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The reference for the title of this tape, Arms of Heaven, comes from a melted-euphoric 90’s rave mix by DJ Kage (an alias of US happy hardcore pioneer DJ Paulina Taylor). The original usage of the title Arms of Heaven, at least within the electronic music continuum, comes from a ’96 hard trance song by German duo Sunbeam. I’m using it now for the sake of emotional resonance - this is, vaguely, a dedication tape. It’s not so much for one specific person. The intro, at least, is for DJ Kay Slay.

He was forthright. Always delivering honest (but merciless) showers of aggression over his mixtapes. The say-what-you-really-feel approach is what built his rapport with the every-person in New York. He’d talk shit that softer DJs would never utter, sometimes out of true fear of reprisal. So he had skin in the game. His appeal to the streets tethered him to the underground. For Kay Slay, the synergy he could create between the streets and the radio forged a reputation that preceded him and gave him access to exclusive material. Major artists would meet him in a random parking lot or gas station to hand deliver masters, insuring radio play for those records the next day. Giving exclusives was par for the course within the mixtape circuit, but with other DJs/artists, it could come from some kind of parasitic dynamic. Relationships were extremely political. Shitty favors owed and repaid, sides taken, and local markets manipulated. Kay Slay had a different kind of handshake with the scene. By way of example: when Ether first came out on radio Funk Flex was playing it on his show with the Kay Slay drops still intact - the watermark he left on it reminding listeners not who played it first, but to whose hands it was first entrusted.

The opening for his weekly show on Hot97 was a roll call that mentioned every jail in New York State, each location on the list separated by the sound of metal on metal. Prison gates grinding into registration. It was an industrial-experimental masterpiece hidden in plain sight, and playing during prime nightlife radio hours for nearly 20 years.

If you take the internet at its most rabid, NYC has become a gauntlet of discursive quicksand since that era. Just a bunch of deluded psychos struggling to justify overpayment for access to a circle-jerk at a time when the creation of anything intellectually formidable has moved off-site. It can feel that way. Loveless. Rife w withering clap backs. Perpetual mean girls… but before there were Twitter wars there was a different form of adversarial engagement. One that demanded that arguments about hierarchy be made on the basis of fidelity to principle, and as a tutelary act. One that demanded legibility over the occulted sneak diss, candor over toxic sincerity (shouts out torn hawk for that phrase), and vulgar brevity in the face of glib manipulation. Let beef be a little less annoying and a little more like the Drama Hour at 12 AM and Double Drama at 1 AM on Hot97 Thursday Nights with DJ Kay Slay.

WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING The Drama King is in the BUILDING. The Drama King is in the BUILDING….

RIP Kay Slay

Words by Max Barbaria