The New York trial over the murder of Jam Master Jay, the influential Run-DMC DJ who was killed two decades ago, is set to begin in earnest on Monday with opening statements.
The trial, to be decided by a jury in a federal district court, is centred on the events of October 30, 2002, when the pioneering rap music star Jason “Jay” Mizell was fatally shot in the head in his studio in the New York borough of Queens.
He was 37 years old and a father of three.
The infamous murder remained a cold case for nearly two decades, in limbo until federal prosecutors in August 2022 announced a 10-count indictment against suspects Ronald Washington, now 59, and Karl Jordan Jr., the alleged shooter, who is now 40.
All three men hailed from Hollis, Queens.
Both defendants are imprisoned in Brooklyn. They face charges of murder while engaged in narcotics trafficking, and firearms-related murder.
Jordan, who was 18 at the time of the alleged crime, also faces several additional narcotics distribution counts.
According to court documents, the motive was linked to Mizell’s acquisition of around 10 kilograms of cocaine that was intended for distribution in Maryland by a group including Washington and Jordan.
When Mizell cut Washington out of the deal a dispute ensued, leading to the murder plot, according to prosecutors, who described the killing as “the ambush and execution of a renowned musician… in his own studio.”
The killing was particularly shocking given the reputation of Run-DMC, a 1980s-era hip hop group known for hits including ‘It’s Tricky’ and ‘Christmas in Hollis.’
The trio regularly railed against violent gang culture, which in the early 1990s became associated with rap music.
Jam Master Jay’s slaying followed a spate of murders within the rap community in the 1990s, including the shootings of superstars Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.
Hip hop pioneers
Along with LL Cool J and Public Enemy, Run-DMC were trailblazers of new-school hip hop – a sound characterized by rock elements, aggressive boasting and sociopolitical commentary – and its outgrowth, golden era hip hop, which included eclectic sampling.
Along with the group’s DJ – Jam Master Jay – Run-DMC included the MCs who dropped rhymes, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl McDaniels, or “DMC,” all of them from the Hollis neighbourhood.
They also established a new, enduring rap aesthetic incorporating street culture, a departure from the flashy, disco-inflected attire of the group’s predecessors.
Their single ‘My Adidas’ off their hit album ‘Raising Hell’ led to a massive endorsement deal with athletic brand adidas, kicking off today’s inextricable link between hip hop culture and sneakers.
And the ‘Walk This Way’ remake off the same album was even more successful than the original 1970s hit, with Run-DMC and Aerosmith performing a groundbreaking rap-rock version that became a touchstone of the genre and an international hit.
Prior to his death, Mizell became particularly influential in New York as a cultivator of local talent, working with young aspiring rappers and co-founding a DJ Academy.
The murder case remained long dormant as prosecutors struggled to find witnesses willing to speak. That changed in recent years, they say.
There had been a chance that, if found guilty, the suspects would face the death penalty. But in 2021, the government notified the court that US Attorney General Merrick Garland had directed against that punishment in the event of conviction.
In May 2023, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that charged a third defendant, Jay Bryant, now 50. He will be tried separately, according to a court spokesperson.