Larry Mizell Jr. stands on 31st Ave. S, north of Franklin High School. Shirt by Toronto artist Nep Sihdu and sunglasses by Tiffany Ju of BZR in Seattle. Photo by Avi Loud


Roots and Branches

Larry Mizell Jr. connects an extraordinary musical legacy to a community in bloom.

May we say, with gusto, that our big verdant city is in the midst of a Black renaissance that rivals Harlem a century ago?

Readin’, writin’, ’rithmatic
Are the branches of the learnin’ tree
But without the roots of love every day
Your education ain’t complete.

—The Jackson 5, “ABC”

Pre-1920s Harlem was in its bud with young Jacob Lawrence in paint, Fats Waller in swing, Langston Hughes in letters. Today’s Seattle is similarly coming forth with fruit: C. Davida Ingram in visual poetry, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes in curation and textile manipulation, Barbara Earl Thomas in paint and letters—and they’re only the iceberg’s tip. In our libraries and theatres, in our art museums and clubs, parks and streets, garages and kitchens, over our airwaves and throughout our webwaves, Black artists are riding a tide of inspiration and productivity and growing in relevance and visibility. The overall population of people of color in Seattle is slowly shrinking, but our voices are getting stronger.

One of the Emerald Renaissance people is Larry Mizell Jr., curator and host of KEXP’s Sunday night show Street Sounds, one of the longest-running hip-hop shows on West Coast radio. Larry’s show is not no Let me put something on while I fold my clothes and don’t forget to stir the beans and rice, in-the-background radio show. It’s a confident, proper expression at the heart of hip-hop music and culture.

Larry performs as a musician and MC in three groups: Mash Hall, a trio steeped in the playful tradition of hip-hop, reminiscent of groups like De La Soul and the Pharcyde; Cancer Rising, which makes straightforward, CNN-fresh-off-the-pavement hip-hop; and the garage punk hip-hop trio Don’t Talk to the Cops. Lately, he’s exploring being a club DJ, playing regular sets at Havana with Stas THEE Boss and is part of the rotating set of DJs at queer-themed Soul-Fi at ReBar.

He writes a hip-hop column called My Philosophy for The Stranger. He’s the digital media specialist at Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture. He has directed music videos for THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces. And he’s a heralded member of Black Weirdo—a group that “allows Blackness to be celebrated and appreciated in all facets on Earth and throughout the universe” and includes producer/musicians Erik Blood and OCnotes.

In his earthly person, Larry Mizell Jr.—who turned 38 last month, a Cancer rising—is a warm and fiercely affable man, large enough that open arms don’t easily fit around him. His youth is starting to give way to the silver in his hair at the temple and beard—his only sign of age. He’s still lithe, almost athletic and disarmingly confident, quite comfortable in his skin. He’s given to quick humor, which just as quickly can turn to earnest seriousness.

I’m privileged to know Larry as a colleague and as family. He calls me “Unc,” and in my mind I call him “one of the up-and-coming legendary children,” as Paris is Burning’s Miss Pepper LeBeija would say.

We’ve got rainbows yet to find
And we’ll find them all in time
Girl I know someday we’ll even 
touch the sky
Just climb on the wings of my love.
—The Jackson 5, “Wings of My Love”

While Larry’s hip-hop cred is firmly exemplified in Cancer Rising and Mash Hall, Don’t Talk to the Cops owes as much to garage-punk as R&B and jazz. Yet R&B and jazz are Larry’s genome. His biological musical inheritance comes from his membership in the Family Mizell.

The Mizell family roots reach back to great uncle Andy Razaf, who in the 1920s wrote hundreds of tunes, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose” for pianist Fats Waller. Cousins Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley were the 1960s group the Ronettes. A contemporary cousin was the late Jason William Mizell, aka Jam Master Jay, a founding member of Run—D.M.C. His father, Larry Mizell Sr., and late uncle Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell produced some of the most famous and best-selling jazz albums ever recorded.

Originally from New Jersey, Larry Sr. and Fonce attended Howard University in Washington, D.C in the ’60s, performing in various vocal groups and a jazz quartet there. Speaking with me by phone from Los Angeles, Larry the Elder recalls meeting a young Donny Hathaway, and Donald Byrd, the trumpeter with whom he would later collaborate. “There used to be these practice rooms at Howard, pianos all over the place; that’s when I first heard [Hathaway],” he says. “Just an amazing pianist.”

As both brothers performed in talent shows around D.C., Larry the Elder earned an electrical engineering degree and went on to work for Grumman Aerospace Corporation, building electrical systems for the Apollo Lunar module. He is, in a sense, a Black man who has been to the moon.

Brother Fonce was more singularly focused on writing, performing and earning a music degree. After graduation, the pair moved to New York City where they enjoyed minor success with their own label, Hog Records, releasing the now highly sought-after single “Baby I Want You” by the Moments. A rare copy of that 45 recently sold for $5,000.

Major success eluded the Mizell Brothers until Fonce moved to California and joined the Motown production outfit the Corporation, which formed when Berry Gordy ousted the famous writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland. The Corporation’s first project was writing a tune for Gladys Knight & the Pips called “I Wanna Be Free.” Gordy rejected the song for Gladys and insisted that they hand over the song to a newly signed but unknown quintet from Gary, Ind. Knight never heard the song and still may not know about the one that got away. “I still got a copy of the sheet music with the original title, with her name on it,” Larry the Elder says. The song was retitled “I Want You Back” and it catapulted the Jackson 5 to international fame.

The Mizells went on to produce the first singles of the Jacksons, including “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Sugar Daddy” and “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” until they were replaced in 1972 by Hal Davis. It’s not a stretch to guess that all of the Jackson 5’s records owe their success to the Mizell production team, but one can only guess, since they’ve only been retroactively credited in subsequent and recent reissues.

After their release from Motown, Larry the Elder left aerospace to join his brother in California, and the Mizells continued as Sky High Productions, joining jazz giant Blue Note Records. They made their mark with Donald Byrd’s mid-period jazz and R&B fusion albums, producing Ethiopian Knights and Street Lady and the oft-sampled Stepping Into Tomorrow and Places and Spaces. One song alone—“Think Twice” from Stepping Into Tomorrow—has been sampled by dozens of artists, including A Tribe Called Quest (“Footprints”), Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam (“Let the Beat Hit ’Em”), DJ Krush (“Big City Lover”), DJ Jazzy Jeff (“Practice”), house music’s Armand Van Helden (“Flowerz”), Art of Noise (“Beat Box”) and ambient giants the Orb (“Moonbuilding 2073 AD”).

Those are but a fraction of the artists who’ve benefited from mining the catalogue of the Mizells, who continued to crossover from R&B to jazz throughout the ’70s, with a brief stop at disco with A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” During that time, they scored hits with L.T.D (“Love Ballad” and “Love to the World”), worked in jazz with Johnny Hammond, Gary Bartz and Bobbi Humphrey and even in gospel with Rance Allen. Larry the Elder collaborated with broken-beat luminaries 4hero in 2007 for “Play with the Changes.”

When I had you to myself, 
I didn’t want you around
Those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd
But someone picked you from the bunch, one glance was all it took
Now it’s much too late for me 
to take a second look.
—The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”
Mizell family
Baby Larry with his father, Larry Mizell Sr., and paternal grandparents in the late 1970s

Given his family legacy, it’s easy to envision the Larry the Younger growing up in a home populated by genius and surrounded by luminaries. But, as usual, reality is far more complicated.

Larry the Elder doesn’t offer much in his memory of Larry the Younger: “He was a good kid, sweet and very, very smart, but he didn’t seem to want to get into the music so much around me. He was pretty young at the time, and I didn’t hear his music until way after he left California.”

Larry the Younger’s memory isn’t much more explicit. “I guess, when pressed, I recall seeing my father noodling on keyboards and my uncle playing a distant trumpet in the family attic. God knows what my mom was doing at the time.” He recalls his parents as having a “fleeting relationship.”

“My father met my mom in traffic, hooked up and I guess I was sort of a surprise,” Larry says. “I can’t say they ever separated from a relationship because I don’t remember them being together together. I mostly lived with her and my dad would occasionally be there, but we really didn’t live together. I visited him often enough, but ‘close’ wouldn’t be the word I’d use to describe us.”

His mother, Linda Louise Lopez, was “in the life”—a phrase taken to mean that she was streetwise, having various below-the-table hustles to maintain their home and well-being. She eventually found work holding down desk duties at LA’s Crystal Sound Studio and got Larry the Younger a job sweeping the parking lot when he was nine or 10 years old.

Crystal Sound was a bustling studio in its day. Hundreds of pop, soul, rock and jazz artists recorded there, including Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. Stevie Wonder recorded some of his greatest works there, including Songs in the Key of Life and The Secret Life of Plants.

Larry recalls meeting three of those artists as a child. “[My mother] asked me if I wanted to meet Stevie and of course I did, but it wasn’t that much of a meeting,” he says. “I think we shook hands and he exchanged some pleasantries with us, but mostly I watched as he and my my mom had a private conversation in a recording booth while I waited outside.”

Meeting Sly Stone was strange. “I didn’t know who he was,” Larry says. “I thought she was taking me to meet Sylvester Stallone. I knew who he was. I was beside myself thinking I was going to meet Rocky. When she introduced Sly Stone, I politely shook his hand, but was thinking, who is this shriveled older brother named Sly?”

Meeting Marvin Gaye made the most significant impression on him. “Marvin and moms had a relationship, or about as much of a relationship a woman connected to Marvin could have in the later years of his life. I remember his voice—high and soft-spoken. I thought it kinda girlish, but she was into him, so I didn’t say much. We visited occasionally, at his house.

“One day she took me over and the block was filled with ambulances and police cars, the house surrounded by yellow tape. Even without asking, moms seemed to instinctively know what was going on and she was devastated. She was inconsolable for a time and quite depressed. But one day she came out of it, saying he visited her and comforted her, telling her that he was ‘alright’ and ‘in a better place.’ She got the solace she needed in that and returned to her normal self, even getting occasional ‘visits’ from him. I was a little skeptical about that, but after she passed a few years ago, she started doing the same to me. She continues, even now.”

However fertile the musical landscape of Southern California was back in the day, it was also fraught, as social and racial tensions devolved from the ’70s through the ’90s. Linda’s street wisdom kept getting her into trouble with the law and adolescent Larry became taken with street culture.

He found sympathy with and befriended the 30-years-young Tracy Mayberry, an ex-member of a well-known Chicago gang called the Vice Lords. While it may have appeared to the law that Mayberry was a ne’er-do-well and thug, Larry remembers him as a mentor and friend. Despite his hustle, Mayberry’s reputation in the hood was defined mostly by his kindness and generosity with the youth.

One early November morning in 1991, Larry recalls, Mayberry had been on a cocaine bender and the ensuing paranoia sent him into the streets shouting that someone was after him. He broke into the house of a neighbor, still ranting and begging for someone to call the police to protect him. They arrived six officers strong, but instead of protecting him, they hogtied him and handcuffed him in full view of eyewitnesses and neighbors. At some point he managed to get up—and the police beat him running for some 80 yards, even breaking a couple of batons on him in the process. By the end of it, Tracy Mayberry lay dead.

Larry was devastated. Four months later, the world witnessed a very similar beating at the hands of the LAPD, and while Rodney King didn’t die, a video that surfaced of the incident drew attention to a crisis that had been long brewing in the minds of the neighborhood and in young Larry.

In response to that crisis, and seeking to protect her son from street life, Larry’s mother convinced a family friend, Josette Valentino, to take her son to the safer environs of Seattle. And so off he went to a new world.

I don’t know how many stars there are
Up in the heavenly sky
I only know my heaven’s here on earth
Each time you look into my eyes.
—The Jackson 5, “Maybe Tomorrow”
Larry the Elder and Larry the Younger on a boat cruise from Seattle to Whidbey Island in 2014

Now about to enter high school, Larry found early ’90s Seattle to be easier than LA but also bewildering. He ended up around white kids who presented themselves as Blacker than him and Black kids that wanted to fight him because he was from LA.

Hip-hop might have spoken directly to him had he stayed in Los Angeles, but he found himself disconnected, even horrified, by the hip-hop from his old stomping grounds. “Here I was trying to survive, to leave the violence of LA, and LA hip-hop was extolling it,” he says. “When I first saw the cover of N.W.A’s debut, I thought it was straight-up satanic. I appreciate it now, but I was embracing some De La hippie hip-hop shit. The Chronic was exactly what I was trying to save my life from.”

A voracious reader—he used the alias “Gatsby” in his bands until he adopted “El Mizell”—with interests in sci-fi, punk rock and comics, Larry found creative breathing space living in Seattle’s South End. He eventually discovered kindred spirits—you know, weirdo friends. With De La Soul’s 1989 3 Feet High and Rising he learned he had much in common with Native Tongues, a loose collective out of New York that was pioneering sampling with a positive vibe. In the late Prince Be’s P.M. Dawn, he found needed relief from the overbearing machismo of hip-hop and the possibility that Black music could continue in expressing its diverse inner voices.

While Larry was growing up in the ’90s, hip-hop was going through both its adolescence and its golden period. Producers were sampling the soul and jazz he grew up around, remaking it as a contemporary, relevant tool to flesh out the poetry of its progeny. It dawned on Larry that much of the music he took to heart was built off samples from his father’s catalogue. With the 1994 release of Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, Larry began to connect the dots.

In 2000, a budding MC and community organizer named King Khazm suggested Larry write music reviews for Tablet, a bi-weekly paper that then rivaled Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. “Khazm told me that if I wrote for them, I could get into shows for free and get free music—and I was about the free, so I wrote.”

Shortly before Tablet folded in 2005, Larry joined the staff of The Stranger, where his “My Philosophy” column is ongoing. It often intersects with other pressing issues of the day, like police brutality: “Like in the cases of a million other Black lives they’ve ended, the police have gone on to change their story a million times,” Larry wrote in October 2014 about the death of Vonderrit Myers in Missouri. “He started running. He jumped out of the bushes. He had a gun. NO—he had a goddamn sandwich.”

He sometimes addresses sexual violence in the column as well. “The percentage of women, especially Black women, who’ve reported being sexually assaulted should be staggering to anyone who knows women to be human,” Larry wrote in a column titled “What Do We Do with the Allegations Against Ian Connor and Afrika Bambaataa?” last April.

After meeting Ishmael Butler, Digable Planets’ leader, through local hip-hop impresario Jonathan Moore, Larry took over road managing Shabazz Palaces, Butler’s current group. This month they play two nights in Los Angeles with Radiohead.

In 2013 Larry found himself with the privilege of writing the liner notes for Light in the Attic’s vinyl reissue of Blowout Comb. There he wrote of receiving the record as part of a care package from his father, who occasionally dropped him the latest albums that featured samples from his productions. “Seeing my people’s name—my own initials, kinda—in the credits on this album gave me an unexplainable charge that I carry with me to this day,” he wrote. “Blowout remains not so much ahead of its time as timeless, ocean-floor deeup and, most of all, supernaturally seamless.”

Supernatural indeed. Or, as I prefer, prescient—cosmic evidence that the DNA always pays forward and usually in the most powerful ways: from the coasts of the motherland to the jewels of 17th century Europe, from the breath of 1920s Harlem to 1960s LA, and now to the green pastures of our day in our city.

As Larry the Elder told me of seeing Larry the Younger’s notes on Blowout Comb, “It’s the first time that me and my son’s name has been on the same album. Thrilled.”

On Sunday, Aug. 14 from 9 p.m. to midnight, Riz Rollins dedicates the entirety of KEXP’s Expansions to the music of the Family Mizell, from past to present.