By the time this goes to press, DJs and designers will be mixing and manufacturing mix-tapes and shirts commemorating Mr. Magic, the seminal New York radio jockey who died of a heart attack at 53 in Brooklyn this past Friday. Some tributes will be tasteful (like the project that Magic commissioned Boston producer-rapper Will C. to compile last year), while others will be executed solely in the name of profit. None will adequately canonize Magic as the visionary he truly was.
The first personality to host a commercial radio show that played hip-hop exclusively, the man born John Rivas is a certified superlative. His Rap Attack — a varsity version of his off-frequency Mr. Magic Disco Showcase that began airing out of Newark in the late '70s — debuted on New York's WBLS-FM in April 1983. Magic, along with conspirators Fly Ty and Marley Marl, subsequently parlayed his famous taste and hot-and-cold charisma into the legendary Juice Crew, a cadre of primarily Queens-based MCs and DJs (including Kool G. Rap, Biz Markie, and Big Daddy Kane) that he co-founded, and that infamously feuded with the Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions in the first highly publicized hip-hop beef.
After leaving WBLS in 1989, Magic spent his career shuffling between frequencies in Baltimore and New York; he returned to the latter in 2000 to spin for the Emmis Communications-owned Hot-97, but lasted there just three years. Magic's long-time motto was "No more music by the suckers" — a position that hardly jibed with payola-fueled contemporary formulas. Indeed, his primary allegiance was always to the listeners. Magic even once (temporarily) quit WBLS in 1984 after directors demanded that he water down the program.
In the past few years — during which time he was unable to secure a radio gig — Magic tapped Will C. to vault and digitize his extensive archives, which had for decades been traded via cassettes by vintage fans. The first product of Fly Ty, Will, and Magic's efforts, a compilation called Down the Dial, is a phenomenal testament to how drastically this particular luminary influenced his genre. Several obituaries noted that Rivas was renowned for his profound arrogance; to that I say: so is every hip-hop DJ worth a damn, and, whether they realize it or not, Mr. Magic is the reason.