Hip-Hop World Mourns Mr. Magic

Hip-hop pioneer Mr. Magic died Friday at 53. As a DJ, he launched the first all-rap radio show in the U.S. and inspired musical talents from Tupac Shakur to Nas. Jay Smooth, host of the longest-running hip hop radio program in New York, talks with Guy Raz about the legacy of Mr. Magic.

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(Soundbite of song, "Magic's Message")

Mr. MAGIC (Host, "Rap Attack"): (Rapping) Good evening to you, super listeners. How you doing tonight? All you fly guys and fly girls. Welcome once again to the world famous Mister Magic Rap Attack. And, of course, I am…

GUY RAZ, host:

The song is "Magic's Message" by the iconic hip-hop DJ, Mr. Magic. Magic, whose real name was John Rivas, hosted the first all-rap radio show in the country on WBLS in New York. He died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 53. Mr. Magic helped make hip-hop one of the most significant genres in American popular music. And many rappers, like the late Tupac Shakur, mentioned Magic in their music.

(Soundbite of song, "Thug Style")

Mr. TUPAC SHAKUR (Rapper): (Rapping) Huh, got to get to listening to Mr. Magic cutting up the hits.

RAZ: So did rapper Nas in this track called "Half Time."

(Soundbite of song, "Half Time")

NAS (Rapper): (Rapping) I got to have it, I miss Mr. Magic. Versatile…

RAZ: And one man whom it could be argued keeps the flame alight is John Randolph. He's better known as DJ Jay Smooth. He hosts the longest running hip-hop show in New York on WBAI. And Jay Smooth joins me on the line.

Thanks for being with us.

DJ JAY SMOOTH (Host, "Underground Railroad"): Oh, thank you for being here. Glad to have a chance to honor one of my childhood heroes, Mr. Magic.

RAZ: Jay, where does Mr. Magic fit into the history of hip-hop?

DJ SMOOTH: Well, I mean, he was the creator of hip-hop radio. There was no such thing as hip-hop radio until he invented it. And I mean, I think for any of us who grew up in the '80s loving hip-hop, especially if you lived in New York - he played a role I imagine kind of like, say, Walter Cronkite played. You know, kids today take for granted that there are all these 24-hour news networks. But back in the day, you had your 15 minutes with Walter Cronkite, and that was the news. And that's what Mr. Magic represented.

If you are a hip-hop lover, there was no where to find hip-hop on the radio, except in that slot that Mr. Magic carved out. You know, starting in the late '70s up until the end of the '80s, he basically was the official voice of hip-hop for all of us.

RAZ: And more probably, one of the few people in the country who was sort of promoting hip-hop when it was still kind of an underground sound.

DJ SMOOTH: Right, which is why he became such an important voice. So many of the greatest names of all-time, our favorite rappers, the legendary artists were broken by him. As the gatekeeper of hip-hop, he was much more a Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, so a lot of artists he broke them by making them hits. But a lot of other artists that we love today, he broke them - in a literal sense, he took their record and broke it in two in front of the microphone. So, you know, a lot of - like KRS-One, for example, his career started because he was inspired by being humiliated by Mr. Magic on the air and had to come back twice as good next time.

RAZ: And let's hear a little bit of Mr. Magic trashing Public Enemy on his show "Rap Attack" in 1987.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAGIC: Marley, the beat is dope, but the rapping is kind of weak. Let's not go through that no more. It ruins the program. But anyway, my birthday party…

RAZ: Jay, a lot of artists that Mr. Magic championed became multimillionaires. I just read a post by Jay-Z who pays tribute to the late Mr. Magic. Did he become - did Magic become a wealthy man?

DJ SMOOTH: I do not think he ever became a wealthy man. He seems to be a part of that first generation of hip-hop pioneers who, for various reasons, didn't get to capitalize on the business end of it as it became that multibillion-dollar business. So, you know, it's one of those bittersweet stories where he was one of the people who help build the house we all live in. But I don't think he ever fully saw the riches that came out of it.

RAZ: Jay Smooth hosts "Underground Railroad" on WBAI in New York, and video blogs at illdoctrine.com, which if you haven't seen is a must.

Jay Smooth, thanks for being with us.

DJ SMOOTH: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Magic's Message")

Mr. MAGIC: Good evening to you, super listeners. How you doing tonight? All you fly guys…

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great evening.

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