Christopher Charles Thurston died the same way he lived.
"I grew up in Queens, been saggin' my jeans/
People always wanna know just what Binkis means/
Before Ignorant Niggas Killed Intelligent Songs/
But hold on, it won't be that for long ... "
Slightly past midnight on Tuesday morning, Nov. 4, Thurston, the 32-year-old MC known as "Jax" of Atlanta's legendary underground hip-hop crew Binkis Recs, spit those fateful rhymes into a live mic.
Then, after a final plea – "hold up, hold up, hold up" – he collapsed onstage in the middle of his performance at Lenny's Bar. He was pronounced dead soon after being rushed to nearby Grady Hospital.
The autopsy conducted by the Fulton County Medical Examiners Office concluded that Jax died of natural causes related to hypertension. In the world of hip-hop, such an untimely exit assures entry into its pantheon of fallen angels.
Dying young is still as tragically hip as it was more than 50 years ago when Hollywood actor James Dean succumbed from a head-on car collision at age 24. But Jax was no "rebel without a cause." Nor was he a Tupac Shakur or a Notorious B.I.G., a Jam Master Jay or an Eazy-E. Neither a Big Pun nor an Ol Dirty Bastard. He is, however, an unsung hero of the underground, where passion seldom pays the bills but serves as its own reward. Or, so they say.
Besides his newlywed wife Lisa, and hundreds of unreleased songs that earned him the title Jax the Catalog, Thurston leaves behind some necessary soul searching for those within the culture. Certainly, his passing could signal its very end. Or Jax's death just might rouse the snoozing spirit of a bygone era in Atlanta's indie rap scene.
Back in the late '90s, when Binkis Recs started making a name for itself performing live shows in and around Atlanta and releasing homemade mixtapes, underground hip-hop was buzzing. It was an indie scene that borrowed from hip-hop's late '80s golden era and was built on live performances rather than dance club DJs. Groups such as Mars Ill, Massinfluence and Minamina Goodsong emerged alongside established scene transplants such as Scienz of Life. Binkis quickly developed a reputation for delivering off-the-wall performances.
Jax – a New York native from the Rochdale Village section of Jamaica, Queens – arrived in Atlanta in August 1994 to attend Clark Atlanta University. He'd talked his friend and fellow rapper Craig "Flux da Wondabat" Singleton into coming with him after they graduated from New York's High School of Art & Design.
The pair pieced together its earliest tracks through trial and error on secondhand equipment passed down from members of N.E.B.L.O.S., a hip-hop crew consisting of music majors from the Art Institute of Atlanta, where Flux was enrolled. "They bought some upgraded equipment and they gave us the old shit they used to use – a 12-second sampler and a TASCAM eight-track," recalls Flux.
"Jax had a credit card and he went and bought a system, one of those little three CD joints with the double cassette deck. We used that as the receiver and we were in that muhfucka trying to figure out how to work the shit. ... They also gave us a turntable, 'cause we didn't have one. So once we figured out how it worked, and they showed us how to make beats with it, that's when we started just going crazy."
Jax had dropped out of school by then, but he still lived near campus on Fair Street. He was working as the manager at the Clark Atlanta location of Marco's Pita with DJ Drama – another CAU student he'd met the prior year who would become Binkis' first DJ before creating his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. "Jax was really my homie when it came to hip-hop," says Drama. "Like, my early mixtapes here in Atlanta, I would hustle them through [Marco's] Pita shop, and Jax would always support me. And if I wasn't there, he would help sell the tapes."
Near the end of 1998, they'd put together a joint that would long serve as their signature. The song, "Beat You in the Head," had a raucous, swaggering sing-along hook on which Jax and Flux threatened to, well, "beat youuu in your heaaaad."
"That was like, our staple," says Flux, recalling the hype reaction the song generated at live shows. "Everybody used to bug off that shit."
Jax wielded a perfect mix of high jinks and humility as an MC that would later earn him comparisons to Ghostface and Busta Rhymes. Plus, his voice sounded like a chubby boy's laughter.
A favorable response to their demo from DJ and former New York radio show host Bobbito led him to include "Beat You in the Head" on 2001's Farewell Fondle 'Em compilation (Definitive Jux). Next came two 12-inch singles ("Bullitt" b/w "Eyeam" and "Marquee" b/w "That's What I'm Talking About") issued on Bobbito's subsequent label, Fruitmeat Records.
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