Over-the-Top Hip-Hop

That well-publicized death threat? It's called marketing

After nearly twenty minutes of tortuous verbal gymnastics, Jay-Z was growing audibly tired of his on-air interrogation. But his radio interviewer, Angie Martinez, showed no signs of flagging. Her afternoon program on New York City's WQHT-FM (97.1) was locked in a summertime ratings war with the Clear Channel-owned WWPR-FM (105.1) for hip-hop listeners. And with Clear Channel preparing to go nationwide with its battle for advertising dollars, and facing head-to-head competition with previously unchallenged hip-hop outlets from Miami to Nashville, the entire radio industry was keeping a close watch.

Accordingly, snagging an in-studio visit from one of rap's premier stars was quite a coup, and Martinez was prepared to milk it for all it was worth. Jay-Z attempted to downplay his much-hyped spat with fellow rapper Nas, but Martinez insisted on rehashing each artist's tit-for-tat response records, the over-the-top string of insults each had hastily recorded and sent to the two rival stations, both of which enthusiastically played them.

Yet if Martinez herself had a hand in amplifying the tense feelings between Jay-Z and Nas, a shared enmity many hip-hop fans were ominously predicting would end in the same bloody denouement that befell Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., she seemed blithely unaware. Instead she prattled on, asking Jay-Z if there were any "lines being crossed" that could lead to gunplay. Jay-Z and Nas themselves might be able to keep their fight in the purely musical realm but, she inquired oh-so-earnestly, could they rein in their pride-conscious retinues?

A weary Jay-Z leaned in close to his microphone. Dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, he addressed his radio audience: "I want you all to really understand. It's wrestling."

That all this drama might be nothing more than a publicity stunt (one that had successfully resuscitated Nas's career) seemed lost on hip-hop's most devout followers. The marketing logic is simple enough: Cook up the same excitement and record-buying interest that greeted Shakur and B.I.G.'s public dueling. Just don't kill off the artists this time; homicide makes it much more difficult to record a best-selling followup. (Not that death has stopped either figure's record label from issuing endless vault-scraping releases.)

Indeed, parsing rap publications like The Source and XXL, scrolling through fan Websites, and listening to hip-hop radio reveals a world in which business considerations are virtually nonexistent. Sure, selling records is important (and, sadly, it's all too often taken as a measure of an artist's talent), but in this universe the beef between Jay-Z and Nas was one with deep personal roots and serious societal repercussions. Much like the wrestling fans Jay-Z cited, rap's fanatical devotees are committed to the belief that this isn'tjust acting, that it's about more than goofily named characters in even goofier costumes, threatening to murderize each other.

That's a notion worth keeping in mind as Ja Rule gripes about his restraining order courtesy of this season's buzz, 50 Cent, or when racial crusader Benzino sings of that blue-eyed devil Eminem: "You the rap David Duke, the rap Hitler, the culture-stealer... the only way we gonna turn this shit around is to put this little bitch in the ground." The vague rumors of impending violence between competing street-promotion teams from Miami's hip-hop stations -- WEDR-FM, WMIB-FM, WPOW-FM -- may be transparent marketing gimmicks, but you'd never know that from listening to hip-hop's own tastemakers. It's been left to the mainstream media, ironically derided by those same voices as woefully clueless about hip-hop, to pull back the curtain.

Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times and budding homeboy, laid it out. "I had been following the debate in rap music about Snoop Doggy Dogg trying to revive his career by insulting Suge Knight," he told the New York Observer. "I thought it was so interesting because it was being covered in the entertainment press like it was about one guy's mother being insulted by the other guy. And in fact it's a business story that's touching Sony and many other companies in an industry that's had a twenty-percent decline in revenues. So behind this public street conflict is a huge business story."

All this calculated bravado takes a sinister turn when a rap figure like Benzino (a.k.a. Raymond Scott) extends it to issues that have little to do with record sales -- or his lack thereof. Miamians were familiar with Benzino's ability to assume the mantle of social activist long before he took aim at Eminem's supposed "rape" of the black community.

In August 2001, Benzino grabbed local attention while in Miami Beach for The Source magazine's annual Hip-Hop Music Awards. (Scott is a co-owner of the publication.) The show had already ended, its all-star attendees already winging their way home, when Benzino's Ferrari was pulled over by a Beach police officer after swerving through daytime traffic on Harding Avenue at more than twice the speed limit. The traffic stop ended with Benzino rolling around on the ground, grappling with Ofcr. Robert Silvagni. To hear Benzino tell it, he was the victim of racial profiling and a senseless physical attack. Silvagni claimed that Benzino had it backward, adding felony charges of battery on a police officer to those of resisting arrest, reckless driving, driving with a suspended license (for the third time), and trying to use his passenger's license as his own.

In the days that followed, Benzino accused Miami Beach itself of pervasive racism, while close friend and Source co-owner David Mays hosted several press conferences, promising a federal civil-rights lawsuit and prominent city-wide demonstrations.

For their part, Beach police were cynical about both men's motives. Richard Barreto, then the police chief, alleged that Mays had threatened to play the race card and "tear up the city" if the matter wasn't resolved. "He wanted the charges dropped, and if they weren't dropped he was going to do everything he could to embarrass us," Barreto told WPLG-TV news. "He was going to call Jesse Jackson down here, he was going to call the NAACP."

Mays said his comments to Barreto were taken out of context -- and with the city still reeling in the wake of Memorial Day's "hip-hop invasion," Kulchur was willing to entertain both sides for a subsequent story.

In hindsight Benzino appears only to have been practicing for his current go at Eminem; his profound outrage over police brutality and racism seems not-so-subtly linked to the possibility of a jail sentence. This past July state prosecutors agreed to drop two felony counts, reduce two others, and allow Benzino to plead no contest to the remaining charges. Along with twelve months of unsupervised probation, he was ordered to pay $471 in court costs and $2500 to the Miami Beach Police Officer Assistance Fund. And that's it.

Not that Benzino hasn't been back here since. He spent considerable time this past fall at Collins Avenue's South Beach Studios, as well as at North Miami's Hit Factory Criteria, enjoying the area's hotels and restaurants as he recorded his new Eminem-bashing album. But it was a busy period, and he was left with virtually no time to utter even a peep about the Beach's so-called prejudice or his earlier vows to lead efforts to root it out. He even quietly withdrew his internal-affairs complaint against Officer Silvagni.

Beach police spokesman Bobby Hernandez suggested to Kulchur that Benzino may have been "reacting out of anger in the heat of the moment. After time went by he was able to think about the facts more and -- maybe based on his lawyer's advice -- he was able to realize his allegations were unfounded." That's an exceedingly charitable assessment, and it overlooks Benzino's shameful willingness to inflame an already divided community, not to mention tarnish an officer's reputation, all simply as a creative legal defense.

Benzino did not return calls but then, he remains a busy man. As he announces on his latest single, "Die Another Day" (thoughtfully delivered directly to Miami's hip-hop radio stations): "I'm the rap Huey, the rap Malcolm, the rap Martin."

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