Jam Master Jay, the trailblazing DJ who propelled Run-DMC to become hip-hop’s first superstar group, was shot dead at a recording studio in Queens, New York more than two decades ago. Now three men will stand trial for the death of the DJ, whose real name was Jason Mizell. Prosecutors allege the men were dealing drugs with Mizell at the time they shot him dead over a deal gone bad.
In 2020, federal authorities charged two of the men — Ronald Washington and Karl Jordan, Jr. — with one count each of murder while engaged in drug trafficking and another count each of firearm-related murder. Jordan faces more charges of distributing cocaine. Both men pleaded not guilty.
Their trial will take place at the U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn beginning Monday. Selection for an anonymous jury began earlier this week, with each man faces a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
Last May, prosecutors also charged another man, Jay Bryant, in Mizell’s death with a count of murder while engaged in narcotics trafficking and other drug-trafficking counts. Prosecutors claim he was with Washington on the day of the murder. (Bryan’s trial will likely begin next year. He recently took a plea deal in an unrelated drug charge and will be sentenced in March, according to New York Daily News.)
An indictment for the three alleged killers was originally dated Aug. 13, 2020, and was updated in May 2023, claiming that the three men engaged in a conspiracy to sell five kilograms or more of cocaine and that they “did knowingly and intentionally kill” Mizell. The filing also alleges that Jordan, who is also known as Little D and Noid, worked with others to distribute cocaine “within the Eastern District of New York and elsewhere” between March 2016 and August 2020. He was also charged with carrying a firearm while allegedly distributing drugs, with the filing naming specific dates on which he allegedly sold cocaine.
The United States Attorney’s Office claimed in a press release that Washington and Jordan entered the recording studio where Mizell was working, and Washington ordered another man inside the studio to lie on the floor. Jordan allegedly fired two shots, one that killed Mizell and a second that hit the other person in the leg.
The motive, prosecutors claimed, was that Mizell had acquired 10 kilos of coke in July 2002 from a Midwest supplier. Washington, Jordan, and others were allegedly supposed to distribute it around Maryland, but before that could happen, Mizell informed Washington that he was no longer part of the deal. This supposedly prompted Washington to want to kill him.
“Eyewitnesses present at the studio when the defendants murdered Mizell have identified both defendants,” the DOJ wrote in a letter to United States Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom. “Moreover, Washington has made various admissions — both to law enforcement and third parties — that corroborate his involvement in both the murder and the underlying narcotics conspiracy.”
Prosecutors later added Bryant, who was already in custody for other drug charges, to the indictment based on an article of clothing left at the crime scene that they claim held his DNA. His lawyer told Rolling Stone last year that he would plead not guilty.
Although there were around six witnesses to the shooting in addition to Uriel Rincon, the man who was shot in the leg and survived, it took years for authorities to make arrests. Mizell, who was 37 at the time of his death, was survived by his wife, Terri, and three children.
“Vengeance is not for us to take care of. God will take care of that. We don’t want a Hollis war going on,” Terri said at a press conference in 2002, referencing the Queens neighborhood where Run-DMC formed.
The killing occurred near Hollis as Mizell and Rincon were taking a break from recording a group called Rusty Waters at 24/7 Studio in Jamaica, Queens. The men were playing video games at about 7:30 p.m. when the assailants entered the studio. Rincon described the killer as a Black man, about six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, according to a Rolling Stone report. The killer, who reportedly wore a mask, was dressed in a black sweatsuit and black hat. While one man stood guard, the killer shot Mizell in the back of the head at point-blank range.
At the time, authorities promised a $50,000 reward for any leads that led to an arrest. The amount later became $250,000 after Eminem, Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Aerosmith, Kid Rock, and record executive Lyor Cohen all pledged more money.
In 2002, authorities speculated that the shooting’s motive was that Mizell had sold music to the same song to two different artists, earning up to $100,000. Police believed one of the artists may have been angry over this, according to another Rolling Stone report. The DJ also was reportedly in debt, owing money to friends and $400,000 in back taxes. A family member told police that someone had called and threatened that they would be “coming up” from Georgia to collect a debt. Friends would later say that the alleged killers were locals.
In July 2003, Washington fingered Jordan, who is also known as “Little D,” and his father, Darren “Big D” Jordan, allegedly connecting them to the murder. Washington told the New York Daily News that he saw the two men go into the studio and flee through a back exit shortly. The Jordans denied involvement in Mizell’s death at the time. “I don’t know who did it, but I know who didn’t do it,” an anonymous source told Rolling Stone in 2003. “Big D and Little D were real good friends of Jay’s.” Washington also denied involvement in Mizell’s death at the time.
Despite the publicity surrounding the murder, the police seemed to have little to go on for years. In 2007, Mizell’s longtime partner, Randy Allen, revealed that one of the gunmen had “a tattooed neck”; he didn’t witness the shooting but his sister did. Rolling Stone reported at the time of this revelation that Washington was a suspect but was not charged.
Within a few days of Mizell’s death, the rest of his trio, MCs Run and DMC, announced that the group had broken up. They also pledged to help Mizell’s family with its tax debt. Although they have performed together sporadically since then, they have not recorded music together since Mizell’s death.
“It’s been a difficult 18 years not having him around while knowing that his murderers were not yet indicted for this heinous crime,” DMC said in 2020 at the time of Washington’s and Jordan’s arrests. “I commend NYPD, NYC Detectives, Federal Agents and all the law enforcement who were involved in this case, for not giving up and working to bring justice for Jay. I realize this is a first step in the judicial process, but I hope Jay can finally Rest in Peace.”
In 2022, Jordan sought to have his indictment dropped or a separate trial from Washington, citing a 2003 interview Washington gave Playboy. In the article, Washington claimed he saw Jordan fleeing the scene. “I’m positive it was Little D,” Washington said in the article. “I looked him right in his face before he ran off. Little D told me, ‘My pops wasn’t supposed to shoot Jay. That wasn’t supposed to happen.’” Prosecutors responded by saying they weren’t intending to use the Playboy interview as evidence. A judge decided that the trial would move forward as planned.
Mizell’s violent death shocked his fans given that Run-DMC never glamorized violence. The group, which formed in 1983, achieved near-immediate fame thanks in part to Mizell’s innovative turntablism. They became the first hip-hop group with a video on MTV (“Rock Box”), the first to get a platinum album (Raising Hell), the first to get a song in the Top 10 (“Walk This Way,” with Aerosmith), and the first with a Rolling Stone cover. The trio defined hip-hop fashion with Adidas shoes and tracksuits black hats; Mizell was the first hip-hop musician with a fashion line, Walker Wear. Mizell’s JMJ Records also helped launch the careers of Onyx and 50 Cent.
“Jay was the real deal, a street kid, a tough guy, a loveable guy,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D said in 2002. “Run-DMC is like the Beatles to me. Jam Jay was the epitome of a group DJ. He would not try to overshine his rappers. He’s the heart and soul of Run-DMC and orchestrated probably the best hip-hop show of all time.”