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.
But around the time Binkis Recs – now consisting of MCs Flux, Jax and Killa Kalm – released its only nationally distributed album, 2003's The Reign Begins (Day By Day Entertainment), many groups among Atlanta's underground were starting to splinter or completely phase out.
While the scene slowed to a crawl, Jax steadily amassed a catalog of solo material. Between 2001 and 2007, he released six projects – Observe, J.F.K. (which stands for Jax Forever King), Sharp Images EP, Black Capitalism, The Sharpener mix CD and Sharper Images – all while holding down a day job loading trucks at UPS. As always, Jax's dimpled brand of honest humor shone through when he wrote a song based on his UPS grind called "Underpaidslavery," which appeared on the Sharp Images EP.
"Jax basically was a personification of being who you are," says Jayforce, who befriended Jax as host of 89.3's (WRFG-FM) the Beatz & Lyrics Show. "You can work a nine-to-five job [and] you can still have good times and enjoy your life, if you can keep your music honest."
Sometimes, his mother wondered if her son was keeping it a little too real.
"He worked like a Hebrew slave," says Alecia Thurston. "I said to him, 'It's time to get up off your knees, you don't have to suffer to be hip-hop, Chris.' He said, 'Yeah Ma, but when I'm suffering it makes me rhyme better.'"
Dude was tired.
That's the main thing Flux remembers Jax stressing that day. "He woke up mad early and he felt like he was getting sick," says Flux. "So he was just like 'Yeah, we're gonna do these joints and be out.'"
It was Monday, Nov. 3, and they were scheduled to perform at Lenny's later that night. They tried contacting the promoter by phone to see if they could bump up their slot on the bill from third to first, but they couldn't reach him.
"If we don't hear nothing, we're just gonna go down there and see what's up," Flux said to Jax.
After rehearsing their two-man set, they chilled and talked a bit. Conversation turned toward the future. As usual, Jax had several pots on the flame at once. He'd just finished a yet-to-be-released mix CD called The Sharpener 2. More Binkis Recs material was simmering. Jax and Flux were putting together an album as a duo. Plus, Jax already had another mix CD, I'm the Best Man, in the works. He was also opening the Binkis Records umbrella back up to begin pushing younger artists, including Ekundayo, Eddie Meeks of Prophetix, Jae Scott and Señor Kaos. According to Jax's wife Lisa, he was even considering putting his own rap career on the backburner to push his protégé, Kaos.
Jax was also eager to jump back into the mix with Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Rasta Roots under their Smokin' Needlez banner, now that Phife's health was on the rebound after a successful kidney transplant.
Jax, on the other hand, hadn't visited a doctor's office in four years, according to his wife, and his blood pressure was slightly elevated. He had, however, been exercising more and eating a little better. He'd also trimmed down his chubby physique over the past two years. The dimples in his cheeks didn't dig in as deep when he smiled anymore.
"I was telling my son that I did not like the way he looked in the face," says his mother. "Chris looked like he was maturing too rapidly in the face. Chris had a round face. Now, you can lose weight, but you don't have to look sick. Chris didn't look well and I was on his case to go get [himself] checked out."
D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik booked Binkis Recs' first show at Yin Yang Café nearly a decade ago in 1999. When he met up with his longtime friends Jax and Flux at Lenny's on Nov. 3, the crowd was thin. Not only was it a Monday, but it was also the night before an historic presidential election. D.R.E.S. asked them if they wanted anything to drink. Jax asked for water, and they waited for what felt like forever for their turn to take the stage.
Finally, D.R.E.S. introduced them. Flux performed one of his new solo joints. Then Jax took front and center to perform the title song from 2007's Sharper Images. They got through the first verse and the hook with no problem. Then came the second verse.
"We were doing that part – "...grew up in Queens/been saggin' my jeans," recalls Flux. "And by the time we got up to "Before Ignorant Niggas Killed Intelligent Songs/but hold on – " it just so happens he was like 'hold up, hold up, hold up.'
"I looked and I thought he fucked up his words. And he was, like, going back and forth. He looked like he was getting dizzy. And he looked up and he fell back. And everything just stopped."
Jax's teeth were clenched tight and his body seized up. D.R.E.S. tried to relax his jaws enough to pry his mouth open so someone could give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Flux kept pumping his chest, trying to get him to breathe. Lenny's soundman ran to the stage and was feeling for his pulse, but it was almost nonexistent.
"To me, personally, it looked like he was leaving right then," says Flux. "But you know, I [wasn't] going to settle for that."
Once the ambulance arrived, EMTs took over administering CPR and rushed Jax to Grady Hospital.
News of Jax's passing earned the artist more press in death than he ever received in life. Message boards on Okayplayer.com blew up as fans, friends and former associates within the scene logged on to leave messages on lengthy threads. Allhiphop.com ran a story linking him to Phife, whom he toured Japan with in 2003. Even AOL.com posted a link on its home page.
While those closest to Jax are happy that his legacy is being honored, many feel like the post-mortem attention is too much, too little, too late. "Everybody's kinda sad, but we're also a little angry as well," says Kaos. "It's very frustrating, especially as an artist, because you see what happened with J Dilla, you see what's happening with Jax now. You just feel like as an artist, nobody even cares about you until you're gone. And once you're gone, people are like 'Aww, I used to love his music.' But it's like, word? You never bought nothing!"
While DJ Rasta Roots can empathize, he also tries to take it in stride with the same grace Jax demonstrated in life. "Just let it go, man," says Roots, who indirectly introduced Phife to Jax several years ago and traveled to Japan with them. "Jax was a happy dude. He was a good dude. And whatever happened and how he passed away, it didn't just happen by chance. It was for a reason. And I think one of the reasons was to unite the local hip-hop community here."
On the Saturday immediately following Jax's death, the Beatz & Lyrics Show dedicated the entire show to the memory of Jax. Longtime friends and former comrades, including Phife, DJ Rasta Roots, Stahhr tha F.E.M.C.E.E., DJ Drama, H20 of Massinfluence D.R.E.S., and remaining Binkis members DJ Mafioso, Flux and Killa Kalm came by or called in to reminisce on-air. Every now and then, host Jayforce would play a seconds-long snippet of Jax laughing that made it feel like he was still in the room.
"There's a lot of people that pass away in hip-hop and I read the comments and everybody's like 'He was such a good dude' and I'm like, 'You serious?' But I keep my mouth shut because why talk bad about the deceased. In Jax's case though, one can truly say that was a good dude," says Bobbito. "Naw, Jax wasn't the greatest MC, he wasn't the greatest artist, he wasn't the best indie artist, you know what I mean, but like he was a fucking good dude, man. And he enjoyed his craft and everybody loved him."
Lisa never got to walk down the aisle with Jax as they'd planned. "We were supposed to be getting married today [Nov. 22]," she said via phone from New York, exactly one week after his funeral took place there. When an opportunity arose on Oct. 17 for the couple to marry, Lisa and Jax went for it a month ahead of schedule and only two weeks before he died.
Now that she bears his last name, Lisa Watts Thurston will also carry the responsibility of protecting and administering Jax's catalog of music, which includes an estimated 100 to 250 unreleased songs.
While the family awaits further information from the medical examiner's office that might provide more answers about why Jax died so suddenly, there's one detail in the autopsy that's rather fitting. According to the report, Jax had a cardiac enlargement at the time of his death. In other words, he had an enlarged heart.
"It's symbolic 'cause he lived hip-hop and he died hip-hop," says Lisa. "I'm thankful that the young man did not suffer. I'm thankful he died for something that he truly loved."
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
3 people apparently love handing over an extra 40% in fees for nothing in return…
Dang. I thought they would name some actual headliners.
Forgot to mention that Iggy did a stellar show @ the Agora in the spring…
Their fees were onerous, to say the least. $16 per ticket for "convenience," and it's…