Can't Knock the Hustle

Hip-hop is South Beach's new problem child -- culturally potent and very, very profitable

It's a recent Saturday night, you're tucked behind a VIP table inside Lincoln Road's Spin nightclub, and the hip-hop beats are thumping. Supermodel Naomi Campbell sashays over -- she hasn't seen you since her birthday party last summer in France -- and snuggles in to share a glass of champagne. Your reverie is suddenly interrupted by the rapper Jay-Z. He'd like Campbell to move to his table, you to vamoose, and the look on his livid face says he's not taking no for an answer. What do you do?

If you're Tony Cho, Spin's marketing director, you smile -- very politely. "I guess he was jealous," Cho explains, shrugging at Jay-Z's fit. "He was sitting at another table with a bunch of thugs that Naomi just didn't feel comfortable around. So when she came and sat with me, he took it personally."

Cho rolls his eyes and breaks it down: Keeping his front teeth intact was the least of his concerns. Jay-Z is a valued customer, the kind of bottle-buying big spender whose presence draws fellow celebs, high rollers, and heat-seeking pretty young things -- all the ingredients for the successful South Beach nightery Spin hopes to become. But then Naomi Campbell is coveted for the same reasons. Alienating either figure is just bad business. And twentysomething Cho, whose Beach résumé includes prior stints at the Chris Paciello-era Bar Room, crobar, and Billboardlive, is nothing if not a canny study of where the nightlife business is headed.

Don't hate us because we're ghetto fabulous: O.J. offspring Arnelle Simpson and producer Jermaine Dupri at last year's Memorial Day fete
Cindy Karp
Don't hate us because we're ghetto fabulous: O.J. offspring Arnelle Simpson and producer Jermaine Dupri at last year's Memorial Day fete

Right now, that means learning how to soothe the fragile egos of today's hip-hop stars. Thanks to Cho's smooth diplomacy and the quick intervention of Spin's security guards, Jay-Z's temper was allayed and Campbell was allowed to slip away. For Cho it was just another Saturday night in a milieu where strutting drama queens are becoming all too familiar. The Beach's upcoming Memorial Day weekend, when more than 250,000 predominantly black revelers are expected to arrive for dozens of hip-hop concerts and parties throughout the city's clubs, should be no exception.

Accordingly, while Miami Beach officials have been fretting about the overflow crowds sure to be packing the city's streets this holiday weekend, clubland is more concerned with what transpires indoors.

Ben Jacobson, CEO of P.G. Companies, Inc., is providing security guards to many of the Beach's nightspots. He currently has 360 men rented out for Memorial Day, and, he adds with a laugh, "the phone just keeps ringing." He anticipates having 500 guards deployed by the weekend's start -- a number close to the total of police officers set for duty across South Beach.

Of particular concern to both Jacobson and law enforcement is Level. One of the Beach's largest venues, it's set to host concerts from hip-hop stars Ja Rule, Ashanti, and Busta Rhymes, as well as DJs from New York City's top-rated WQHT-FM, whose hype-filled broadcasts should help drive rap fans down to South Florida.

"On a normal Saturday night at Level, we'd have as many as 40 [guards]," Jacobson says. "For Memorial Day weekend the number is just about doubled."

Jacobson declined to confirm the $20- to $25-an-hour fee his bouncers reportedly command. But given the payoff at stake -- most clubs will be charging $40 a head, and that's before alcohol sales have even entered the picture -- few club owners seem to be balking at the expense. Indeed, continues Jacobson, during last year's Memorial Day parties at Level, patrons had few qualms about shelling out for pricey tickets -- a situation that led to mass brawls in the middle of Washington Avenue.

"The crowd in front of Level was so intense," he recalls. "There were 5000 people trying to come in! We went to capacity, and then we shut the doors. As people would leave, we'd let in 25 at a time."

Still not enough folks were willing to move on to the next club: "We had crowds in the back alley trying to rip the doors down!"

The wild card in this year's equation is the Nation of Islam's own security force, the Fruit of Islam, who made their Beach debut at last August's Source Hip-Hop Music Awards show and attendant parties. It's widely believed that out of either the fear or respect they command within the black community, there's no better contingent to safeguard hip-hop gatherings; troublemakers with few qualms about tangling with police would think twice before antagonizing a Fruit member.

During his negotiations with city hall for the use of the Miami Beach Convention Center for three nights of concerts, rapper Luther Campbell consistently promised the use of Fruit of Islam security -- an enticing carrot for jittery public officials. Similarly, Campbell's Progressive Righteous Organized, Inc. (PRO) group dangled its use of that force as an incentive for club owners to entrust it with their bookings.

According to Campbell, Level, Liquid, Static, and Steam all agreed to pay PRO a $2500 "sanction fee" to cover this security cost and to let PRO coordinate their scheduled events.

All of that currently appears in doubt. "I have nothing to do with Level now," Campbell explained during an interview with Kulchur. PRO's George Dukes was still involved in Level's and Liquid's concerts as an individual, but Campbell reiterated that he, PRO, and the Fruit of Islam had all pulled out: "I'm going to tell Noah [Lazes, Level co-owner], 'I'm sorry man, but I can't have my name involved. This is a disaster waiting to happen.'"

As Campbell sees it, there is an orchestrated "conspiracy" at Miami Beach's city hall to stymie his Memorial Day plans, as well as to prevent the city from becoming a favored black vacation destination. "They want to discourage my people from ever coming back here," he charges.

To that end, he continues, the city is actually hoping for a violent confrontation. Turning his ire on Kulchur, Campbell snaps, "I can see you writing the story right now! 'Luther had all these people at Level, it spilled into the streets, and that's why the police had to go and mace everybody who was fighting to get into the club.'" He pauses and then warns, "You're not going to put that shit off on me!"

Don't think additional police are going to defuse tensions, he adds. Since his original plans have been scaled back to a single night's show at the convention center, Campbell believes chaos is inevitable. "You think the Florida Highway Patrolmen are going to help?" he asks incredulously. "What about inside the hotels? People don't have anything to do so they're going to have parties at the pools, and that shit is going to go crazy."

Above all else, though, Campbell sounds personally hurt. He refocuses his attention on city hall: "They should've said, 'Hey, Luther, you've come up with a great plan, we want to work with you.... We want you to promote and tell motherfuckers to come down here in peace. We want you to make sure you've got the right artists coming here, not rowdy-ass motherfuckers. We want you to work with our nightclubs. We know our nightclub owners don't know all these promoters, or the difference between Snoop Dogg and Murder Inc." His voice drops and he concludes bitterly: "They should've embraced me! But did they? They didn't embrace a motherfuckin' thing."

Out in clubland, Campbell and PRO weren't exactly received with open arms either. Many viewed the rapper as simply trying to grab a chunk of a lucrative weekend that crobar co-owner Ken Smith termed "the richest bag of money going." If that entailed invoking the specter of violence and racial turmoil, so be it. As previously reported by Kulchur, one nightclub manager was approached by a PRO rep and offered only half of what other promoters had bid to rent out his venue. Upon being rejected, the manager says the PRO rep went ballistic. "He threatened me: 'We control Ocean Drive, we control the streets! If you don't want trouble, you better deal with us.'"

Although Campbell denies any threatening language was ever employed, other nightclub figures have related similar accounts. Another manager of a high-profile spot told Kulchur of how a PRO rep insisted on booking his establishment without the asked-for $3500 deposit. "I finally lowered the deposit to $500," the manager says -- a price far below the market rate -- "but he couldn't even come up with five dollars! So how am I supposed to take these PRO guys seriously? They're just scam artists. They wanted to lock up all the clubs under their control."

Amidst all this acrimony, Spin's Tony Cho is faced with an even tougher negotiation. Given the many competing venues, how does he convince Jay-Z to host his Memorial Day party at Spin? "I just don't want anybody to get killed," Cho says with a weary chuckle. "Especially me."

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