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The official story is in: The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards ended on a happy if uninspiring note until Raymond Scott, part owner of the magazine, got into trouble at the end of the party. City of Miami Beach Police arrested the rapper known as Ray Benzino for speeding and resisting arrest without violence. The cops claim Benzino and his partner David Mays attempted to use their awards-show clout to spring the traffic offender. Benzino lodged a formal complaint August 31, alleging police brutality, and Mays has vowed the Source awards will not return. Whatever happened, the situation is typical Benzino: the producer-rapper's hardcore rep obscures his lyrical gifts as indelibly as his tattoos cover his body.
Although the Miami Beach police incident was the first time many in Miami had heard of Benzino, the rapper has been on the scene in the Northeast since he was a shorty. Originally from Boston's inner city, his first musical clique was the Almighty RSO, an outfit with hits in that area in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Their beats rocked parties all across Massachusetts, but their knucklehead attitude inspired violence, leading the Almighties to an early retirement and some of the crew to an early grave. After the murder of two of the original members, the ghetto-fabulous survivors took a new name, Made Men. "We wore the name out," Benzino admits. "RSO had like a negative perception." But a new name doesn't necessarily mean a new direction.
I was scheduled to meet Benzino, a.k.a. Raydog, poolside at his hotel the day before the taping of the awards show. He made me wait arm's length from him in the blazing sun while he rapped, chatted, and smoked with his pals. "He probably just wants to smoke a bit before the interview," his publicist apologized.
Benzino was politicking the pool: shaking hands, kissing babies' mamas. His arched eyebrows gave an urgency to everything he said. Then came a whisper in his ear -- time for sound check.
"We're gonna go over to the venue, Tiff. You wanna ride with me?" Benzino says, miming a steering wheel.
Inside the Jackie Gleason, the interview is stifled by the proximity of the publicist, bodyguard, and homies number one, two, and three. "You wanna go up there?" he asks, pointing to the mezzanine, amused by my discomfort.
Benzino fends off the publicist, who got up to follow us: "It's okay, man, I got this."
But the bodyguard would not stay behind.
Upstairs I ask him about the spooky three-fingered hand covered in multicolored diamonds that hangs from his neck. "It's to symbolize three, like the Adidas stripes," he tells me, pointing toward the three-finger backdrop for his performance behind a Benzino stand-in who is running around onstage MCing his name. "It represents Boston hip-hop," he schools me. "We only rock Adidas. It's like a trademark."
Benzino always has home on his mind, waxing autobiographical in his rhymes. In a tease at the beginning of the video for his single "Bang Ta Dis," currently scoring heavy airplay in NYC, Benzino boasts sleepily: "I had all the money, the cars, women. My team done been established. We done went from hood to hood. Done seen it, done it all." Then he adds ominously: "Let me tell you something. This is my story. I live this."
A dark, thumping bass line kicks in with an eerie violin floating up top. Banging to the song from the What's the Worst That Can Happen? soundtrack, the video shows clips of the film starring Martin Lawrence. The theme is the same as always: ice, wheels, steamy lesbian fantasies, and battles over which rapper's got the biggest cock -- or "Glock," whatever. The shower scene might not make it to MTV. Then again Raydog has never been about good clean family fun.
Despite his thuggishness, Benzino's tracks have an old-school sound based on oddball samples. "I like rockin' on dark beats and bass lines," he explains. "I brought some violin students from the [Boston] Conservatory and sampled some riffs. My dream is to work with an orchestra."
The classical treatment of hardcore rhymes is emblematic of the artist himself. The harsher element hides everything else.
In fact Benzino even seemed surprised to be asked about his music.
"Wow," he says after a pause. "I wasn't prepared for an artistic question. Usually you all just want to know about the violence." I wonder why.