The public may know Samuel Stephens best as a co-founder of Ezell's Famous Chicken, the restaurant chain he started with his brother and...

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The public may know Samuel Stephens best as a co-founder of Ezell’s Famous Chicken, the restaurant chain he started with his brother and childhood friends in Seattle’s Central Area.

But others knew him best as Sam Stephens, who helped give birth to Seattle’s hip-hop community.

From a basement studio he built in his Central Area home, he gave national and local artists their starts. When gangsta rap was just fledgling, Mr. Stephens served as a neutral figure as he invited talented musicians in opposing gangs to lay down tracks. What he cared about was that young people got a chance at self-expression.

Mr. Stephens, who most recently lived in Lynnwood, died Oct. 21 at the University of Washington Medical Center. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet determined the cause of death. He was 48.

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“This is a guy who truly is an unsung hero in Seattle’s hip-hop community,” said Tony Benton, a director at KUBE-FM radio station. “He was almost a social worker. … He was a bridge builder.”

Mr. Stephens was born Feb. 5, 1959, in Marshall, Texas, the youngest of seven children.

He married Debra Garrett when he was 17, and they had three daughters before divorcing in 1988. After graduating from high school in 1978, he moved his family to Seattle, where he joined his brother, Ezell Stephens, and childhood friends Lewis, Faye and Darnell Rudd.

Collectively, they launched Ezell’s Famous Chicken in 1984. There are now six locations from Lynnwood to Tacoma.

After Mr. Stephens left the restaurant business to pursue his career in the music industry, he remained active on Ezell’s board of directors until his death.

For years he ran his record label, Clear Head Entertainment, until closing it down in the late 1990s. One album he produced, by Bay-area rapper E-40, went gold.

Mr. Stephens went on to became a top car salesman at Harris Ford dealerships in Seattle and Lynnwood. Recently he had launched a real-estate career.

“Sam was an inspiration,” Lewis Rudd said. “He had a charisma about him. To know him is to like him.”

Survivors include his partner, Danita Nickles, of Lynnwood; daughters Tabatha, Jennifer and Sabrina Stephens, all of Seattle; stepchildren Sterling Nickles, of Lynnwood, and Ashley Nickles and Maiea Bland, both of Tacoma; a sister, Rose Stephens Mitchell, of Boston; brothers Johnny Stephens, of Round Rock, Texas, Joe Stephens, of Marshall, Texas, Verlin Stephens Jr., of Linden, Texas, Ezell Stephens, of Seattle, and Michael Stephens, of Desoto, Tex.; one granddaughter and several nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s Mount Calvary Christian Center, 1412 23rd Ave., followed by a burial service at Lake View Cemetery, 1554 15th Ave. E., on Capitol Hill.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

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