Rap Innovator Jam Master Jay Comes to an Uncharacteristically Violent End

By Evan Serpick and Brian M. Raftery
Updated November 15, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Over his two-decade career, Jam Master Jay steered clear of the backstage feuds and gangsta poses frequently associated with hip-hop. But on Oct. 30, to the shock of friends and fans, Run-DMC’s beloved turntable titan became the latest victim in a tragic succession of rap industry murders. While relaxing in the lounge of a Queens recording studio, the 37-year-old (born Jason Mizell) was killed when an unknown intruder shot him once in the head at close range.

As New York City police officers continued their search for a suspect (at press time, they had made no arrests), members of the music community downplayed speculation that Mizell’s death resulted from some rap-related rivalry. ”Jason wasn’t the type of person to have enemies,” says DJ Hurricane, a friend since junior high school. ”He wasn’t [sparring] with other rappers or things of that nature. Run-DMC has always been about making positive records.” At the time of his death, Mizell was doing just that — working in the studio, producing a record for obscure rap group Rusty Waters.

The slaying is the most recent example of in-studio violence: In 1994, rapper Tupac Shakur was injured when he was shot five times in the lobby of Times Square’s Quad Recording Studios. (Two years later, he was murdered in Las Vegas; no arrests have been made in that case.) Unlike the ubiquity of guards at hip-hop concerts and events, ”studio security on the East Coast is pretty lax,” says Black Thought of the Roots. ”You can come into any studio at any time. That needs to change.” (Reps for several high-profile Manhattan recording facilities declined to comment on security matters.) Adds Chuck D of Public Enemy, ”You’ve got [undesirables] coming into the studio, because the business has accepted a criminal element.”

Such concerns weren’t part of Mizell’s middle-class upbringing in Hollis, Queens — the neighborhood that would become world-famous thanks to numerous Run-DMC shout-outs. In 1983, he and neighbors Joseph ”Run” Simmons, now 38, and Darryl ”DMC” McDaniels, 38, released the Adidas-clad group’s debut single, ”It’s Like That.” The setup may have seemed primitive — two turntables and some mics — but Mizell’s scratch-and-sample bravado convinced millions that a worn record player was as valid a means of musical expression as a busted-up guitar.

Mizell infused Run-DMC’s rap grooves with a heavy rock & roll stomp, which led to a strutting 1986 crossover collaboration with Aerosmith on ”Walk This Way.” ”It was great watching him put his tracks together,” says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. ”He was like a whole rhythm section [unto] himself.” Despite a failed comeback attempt with 2001’s Crown Royal, Run-DMC continued to draw concertgoers, most recently on a tour last summer with Aerosmith and Kid Rock. ”Without Jam Master Jay’s influence,” says Hurricane, ”I don’t know how many people across the world would want to be in hip-hop.”

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