Music News: Why did it take 18 years to file charges in the murder of Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay?

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The Current Music News for Aug. 21, 2020 (MPR Video)

Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan Jr. have been charged with the 2002 murder of hip-hop legend Jam Master Jay, the DJ in Run-DMC. Why are these charges only being filed now, in 2020? Why has this crime taken so long to crack?

First, a Run-DMC 101, for anyone who's not totally up on '80s hip-hop. Run-DMC were a trio founded in Queens, New York in 1983. Joseph Simmons, a.k.a. Rev Run, and Darryl McDaniels, a.k.a. DMC, were the rappers. Jason Mizell, a.k.a. Jam Master Jay, was the DJ.

With their streetwise image and booming sound, Run-DMC were crucial artists who moved hip-hop beyond its disco-twined '70s roots and paved the way for rap to become one of the biggest genres in popular music. Their peak years were in the second half of the '80s, with hits like "You Be Illin'," "It's Tricky," and the game-changing Aerosmith collaboration "Walk This Way."

Jam Master Jay was crucial to shaping both the sound and style of Run-DMC. That black fedora, the track jacket, the Adidas sneakers? That was Jam Master Jay's look that became the Run-DMC band uniform. In 1989, when Run-DMC started to be less active, the DJ founded Jam Master Jay Records, which signed artists including 50 Cent and Onyx. He also founded Scratch D.J. Academy to teach DJ techniques to the next generation.

Jam Master Jay was shot to death on Oct. 30, 2002, in a recording studio in Queens. It was his own recording studio — established right there in the community where he grew up. There were witnesses, including a colleague who took a bullet himself and an office manager who was apparently held at gunpoint by an accomplice to the murderer. There were security cameras — but, police found, the recording had been stolen or disabled. In other words, to some degree, it was an inside job.

But who would want to kill hip-hop hero Jam Master Jay? Fans and a lot of close friends didn't think he had any involvement in criminal activity, so one theory had it that he got caught up in a beef between 50 Cent, the rap star who he'd discovered, and some dangerous people from 50 Cent's past. There was no evidence to support that, though.

Year after year went by and the case remained open. To a lot of the DJ's friends, family, and fans, it was an example of what a low priority the NYPD put on solving the murder of a Black victim from the hip-hop world. The fact that someone as famous and beloved as Jam Master Jay could be murdered in cold blood, in front of witnesses in the middle of a busy city, and the case could remain open for nearly two decades, looked like evidence that police just weren't making it a priority.

As the years went by, more information about the case started to circulate. It started to look like, in fact, Jam Master Jay did get involved in drug deals. He gave a lot of money away to people who needed it, and his estate was deeply in debt. A documentary about the case hit Netflix in 2018, and in the end, the filmmakers landed on two names: Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan Jr. Both were known to the artist, would have had access to the studio to disable the cameras, and would have been trusted to be buzzed in.

According to the charges, the motive involved a cocaine deal gone wrong; due to some kind of dispute that may or may not ever be fully understood, the suspects allegedly thought they were being cut out of the deal. Prosecutors say Ronald Washington forced another person, seemingly the office manager, to the floor while Karl Jordan Jr. shot Jam Master Jay. Both suspects have now pleaded not guilty.

Jason Mizell's mother, who was interviewed for the Netflix documentary, didn't live to see this day: she died last year. In a statement, Jam Master Jay's son Jesse Mizell, speaking on behalf of his family, said, "Upon hearing this news, we have mixed emotions; we truly hope that these indictments are a solid step towards justice being served in the murder of Jay. In spite of all the tragedies we've seen this year alone, we take comfort in our family, our faith and in time's ability to heal all. We can only hope that this news brings awareness to the fact that Black lives do matter."

That's today's Music News. In tribute to Jam Master Jay, we'll leave you with a clip from the DJ at his peak — getting a 1984 crowd pumped for a performance by Run-DMC.


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