Hip-hop star Keith Grayson — the East Harlem graffiti tagger, radio disc jockey, mixtape master, MC battle referee and recording artist better known as DJ Kay Slay — died Sunday, due to complications from a four-month battle with COVID-19. He was 55.
Slay’s death was confirmed by Hot 97 and the DJ’s family Monday morning.
“Our hearts are broken by the passing of Keith Grayson, professionally known as DJ Kay Slay,” read a statement from the Grayson family. “A dominant figure in hip-hop culture with millions of fans worldwide, DJ Kay Slay will be remembered for his passion and excellence with a legacy that will transcend generations. In memory of DJ Kay Slay, our family wishes to thank all of his friends, fans and supporters for their prayers and well wishes during this difficult time. We ask that you respect our privacy as we grieve this tragic loss.”
Slay’s radio family, New York’s Hot 97 (where he held the 1 a.m. “Drama Hour’ slot), sent out a prepared statement that read, “Hot 97 is shocked and saddened by the loss of our beloved DJ Kay Slay. We cherish the many memories created through the 20-plus years he dedicated to the ‘Drama Hour.” A cultural icon, Kay Slay was more than just a DJ; to us he was family and a vital part of what made Hot 97 the successful station it is today. Our hearts go out to his family, friends and fans worldwide and we will always and forever celebrate the Drama King’s legacy.”
Slay’s legacy is enhanced by his lifelong dedication to old-school hip-hop vibes, sound and personal pride turned into bravura across each of his recordings. Like DJ Khaled with an abrasive New York edge, Slay brought together the best and brightest MCs of his (and any) time) for “Streetsweeper” mixtapes featuring the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar. Long before DJ Khaled came up with incessantly yelled catchphrase such as “We the best” or “Another one,” DJ Kay Slay was filling his “Streetsweeper” mixtapes with vocal segues popping-into-the red:, aka his signature “loudmouth” voice-overs. If anyone is responsible for the mainstream success of the mixtape with a personal touch, it may be DJ Kay Slay and his Streetsweeper series, including his first two early-2000s major-label albums, “Streetsweepers Volumes 1 & 2,” released through Columbia Records after he was signed by the late Chris Lighty.
Slay’s rise to acclaim in New York’s hip-hop community came first in the late 1970s through his unique graffiti writing throughout the East River Projects where he was raised. Known by the tags “Dez” and “Dezzy Ded,” Grayson produced work formidable enough to be featured in directors Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s famed 1983 documentary “Style Wars,” alongside other famous taggers of the time such as “Paze” and “Futura.” “Style Wars” was aired on PBS in 1984, and won a Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, all of which brought “Dez” national recognition.
At the same time that he was busy writing graffiti, Grayson watched, with curiosity, the skills of fellow NYC turntable wizards such as Kool DJ Red Alert and Grandmaster Flash. Without intending to become a DJ (“It was something to do that was fun and that I enjoyed doing,” said Grayson in a 2019 Forbes interview), he fell in love with turntablism, eventually getting in on the spinning action. This came after he spent time in prison upon being indicted and jailed for felony possession of narcotics.
After getting out of stir, and proclaiming himself drug-free, Kay Slay worked odd jobs in order to build his own studio space in Harlem, and by the 2000s, he quickly became on of the Big Apple’s brightest DJs and MC battle referees. Starting with mixtapes such as “Say What You Say,” Slay tapes became a home for freestyles from the likes of Eminem, Xzibit, Swizz Beatz, Jadakiss, Fat Joe and Cam’ron. What truly boosted Kay Slay’s profile was being in the middle of the very real feud between New Yorkers Jay-Z and Nas.
After famously winning the bragging rights to being the first DJ to spin “Ether” – Nas’ dis track on his song by 2001 album, “Stillmatic,” and a response to Jay-Z ‘s “Takeover” dis towards Nas and Prodigy – DJ Kay Slay became the go-to spinner for battle raps, including the Ja Rule-bashing Eminem/50 Cent/Busta Rhymes remake of “Hail Mary.”
Kay Slay’s “Streetsweeper” mixtapes became so popular for their rude battles and his brusque voice-overs that he got swooped up by Columbia for the major label take on the “Streetsweeper” series. Losing none of his charm or street cred by going major, he made “The Streetsweeper, Vol. 1” (2003) and “The Streetsweeper, Vol. 2” (2004) hard, rough enterprises filled with legends of the street such as Fat Joe, Scarface and Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah. While both albums went top 10 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, Kay Slay began hosting “The Drama Hour” on Hot 97, and even became the head of A&R for Shaquille O’Neal’s label DEJA34, the home to Slay’s third album, “The Champions.”
Since that heyday, DJ Kay Slay continued mixing and releasing wild albums such as 2017’s “The Big Brother” (whose “Cold Summer” track featured Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller), 2019’s “Hip-Hop Frontline” and December 2021’s “The Soul Controller” – all through the Streetsweepers/Empire label – the latter coming out right before his hospitalization for COVID began.
The year 2021 also saw the release of his “Rolling 110 Deep” track which featured over 100 rappers such as Ice-T, KRS-One, Kool G Rap and more dropping verses. Slay even turned his talents to publishing, as he was the CEO of Straight Stuntin’ Magazine, a quarterly focusing on hip-hop’s top rappers and most active models. For DJ Kay Slay, the good hustle never stopped.