Hip-hop has a long, tragic history of murder and mayhem. Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Big L., Fat Pat, Mac Dre, Big Hawk, Magnolia Shorty, XXXTentacion, Nipsey Hustle, Pop Smoke and dozens of others have been shot since the late ’80s. In terms of infamy, the unsolved murders of Shakur and Biggie have attracted the most attention, but right behind them is the shooting of Jason Mizell, otherwise known as Jam Master Jay, the DJ behind Run-DMC.
For more than two decades, the case ran cold with no arrests or convictions. Now, though, that may change.
At around 7:30 p.m. on a cold, rainy Wednesday in late October 2002, two men were buzzed into a recording studio on Merrick Avenue in Queens, New York. They walked up the stairs, down a long hall and into the studio. One man blocked the door while the other, clad in a wool mask, shot Jay in the head as he was playing video games, killing him instantly. Then they vanished.
Two people other people — Lydia High, the studio manager and Tony Rincon, another employee — were in the room at the time. Neither was much help in the investigation. High says she was ordered to lie face down by the man blocking the door, so she didn’t see anything. Rincon was shot in the leg and refused to give a statement to police.
When footage from the four security cameras was checked, it was useless. And despite being in a commercial area and down the block from the 103rd Precinct — a three-minute walk away — no one ever found any security camera video that showed anything.
There is, however, an account from Tanya Edwards, the receptionist at a financial services company with an entrance along the long hallway leading to the studio. She remembers seeing a woman in a brown floppy hat leading a male in a velour tracksuit down the hallway at around the time of the shooting. At first, she identified that woman as High. In 2016, she recanted, saying that she couldn’t be sure.
Jam Master Jay was one of the most liked and most admired rappers of his day. He was by all reports kind and generous and always willing to help out family and friends. (One Christmas, he bought five cars for other people). He stayed out of trouble and was regarded as something of a peacekeeper. So why would anyone want him dead?
In the tight-knit hip-hop community in Queens, there was talk about who was responsible. Because of distrust of the police and the “snitches get stitches” code, no one was willing to go on record. All anyone could do was speculate and theorize.
1. The diss
One of Jay’s protégés was 50 Cent. At the time of the shooting, he had annoyed a drug lord named Kenneth (Supreme) McGriff and his second in command, Gerald (Prince) Miller by calling them out by name in a song called Ghetto Qu’ran. At the same time, Fiddy had a beef with Ja Rule, who recorded for a label called Murder Inc. Supreme had an interest in the company. When Fiddy was told to back off his sniping at Ja Rule, he allegedly refused. This resulted in him being targeted in a shooting outside his grandmother’s house in May 2000. He survived.
Speculation was that Supreme ordered the hit on Fiddy (allegedly carried out by Darryl Brown, a close friend of Mike Tyson who himself was later shot dead) and put Jay on the hit list before he was Fiddy’s mentor and wasn’t controlling his guy.
Cops never followed up because there were no legitimate leads.
2. The life insurance policy
Jay’s business partner was Randy Allen, someone he’d known most of his life, the best man at his wedding and the godfather to one of Jay’s children. As is common in business relationships, both men had taken out insurance policies with the other as the beneficiary, so-called “key man insurance.” A story circulated that Allen had Jay killed for the money. Going deeper, some suggested that Jay had discovered that Allen was stealing from the business. Once Allen learned that he’d been discovered, he had to act. Adding intrigue to all this is that High is Allen’s sister. Did she collaborate with Allen by buzzing in the gunman and escorting him to the studio?
This theory has been discarded, too. No credible evidence was ever presented.
3. The first drug deal gone wrong
Jam Master Jay wouldn’t have anything to do with drugs. In fact, he hired guys from the hood to work for Run-DMC when they went on tour as a way to lift them out of their situations. The idea that Jay would sell drugs himself? Preposterous. Or was it?
This theory states that leading up to his death, Jay had money problems. He was nearly $500,000 in debt and owed the IRS around $100,000. Plus he wanted to keep supporting the family and friends he’d held close all his life. Desperate for cash, he and his friend Curtis Scoon entered a transaction to move 10 kilos of cocaine from a supplier in L.A. When he, Scoon and another friend named David Seabrook flew out to L.A. to close the deal, something went wrong and everyone was ripped off to the tune of $30,000. Scoon was apparently very upset. Some suggested he was the triggerman.
That theory also went nowhere. Besides, he didn’t come close to matching the vague description by High.
4. The second drug deal gone wrong
In 2007, Ronald Tinarn Washington, a violent guy from the neighbourhood who was known to Jay and the folks at the studio, started talking. (Washington was also the suspect in the 1995 murder of a rapper named Stretch who was an associate of Tupac in this Thug Life group). He told a story about another drug deal that had gone wrong about three months before the murder.
He, Jay and Darren (Big D) Jordan (a former Run-DMC road manager) were looking to sell a pile of coke on consignment on behalf of a Baltimore distributor known as “Uncle.” That transaction collapsed, too, and everyone ended up owing Uncle — the head of the Black Mafia Family — $180,000.
Did Uncle arrange for the murder? If so, who did he hire?
In 2007, Washington was named as an accomplice in the murder. Prosecutors determined he was most likely the man blocking the door while the shooting took place. He was already in prison serving a 17-year sentence for robbery. People in the neighbourhood had long suspected that Washington had something to do with the murder. He went on to say that the shooter for whom he was providing cover was Big D, the former road manager. Big D denied all allegations.
However, there’s a Lil D — Big D’s son, Karl Jordan Jr., an aspiring rapper with a chequered history. The allegation is that Lil D was the person in charge of consignment sales of that 10 kilos of coke acquired from Uncle in Maryland. But then there was some kind of disagreement and Jay allegedly cut Lil D out of the deal. That led to Jay’s murder. Adding credence to the theory is that High claimed that the gunman that night had a prominent neck tattoo, just like the one sported by Lil D. Adding a little bit of extra colour to his scenario is that in August 2003, less than a year after Jay’s murder, he was charged with attempted murder after the shooting of a rapper named Boe Skagz, Jay’s nephew.
In 2020, both Washington and Lil D were indicted for the murder of Jam Master Jay. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, a third man already in jail on drug charges, Jay Bryant, was charged with murder. His DNA and clothing were found at the scene. He may have even quietly confessed to someone as being the gunman.
The upcoming trial
Both men were scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 20. But then a delay was ordered due to worries about witness intimidation and possible jury tampering. People received texted threats, sometimes accompanied by pictures of victims shot in the head and their throats cut. Prosecutors have asked for protection for a sequestered jury.
All this will finally go to court on Nov. 23. Over 21 years will have passed since Jay died.
Will this story finally come to an end? We’ll see.