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Life and Debt

Why Jam Master Jay's finances are as much of a mystery as his murder.

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On a windy Wednesday morning earlier this month, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Busta Rhymes, Russell Simmons, and Foxy Brown summoned the press to the Rihga Royal to announce the creation of a hastily assembled fund intended to tackle the debts of Run-DMC D.J. Jam Master Jay (a.k.a. Jason Mizell), who was shot dead in his Queens recording studio on October 30.

As the morning went on, hip-hop's luminaries presented a united front, but no sooner had they departed than those left behind, a group of music-business attorneys, rappers, and managers, promptly spilled into the lobby to discuss the question puzzling everyone nearly as much as who killed Mizell. Why did one of hip-hop's most successful players leave such enormous debts behind? Not only did he owe the IRS $400,000, but he was wrestling with a vast mortgage and allegedly owed substantial sums to, among others, Curtis Scoon, a friend from Queens, who has curiously refused to cooperate with police in their murder investigation.

How could the proceeds from Run-DMC's record sales, tours, and endorsements have evaporated? "Ask Russell Simmons," says Chuck D, the former Public Enemy front man. "Even the Mafia treats its members better than the music business." Simmons, of course, is the brother of Joseph -- the Run in Run-DMC -- and the group's ex-manager.

"This outpouring of financial support for Jay is based on guilt," adds an attorney close to Simmons's label, Def Jam. "How much did Russell put into his pocket with Run-DMC's endorsement deal with Adidas?"

Simmons insists that he was scrupulous with the band's money. "Jay's finances were no different from any rapper or rock star who hasn't had a hit record in more than nine years," he says, adding, "The question you should be asking is, Did he make wise investments?"

Jay's friends point out that his story is especially odd, since he was neither an M.C. Hammer–like spendthrift nor a naïf. "We're talking about a guy who showed Lyor Cohen the ropes!" says the attorney, referring to the savvy CEO of Island–Def Jam.

Daryl McDaniels (the DMC in Run-DMC) says that although the group made little money from its record sales during the eighties, it did big business touring in the nineties and beyond. "We did 20 to 30 shows per month," McDaniels says. "When we weren't touring with Aerosmith, we were doing colleges. When we weren't doing colleges, we were doing radio shows." Nonetheless, the rapper, whose upcoming solo album, Checks, Thugs and Rock 'n' Roll, reflects on the challenges of staying afloat in the music business, defends Simmons. "Russell did the best he could," he says, adding with a sigh: "Our situation is a lot like the early rock-'n'-roll guys'. I don't want to say that we were robbed, but let's just say that if we renegotiated our contracts, we'd be a little wiser now."


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