In a profession stalked by violence, he was a peacemaker. Hip-hop pioneer Jason Mizell, much better known as Jam Master Jay, “came from the same streets, he hung with the same people as all these others who have died,” says bandmate Darryl (DMC) McDaniels, who with Mizell and Joseph (Run) Simmons helped found the group that bridged rock and rap, Run-DMC. “What they spewed was part of the problem. Jay was more about trying to help.”
Mizell, 37, became an example of the problem Oct. 30, when two masked gunmen burst into the lounge of his 24/7 Recording Studio in Queens, where he was producing tracks for a new group. Shot once in the temple, rap’s advocate of non-violence died instantly. With no strong leads at press time, police were downplaying the theory that Mizell was a victim of a turf war like the one that apparently led to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and ’97.
Even so, the killing of a devoted husband of 11 years and father of three unnerved the music community. “I’m sick of coming down to these things,” rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy, a group Mizell championed in the 1980s, said at Jay’s Nov 4 wake. “He was our John Lennon,” added another protégé, George “DJ Scratch” Spivey. “It was a total surprise that something like this could happen to somebody like him,” says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, who saw his band get a second life with Run-DMC’s 1986 crossover smash, a cover of “Walk This Way.”
Mizell was laid to rest wearing a braided gold chain and white Adidas sneakers, a look he created when he and McDaniels, 38, and Simmons, 38, were growing up in Hollis, Queens. Even then, Mizell, who was 17 when his father, Jesse, died, was a peacekeeper. “He could hang with the smart kids, and he could hang with the tough kids,” says his half brother Marvin Thompson, 47. “He was always sticking up for people,” says McDaniels, who credits Mizell with steering him through a near-suicidal depression in the 1990s.
Credit him as well for both the look and the beats that catapulted rap into the mainstream. Run-DMC, the first rappers to get a video on MTV and the first to make the cover of Rolling Stone, were “the Beatles of rap,” says their biographer Bill Adler. Their message was always positive: Mizell “used to say, ‘You gotta put in something [in the raps] about going to school,’ ” McDaniels says. After his father’s passing, Mizell felt “he had a lot of responsibility for a lot of people,” adds his widow, Terri Corley-Mizell, 32, who said her husband loved nothing better than playing video games at home with their sons Terry, 11, and Jesse, 7, as well as Jason Jr., 15, his son from a previous relationship.
The funeral drew more than 2,300 mourners, including LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown, while a broad coalition—including Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Jay-Z, Ashanti and Run’s brother, music mogul Russell Simmons—pledged to help pay off Mizell family debts estimated at nearly $400,000. It’s exactly the kind of effort Mizell would have led. “That was Jay,” says his widow. “He thought everyone was nice like him.”
Lynda Wright in Queens