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Jam Master Jay’s Family Waited 22 Years for Justice. They’re Still Processing What It Means

The Run-D.M.C. DJ's sons and cousin reflect on two decades of loss and the impact of the murder trial's guilty verdicts
Photograph by Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

A s TJ and Jesse Mizell stroll through the Amsterdam Houses — the community of brick buildings for low-income households on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where they grew up — residents play basketball and stand around chatting. It’s an unusually sunny March day, and it feels good to be outside. One friendly older woman waves at the Mizells. “It’s been so long,” she shouts. “How are you? How is your mother?” The men, who moved from here to Los Angeles in 2018, wave back, grinning. All is well, they reassure her.

TJ, the older of the two, is wearing a T-shirt with his mom’s name, Terri, on it. Jesse’s shirt bears the face of his dad, Jam Master Jay, one of hip-hop’s first superstars. Both brothers sport thick-framed glasses, similar to D.M.C’s 40 years ago.

More than two decades have passed since the Run-D.M.C. DJ, whose real name was Jason Mizell, was shot and killed at a recording studio in Jamaica, Queens in 2002. In the immediate aftermath, the world and the hip-hop community struggled to understand why Jam Master Jay, the icon who introduced Adidas streetwear to the culture and whose nimble cuts and breaks propelled hits like “It’s Tricky,” “Rock Box,” and “Peter Piper,” would be assassinated in cold blood.

“The center of Run-D.M.C. was Jam Master Jay,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D tells Rolling Stone. “He held it all together: the look, the attitude, the street wisdom, the credibility, the direction. And then he was a DJ. As a DJ, Jay was a precisionist. He made no mistakes. He was the best show DJ ever because he pretty much orchestrated it.”

Earlier this year, a jury convicted two men — Mizell’s childhood friend and godson — of murdering the DJ. They did so, the feds claimed, in retaliation for cutting them out of a drug deal. “Jay’s loyalty to his community is partially why he got killed,” Fat Joe says. “He refused to leave the neighborhood, almost like Nipsey Hussle. He was a loyal person. Jam Master Jay was one of the best of the best, character-wise and everything.”

TJ, now 33, was only 11 when his father died. Jesse, who is 29 and slightly taller than his brother, was only seven. The brothers, who both project quiet power and a sort of serenity when they speak, credit their mom with helping them navigate their grief.

As they approach the rubicund facade of the building where they lived on the sixth floor, the fresh-asphalt roadway in front reminds them of their father. He used to drive his car right into the housing complex to their front door, TJ recalls, “because he didn’t want us walking through the ‘hood.” Even though the DJ had kept firm roots in Run-D.M.C.’s beloved hometown of Hollis, Queens — the eponymous area in “Christmas in Hollis” whose video featured TJ and Jesse’s elder half-brother, Jason Jr. — Terri insisted on keeping the boys at their grandmother’s Manhattan apartment since she and Mizell were both often away for work. (Jason Jr. and the brothers’ half-sister, Tyra, were unavailable for this article.)

Other than the blacktop, there’s not much else here that reminds them of their dad. In the 22 years since they lost their father, they’ve turned to prayer to feel close to him, though they have also held on to some of his jewelry and his record collection as mementos.

And there’s always the music. “He’s always around in some way,” Jesse says. “‘It’s Tricky’ went viral over the pandemic because there was a TikTok trend using it. You turn on the Kanye West song [‘Back to Me’], and the main sample is my dad scratching, ‘Run, run — Run, run.’ So even if we forget, we’re reminded by a hit single from the biggest act in the world. Good stuff finds a way to stay alive.”

After walking into the building to pose for their own photographer, who’s documenting their visit for their Terri brand, the brothers exit the complex waving back at their old neighbors. Finding a quiet place to chat in Manhattan is never easy, but the brothers settle on a wall outside of a sleepy office building near the West Side Highway.

Run-D.M.C., circa 1985. From left: Run (Joseph Simmons), Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), and DMC (Darryl McDaniels) Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It’s going to be tough for you later figuring out who said what,” TJ says. “We sound exactly the same.”

“Yeah, our inflections are similar, and our mannerisms are pretty similar, too,” offers Jesse.

So which of them is most like their dad? TJ says Jesse, but Jesse says TJ, because “he’s got such a young spirit.” Jesse explains: “What I remember from my dad is that he always was just fun. Obviously, he could get serious and become ‘Dad,’ but he felt like a brother or a friend, because he had a very young energy. We played video games when he was in his late thirties. And he loved playing sports, biking, and staying active. I feel like he had a young soul.”

The duo frequently speak of their dad with clear pride: Pride in his role as a hip-hop innovator. Pride in his continuing legacy, like the Scratch DJ Academy, a music school he co-founded. Pride in him as a dad. (The latter is how they knew him 90 percent of the time, when he wasn’t posing for pics with substitute teachers and classmates’ parents, or getting his kids in the VIP line at amusement parks.)

Their understanding of their father stems from the distant memories they have of him and second-hand stories from their mom and Mizell’s famous friends. It took them years to comprehend how they lost their dad and to find their own peace with it. When the pain of his loss resurfaced this year, they were better prepared. Neither of them followed the trial closely, but they felt the impact of the guilty verdict.

“IT’S BEEN 20-PLUS YEARS,” TJ says. “Over that time, you lose faith in the justice system. So for a split second, [hearing the verdict] was this feeling of, ‘OK, cool. Somebody’s being held accountable.’ But at the end of the day, we’ve already [made] peace with this whole thing. So it’s cool … for a moment.”

“We move with faith, so for us, this was a healing process we had already begun working on since the day he passed,” Jesse says. “That’s not to say that it’s over, and not to say that we were done healing, but a lot of the grieving process is finished. … The verdict is just kind of a reminder that other people still have him in their thoughts, like we do, but the verdict didn’t necessarily help bring any more closure.”

Each brother looks calm — even upbeat — as they reflect. Between musings, they reminisce about old times growing up. Jesse points out where he smoked weed for the first time, under a nearby overpass. That fact improbably helps him feel connected to his dad, since Snoop Dogg once told him that he and Mizell had crafted an East Coast–West Coast weed hybrid. “[People have told us] ‘Your dad was so ill, he was smoking the best weed — even back then,'” Jesse says. “When we get stories like that, we’re like, ‘Yeah.’ It just kind of solidifies our path even more.” (The brothers run their own weed business.)

The coffin of Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay is carried out of Allen A.M.E Cathedral after his funeral. Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

In the immediate grief after Mizell’s death, Terri tried to predict which of his possessions her boys would appreciate most. Between what he’d left at the studio and their home, she preserved his fur coats and gold chains. “We have different pieces of jewelry that you see him rocking in all his Rolling Stone and MTV interviews and videos,” Jesse says. “We were just looking at a bracelet he had on in a mural in the Scratch DJ Academy. TJ goes, ‘Yeah, that’s in my jewelry bag here.'”

They also have a small collection of his vinyl — four to five crates holding 200 to 400 records. TJ says he owned “some serious gems,” mostly items he collected between 1993 and 2000. “There’s 50 Cent stuff, promo stuff, Biggie stuff,” Jesse says.

Terri also looked out for her kids’ well-being by moving them to Virginia, where she raised them with her relatives. Rumors that Mizell had left the family in a precarious financial predicament are exaggerated, they say. By their own account, they got to be suburban kids.

“We could sneak out at night and steal our parents’ cars at 14, and smoke weed,” Jesse says. “We could swim and skateboard and ride bikes. So we achieved a level of closure knowing that our life would move on, and that we would be OK. What happened was an awful thing, but we still had each other.”

Through it all, their mom remained strong. “She only cried a few times around us,” Jesse says. “She’d say, ‘If there is a moment of sadness and grief, let’s do it as a family. We don’t need to cry for The New York Times. We don’t need to cry for CBS. We can cry at home.’ So she was extremely strong.”

They learned about DJ’ing from YouTube videos. TJ torrented hours of emo, hip-hop, “white reggae music” (e.g., 311, Soja), and when he returned to New York around 2011, he took classes at the Scratch DJ Academy. Terri returned in 2013 and Jesse followed in 2014.

“We have a pretty small, tightknit family,” TJ says. “There’s not many of us. You can literally count us all on a hand and a half.”

When the brothers read news reports from the trial about Mizell’s family members making statements, they were confused because they weren’t familiar with the names. “When they say ‘family,’ I think they mean our dad’s side of the family,” TJ says. Jesse adds, “That’s definitely family. We weren’t that close with my dad’s side of the family.”

TJ Mizell (left) and Jesse Mizell attending the Adidas Presents benefit auction and dinner for the Jam Master Jay Foundation for Music in 2005. Chance Yeh/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

CARLIS THOMPSON, ONE OF Mizell’s first cousins, didn’t get to know the brothers since they grew up in Virginia. But he cared deeply for his cousin and attended every day of the trial. He remembers seeing the DJ’s rise to fame firsthand. Speaking to Rolling Stone, he remembers his cousin as “the life of the party,” who had the biggest personality in the group.

Mizell’s friends similarly recall the warm feeling they’d have when he was around. “He always had this beautiful smile,” Fat Joe says. “He never had a negative vibe. He was always positive, always uplifting.”

“If you met him or hung around him, you wouldn’t feel like you was around a superstar,” says DJ Hurricane, who befriended Mizell in elementary school and stayed close. “You’d feel like you were around a friend. That’s how he treated people.”

It was Hurricane who introduced Mizell to D.M.C. in the early Eighties. Mizell worked hard at practicing his DJ skills, which ultimately propelled the group. Run-D.M.C. took the stripped-down vibe of Hollis park jams to suburbia, and their first four albums were certified either gold or platinum, thanks to hits like “King of Rock,” “It’s Like That,” and their Aerosmith duet, “Walk This Way.” They were big enough to play Live Aid in 1985, and the way they made fashion a part of their identity still resounds with rappers launching their own fashion brands.

Mizell first approached Terri Corley in an airport while she was en route to visit her dad in Florida in the mid-Eighties. “Jason stopped me at my gate and just said hello,” she recalls in the Run-D.M.C. documentary, Kings From Queens. “I didn’t know who he was, but he did mention that he was Jam Master Jay from the Run-D.M.C. group. And so we became friends. And then from there, one thing led to another, and five years later we got married [in 1991].” (She did not respond to requests for an interview, but her sons said that her statements in the film will be the only ones she will make about her husband.)

In the doc, Terri says the DJ was able to separate Jam Master Jay from Jason when he was around his family. “When he came home, it was like his safe place, where he could just chill with the kids,” she said.

The family learned of the murder when driving through the Holland Tunnel, which connects Manhattan with New Jersey, while headed to Virginia to visit her family. Mizell’s nephew called Terri, and they turned the car around.

The Mizells and the hip-hop community had trouble making sense of the murder then and now. “That was the worst thing to ever happen to hip-hop,” Chuck D says. “The handling of it is the worst thing that happened to [the] culture and the art form.”

On Feb. 27 of this year, a jury found Karl Jordan Jr. and Ronald Washington guilty of Mizell’s murder. In a monthlong trial, federal prosecutors presented a story explaining what they believed happened. In need of money, Mizell decided to distribute cocaine. He had initially invited Washington — whom he’d known from the neighborhood — to help out, but when a connection in Baltimore refused to work with Washington, Mizell cut his friend out of the deal. Washington and Jordan then visited Mizell’s studio in Jamaica, Queens, where they — with alleged help from a third man, Jay Bryant, whom prosecutors claim let them in — shot and killed Mizell. (Both men intend to appeal the verdict. Bryant, who was also indicted for Mizell’s murder, is set to stand trial in 2026.)

TJ (left) and Jesse Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone, 2

The media coverage of the trial, some of which focused on Mizell’s role in an alleged drug campaign, bemused TJ and Jesse. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, it’s a smear campaign,'” Jesse says. “This is just another way for the prosecutor to make a bigger case out of something that happened and [attach] it to narcotics. That’s how cases get closed in their world, because they’re not solving murders that happened in the ‘hood too much.”

He adds that he can’t refute witnesses who claim his father sold cocaine. “That’s their truth,” Jesse says. “And they know more than we do, so it’s nothing for us to really speak on. As far as what we know and from what my mom says, and from what his closest friends tell me, there’s no way that he was a drug dealer. Could he have been involved, from an outside looking in? Sure. But was he this guy that was orchestrating and maneuvering in this ‘underground kingpin’ role? That has to be a fallacy.” (Having attended much of the trial, I assured the brothers that the prosecutors did not portray Mizell as a “kingpin,” but as someone who’d gotten in over his head in a dire situation.)

“The narratives will never be in Black folks’ favor,” Chuck D says. “That’s a byproduct of news in America and the Western world.”

“[The drug conspiracy allegation] was the only thing that was confusing to me,” Hurricane says. “Jay didn’t even sell drugs when we was young teenagers in the streets. It was hard to believe, but not impossible.”

By the time of the trial, Thompson, Mizell’s cousin, had long suspected Washington’s involvement in the murder. After Mizell’s death, the DJ’s brother, Marvin, acquainted himself with the people Thompson calls “the undesirables” who’d attached themselves to the DJ, trying to figure out what happened. “Marvin followed every little lead,” Thompson says. “He would chase it down.” Marvin was the first to ID Washington to Thompson. Within a couple of years of the homicide, the NYPD questioned both Jordan and Washington, but ultimately let them go. (Marvin died in 2018.)

In court, eyewitnesses testified they were petrified to finger Jordan and Washington. Thompson felt especially frustrated, since he was one of the few people in the studio the night of the murder, and he felt then that witnesses were uncooperative. As a deputy warden for the New York City Correction Department at the time, he was able to use his credentials to access the recording studio that night and talk to police. He got the notion the night of the murder that Randy Allen, who testified to being in the studio’s control room when Mizell was shot, was hiding the killers’ identities. Allen testified in court that his sister, Lydia High, who was in the room for the shooting, identified Washington a couple of days after the murder. He told the court he didn’t want to help the case because he thought that info was her story to tell.

“[Randy] knew who did it, and yet [he’s] not saying anything,” Thompson says. “I would’ve dragged my sister to the precinct to tell these people what she knew if I had to handcuff her myself. And if nothing else, I would’ve been like, ‘Listen, I know this is secondhand, but my sister told me …’ and let the police work.”

“The only reason [the witnesses] came to court now is because the feds got involved,” Hurricane says. “Had the feds not come to them, they would have let the case just die.” He believes that if the eyewitnesses had said what they’d seen in 2002, “if the police wouldn’t have gotten [the killers], the streets would have got them.”

“[The lack of movement on the case] was discouraging,” Thompson says. “We [as a family] felt helpless, because there was nothing we could do. We just felt like, ‘Jesus Christ, is anybody ever going to pay?'”

When the jury foreperson read the guilty verdict, Thompson broke down in tears. “For me personally, it was like a weight that was just lifted off of me,” he says. “It felt so good.” He immediately thought of all of Mizell’s family members who didn’t live to see the day: Mizell’s mom and her sisters, Marvin, Mizell’s sister, Bonita. “For all of them to have passed and not see this day, I think it just really, really affected me,” he says.

“[Waiting this long] felt like someone stabbed you in your back and left the knife in your back for that long, and then finally pulled it out after 22 years,” Hurricane says.

“It’s hard for the family to relive all that,” Chuck D says. “For me, that’s my friend. … It’s just disturbing. And the biggest question is, ‘All for what?’ That one incident was not just the murder of one person. It was the damaging of a culture.”

Thompson believes both defendants deserve life sentences. “When you just take into account that the man’s entire family died without seeing justice, that’s not right,” he says. “And I know my aunt [Mizell’s mom] died of a broken heart. … A mother’s not supposed to bury their child. We’ll never get Jason back. I think they should die in jail.”

A makeshift memorial to Jam Master Jay in Jamaica, Queens, in 2002 Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

AS TJ AND JESSE DISCUSS the trial, their eyes stay busy. “I knew that girl,” TJ says, clocking a woman striding by. “She’s got a full-blown kid. It’s insane seeing some of this stuff now.” At other times, their eyes keep moving out of instinct. “Our mom raised us not necessarily to be paranoid, but to be vigilant,” Jesse explains. “Even while we’re having this conversation, I’m constantly checking our surroundings. I think that, as a New York City kid, that’s just how you are raised. So if there’s an added layer of paranoia, then that kind of just adds to your caution level.”

Terri would try to reassure her kids of their safety — within reason — as they grew up. “She always kept it real with us, like, ‘Hey, your dad’s killer is still out there,'” Jesse says. “Obviously, we’re not in danger, but that’s always something in the back of our mind.”

In 2013, Karl Jordan Jr. approached TJ and Jesse at a party. “He literally told us that he had nothing to do with the murder,” TJ says. “And we looked at him like, ‘What are you talking about?'”

Had either of them heard the same rumors that Thompson had heard about who was involved? “We did not know,” Jesse says.

Yet they waited and waited for answers. “We were flabbergasted on how this case didn’t get solved earlier,” Jesse says. “It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes or someone doing a whole big investigation. There was two people in the room that were eyewitnesses. They went AWOL after it happened. You would think that someone could maybe get something out of them. It doesn’t take Ace Ventura to nail that one. What are we going to do, ‘Batman’ it?”

“A lot of those [eyewitnesses] disappeared for 20 years, and just came out now for this,” TJ says.

The brothers are also still angry at the investigators who failed to solve the case years ago. “You could say it,” Jesse tells me at one point. “The NYPD is worthless.” Their mother sent the brothers an article about the trial that said one of the first cops on the scene had lost his notebook. “He said he lost his notes from the day that it happened,” Jesse says.

“Like what?” TJ says. “What does that mean, bro?”

“It’s not like it’s a traffic stop,” Jesse says. “You would think you would keep some proper notes.” Thompson believes the reason the NYPD didn’t deliver suspects was because the eyewitnesses wouldn’t implicate anyone at the time. After the witnesses left New York, the feds were able to take over, since the investigation now spanned several jurisdictions.

The brothers are also aware that the story isn’t done yet: Jay Bryant needs to stand trial. At the time of publication, Bryant reportedly was considering a plea deal. But for TJ and Jesse, they’re ready to move on with their lives and focus on the positive aspects of their father’s legacy.

“Ultimately, the reason my dad was killed was just jealousy,” TJ says. “People don’t like to see other people win, unfortunately — especially in our communities, when there’s so little opportunity and everyone’s starving for just a shot to get out of the predicament that they’re in. If someone else got that shot and you feel like you deserved it, that can bring really bad thoughts into your mind.”

“For me, personally, I would hope that Jam Master Jay can serve as a story of inspiration, but also as a cautionary tale,” Jesse says. “No matter how much success you see, you’re still a product of your environment. There are thought processes that never leave you when you’re stuck in that environment. And we weren’t really raised in that environment. My dad stayed in the neighborhood that he grew up in, and that can kind of lead you to doing some things that you were doing years earlier. Definitely give back to your community, but you got to move on as well.”