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DJ Laz perches on a black stool deep inside a massive building near industrial Medley. It's Sunday, September 10, and Laz has arrived unusually early at the studio where he beams his radio show to thousands of listeners from Florida to Los Angeles. This morning, he knows, won't be the usual casually mixed Spanish and English wisecracking that made "the Pimp With the Limp" famous.
This morning, Laz has something different planned.
He checks his diamond-encrusted wristwatch, which matches a bracelet thick with glinting stones. Right on time, the call comes in: "The next person you hear on the line will be the president of the United States," a man says.
Barack Obama's voice soon crackles through the speaker. "What's going on, man?" the president asks.
"It is an absolute pleasure and honor to have the president of the United States on my phone right now," Laz gushes. "I am humbled right now, sir."
Obama shoots back. "I am the one who should be humbled. You got Pitbull and Flo Rida beating a path to your door. I am hoping I can get a little of that magic from you in this interview."
Not many among Laz's legion of fans would have predicted he'd hook the president two months before a bitter Election Day fight for Florida. Then again, eight months earlier no one had predicted Laz's shocking departure after 22 years at Power 96, the station where three generations of Dade teens grew up on the booty music he'd helped pioneer.
But maybe that's because few in Miami have ever really known Lazaro Mendez, the tough-willed, crazily ambitious musician behind the smooth voice.
Not many people know about his bone-crunching struggle just to walk. Few are privy to his soul-baring battle to find a niche in Miami's machismo-soaked hip-hop scene. Even fewer know about the dark times: the divorce, the frantic race to Mexico to reclaim a boat stolen by human traffickers, the anguish over a friend who murdered his own wife and her mom with Laz's own gun.
Today, Laz might have set himself up for his toughest challenge yet. By decamping Power 96 for a bicoastal gig at Miami's DJ 106.7 and L.A.'s 96.3 (both owned by Spanish Broadcasting System [SBS], the largest Hispanic-owned radio company in the U.S.) and turning toward more serious fare like his Obama interview, Laz has put his name on the line.
If the gamble fails — and already, Laz badly trails his old station in ratings — his career might just be relegated to Florida's musical history bins. But if it succeeds? Laz wants to be the Latin Howard Stern, America's first truly national bilingual radio star.
"Laz is in a great position right now," says Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, who grew up listening to Laz's show. "He has the personality to go national and increase his audience beyond South Florida."
Not that Laz is sweating the risk. "When I was born, the doctors told my mom that I would lay flat on my back for the rest of my life," he recalls. "I have already accomplished everything by walking. Everything else I've done is just a bonus."
On a cool January afternoon in 1984, a 13-year-old boy with floppy black hair on his head and peach fuzz on his upper lip fiddles with his Numark mixer. His right hand twirls dials while his left scratches vinyl records on his Technics 1200 turntables. Booming bass rattles photos off the wall in his cramped Hollywood bedroom. The teenager's mom, Benita Mendez, pounds on his door.
"Lazarito!" Benita screams. "Stop with the chiki-chiki. You're going to ruin the record!"
But Laz can't hear her over the thumping beats in his headphones. He keeps at it, zoning out as he blends two 45s, honing his scratching skills. Bound to a wheelchair, his lower extremities wrapped in a half-body cast, he has found the one thing that makes him forget what he can't do.
"While all the kids were outside having fun, I was stuck at home," Laz says. "So for Christmas, I asked my dad to get me a set of turntables, mixer, microphone, and speakers. It's all I wanted."
Ever since he was a kid who was never supposed to walk, Laz has been fighting the odds. Instead of giving in, he found a place in the hip-hop industry by embracing the disability that could have stunted his ambitions.
When he was born December 2, 1971, at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, doctors had grim news for his parents and older siblings, 17-year-old Ana and 7-year-old Rey. Because of a muscular disorder, the baby's legs were severely deformed.
"The diagnosis was that he would never walk," remembers Orestes Mendez, Laz's father, now an 82-year-old with a raspy voice. "They told us he would have to lie in bed for his entire life and we would have to feed him and change him."
Orestes says his wife (who is now 77 and unable to give an interview due to Alzheimer's disease) had an unwavering faith. "She made a promise to San Lazaro that if our son walked, she would wear clothes made of burlap for a year," Orestes says.