The world of hip-hop lost a trailblazer on Thursday as Mark Howard James, the renowned DJ and producer better known as the 45 King, passed away at the age of 62. His contributions to the genre were immeasurable, having crafted hits for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Jay-Z and Eminem. With his innovative beats and unmatched creativity, the 45 King will always be remembered as a true pioneer of hip-hop.
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.”
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.”
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.
James’ early hot streak, however, sputtered in the early Nineties as he struggled with drug addiction. But he found renewed success in the late Nineties and early 2000s with his work with Jay-Z and Eminem. In recent years, James kept busy with a variety of projects, including 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.
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.” The 45 King was a true pioneer of hip-hop, and his legacy will continue to inspire and influence generations of musicians to come.
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