But much of Johnny’s anger, at least toward his family, was rooted in the discovery that he was adopted. Throughout his life, rumors had swirled because of his skin complexion: He didn’t look like either of his adoptive parents, who are African-American and Mexican, respectively. When Johnny finally learned the truth, from a male cousin, he was irate. Johnny was in his mid-20s. The Jacksons had never planned on telling him.
“No one knew,” says his sister, Nickie Jackson. “It was mainly because of the situation with his [adoptive]parents, and [my father] didn’t want Johnny to be hurt.”
Johnny was born in Juárez, Mexico, and was adopted by the Jackson family when he was one week old. He once told his former publicist Phyllis Pollack that he was sold for $40. But there were even more difficult circumstances surrounding his adoption. “This came from out of Johnny’s [adoptive] mother’s mouth,” says his old friend Al “Fila Al” Davis. “His sister, brother, father, they were like, ‘Let me tell you what the real deal is.’ They said, ‘Johnny’s mother and father, they were brother and sister over in Mexico.’ So the Jacksons cared enough to take him from that situation.” In 2009, XXL independently confirmed this with a family member. But in June 2011, Nickie denied it. “I don’t think so,” she said after a short pause. “I heard that too. When Johnny passed, that question was asked, and my mom said, ‘No, they were not brother and sister.’ ”
Nickie said she would double-check with their mother, Lidia. She called back the next day. “I spoke to my mom, and she said that they were not brother and sister,” she said. “His father was also his uncle. It was [his birth mother’s] sister’s husband. It was a brother-in-law.”
After the revelation, Johnny’s relationship with his adoptive family worsened. He occasionally dropped by the house, but sometimes he left curse-filled messages on their voice mail. At other times, he just ignored them. “I saw him once and was like, ‘Hey, Johnny,’ ” says his cousin Kimberly Davidson. “He was like, ‘Who are you? Do I know you?’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He totally erased us out of his mind.”
He was also concerned about his career. Obviously, Tupac’s death, in 1996, was a terrible blow. And in the years following, the rap legend’s aura cast a long shadow over Johnny’s work—in terms of both individuation and expectations. “It felt like I was standing next to ’Pac when I was in the room with Johnny,” says Inglewood rapper Shade Sheist. “When I was in there with him, I felt like I was 2Pac and that it would be a smash hit just because it was Johnny ‘J’ on production.”
Johnny founded his own label, Klock Work Entertainment, in 1997. But by the end of the decade, the West Coast’s influence had faded and Jackson’s sample-heavy, post–G-funk sound was out of style. “We were trying to bridge a little of the West Coast production with the down-South style, but it didn’t take off,” says Ronnie King. “I think Johnny had a sound that he loved. He wanted to keep the integrity of that sound alive. I think he did it a lot for ’Pac.”
Johnny did prouction work for Tatyana Ali and Lil’ Eazy E, but both of their albums were eventually shelved. In early 2007, he formed Streetlife/Klock Work Records with Pablito Vasquez and former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. That imploded too, and Johnny grew withdrawn. “He felt like a lot of people took advantage of his generosity and coolness,” says his longtime engineer Ian Boxill. “He didn’t know who to trust.”
In prison, Johnny was housed in the Trustee Dorm with approximately 80 other inmates and worked in the laundry room. There were certain codes he had to follow, such as not using the upstairs toilet, because it was for Mexican-mafia-affiliated gang members. The notorious racial tension in Los Angeles between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans is exacerbated in prison.
“Dee,” a man who claims to have been in the Trustee Dorm, says that, while Johnny avoided problems with gangs, he was depressed. “He would lay in bed and zone out,” Dee says. “I was like, ‘Let’s play cards, let’s hang out, eat something.’ But he was stressing.”
According to the coroner’s report, Johnny was the only inmate working on the second tier on the afternoon of October 3, 2008. He asked a supervisor for permission to make a phone call from a prisoner personnel office. This is reportedly when Johnny called Capucine and told her he was going to kill himself. She called the prison to warn someone, she says. After Johnny hung up, two custody assistants witnessed him leave the office, walk to the balcony, climb the metal rails and jump.
The coroner’s report stated that there was no indication of foul play. Still, speculation ran rampant. The most popular theory was that he was murdered by Mexican gang members. “My opinion is that he was murdered because he was Mexican and was around Blacks all his life,” says an old friend, Scotty D. “In county jail, you have to choose. You can’t just roll with the brothers if you are Mexican.”
Dee, from Trustee Dorm, says Johnny wasn’t murdered. “Hell, no,” he says. “He committed suicide.” But further complicating matters, the Jackson family was initially told that Johnny hung himself.
Johnny’s funeral was another ordeal. A shouting match ensued between the Jackson family and Capucine Jackson’s family after a member of her family called Jackson an orphan. The feud even carried over into the comments section of a Johnny “J” post made on the hip-hop blog Cocaine Blunts.
Johnny’s family has yet to recover. Nickie cries when she talks about him. “It’s just so hard,” Nickie says. “People that weren’t in our family didn’t know him the way we knew him. We shared a bedroom together—me, him and my little brother. I never had anyone close to me die. It’s so hard to get over it. It’s been almost three years, and I still can’t get over it. It never stopped my parents’ love for him. I had to be the one who called my parents and tell them that Johnny was dead. We didn’t care that he was adopted. It hurts so much to know that he’s not here.” —Thomas Golianopolous