DJ Laz Conquered Disability, Tragedy, and Miami's Airwaves; Now He's Aiming Higher
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.
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"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.
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.
"Laz was the right guy on the right station at the right time," filmmaker Billy Corben says. "He connected with young Cuban-Americans and non-Cubans because he spoke the Miami vernacular. Laz represents the generation that used to write '305 till I die' on their MySpace profiles."
Laz's career at Power 96 started with the same gig he had at Hot 105: mixing party songs. One evening at home, he mixed Miami rapper Clay D's "Boot the Booty" with Wilfrido Vargas's "El Africano." It was Laz's first stroke of genius.
"I got really excited about it, so I played it during my Power 96 mix," he recalls. "The phone lines started blowing up." Buoyed by the positive reaction, Laz linked up with Danny D, added bass lines and his signature scratching, plus a few lines from Cuban comic Álvarez Guedes. He named the track "Mami el Negro."
"Once we finished it, I couldn't get anyone to sign me," Laz says. "I went to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles trying to find a label."
In 1991, after months of disappointments, he signed with Miami-based Pandisc Records, whose owner, Bo Crane, knew Laz from Power. "He was a smart-alecky guy brimming with confidence," the 64-year-old music producer says. "I knew there was something special about him, so I gave him a shot. The single was a hit. It launched his career and put Pandisc on the map."
Two years later, in 1993, Laz married his girlfriend, Desiree, whom he'd been dating since he was a teenager. Those days were about enjoying the ride and just making people dance, Laz says.
"Back then, it was all about big butts bouncing to the bass," he affirms. "To this day, I still have dudes coming up to me, thanking me for getting them laid."
When "Mami el Negro" sold 500,000 copies, Crane pushed Laz to make a full-length album. He collaborated with Danny D to make the self-titled DJ Laz and then followed with five more records on Pandisc between 1994 and 2004. In 1996, he launched his own imprint, Limp-A-Lot Records. Luther Campbell also recruited Laz to produce a few songs for his solo albums. "He was the Cuban guy making hot bass songs," Campbell says. "Laz got big before any other Latin rapper came along, including Big Pun and Fat Joe."
His musical success dovetailed with his radio career. In 1998, Power 96 made him the DJ on the morning rush-hour show, during which he mixed party songs for commuters stuck in traffic; within two years, he was hosting the afternoon rush-hour show.
In a few years, Laz went from a teenager making $200 a gig to commanding an annual six-figure income in his late 20s with his recording career and Power job. He traded in his Celica for a Corvette. And he bought a four-bedroom house in Weston, adding a state-of-the-art studio and storage for 15,000 albums.
"I bought my mom a brand-new Nissan Altima in 1996," Laz says. "I found the biggest bow I could find, put it on, and drove it to her house. I paid for it in cash."
More hit singles followed, including "Journey Into Bass," "Hump All Night," and "Esa Morena." Listeners tuned in to his afternoon show to hear him crack jokes while mixing booty music and hip-hop. It was the perfect recipe for teens on the way home from school.
"Laz spoke the universal language of kids growing up in Miami," Corben says. "Booty music is one of the few things that unite us as a community."
In 2001, Laz helped Campbell introduce South Florida to another Cuban-American rapper, who has since become one of the most famous pop stars in the world.
"He's telling me he has this white Cuban chico with light eyes who is supersharp," Laz says. "So Luke brings him by the station. This was when Pitbull had gold teeth and cornrows. After spending a few minutes talking to him, I could tell he had that it factor. He lit up the room."
Laz formed a bond with Pitbull, who appeared on several songs on Laz's most recent album, Category 6. Laz is still Pitbull's touring DJ.
In February 2005, Power gave Laz hosting duties for the coveted morning rush-hour slot. During his seven-year tenure hosting The DJ Laz Morning Pimp Show, he interviewed celebrities, engaged in lowbrow high jinks, and made the show one of the top-rated programs in South Florida. He titillated listeners with fake prank calls between cheating lovers and set up a hotline so uninterested women could give the number to men asking for their digits. Laz would then broadcast the embarrassing messages from desperate suitors.
Sometimes his gags didn't go over so well. In 2009, to poke fun at the Colorado "balloon boy" hoax, Laz told listeners he wanted to see how many helium balloons it would take to lift a cat. For two hours, he pretended a cat had accidentally floated away. Animal activists were outraged.
"I punked everybody, from my bosses to thousands of listeners," Laz says gleefully. "We had 4,000 emails demanding my resignation. You can only pull off that kind of prank when you have the credibility of being on the radio for as long as I have."
The evening of September 25, 2011, Laz's hands shook as he unlocked the door to a detached studio at his one-acre compound in Plantation. For the past month, Laz's personal assistant, Marcus Nathaniel Trotman, had been crashing there until he could find a place of his own.
Laz had offered him a place to stay after the 26-year-old aspiring rapper was arrested for hurling a cell phone at his wife's head and opening a gash that required stitches. When she obtained a restraining order to force him out of their townhouse in Sunrise, Laz gave Trotman the benefit of the doubt. He'd known Trotman for years, after all, mentoring him as a rapper and even serving as best man at his April 2010 wedding to his wife, Danielle Lorenzo. Trotman was volatile but talented, and Laz thought he could groom him and eventually sign him to his label.
Before leaving for California the week before, Laz had offered Trotman some advice: Accept Lorenzo's decision to end their relationship. It was over.
"Marcus was like a member of my family," Laz says. "I was his Cuban dad."
So when Laz landed in Miami and flipped on his radio, he almost swerved off the road: Trotman had shot and killed his estranged wife, the reporter announced, plus her mom, Linda Scudera, before killing himself.
Laz sped home and went straight to the room where Trotman had been staying. He found scraps of paper near the bed. Laz's face went pale as he read verses contemplating suicide; then he ran to his private study around the corner.
His gun safe was wide open. As Laz pulled out a small black case, his heart pounded like an 808 bass drum. His fully loaded Walther PPK .380-caliber pistol was gone.
"If you would have bet me beforehand that something like that was going to happen with Marcus, I would have lost money," Laz says. "I would have said, 'Hell no. No way.' "
That horrific crime is one of several dark moments that belie Laz's radio party-boy image. His rise to the top has been marked by some eye-popping risks that make it remarkable how clean the DJ's record has remained.
"Laz is one of the most likable guys in radio," says Mike Reyes, a former producer for SBS-owned El Zol 95.7. "He's kept his nose clean. You've never read about him getting busted for driving under the influence or being sent to rehab for drug addiction."
But Laz is no Boy Scout either. He admits he smoked weed and dropped MDMA, or Ecstasy, during his days as a club DJ. "When I was 27 or 28, I did Ecstasy for about a six-week period," Laz says. "Those six weeks were awesome until I got the next batch."
After taking four pills, Laz recalls, he slept for about an hour and woke up with unbearable chest pain. He drove himself to Memorial Regional Hospital's emergency room. "I was so embarrassed I lied, saying someone spiked my drink," he says. "The doctors told me I was lucky my heart didn't explode. I never did Ecstasy again."
At the same time, Laz's marriage to Desiree was falling apart. They'd gotten married too young, and the relationship had been crumbling for years.
"I was booking gigs just to get out of the house because I was having so many problems with my wife," Laz says. During one of his DJ parties in Tallahassee, he met a young woman named Joette, who'd grown up in the same Hollywood neighborhood as he had.
Three months later, she called into Power 96. After taking her out to dinner that evening, Laz never looked back. He divorced Desiree (who declined an interview with New Times) in December 1999. (Attempts to review the couple's divorce file were unsuccessful — the Broward County Clerk of Court's office could not locate the 13-year-old documents.)
Two years later, Laz married Joette. They've been together since and have two children. In 2006, they paid $990,000 for the Plantation estate. He also owns a home in Pembroke Pines that he purchased in 2001 for $210,000 and a 42-foot sportfishing boat, which is docked at his Key Largo vacation home. "I love the ocean," Laz says. "It's where I disconnect from the world."
His love of boating also compelled him to take one of the craziest gambles of his life. On a summer night in 2008, thieves broke into his Key Largo pad to get the keys to a 33-foot fishing boat he owned. They didn't know that Laz had installed a state-of-the-art tracking device on it after eight boats in his neighborhood had been stolen.
When he went to the cops, they told him there was nothing they could do unless the boat was in American waters. The Coast Guard also blew him off. "Every time the boat was on the move, I'd get an alert," Laz says.
So he tracked the boat himself, watching on his computer as it docked in Pinar del Río, Cuba, and then motored back out into the Gulf. "Once that boat made a beeline for Mexico, I jumped on the next plane," he recalls.
Laz came to believe that the thieves were human traffickers smuggling Cubans to Cancún on his boat. So he flew to the resort town with wads of cash in his pocket. He arrived at the docks just as the two smugglers were tying his boat to a moor.
"One of the guys walked past me wearing my hat and sunglasses," Laz recounts. "Once I confirmed it was my boat, the cops surrounded them with M16 machine guns."
Infuriated, Laz approached the hijacker wearing his hat and sunglasses. "It is piece-of-shit Cubans like you that make good Cubans look bad," Laz remembers growling.
Looking back, Laz says he would never again do something so bold. "Fuck no," he says. "No thanks, you can keep it. But at that moment, I felt so violated that I had to do something about it."
Three years later, though, he took an even bigger risk by letting Trotman stay at his house.
According to a Sunrise police report, this is what happened while Laz was flying home: On September 25, 2011, Trotman showed up at his ex-wife's house, supposedly to return her car and retrieve his clothes. When Lorenzo let him in, he pulled out Laz's gun and shot her twice. He then gunned down her mother before shooting himself in the head.
The murders were witnessed by Lorenzo's 5-year-old daughter, who then ran to a neighbor's house. In a chilling 911 call, the girl told the operator she fled out of fear that Trotman would kill her too.
When Laz returned home and confirmed Trotman had stolen his pistol, he called the Sunrise police. Shortly after midnight on September 26, he met with two homicide detectives. He told them about the missing gun and gave them the suicide verses Trotman had written, according to the police report.
As news broke that Laz's gun was the murder weapon, the Internet blew up with speculation and scathing criticism. "[Trotman's] previous court-ordered treatments for violent domestic abuse of his wife were Alcoholics Anonymous and an anger management program," one commenter wrote about a news story. "Then his dumbass friend DJ Laz lets him get a hold of his gun."
Another commenter wrote, "What I don't get is why DJ Laz opens his door to a rapper who has a domestic violence history against his wife. And to top it off leaves his guns unsecure where anyone can gain access to them."
More than a year after the tragedy, Laz still finds himself asking how it happened, but he doesn't believe the criticism is fair. The safe was locked, he says.
"What do you do when a person breaks into your safe when you're not home?" Laz says. "If Marcus didn't steal it from me, he was going to steal it from somebody else."
And though Laz doesn't regret letting Trotman stay at his house, he's been tormented by what-ifs. "Maybe if I had been home that week leading up to what happened, he would have talked to me about what he was going through," Laz says. "I asked myself, Why, why, why?"
Laz pauses, then adds, "Whatever demons he was battling took him away. It sucks all the way around, especially for the two boys and the little girl who were left without their mom and their grandmom."
Seven months after the tragedy, Laz was in Toronto opening for Pitbull when he realized with crushing certainty that he needed a change. "I had been very loyal and very comfortable at Power," he says. "Pitbull's advice was to take a chance and leave. He said I had nothing to lose."
On April 6, he resigned from his job at Power 96. The news sent shock waves through South Florida's radio scene. On New Times' music blog, Crossfade, readers reacted as if there had been a death in the family. "I will miss DJ Laz," Afi Keita James wrote. "He was Power 96." Another fan, Frances Chan, remarked, "It's tragic DJ Laz is gone."
Yet Laz wasn't hanging up his mike for good. Almost two months later, SBS announced that Laz would be the company's flagship voice in Miami and Los Angeles. Power 96 fans, feeling betrayed, reacted poisonously. "Good riddance to bad rubbish," wrote one anonymous hater. Juan Quesada, AKA DJ Luv, added, "Good luck in L.A., even though L.A. radio sucks just as bad as Miami radio."
Laz understands the bitterness but chalks it up to ignorance. "They don't understand I am splitting my time between both cities," he says. "When I tell them I am still in Miami, they'll ask me if I am still at Power. I'm like, 'No, motherfucker, I'm running my own station now.' "
It's Wednesday afternoon, about an hour after his morning broadcast on L.A.'s 96.3, and Laz is busy mixing his next morning's big segment. This time, presidential politics has nothing to do with it.
He listens as a man named John explains his predicament: His wife, Karla, has just been promoted and is getting ever more friendly with her boss. John just found a text message on her phone dedicating a song on Laz's show to the guy. John wants revenge, and Laz has just the thing: He'll call Karla, pretend to give her a gift card, and see if she sends it to her boss or to John.
"That's when I go off on her, right?" John asks.
"Yes," Laz replies. "Just remember this is playing in L.A. too. Los Angeles is a little more conservative, so be careful not to use fuck, shit, and bitch."
As Laz shifts from Miami party legend to bicoastal radio personality, he has hardly abandoned the cheesy staged skits like John and Karla's tiff. He has simply supplemented them with serious interviews such as Obama's call-in and breaking gossip news like a Justin Bieber 911 call he aired before TMZ publicized it a few months ago.
It's a move that Laz hopes will pay off with a new, broader fan base, but so far that's only a hope. As of November 6, Arbitron ranked DJ 106.7 FM 21st among South Florida's 35 AM and FM stations — 14 spots below Power 96, which is rated seventh. In Los Angeles, 96.3 is the 25th most listened-to station of 50 in the market.
"Laz was with Power 96 for so long he's been typecast," Rosenberg says. "It's going to be hard for people not to associate him with Power 96."
Still, even if ratings haven't immediately followed Laz to his new perch, he's made waves. Landing the president, in fact, scored the DJ more press than any move since his booty-bass days. Conservative pundits went bananas over the commander in chief granting an interview to a man dubbed "the Pimp With the Limp." Right-wing columnist Clarence McKee, for one, opined that Obama "cheapened the office of the president of the United States" by appearing on Laz's show.
"You had Fox News making fun of Obama because he didn't make time to meet with Israeli leaders but had time to go on the air with Laz," Corben says. "That's moving the needle."
It's an open question how long Laz's new two-coast experiment will last. If listeners don't start turning the dial toward his shows, it might be a short-term deal. Mike Reyes, the former producer at El Zol, questions whether Laz's new employer has the patience to stick with him. "I doubt he will stay there long-term," Reyes concludes.
But Laz disagrees, insisting his bosses at SBS understand he has to rebuild his brand name. "When you are fighting a 22-year career at another radio station, it is going to take a lot of word of mouth and advertising for people to realize Laz is back," he says. "I think 80 percent of the people in Miami don't know this station exists or that I am here."
Either way, Laz just looks at his past for inspiration. He was too stubborn not to walk, too stubborn to give up on crowds that mocked him, too stubborn to let tragedy slow him down.
"In my son's room, there's a hand-painted quote on his wall that reads 'You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take,' " Laz says. "That's always stuck with me. In life, there is no reward for not taking a risk."
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