DJ Jazzy Jeff needed a moment to let it sink in. One of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, had been murdered, and the phones in Jazz's office were ringing off the hook with friends and reporters wanting to talk. Yet Jazz, whose real name is Jeff Townes, couldn't bring himself to answer. The two had been tight ever since Jazz and fellow teenage rapper Will Smith opened for Run-DMC during the rap supergroup's 1989 world tour. "That's how we dealt with one another, as family," says Townes. "Me, Will and Jay always talked about our kids and what they were doing, and about being at a good place in our lives."
Those are the types of conversations that now haunt many who knew Jason Mizell, who along with Joey Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) founded the crossover rap group in the early 1980s. Mizell, 37, was shot in the head execution style by a masked gunman Wednesday evening inside the recording studio he owned in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., leaving the hip-hop world to ponder who could have wanted such a revered pioneer dead. Theories run the gamut, from gangland wars to unpaid debts to anger over a protege Mizell had discovered named 50 Cent. The latter, also from Queens, had recently signed a deal with Eminem's Shady Records label on the West Coast, possibly reigniting the long-simmering East Coast-West Coast rivalry that led to violence. 50 Cent himself had received a death threat.
"[Mizell] had a habit of taking in young, fledgling kids, and a lot of them were ganged up," says one New York Police Department detective. Comparisons to the rap war that claimed the lives of hip-hop's two biggest stars, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., in the mid-'90s are inevitable--though painful for those who knew Mizell's easygoing "no drama" nature. "It's hard for me to think that Jay did anything to anybody that could lead to this," said popular Los Angeles DJ Big Boy. "He was about reaching out, not violence."
At a makeshift shrine outside Mizell's studio last week, one fan waved off the talk of gang wars. "We're not into the conspiracy theories right now," said Sean Shaw, 28. "We're just trying to feel the loss. He was a superstar and he stayed in the neighborhood. The streets grieve with the Mizell family." Still, many wonder if his death will only further tarnish the image on the art form too often associated with violence. "People will blame this on hip-hop--with or without evidence," says hip-hop author Kevin Powell. "What somebody needs to ask is, why do the powers that be in the music industry only play up the most horrific aspects of ghetto life in the music, and then act surprised when horrific things happen?" For now, those questions remain unanswered as tears are again shed for a fallen rap star.