Producer and DJ Mark James, the 45 King, Has Died

The ear behind Eminem's "Stan," JAY-Z's "Hard Knock Life" and more was 62

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Oct 19, 2023

Mark Howard James — the American producer and DJ who crafted hits for JAY-Z, Eminem and more as the 45 King — has died. News of the artist's passing was shared by DJ Premier, who wrote how he had FaceTimed James in hospital this past Tuesday. A cause of death was not revealed. He was 62.

In tribute to the "icon," Premier shared on Instagram how hearing a James production on the radio would eventually lead him to join Gang Starr. "Mark is responsible for so many classics and was a member of the Iconic Crew FLAVOR UNIT," he wrote. "His sound was unlike any other ... his heavy drums and his horns were so distinct on every production. Beyond that, his vinyl releases of breakbeats are beyond any DJ of the '80s/'90s era, practically endless. Sleep peacefully Mark thank you for all that you've done. You're such a special part of our culture that is chiseled in the stone of the greatest parts of us."

As the 45 King, James broke out with "The 900 Number," a breakbeat-backed saxophone track that would later be sampled to form the basis of DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat." With Flavor Unit, James worked extensively with crewmate Queen Latifah on her 1989 debut album All Hail the Queen, producing the majority of the LP, lending vocals to "A King and Queen Creation" and remixing "Princess of the Posse." The album was selected for preservation in the United States National Recording Registry by the US Library of Congress earlier this year.

In 1998, James produced JAY-Z's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," the second single from the artist's Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life. The track prominently features a sample of the song "It's a Hard Knock Life" from the cast recording of 1977 musical Annie, and in order to have the snippet cleared after a first rejection, JAY-Z wrote the rightsholders and stretched the truth about what James's sample meant to him.

In his 2010 memoir Decoded, JAY-Z recalls, "I made up this story about how when I was a seventh-grader in Bed-Stuy, our teacher held an essay contest and the three best papers won the writers a trip to the city to see Annie. A lie. I wrote that as kids in Brooklyn we hardly ever came into the city. True. I wrote that from the moment the curtain came up I felt like I understood honey's story. Of course, I'd never been to see Annie on Broadway. But I had seen the movie on TV. Anyway, they bought it, cleared it, and I had one of my biggest hits."

In 2000, James would produce another single that would go on to be certified platinum in Eminem's "Stan," the third single from 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP. Sampling the opening lines of Dido's song "Thank You," the track now stands as one of Eminem's greatest hits, while its title has now become a term to describe an immensely obsessive level of fandom.

Asked about the sample of her song that year, Dido shared, "I just thought it was brilliant. I was so excited, because I thought it sounded really good. And I really do genuinely like him. If he didn't do this intelligently, if he was just an idiot, I might think differently about his record. I just think he's clever, and he's funny. He does it so well. He's a really great storyteller and entertainer."

James also helmed remixes for Madonna, Eric B. & Rakim, Digital Underground, Salt-N-Pepa and Maestro Fresh Wes, remixing "Drop the Needle" from the Canadian's 1989 debut Symphony in Effect.

Find tributes to the 45 King from A-Trak, Eminem, Nicholas Craven, the Alchemist and more below.

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