 King, who helped craft hits for Jay-Z, Eminem, and many more, died on Thursday. He was 62.

DJ Premier first announced James’ death on Instagram, noting his death came three days after his 62nd birthday. Paul Martinez, a spokesperson for the producer, confirmed James’ death to Rolling Stone but did not specify a cause.

“Legends are never over,” Eminem wrote on Twitter. “#RIP Mark Howard James aka The 45 King … I’m 4ever grateful!!!”

James’ skill for flipping perfect samples is encapsulated in his biggest hits: Jay-Z’s 1998 classic “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” featured an unexpectedly brilliant sample of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 musical Annie; while Eminem’s 2000 smash “Stan” was built around a then-little known song by the British singer Dido, “Thank You.”

In a 2021 interview, James recalled the ingenious way he came up with the “Stan” beat, saying he kept hearing Dido’s “Thank You” in a movie trailer, likely for the 1998 film Sliding Doors. After hearing it for the fourth time, he “shoved a VCR into the tape deck and I taped it. I took her first verse and turned it into an eight-bar hook for Eminem… Got lucky!” 

But more than a decade before “Stan” and “Hard Knock Life,” the 45 King had cemented his place in rap history with his 1987 breakbeat track, “The 900 Number.” The song looped the saxophone solo at the start of Marva Whitney’s 1968 song “Unwind Yourself” and transformed it into a skittering, delirious blast of hip-hop gold. The beat would be used and sampled numerous times — the beat soundtracked the Ed Lover dance from the Yo! MTV Raps co-host most famously by DJ Kool on his 1996 smash, “Let Me Clear My Throat.” 

In 2012, Questlove placed “The 900 Number” at Number 24 on his list of the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs for Rolling Stone. He called the track “the national anthem of hip-hop,” adding: “It’s so potent it needs nothing but humans with a pulse. I swear I’ve never, ever, ever seen this record fail. Twenty-five years old, and still sounds fresher than fresh.”

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Though born where hip-hop was born, in New York City, James eventually moved across the Hudson River and became part of the vibrant hip-hop scene flourishing in New Jersey. He soon became the fulcrum for the Flavor Unit, a crew of MCs that included Queen Latifah, Chill Rob G, Lakim Shabazz, and Apache. Queen Latifah was the first to break through with her 1989 classic, All Hail the Queen, which featured extensive production from James.

Along with Queen Latifah and his other Flavor Unit cohorts, the 45 King worked with artists like Gang Starr, MC Lyte, and PMD; he also remixed records by Eric B. & Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, and Madonna, and regularly released and recorded numerous breakbeat records. Beyond his production talents, the 45 King became known for his unique studio set-up, which included a turnstile people had to walk through and a glass telephone booth that was turned into a microphone booth. 

“Puffy been through that — Biggie, Tupac, Busta. Jay-Z been through this turnstile — a lotta people, man,” James said in a 2015 Flavor Unit oral history for Red Bull Music Academy. “Q-Tip used to sit on the turnstile!

James’ early hot streak, however, sputtered in the early Nineties as he struggled with drug addiction. In a 2015 interview with The Cipher, he acknowledged: “I started smoking [angel] dust, acting stupid, and that stuff stuck with me forever.” 

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The long gaps between James’ bursts of brilliance seemed to give him the aura of the kind of creative genius who comes and goes as he pleases. “He does these great, remarkable cultural things that just grab culture — he’s actually a genius in that way,” Jay-Z said in a television interview. “And then he just disappears for years.”

James, however, appeared to see things differently. He believed his drug use continued to cast a long shadow over his reputation even as he received renewed attention through “Let Me Clear My Throat” and his work with Jay-Z and Eminem. In that same 2015 interview, he quipped that “Hard Knock Life” was “good for the ego,” but added somewhat ruefully, “You would think that anybody else who did that track would’ve gotten a lot more work — but not me… I got ‘Stan’ after that, but you’d figure I’d get more than ‘Stan.’” 

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In recent years, James kept busy with a variety of projects, including, for a time, his own interview show on YouTube called “Making the Beat.” He remained an active creator and uploader, building up a page filled with short snippets of beats that fully embraced the surreal (see: “Zulu Muppets,” which flips The Muppet Show theme song, or “The Nun Hustle,” which appears to be based on a scene from the long-running BBC period drama Call the Midwife). Just a couple years ago, James even tried his hand at acting with a small role in the VOD horror thriller 6:45 (which also featured Remy Ma).

Following news of his death, tributes from numerous hip-hop luminaries poured in. The Alchemist called him “One of the original architects of production,” while Kid Capri remembered him as “one of the sweetest people you could ever meet” and “one of the most gifted people in the world.”

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