New York: More than 20 years after hip-hop DJ Jam Master Jay was gunned down in his Queens recording studio, two men charged in the killing will face a federal jury in Brooklyn in a trial set to start Monday.
Jam Master Jay, whose real name was Jason Mizell, of the seminal group Run-DMC, was 37 when he died in a crime that remained unresolved for nearly two decades.
The two defendants - Karl Jordan Jr., 40, and Ronald Washington, 59 - were charged in 2020, when federal prosecutors accused them of plotting to kill Mizell after he cut Washington out of a drug deal.
A third man, Jay Bryant, who was also charged in connection with the killing last year, will be tried separately.
Prosecutors said that the defendants burst into the studio with guns on the evening of October 30, 2002. Jordan then approached Mizell, firing two shots at him at close range, they say.
One of the bullets struck Mizell in the head; another man was wounded in the leg. Four other people were in the studio at the time, but none identified the killers immediately after the shooting.
The jury in the trial of Washington and Jordan will be anonymous: Their names will not be revealed to the defendants or their lawyers. In court papers filed this month, prosecutors said the defendants and "those acting on their behalf" had already tried to intimidate witnesses in the case.
Washington, also known as Tinard, has already served significant jail time for crimes including heroin distribution and armed robbery.
Jordan, known as Little D, who was 18 when Mizell was killed, had no adult criminal record when he was arrested in 2020, although prosecutors said in a filing that he had been in the drug trade for years before then.
The 2020 indictment included several additional narcotics distribution counts against Jordan.
The defendants and Mizell grew up in Hollis, Queens - a neighborhood that produced some of the biggest names in early hip-hop.
Prosecutors said Mizell had been involved in transporting large quantities of cocaine to sell in the New York area for about six years when he was killed.
Three months before the shooting, he had acquired 10 kilograms of cocaine on consignment from a dealer in the Midwest, according to court papers.
The government said Jordan, Washington and other co-conspirators were going to distribute the drugs.
But after a dispute between Washington and one of the co-conspirators, Mizell sought to cut him out of the transaction. That spurred Washington to conspire with Jordan to murder Mizell, prosecutors said.
The charges carry a minimum sentence of 20 years - and a maximum of life in prison. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York, where the trial is being held, not to seek the death penalty.
The sudden death of a figure who had been known for upbeat hip-hop music - far from the gangsta rap that came to dominate the genre in later years - sent shock waves through the rap world that continue to this day. The case has been chronicled in several documentaries, articles and books.
Run-DMC, whose members along with Mizell included Joseph Simmons, known as Run, and Darryl McDaniels, known as DMC, brought hip-hop to the mainstream in the mid-1980s.
They were the first rappers featured prominently on MTV, sold millions of records and signed an early deal with Adidas, whose sneakers Mizell made part of the group's look.
"You could say he was like the Ringo Starr of hip-hop DJs, because Run-DMC were like the Beatles of hip-hop," said Bill Adler, a former head of publicity for Def Jam, a record company co-founded by Simmons' brother Russell.
Adler added that Mizell had a strong influence on the group's signature street style, which included brimmed Stetson hats, Adidas shoes without laces and leather jackets.
Dan Charnas, a hip-hop journalist and professor at New York University, said hip-hop's heart was cut out when Mizell died.
"That's the dude who made it possible for this new musical archetype to rise," he said. "A dude who was friendly pretty much to everybody, who represented a more innocent time where there weren't these types of beefs that turned violent like Tupac's and Big's."
A mural of Mizell is painted on a wall near the corner of 205th Street and Hollis Avenue in Queens, where many residents said they still felt the effects of his music and legacy.
Musician Akil Wright, who performs under the name Get Wright DOLO, walked by Wednesday in Adidas sneakers that Run-DMC inspired him to wear.
"Artists like him created artists like me," said Wright, 31, a lifelong Hollis resident.
Debra McKnight, 64, remembered all three members of Run-DMC hanging out in her kitchen in the 1970s; they were friends with her son. She said she appreciated that Mizell had stayed in Hollis.
"He didn't forget where he came from," she said.
Jam Master Jay and his Run-DMC mates were the first celebrities Jubar Jones, 50, ever met, he said. It was the early 80s, and Jones tagged along with his older brother to a basement party near the Baisley Park Houses in Queens, where he was introduced to the group.
Jones, who works at a UPS warehouse, said the connection between Run-DMC and Hollis gave him and his peers a sense of being special.
"It feels like a part of history," he said.
Jones cataloged the way Run-DMC changed music, fashion and culture. As for Jam Master Jay, Jones called him a "trendsetter", a "forefather of hip-hop" and a "pioneer of beats".
"He's a legend around here," Jones said. "He's like a father figure, a guardian."
—International New York Times