“The Last Days Of Jam Master Jay” Playboy, December 2003
October 30, 2002: Mischief Night
It’s the day before Halloween in Jamaica, Queens. A cold, slanting rain falls in the streets, and it’s unseasonably chilly-above freezing, but not by much. Jam Master Jay, the DJ who ran the turntables for the legendary rap group Run-DMC, pulls his black SUV into a parking space outside a two-story building on Merrick Boulevard. In the fading afternoon light he hustles inside and upstairs to the second floor, to Studio 24/7.
The small recording studio looks like a crowded bodega. Jay’s longtime business partner and friend Randy Allen moves around in the control room-where tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment is on display-next to a tiny soundproof vocal booth. A glass window separates the two rooms. Jay greets Randy as the others slide over to make room for him in the lounge, a modest sitting area with two couches. Randy’s sister, Lydia High, the studio bookkeeper and secretary, is there, as are two other people: a homeless friend who sleeps in the studio and a hanger-on named Uriel Rincon.
From the studio window Jay can see the red brick building that houses the 103rd Precinct. The police station overlooks PO Edward Byrne Avenue, a street that was renamed to commemorate a police officer assassinated in 1988 on a local drug dealer’s orders. Behind the studio building sits a large open-air bus depot, a onetime hangout of the South Side Crew, which long ago waged turf battles with Jay and his boys, the Hollis Crew. Jay lets Randy do most of the fussing. Randy has a lot riding on their current project, a duo called Rusty Waters, consisting of Randy and Jay’s nephew Boe Skagz (born Rodney Jones). Their debut album is due at Virgin Records in a matter of days. Consumed by details, Randy sends Boe to the barbershop to get a haircut for an upcoming promotional tour.
Amid this usual activity the little group in the studio is taken by surprise: A stranger appears at the door. She explains that she’s a friend of a friend and has a demo tape she would like to give Jay. On the otherwise bare white walls she sees gold and platinum records, a reminder of Jay’s glory days as the musical mastermind behind Run-DMC. The stories of Jay’s generosity are matched only by his accessibility. The young woman with the tape has heard of others making this pilgrimage. Now it’s her turn.
In fact, Jay doesn’t generally listen to tapes from strangers, but Randy agrees to. Despite the looming deadline, the vibe in the studio seems relaxed and peaceful, no doubt helped by the joints being passed around. But in the fragrant clouds of smoke, Jay is on edge, possibly fearing for his life; he is armed with a .45 automatic. With all the traffic moving in and out of the studio, it is not entirely clear whom he fears most.
A Rusty Waters song called “Cornbread” booms out of the speakers: “Cornbread, all head/Macaroni and cheese/Where the collard greens at?/Y’know, you know that.” Jay settles into a tan couch in the lounge to play one of his favorite Xbox football games with Rincon on the widescreen TV. They’re focused on their game rather than on a four-way split-screen monitor hooked up to closed-circuit video cameras in the hall. It’s about 7:30 p.m. According to this version of events, pieced together from multiple sources, including people present in the studio that night, everything is about to change forever.
Downstairs, two men dressed in dark clothing enter the building lobby and move past a camera. Undetected, they climb the narrow staircase single file from the street to the second floor. At the top of the stairs the smaller man stops. The other man, about six-foot-two and 180 pounds, bursts through the door-and all hell breaks loose.
“Look at the ground!” he shouts as he swiftly pushes Lydia aside. He has a .40-caliber pistol.
“Oh, shit,” Jay cries. “Grab the gun!”
It’s too late. The man’s weapon is inches from Jay’s head, behind his left ear. “What about this? What about this?” says the assailant. He pulls the trigger.
The bullet passes through Jay’s head, and he collapses. The gun is so close to him that powder burns scorch his shirt. In the confined space, the gunman falls over Rincon, who has bent down to get his cell phone. A second shot goes off and hits Rincon in the leg. Before he has time to register the pain, the assailants are running down the stairs.
Randy is in the control room with the curtains drawn, listening to playbacks, when he hears the shots. He and Mike B., the homeless friend, rush into the lounge. Randy picks up “the studio gun” they keep handy and pursues the killers into the street. He loses them in a nearby parking lot, where he drops the weapon.
None of this effort helps his friend Jam Master Jay, who dies where he fell, next to a brown leather hat and wearing his trademark snow-white Adidas.
October 30, 2002: The Mourning
The news spreads rapidly through the streets of Queens, by cell phone, pager, radio and TV. The neighborhood kids, Jay’s business partners, even guys who had beefs with Jay-his death shocks them all. They gather outside the studio, in numbers that increase throughout the night. Everyone knows this is a landmark event. The first scratches on a record average Americans had ever heard came from Jay’s recordings with Run-DMC. More than that, the band always had a social conscience, speaking out about prejudice and violence.
Standing by yellow police tape and caught in the rain and the periodic sweep of TV spotlights, the crowd is possessed by a mournful nostalgia. In the age of gangsta rap the party jams of Run-DMC suddenly seem more naive than ever. Chuck D of Public Enemy stands out in the glare of a camera. “Run-DMC was the Beatles of hip-hop,” he says.
Jay was a kid from the rough neighborhood of Hollis who raised himself up and tried to bring others with him. “Jay was always trying to get his friends who strayed back on the right path,” says his friend Hurricane, who credits Jay with saving him from a life of crime by getting him a job as the Beastie Boys’ DJ. Jay paid rents. He bestowed gifts. He taught chess to young kids in the park. He was a local hero. Soft-spoken and amiably aloof, he’d wear a small smile on his face, as though he were paying only half a mind to the matter at hand and couldn’t wait to get back to his music. Even after two decades of success he never took on the airs of celebrity or the pose of the thug, and he embraced all kinds of hip-hop.
NYPD personnel carry the body bag down the back stairs.
Jay could have left Queens countless times, but he always returned. “He stayed here because of me,” his sister, Bonita Jones, Boe’s mother, would later say. “A long time ago his wife wanted to move out of New York, but he said, ‘I’m not leaving my sister.’ That’s the man he was.”
But who exactly was Jam Master Jay? Long before the night was out, questions were raised about almost every aspect of his murder. As the list of suspects-and possible motives-grew, it became clear that there was more to Jay than the good-guy image he had maintained for years. It also became clear that this would not be an easy crime to solve. After a flood of early reports, information dried up, the mystery hardened, and people stopped talking-until now.
The man originally known as Jason Mizell led a secret life that involved guns, drugs and murky business deals. The answers to why he was killed lie in the story of his final few months alive. It all comes back to a place called Hollis, Queens.
July 2003: Scoon and Pep
At Masta Kutterz, a scruffy Hollis Avenue barbershop, foam padding peeps through the peeling plastic-covered chairs. Magazine pictures featuring braiding and weaving styles adorn the purple-and-blue walls. A sign instructs patrons: no smoking. no loitering. no profanity. Masta Kutterz is a place one goes to chew the fat and exchange gossip about what’s going on in Hollis. “Barbers always get the news first, know what I mean?” says the genial owner, Preston Harts.
On a sweltering afternoon, a rogue’s gallery of ex-criminals in spotless sneakers starts to congregate outside, but not to get a $10 trim. News has filtered through the grapevine that Curtis Scoon is back in town. As recently as 10 years ago Scoon was a prominent fixture of Hollis street life. Since shortly after Jay’s death he’s been living in Atlanta (to pursue a career as a screenwriter, he says). He gained a brief moment of notoriety following Jay’s death when his name was plastered all over the newspapers as the prime suspect. Like Jay, DMC (Darryl McDaniels) and Run (Joseph Simmons), Scoon grew up in Hollis.
Soon a steady parade of former comrades in crime comes by the barbershop to say hello. Scoon has persuaded some of his press- and cop-shy friends-now older, somewhat calmer and decidedly thicker around the waist than in their hell-raising heyday-to divulge what they know about the circumstances of Jam Master Jay’s tragic demise.
Pep, a friend of Scoon’s, rolls up and squeezes his wide girth out of a Nissan Maxima. Scoon and Pep (whom some call Pep the Pimp, though not to his face) go back a long way: The two were co-defendants in a 1985 robbery-and-kidnapping case in which they were both acquitted. He’s dressed in a baggy Washington Wizards shirt with a thick platinum chain around his neck.
“Am I getting paid for this interview?” Pep wants to know.
Most of the people at Masta Kutterz initially claim they won’t talk to a journalist. Why risk it, especially when they aren’t getting paid for their trouble? “We’re skating on very thin ice here,” says one. But after a little prodding they begin to gossip like a bunch of Park Avenue matrons.
Few people in the neighborhood believe Scoon killed Jam Master Jay, but at one time the rumor made a certain amount of sense. A notorious argument between the two men is part of Hollis street lore. “Everybody knew Scoon had a beef with Jay,” says Pep. “It was easy to believe that Scoon did it.”
The dispute originated in the early 1990s when Scoon and Jay had a business arrangement. Many in the neighborhood say it was a drug deal gone bad. They say Scoon and Jay put up cash ($15,000 apiece is the figure bandied about), and a third party ran off with the money. Scoon, however, says it was simply a small loan that Jay failed to repay promptly. Whatever the truth, Scoon, who readily admits he has “a checkered past,” felt that Jay owed him and wanted the debt paid. At six-foot-four and 250 pounds, Scoon is a big man with a booming voice and an easygoing wit, though one gets the impression his mien can darken in an instant. “If Jay was dealing drugs, it wasn’t with me,” insists Scoon. “He paid the debt. I had to get a little heavy with him, but he paid. Jay did not owe me a dollar at the time of his death. I hadn’t been in contact with Jay for at least four years.”
“Jay always hung on the block,” adds Pep. “He always came back to the neighborhood. There was no real hate out here for him.” Still, nearly everyone interviewed for this article agrees that Jam Master Jay’s murderer must have come from nearby-someone familiar to Jay and intimate with his movements either killed him or set him up. Scoon claims it was common knowledge that Jay was mixed up in narcotics trafficking. The perception is that as he traveled around the country, he served as a middleman-putting buyers and sellers together and taking a cut of the profits without ever handling the drugs. “Everybody in Jay’s inner circle knows that Jay was involved in arranging deals,” Scoon maintains, “but nobody wants to talk about it because they don’t want to tarnish his image. Jay kept a gun on him because he was in a lot of business disputes. He owed a lot of people money. He was so broke he was pawning his jewelry to drug dealers. Everybody loved Jay except the people he did business with.”
In the middle of our chat, undercover detectives, seeing this OG reunion on the corner, drive by in an unwashed sedan to check us out. “Five-O, Five-O,” the warning goes up, and we all trek back inside the barbershop.
Ten months later the questions surrounding Jay’s death have only deepened. Detectives have admitted to the New York tabloids that their investigation has been stymied by the uncooperative attitude of Jay’s friends in the studio. Nearly all the murder details have come into question. Various parts of the accepted scenario-Boe’s haircut, Jay’s gun, how the killers entered the studio-have been filtered through police leaks, conflicting tabloid accounts and sometimes contradictory sources. Either the security cameras were inoperable or the tape is missing. There is even confusion about the number of witnesses, who was actually in the studio and whether the gun Jay was said to be carrying was in fact a .380 (the description of the so-called studio gun). the streets is watching, but nobody’s talking, blared MTV.com in an article about the stalled probe.
“It’s bullshit to say that the street don’t talk,” scoffs Scoon. “The street always talks.” Just not necessarily to law enforcement officials.
When Scoon ambles outside, whom should he see gliding down Hollis Avenue on luxury German wheels but Randy Allen, making one of his few brief appearances in the neighborhood since Jay’s death. At first Scoon can hardly trust his eyes: Here is his nemesis, the man he believes put out the story that he shot the beloved rap icon. As Randy drives past in his Mercedes, Scoon fixes him with an icy stare. Randy looks at Scoon, incredulous.
October 30, 2002: Jahliek versus Boe
It’s one hell of a convoluted tale, a story told by myriad street sources, some of whom are dangerous individuals with serious criminal records, many of whom have never before spoken to the press or the police. The drama unites some of the biggest names in hip-hop with a cast that ranges from street-level hustlers to big-time drug suppliers. The narrative reaches as far afield as the underworlds of the Midwest and Baltimore. But in the end, it all comes back to Hollis.
In 1987 Jay moved to nearby Parkside Hills, to a three-story house with wrought iron gates, ornamental trees and a carriage lamp in the front garden, but he always kept one foot in the streets of Hollis. It was where his inspiration came from.
The Bronx may be the Mecca of hip-hop, but a strong case can be made that Hollis and the surrounding neighborhoods are rap music’s Medina. A 30-minute train ride from Manhattan, this tight-knit neighborhood of modest single-family homes has raised an extraordinary number of rap’s movers and shakers; it’s where hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons, older brother of Joseph “Run” Simmons, got his start dealing weed at the local high school. In addition to Simmons and Run-DMC, rap heavies from Hollis and the nearby environs of Jamaica and St. Albans include LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, 50 Cent, Ja Rule and local radio personality Ed Lover. Hollis is also the birthplace of Irv Gotti (a.k.a. Irving Lorenzo), founder of the rap label Murder Inc. (which bills itself as “the world’s most dangerous record company”). Gotti grew up several blocks from Jay, who taught the young Irving how to deejay. Gotti too is suffering from his association with street toughs, and his label is currently the subject of an FBI probe.
Tension between lower-middle-class respectability and the siren call of the streets characterizes life in the neighborhood-a decent address before white flight in the 1970s and crack cocaine in the early 1980s turned the prosperous and racially integrated community into a suburban ghetto. During the day Hollis has a village vibe, like a place where everybody either is related to or knows everybody else, and strangers draw perplexed stares. But at night respectable residents retreat indoors. Outside it’s guns, drugs and crime.
Within hours of Jay’s death, mourners gather on 203rd Street, outside the house where Jay grew up. His sister, Bonita, lives there now. A friend of Bonita’s named Jahliek, who regularly crashes on her couch, hears a commotion outside and investigates. According to Jahliek-a tall, thin man with cornrows-he finds Bonita’s son Boe Skagz shouting at the crowd clustered in the light of the street lamps and the shadows of nearby trees. Boe sees him, he says, and then attacks him, cracking him over the head with a gun and leaving a serious gash. “He was angry,” says Jahliek. “Later he apologized. He said he was upset because certain people had told him a bunch of bullshit that I was affiliated with his uncle’s murder.” Instead of going to the hospital and attracting the police, Jahliek uses Krazy Glue to close the wound. “I wasn’t going to make a fuss, so I doctored myself,” he says. Aversion to fuss is common in Hollis-just ask the cops.
NOVEMBER 5, 2002: REQUIEM FOR A DJ
Police cruisers block off several Jamaica streets. Throngs of onlookers pack the sidewalks and press against barricades as an NYPD helicopter hovers overhead. Plainclothes officers shoot video from rooftops and take photos as stretch limos disgorge hip-hop dignitaries: LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Kurtis Blow, Foxy Brown, Chuck D, Russell Simmons, the Beastie Boys, P. Diddy and Grandmaster Flash. A glass-covered carriage pulled by four white horses comes down Merrick Boulevard.
Jam Master Jay’s funeral is a grand and sober affair, not unlike a statesman’s. Fans, family and friends pack the Greater Allen Cathedral in Queens, where some 2,000 mourners hold their hands aloft and bow their heads in prayer. Church ladies dressed in white robes dispense tissues and water to the crying masses.
Funeral wreaths, including a floral arrangement in the shape of twin turntables, adorn the altar. Pallbearers wear black fedoras, leather jackets and unlaced shell-toe Adidas-the look Jay invented for Run-DMC. According to witnesses, Lydia High, who was in the studio the night Jay was murdered, barges to the front row-traditionally reserved for family members-and tries to sit with Jay’s mother, Connie Mizell. Mizell tells her to sit at the back with her brother, Randy Allen, who, the story goes, has arrived at the funeral accompanied by a bodyguard. Randy greets a guest and gasps, “I can hardly breathe. I’ve got to get out of here.” (As Lydia leaves the service, witnesses say, she is picked up by NYPD detectives from the 103rd Precinct and whisked away to be questioned again.)
From the pulpit Darryl McDaniels, a.k.a. DMC, fights back tears and eulogizes his friend: “Jam Master Jay was not a thug. Jam Master Jay was not a gangster. He was the personification, the embodiment, of hip-hop.”
OCTOBER 2002: A HOLIDAY WITH SHAKE
In the week before his murder Jam Master Jay spent four days with his friend Eric “Shake” James at Shake’s bachelor pad, an unremarkable aluminum-sided house in a Milwaukee suburb. It was a personal visit. “We were just popping shit and hanging out,” says Shake. Jay seemed relieved to be out of Hollis. He was reluctant to go home but had to be in Queens to put the finishing touches on Rusty Waters’ debut album. Afterward Jay was to travel to D.C. to spin during halftime at a Wizards-Celtics basketball game.
“Jay told me he was going through some problems,” Shake says. “It was regular everyday bullshit. People owed him money.”
Jay also told Shake about a recent incident in Jay’s studio involving an acquaintance named Goldie. Goldie allegedly owed Jay money from some sort of fishy business arrangement. When Goldie walked into the studio sporting a new set of clothes, a perturbed Jay demanded his money. “I need to get my cheese,” he insisted. Goldie thought Jay wasn’t serious and laughed off the request. Jay whipped out a .45 automatic and waved it in Goldie’s face. “I was shocked when Jay told me that,” says Shake.
Except for a brief trip to Chicago to see 50 Cent at the House of Blues, Jay and Shake spent most of their time together in the living room, playing an NFL video game. Jay loved games and would sometimes play for 24 hours at a stretch. After playing awhile, he turned to Shake and said, “I ain’t going home. I’m happy out here.” The memory pains Shake. “He kept saying that he’d rather stay in Milwaukee and chill,” he says. “But I kept telling him that he had to go home and take care of business.”
While Jay was there the mother of rapper Mos Def called and asked Jay to write the music for an upcoming play she and her son were producing. To Shake it seemed that Jay’s career must be booming again, but his street-regal exterior masked his worrisome involvement in numerous beefs. “Randy is taking my money, man,” Jay told Shake. “I’m glad that Rusty Waters is signed to Virgin. I’m happy that Randy is finally out of my pocket.”
“Jay didn’t suspect Randy was stealing from him,” says Shake. “He knew Randy was stealing from him. It had been going on for a while.”
The last conversation Shake had with his old friend was the day after Jay left Milwaukee. “He’d forgotten his two-way, and he called me from a sandwich shop near the studio and asked me for 50 Cent’s number,” Shake says. “He was with Randy, and they were just about to go upstairs and work on the album. That was the last time I ever heard from him. You can’t imagine how bad that makes me feel, knowing I was the one who persuaded him to go back to New York.”
JULY 30, 2003: LOVEY AND THE BURGLARY CREW
Lovey sits in a barber’s chair at Masta Kutterz, reminiscing about how he and 15-year-old Jason Mizell ran wild in the Hollis streets. Now a rotund, balding 38-year-old with fading tattoos on his arms and a day job, Lovey recalls those years with pride and fondness: “Me and Jay grew up together on 203rd Street. I was the first person he met when his family moved to 203 in the late 1970s.”
Growing up, Jay was a good, if rambunctious, kid, a member of a close-knit family. He was expected to speak proper English at home and developed an early interest in music-first learning the drums, then the bass. He also learned to navigate the neighborhood, and to feel safe he needed everyone to be his friend. As Jay explained to Bill Adler, author of the Run-DMC biography Tougher Than Leather, “If I was going to the store for my mother, all the wild guys would be there, so I had to be their friend in order not to be scared of them.”
“When he was a kid, Jay was cool with a lot of drug dealers,” says Lovey, “but he never sold anything for them.” Jay may not have dealt drugs, but he was involved with a junior burglary crew that broke into houses in Jamaica Estates. “Me and Jay and Randy Allen and Randy’s brother Frankie all used to rob houses together,” says Lovey. “That’s what we did.” Others in the shop say they were joined by Ronald “Tinard” Washington and a guy everyone called Yaqin.
Lovey’s revelation is significant. Every surviving member of the crew later figured prominently in stories about Jay’s death. While Jay went on to legitimacy and success, his friends-whom he never abandoned, despite the trouble they might have caused him-went on to lead hard lives.
The fledgling posse targeted wealthy white neighborhoods-you don’t get rich robbing the poor. Frankie Allen would stake out a place, often hiding in a tree or bushes until the residents left. Then the crew would head inside.
“We’d take everything,” says Lovey. “Jewelry, guns, money, drugs, stereo equipment, televisions-even food for a meal afterward. Jay had a strict father, so we tried to keep him out of a lot of stuff, because we knew his mom and pop would be angry. But Jay held stuff in his basement, where his parents didn’t go.”
Whenever the others allowed it, Jay tagged along. In Hollis, crime is practically a rite of passage-the occasional heist or drug deal does wonders for your reputation.
“One time Jay decided he wanted to come with us,” remembers Lovey. “He wanted his own money. So we took him on a score.” As they were leaving a house in Jamaica Estates, a private security guard spotted them and fired several shots, one of which nearly hit Jay, says another of the crew. “That was his wake-up call,” says Lovey. “He didn’t want to do that no more.”
When Jay’s parents found out about their son’s extracurricular activities, they were furious. Jay’s mother burst into tears. Scared straight, Jay began concentrating on his true passion-deejaying, which he practiced religiously in his bedroom.
The others continued down their crooked paths-Frankie Allen died from an overdose and Randy landed in jail on a felony charge-but Jay used his ill-gotten proceeds to set himself up as a professional DJ. He played outdoor parties at Two-Fifth Park, a concrete playground with a hoops court, situated just around the corner from his house. The new sound of hip-hop was rocking New York City’s outer boroughs. MC after MC took the microphone to brag about pretty girls they didn’t have or fancy cars they didn’t drive. In the early 1980s the parties attracted crack dealers flush with cash and carrying weapons. It wasn’t uncommon for the boisterous events to end with a mammoth brawl or gunshots. But at Two-Fifth Park, Jay’s skills caught the attention of two up-and-coming local rappers, Run and DMC.
1986: RAISING HELL
Run-DMC attained heights unimagined by any previous hip-hop act. They were the first rappers to be featured regularly on MTV. They were the only hip-hop performers to play Live Aid. The group’s debut was the first hip-hop album to go gold. The second, Kings of Rock, eventually sold 4 million copies. Their third and best album, Raising Hell, sold millions more worldwide, fueled by “Walk This Way,” the hit collaboration with Aerosmith. They played London, Tokyo, Sydney and Paris; they made as much as $150,000 a show. They also scored a major endorsement deal in 1986 when they signed a $1.5 million contract with Adidas. Jay was rich beyond his wildest dreams. So why was he virtually broke at the time of his death?
“Jay hadn’t had a hit record in 10 years. Why would he have a whole bunch of money?” asks Russell Simmons, who managed Run-DMC in the 1980s.
Part of the problem was Jay’s extravagance. He wore mink when the rest of Run-DMC wore leather. He had the most jewelry. He had the flashiest cars. Jay didn’t drive one automobile but several-a Lincoln Continental, a Mercedes, a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Jeep Wrangler and his favorite, a seven-passenger Lincoln Navigator. He also purchased showy rides for his sister, brother, mother, wife and at least two close friends. As his fame grew, so did his entourage. He thought nothing of dropping $3,000 a night on champagne at a nightclub.
“As far as I know, he had no effective management in the last 10 years of his life, which is not unusual in the rap world,” says one industry figure who worked closely with Jay. “But he must have been profligate to die broke.”
Jay’s financial woes started early, according to Tracey Miller, Run-DMC’s longtime publicist. A six-figure tax bill incurred during his Raising Hell heyday mushroomed over time to nearly $500,000. “Jay couldn’t keep up with all the penalties and interest,” says Miller. “It kept compounding and compounding. Eventually the IRS put a lien on his earnings. He was allowed to keep a portion to live on, but most of his performance fees went to the tax man. Russell Simmons was their manager and made millions. Why didn’t he instruct Jay to manage his finances and pay his taxes?”
An angry Simmons retorts, “To say I made millions from Run-DMC is an absolute lie. Everybody got jerked. That’s how it was for rappers in those days. Tracey is not in a position to know what I did for Jay. I did the best I could to advise him and to find opportunities for Jay. I’m not a business manager. I introduced him to financial managers, but I couldn’t force him to pay his taxes. He was a grown man.”
In 1988 Simmons sued the band’s label, Profile Records, to break their contract. The dispute effectively put Run-DMC’s recording career on hold for nearly two years, an eternity in the fast-paced world of rap. When they finally released a new album, their momentum had dissipated, and new rappers had taken their place.
According to their rhymes, Run-DMC were clean. But rap’s first stars also had a dark side. Before he was ordained a minister, Run had a substance abuse problem, and DMC consumed eight bottles of malt liquor a day. As the group’s record sales declined, Jay turned to side projects. He did solo gigs, helped start a turntablist school called the Scratch DJ Academy, bought a recording studio and formed his own label. In 1992 JMJ Records scored a huge hit with fellow Queens rappers Onyx (“Throw Ya Gunz”), but subsequent releases tanked.
Despite his dwindling fortunes Jay still had an ear for talent. In 1999 he helped get the then-obscure rapper 50 Cent signed to Columbia Records. But 50 Cent’s deal showed that Jay was developing a reputation for ripping off his proteges. “My deal with Columbia wasn’t a good deal,” 50 Cent complained to the website AllHipHop.com. “It was for $250,000. I got $65,000 in advance; of that, $50,000 went to Jay and $10,000 went to the lawyers who negotiated the deal. I was left with $5,000. I was still selling crack.” (After Columbia dumped him, 50 Cent hooked up with Eminem and his producer, Dr. Dre, and went on to release the platinum-selling Get Rich or Die Tryin’.)
It’s an old story: A musician gets screwed, signs a bunch of his boys and treats them the way he got treated. “Jay was known for taking the lion’s share of the money,” says one music journalist, speaking off the record.
SUMMER 2003: RUMORS ABOUT RANDY ALLEN
The police at first thought Jay was a victim of a simmering rap war. All roads led to the doorstep of Irv Gotti and Murder Inc. and a contemporary of Jay’s, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. A convicted crack kingpin, McGriff gained notoriety in the 1980s as a leader of the Supreme Team, a murderous gang that controlled the drug trade in next-door Jamaica. The feds are investigating whether McGriff secretly bankrolled Murder Inc. with drug profits. There’s also talk that he ordered the 2000 hit on 50 Cent that nearly took the rapper’s life. After Jay’s killing, the NYPD offered protection to 50 Cent.
Then Scoon’s name hit the papers. When that lead turned cold, however, investigators focused on a felon believed to be the killer’s lookout. In May 2003 Jay’s mom vented her frustration with Randy in the press, publicly excoriating him for not visiting, not telling her what he saw the night of the killing and not helping the police. Then a new motive surfaced: Jay had been killed because of an alleged affair between McGriff and Jay’s wife, Terri. This seems unlikely, since one would assume the FBI had McGriff under 24-hour surveillance and had his phones tapped.
The Greek chorus in Hollis connects all these developments with Randy Allen. The day after Jay’s death, they say, Randy relocated his sister to Las Vegas, and he and Boe disappeared for three days, claiming they needed to rehearse for a Rusty Waters promotional tour. One family acquaintance says, “I was at Jay’s mom’s place, and I heard her say on the phone to Randy, ‘If you don’t bring my grandson back, I’m going to call the police and have you arrested for kidnapping.’” The suspicion is that they were trying to get their stories straight. “A detective I know told me he wanted to question them, but they kept dodging him,” the Mizell family confidant says. “They were being uncooperative. Each story Lydia told was different. Her stories and her brother’s didn’t match.”
Hurricane (born Wendell Fite), the former DJ for the Beastie Boys and one of Jay’s oldest friends, blames Randy-who was best man at Jay’s wedding-for starting the McGriff affair rumor. “Terri is a straight-up lady,” he says, “a good mother and an excellent wife. I never saw Randy grieve once at the funeral. A friend of his gets killed, and the day after burying Jay he goes on some bullshit promotional tour for Rusty Waters.”
AUGUST 2003: RANDY DENIES ALL
Five days after Jay’s murder, a distraught Shake, who had traveled to New York City after Jay’s death, met Randy Allen in a Burger King parking lot on 179th Street. Below the asphalt, trains rumbled into the last subway stop in Queens-the end of the line. Shake jumped into the back of a car with Randy. “He was upset and real agitated,” says Shake. “I asked him, ‘Who killed Jay?’ and Randy told me, ‘The nigger who killed your best friend and mine is Curtis Scoon.’ I asked him how he knew. He said, ‘Because my sister Lydia looked him right in the face.’ I asked to speak to Lydia alone, but Randy wouldn’t allow it. Months later I heard Randy on Hot 97, and he told an entirely different story. He said Scoon didn’t kill Jay. I was upset. Why would he lie to me like that?”
Shake says Randy also told him that after Jay’s death the studio had been burglarized and equipment was taken. “But niggers on the street told me afterward that Randy did it,” claims Shake.
While accusations are flying, Randy Allen agrees to speak on the phone. He vehemently denies meeting with Shake and fingering Scoon as Jay’s killer: “No such meeting took place,” he says. He also refutes the accusation that he was stealing money and equipment. “That’s a bunch of bullshit,” he says angrily. “Shake is lying. He’s saying this for publicity. I didn’t steal from Jay. I made money for Jay. Do you think Jay would have kept me as his business manager for more than a decade if I was stealing? Shake is just jealous of what I did for Jay.”
Other friends of Jay’s, however, back up Shake’s story. “It was well-known that Jay and Randy were not on good terms in Jay’s final days,” says Hurricane. “Jay knew he was stealing and confronted Randy. Jay and I asked Randy about missing money, and he denied it. They were definitely on the outs by the end.”
Shake and others also say that prior to Jay’s fight with Goldie, there was another disturbing encounter in the studio, which allegedly involved Randy’s brother Teddy pulling a gun on Jay’s cousin and saying, “This is my brother’s studio, not Jay’s. Get the fuck out of here.”
Randy, his voice rising with emotion, professes his innocence: “A lot of people don’t like me because Jay and me were together for a long time. I’m trying to find out who killed my best friend. I don’t care what Hurricane or Shake says. If my boy Jay was here, he’d smack the shit right out of them for saying this bullshit. Jay would be turning over in his grave if he heard all this nonsense.”
Bonita, Jay’s sister, tells playboy that she too believes Randy was behind the burglary. After a chance meeting, Bonita, who doesn’t want to submit to a formal interview, says she knew that Randy and Jay had taken out an insurance policy on each other and that in the wake of the killing Randy drained all the money from a joint bank account. (In May the New York Daily News, citing a police source, reported the policy’s existence. Jay and Randy were listed as beneficiaries if either came to harm in the studio. Other police sources dispute the story.)
“The insurance policy doesn’t exist, and there was no bank account,” insists Randy. “All these people are talking about money, money, money. They should stop worrying about that shit. All this backstabbing is doing nothing to find the real killer.”
“No bank account?” scoffs Shake. “The bank account was under the name Erotic Money. I even have the account number. If there was no bank account, what were all those checks Randy was writing when Jay wasn’t around?”
JULY 31, 2002: TINARD DROPS A BOMB
Ronald “Tinard” Washington is a slim, tall and deceptively quiet career criminal who has been in and out of various correctional facilities for half his life. He was also a longtime buddy of Jay’s-and a member of Jay and Randy’s burglary crew. Speaking from behind bars following an arrest for allegedly trying to rob a Long Island motel, Tinard says that on July 31, 2002 he and Jay journeyed to Washington, D.C. in Jay’s black SUV to meet with Uncle, a major-league drug supplier from the Midwest.
Tinard, who was sought by police after the murder, says Jay had a sit-down with the supplier at a local hotel. “Jay didn’t put up any money,” he alleges. “The guy from the Midwest, Uncle, fronted the coke to Jay. It was 10 keys, worth about $180,000, which could be sold on the street for about $280,000.” Tinard says that Uncle expected Jay to pay him back in seven days. Another street source confirms the existence of Uncle but says he’s from Los Angeles, not the Midwest.
The same night in D.C., Tinard alleges, he saw Big D, Run-DMC’s former tour manager. (Big D says he has heard of Uncle but vehemently denies being in Washington.) “A lot of people came in and out of the hotel room that night to see Uncle,” says Tinard.
The next day, according to Tinard, he and Jay left: “We took the coke to Baltimore because Jay had someone lined up who was going to sell it for him. But he was having trouble hooking up with the guy. Jay told me to take his truck and go home-he was going to fly back in the morning. Later Jay told me he met the guy-someone we grew up with in Hollis-and gave him the coke, but the guy never paid him. Jay went back to Baltimore and tried to collect the debt, but he couldn’t get in touch.”
Tinard refuses to name the Baltimore connection, saying only, “Me and the Baltimore guy used to be real close until we had a falling out. He’s known for moving a lot of coke. He’s also known for using his rep to burn people.” Curtis Scoon thinks Tinard could be referring to a former associate whose street name is Yaqin. Scoon says he, Yaqin and Pep were co-defendants in the armed robbery trial. Yaqin, who has reportedly done time for the attempted murder of an NYPD officer, was also part of the Hollis burglary crew. (Tinard was also reportedly imprisoned for shooting a cop during a jewelry heist.)
“I can’t believe Jay would give Yaqin 10 of anything,” says Scoon. “Yaqin’s a piece of shit. He wouldn’t think twice about ripping off someone like Jay. Jay wasn’t that tough. You fuck Jay over and what’s he going to do-make a song about it?”
Flash-forward to the afternoon of the murder. Tinard says that Jay called and asked him to come to the studio: “One of the first things he said when I got there was, ‘Do you have a gun?’ I didn’t. So Jay showed me his gun-it was a .45-and he gave me $200 to get some bullets on the street. He was going to meet Uncle in Connecticut the next day. He said the guy wanted to get paid, but he didn’t have the money. He asked me to come along for protection.”
After purchasing the bullets, Tinard-the man cops at times have theorized was either the lookout or the shooter (he fits the physical description)-claims he was on his way back to the studio when he saw two figures ascending the stairs. They were about 20 steps in front of him. Tinard says he recognized the duo as Big D and his son, Little D. At more than 300 pounds, Big D is not hard to spot. Tinard ducked and went out back to the bus station, where he heard three loud gunshots-not the two shots reported in the media-then saw Little D rushing down the fire escape, looking agitated. “I’m positive it was Little D. I looked him right in his face before he ran off,” Tinard asserts. After the encounter, Tinard says, he took the bus back to Hollis. Later that evening, he claims, he bumped into Little D on the street and asked him what had happened. “Little D told me, ‘My pops wasn’t supposed to shoot Jay. That wasn’t supposed to happen,’” alleges Tinard. Tinard says he was shot at twice the following Saturday, and he then decided to get the hell out of Dodge.
A common assumption in Hollis is that Tinard fingered Big D to get a reduced sentence (his lawyer says there is no deal), to exact revenge on the man he suspects tried to have him clipped and to collect the reward money.
AUGUST 31, 2003: BIG D’S REBUTTAL
Smoking blunts in his girlfriend’s backyard and rehashing various forensic scenarios, Darren “Big D” Jordan doesn’t seem like much of a killer. Murderers don’t usually come with their vocation stamped across their forehead, but if Big D did whack his childhood friend, he’s one hell of a cool customer. Big D was a pallbearer at Jay’s funeral and grieved alongside the family. In the old days, Jay helped him get a job as Run-DMC’s road manager after Big D ran into trouble with the law. In the mid-1990s he and Jay owned a fish store in Jamaica, Queens.
Big D, a Jesus medallion hanging from his neck, seems remarkably unperturbed for someone whom police want to question and whose son, Little D, is incarcerated on Rikers Island on an attempted murder charge for shooting Boe Skagz in the leg. The dispute wasn’t directly related to Jay’s killing: Big D says Little D was angry with Boe for writing a lyric about how someone linked to Murder Inc. fractured his jaw. But given Tinard’s allegations and Boe’s relationship with Randy, the bust was probably not coincidental.
“Tinard don’t mean shit to me,” Big D says. “He’s losing his mind. He’s lying. Tinard just wants to come off as a big man in prison.”
If Big D seems composed, his girlfriend is anything but. We make a brief stop on 203rd Street to pick up some clothes at Big D’s old place, opposite Bonita’s, and she says, “If someone tries to pop your ass, I’m out of here.”
Big D says he was home on the night of the killing. “One of Jay’s cousins ran across the street from Bonita’s, screaming that someone had shot Jay,” says Big D. “We jumped in my car and made a beeline for the studio.”
Big D is not easily mistaken for someone else; he’s nearly twice the size of the killer in the standard description. So if he didn’t murder Jay, who did? “I don’t know for sure,” he says. “Yaqin could be involved if the stakes are high enough. I’m hearing he’s strong enough. If the 10 keys is true, that’s enough to get someone killed.”
As to why Tinard would implicate him, Big D says, “The only thing I can think of is that back when we were teenagers, my first wife had a beef with his sister. Tinard’s sister got cut pretty bad, so bad she couldn’t use one of her arms.”
More than 10 months after the slaying of Jam Master Jay, an arrest had yet to be made. As this story went to press, sources told PLAYBOY that the police had placed Lydia High in protective custody to encourage her to open up. The case has been plagued by predictions that never come to pass-such as the gossip that Randy Allen was about to be charged with obstruction of justice and that Big D would be arrested on Labor Day. “As this is an ongoing investigation,” says a detective at the 103rd Precinct, “we can’t say anything at this moment. Once it’s out there you can’t take it back, so you’re not going to find anyone who will say anything.”
Meanwhile, in Hollis, theories continue to swirl. “Whoever killed Jay ain’t no stranger,” says Shake. “It’s someone from around the way. It had to be someone he trusted for the gunmen to get up that close on him. There were powder marks on his shirt.”
“Everybody wants to whitewash Jay’s life,” says Scoon. “But Jay, like all men, had his flaws. He was no saint. What man is? But he can still be people’s hero without being perfect. This isn’t about tarnishing Jay’s legacy. The attempt to cover up his business dealings and protect his image is why it’s taking so long to catch his killer.”
In the end Jay’s loyalties probably brought him down. His attempt to straddle two worlds became untenable. He played a game he could not win with men he should not have trusted. The most startling realization, according to his friends, may not be that he got killed but that he managed to stay alive so long.
The road to hip-hop success is paved with lead
A.K.A.: Christopher Wallace, Biggie Smalls. LOWDOWN: Shot dead in 1997 in a drive-by while stopped at an L.A. traffic light. AFTERMATH: Murder still unsolved. Signs point to East Coast-West Coast rap wars and possible involvement by off-duty L.A. cops who worked for rival label Death Row. Biggie’s Life After Death, released 16 days after the murder, sells 690,000 in its first week. His second posthumous effort, 1999′s Born Again, goes platinum. No fool, Puff Daddy records ode to Biggie “I’ll Be Missing You” and scores massive hit.
A.K.A.: Tupac Shakur, Makaveli the Don. LOWDOWN: Held up and shot five times during a failed robbery attempt in New York City in 1994. Gunned down in a hail of bullets two years later while riding in a car in Las Vegas with Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight. His wounds are fatal. AFTERMATH: Superstardom. Despite having released only five albums while alive, Shakur has seven posthumous releases. In 2001 Shakur sells nearly 3 million albums, earning him the number 10 spot on Forbes’s Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
A.K.A.: Russell Tyrone Jones, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Joe Bananas, Dirt Dog, Osiris. LOWDOWN: While relaxing in a Brooklyn home in 1998, Wu-Tang Clan founder ODB is shot in the back. The assailants make off with jewelry and an unspecified amount of cash. AFTERMATH: ODB checks himself out of the hospital against doctor’s wishes nine hours later after being treated for wounds to his arm and back. Three days later he’s arrested in Virginia for allegedly shoplifting a pair of shoes. No appreciable uptick in album sales.
A.K.A.: Richard Shaw, Dr. Wolfgang Von Bushwickin the Barbarian Mother-Funky Stay High Dollar Billstir. LOWDOWN: In 1991 the three-foot-five member of the Geto Boys attacks his girlfriend after an Everclear bender and forces her to shoot him in the face with a .22-caliber pistol he placed in her hand. AFTERMATH: Blinded in right eye. Photo of Bushwick talking on cell phone while being wheeled through hospital by fellow Geto Boys becomes cover of the group’s album We Can’t Be Stopped.
A.K.A.: Curtis Jackson, 50. LOWDOWN: Shot multiple times in legs and once in jaw in 2000 while sitting in a parked car in Queens, New York. AFTERMATH: Out of the hospital in 13 days. Has hole in jaw and bullet fragment in tongue that give him distinct slur. Talks up the incident and earns major street cred by showing off bullet wounds to anyone who’ll look. Signs with Eminem and insanely successful producer Dr. Dre, blows up with “In da Club,” parties like it’s his birthday.
Framed and Defamed
Onetime suspect Curtis Scoon conveys what it’s like to be a wanted man
I knew Jam Master Jay and the other members of Run-DMC for most of my life. Jay was a good, decent man, and my heart goes out to his mother and his children. It’s been falsely reported that I refused to be questioned by the police-as though this were somehow an indication of guilt-so I’ll attempt to set the record straight.
I first heard about Jay from a friend around nine p.m. on the day of the murder. I turned on the radio and listened to Funkmaster Flex calling out all the fake wannabe thugs in the music industry. He accused them of believing their own hype and getting out of hand. I knew what he meant.
The next day a New York Post headline above Jay’s picture read looks like a hit. Apparently no one saw anything. Maybe it’s just me, I thought, but if Jay were my relative, someone in that studio would have some serious explaining to do. The next day, Friday, I received word that the “streets were talking”-meaning my name had surfaced as a suspect. It got me upset, but I attributed the whispering to a small group of clowns I once knew in Hollis. There was a time I hit the streets hard. I was brought up well and attended one of the best high schools in the city, but I still excelled at certain extracurricular activities and rubbed some neighborhood guys the wrong way. I have no one to blame for the choices I made. It was so long ago I never expected it to come back to haunt me. But later that evening TV and radio reports listed a man known only as Scoon as the prime suspect wanted for questioning.
I felt like I’d been shot.
It was the most surreal moment of my life, an episode of The Twilight Zone with me as the star. I was being set up. My survival instincts kicked in, and I contacted the best lawyer I could find: defense attorney Marvyn Kornberg. He told the police we’d be prepared to face them the following Monday. I barely ate over the weekend-when you grow up in Hollis you know that you don’t want to use the toilet in a holding cell. On Monday morning I was floored again: My scheduled round of questioning had just been announced on TV news. An ominous feeling came over me as I put on two pairs of underwear and socks just in case things didn’t go my way. Kornberg was incensed by the leaks. At his office he said that we were no longer going in for questioning because it was a ploy to have my photo taken while entering the precinct. My picture or footage of me could then be run in the paper or on TV, maybe assisting those seeking to frame me. In a fiery mood, he called the precinct and admonished the police. Then he challenged them to charge me or forget about seeing me. He’s a pit bull, and I was glad he was on my side.
We sat in his office for an hour, my life slowly ticking by. Finally the police called back to say they no longer wished to see me. He had forced them to show their hand, and it was empty.
On the way back to Brooklyn I tuned in to an all-news radio station. More bad news: Now I was being linked to a notorious cop killing in 1988. (I had written a screenplay about it that had landed on an executive’s desk at Motown Records but was optioned by another producer.) This was getting ridiculous. Weeks later my name was still popping up in the press. To my surprise, a reprieve came from a most unexpected source. Eric Adams, of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an advocacy group of New York City cops, came forth publicly to voice his concern about how the investigation was being conducted. He pointed out that my life was probably being placed in jeopardy. Shortly afterward the media onslaught ceased. I am forever grateful to Adams for exhibiting common sense and prudence at a time when both were in short supply.
To say my life has changed since the killing is an understatement. The turmoil shed light on whom I could rely on during a very dark time.
I once bought into the notion that rap was teeming with real people from the street who operated under the same code of honor I did. Instead I found it’s filled with guys who wouldn’t last a minute on the street but are instead adept at mimicking and grossly exaggerating all aspects of inner-city culture. In their world the inability to carry a firearm or sell $10 worth of crack without getting arrested is considered great promotion for an upcoming album. It’s the only place where taking beatings and stabbings and being used as a clay pigeon causes people to fear you while also making you rich.