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By C. Townsend Rizzo
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From the time he was 3 months old until he was 12, Lazaro's team of eight doctors performed 17 surgeries at Jackson Memorial and Miami Children's hospitals. Benita stayed at home to take care of Laz, while Orestes worked three jobs. In the morning, he drove his own lunch truck; in the afternoon, he prepared food for Host Marriott, which sold in-flight airline meals; and at night, he worked as a bartender.
The Mendezes lived in a small rustic house near Branch Street and North 71st Avenue that Laz's parents had bought for $17,500 six months before he was born. Benita and Orestes still live there today.
Laz was 3 when he first stood. When he was 7, he finally walked on his own, says his brother, Rey. Benita cried seeing her son walking and then kept her sacred promise. "She put away all her clothes," Rey says. "She sewed her own outfits made of burlap that she wore for a year."
Throughout his childhood, Laz either used a walker or a wheelchair and spent most of the school year at home with a tutor. When he did make it to class, he put up with bullying over his leg braces.
"I was the original Forrest Gump," Laz says. "You could hear me coming down the hallway: Clank, clank!" Because he couldn't run away, Laz's pugnacious side emerged early. The way to shut someone up is with a punch to the face, he says.
When Laz was 11, his brother worked part-time for Bob Rosenberg, then a mixer for Hot 105 FM and a party DJ. Whenever Rosenberg couldn't make a gig, Rey would replace him and Laz would come along to help set up equipment. While Rey saw playing at parties as a way to make bread, Laz was mesmerized.
Even as a kid, Laz's precocity and gregariousness stood out. "He was a very mature yet funny, happy-go-lucky kid," Rosenberg says. "He used to do this dead-on impersonation of Eddie Murphy that made everyone laugh."
Laz's course was set after his last surgery, at the age of 12. That's when his dad gave him the DJ set for Christmas. For the next year, he obsessively learned the machines and even added a few tricks of his own, like scratching a record with his nose and tongue.
Musically, he concentrated on a new genre of heavy-bass hip-hop. In Miami, natives called it booty music. When Laz turned 14, he was allowed to hang out with Rosenberg at Hot 105, where he learned to work the engineering equipment. When Rosenberg stopped mixing to focus on his band, Hot 105 replaced him with Laz.
"No one knew he was just a kid," Rosenberg says. "He drove the Hot 105 van without having a license."
Through Hot 105, the underage DJ landed a night at Strawberry's, a Hialeah club owned by former 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell. Laz was so nervous that the manager gave him a shot of whiskey to calm him.
"I ended up downing three shots to get through the night," Laz says. "I pretended I was alone in my room to tune out the crowd."
Hot 105 didn't pay at all, but Laz quickly realized there was money in party music. "Instead of $25 an event, I could ask for $200," Laz says. "I was doing four to five gigs a week."
In 1987, he became tour manager for Rosenberg's band, Will to Power. "He was 16, but he could be trusted as an adult," Rosenberg says. "He also didn't give a fuck and said whatever was on his mind."
That's also when Laz dropped out of high school, partly out of necessity. After 30 years of marriage, Laz's parents had split up, and his older siblings had moved out on their own. "When our parents divorced, Laz wanted to be the man of the house," his sister Ana says. "He would do whatever to help our mother. She is his idol." (His parents remarried and moved back in together in 1994.)
As his mom put in 12-hour shifts six days a week as a housekeeper, Laz yearned to help pay the bills. Even as a teenager, he had the work ethic and personality to become a star, Rosenberg avers.
"He could have been the Latin version of Will Smith," Rosenberg says. "That's how much drive Laz has."
It was a chilly night in December 1991, and Laz stared out at a packed crowd at a Dallas concert. His rapper buddy Danny D and buxom dancers flanked him on either side as he limped up to the mike. The crowd greeted him with utter silence.
"They were like, 'Oh fuck, there's a handicapped kid onstage,' " Laz remembers. "I was definitely out of my comfort zone."
Laz nervously surveyed the crowd and then dropped the needle on "Mami el Negro." "As soon as my song came on, I got over it," he says. "The people did too. The music took over, they started hollering and dancing, and my limp went out the window."
Laz sold 500,000 copies of the track and played to sold-out clubs around the South, the first triumph of a career that saw him initially fighting and eventually embracing the disability that set him apart from hyperkinetic hip-hop stars on the budding booty-bass scene. By the end of the decade, Laz would conquer Miami's airwaves too.
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