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In the City, It’s a Pity

Why would anyone want to kill Jam Master Jay? Despite splashy front-page reports and federal probes blaming rap-music violence, the answer may be much less sensational

It’s a busy corner in Queens, New York, the kind of place commemorated in countless rap songs. The crowd spills downwhat Q-Tip once called “the Boulevard of Linden.” A commuter train rumbles overhead, and SUVs roll by blasting the deep, hand-clap-boom-bap of early-1980s hip-hop. They’re fitting sounds–the street-hard beats and rhymes that claimed the entire world. This is the home of hip-hop’s greatest global emissaries, Run-D.M.C. But this is no block party.

The crowd gathers, monitored by police in community affairs jackets. An almost festive vibe darkens as the line files down Linden to 179th Street and into the lobby of the J. Foster Phillips Funeral Home, where a public wake is being held. Five nights earlier, Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay, 37, was in his recording studio, 24/7, on nearby Merrick Boulevard. He was rocking a brown leather hat and Adidas sneakers, playing Xbox football with a buddy, and chatting with an aspiring singer named Lydia. Then a man wearing a ski mask entered the studiolounge, walked up to Jay, put a .40-caliber pistol behind his left ear, and shot him, leaving powder burns on his shirt. The shooting also left a widow, three kids, and a legacy of uplifting music.

“I used to see him at all the different parks and clubs,” says a Queens woman, 36, standing in line. “We saw Run-D.M.C. with the Fat Boys at the Encore–that was right across the street from where he got killed.” Nearby, a woman named Pashawn, 30, waits with her aunt Celeste–both are longtime hip-hop heads from Brooklyn. They say that they were actually less shaken by the death of Brooklyn homeboy the Notorious B.I.G. “Live by the gun, die by the gun,” Pashawn explains. “But Jay, he was always so positive.”

Run-D.M.C. ruled an era when you could rock parties and star on MTV while boasting that you went to St. John’s University. In fact, this was their point–the no-frills clothes and workaday rhymes were supposed to declare a less show-biz, more “real” hip-hop age. By all accounts, Jay never left that era. He stayed in his community, cofounded the Scratch DJ Academy for young DJs, produced local acts at his studio, and became the unofficial mayor of Hollis. “Tinted windows don’t mean nothin’ / They know who’s inside,” goes a Run-D.M.C. lyric. Jay’s solution was not to hide.

Various motives for the murder have been suggested, including feuds within the rap game. But Jay’s only link to industry beef was an association with Queens rapper 50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, whom Jay discovered and whose songs (“How to Rob,” “Wanksta”) taunted so-called studio gangstas. While these songs may have led to the rapper’s shooting two years ago, police have not connected them to Jay’s death. The subsequent murder of 50 Cent’s promoter, Kenneth Walker, in the Bronx also remains unlinked.

After shooting Jay, the gunman (whom witnesses described as 6’2″, 180 to 210 pounds, and wearing a black hoodie) stumbled and fell onto Jay’s buddy, Urieco Rincon, 25, and–apparently by accident–shot him in the leg. Later, police found two spent .40-caliber rounds in the lounge and a loaded .380-caliber handgun in a nearby parking lot. Weeks earlier, an associate of Jay’s had received a phone threat from an old Hollis acquaintance who was living in Georgia, the state to which the .380 was traced. The man, whom police believe to be Curtis Scoon, 38, quickly hired a lawyer and refused to cooperate with the investigation. Police sources leaked a hypothetical motive: Scoon and Jay were allegedly involved in a 1994 drug deal in California. Each man put up $15,000 for two kilos of cocaine, but when the drugs failed to materialize, Scoon held Jay responsible.

In 1994, Run-D.M.C.’s canonization hadn’t reached the lucrative status of reunion tours and halftime shows, and Jay was reported to owe about $300,000 in back taxes, plus $10,000 to another creditor (not a suspect). But if he was indeed lured into a quick, bills-payingcaper, the delay–eight years!–and the severity of his comeuppance is shocking. Police theorize that after nursing a grudge for nearlya decade, Scoon decided to threaten Jay and then hired two men to kill him. Queens Detective Bernard Porter Jr. would not comment on the plausibility of this scenario.

Since the murder, Charles Fisher, chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council, has attempted to work as an intermediary between the street and the police. Based in Jamaica, Queens, with a former office in the building where Jay was murdered, Fisher once helped manage Run-D.M.C.’s fan club. He’s been a Queens social worker for more than 25 years, and people on both sides of the police line respect his perspective. “I think Biggie’s and Tupac’s murders were bigger than most people understood,” he says, suggesting a conspiracy. “I don’t feel that Jay’s was. This was more personal.”

As mourners exit the wake, a gospel organ mixes with the rumbling car stereos. “The way his face looked–it got me scared and I burst out cryin’,” a woman says. Farther down Linden, at the corner of 173rd Street, is another memorial, flowers and candles still burning at 10 p.m. A newspaper clipping affixed to a telephone pole tells of a well-liked 25-year-old Queens man killed here a few days before–a reminder that Jay’s death was part of a history that predates media-fueled rap wars. It was a murder. It happened for reasons that cannot be found in a rap song. These reasons will emerge eventually, and a motive will be revealed. But it will still make very little sense at all.