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We're a long way from God's Waiting Room, as South Beach with its abundance of quietly rocking retirees was wryly dubbed in the Seventies. For a look at the Beach's latest incarnation, one need only gaze around the pool at the swanky Shore Club hotel.
The scene is a marvel of human engineering, as assembled by Shore Club manager Ian Schrager, who has ably adapted skills first honed as Studio 54's famed co-owner: Carefully chiseled blondes stride by as moneyed accents fill the air. And if Studio 54's heyday could feature such odd juxtapositions as Mick Jagger prancing past Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, or model Brooke Shields sidling up to the bar alongside the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the poolside mix at the Shore Club is no less striking.
Tucked into a corner of the shaded patio is one of America's most notorious rappers, Raymond "Benzino" Scott, surrounded by an entourage of hulking figures, most of whom have loose basketball jerseys draped over their massive frames. It's a look that accents Benzino's prominent tattoos: His arms, torso, and neck are covered in a mélange of hangmen's nooses, gravestones memorializing murdered friends, and a foot-high matador.
Yet if Benzino's malevolent profile seems a far cry from the Burberry bikinis and freshly pressed Prada that sashay past, he shows little sign of feeling out of place. Instead he whispers into the ear of David Mays, fellow co-owner of The Sourcemagazine, and then leads the way to his Shore Club bungalow, a popular lodging choice for fellow hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, in search of some hedge-hidden privacy just off the pool's main drag.
But don't let his bungalow's $3000-a-night price tag fool you. "I'm still the hood," Benzino insists firmly, settling into a plush couch. Referring to the hardscrabble inner-city Boston neighborhood where he grew up, he continues: "I'm from Roxbury, that's my social environment, and that's probably why my career has been up and down, up and down. Because I'm not bending for corporations or what America thinks I should be."
"Up and down" is a tactful way of describing Benzino's present arrival at the lush life. Although he has yet to score a hit record in a musical career stretching back to the late Eighties, the 37-year-old has garnered as many newspaper headlines as any platinum artist -- albeit for activities far removed from the recording studio.
Before his first group, the Almighty RSO (Roxbury Street Organization), had even released its major-label debut, it had already seen one member and a bodyguard shot to death. That first record, 1992's One in the Chamba, caused a bit of a buzz in Boston's rap circles, but an even greater stir within the city's police department. The Boston Police Patrolman's Association branded the single "One in the Chamba" a brazen call "for the assaulting of police officers" -- illegal under Massachusetts law -- and filed criminal suit.
Benzino considered his tune's pistol-packing chorus a legitimate protest against police corruption. "Censorship is crazy," he told the Boston Globe at the time. "If they take us out now, you can be sure it will happen again and again." Indeed, though he won the case, it would hardly be Benzino's last time in a courtroom.
As the Nineties progressed, Benzino would regularly find himself verbally sparring with Boston-area prosecutors, facing multiple charges of reckless driving, driving with a suspended license, disorderly conduct, and assault on police officers. The Almighty RSO may have reconstituted itself as the Made Men in 1998, but the song remained the same. Made Men members were implicated in a backstage brawl involving several stabbings at a Ruff Ryders and Cash Money Crew concert. A subsequent near-fatal knifing of Celtic basketball player Paul Pierce inside a nightclub resulted in three Made Men entourage members facing charges of attempted murder. A heated conversation inside a mall with two police officers who suspected Benzino of using a stolen credit card would end in a knock-down scuffle.
"Shopping while black" was all Benzino claimed he was guilty of in the mall case. That dustup was simply the latest salvo in what he saw as an ongoing war between the Made Men and the "Boston Triangle" -- a conspiracy of police, politicians, and press seeking to vilify and imprison an outspoken black artist. "For years the media has been slandering our name, and it's time for this vicious attack to stop," he declared on the steps of a Massachusetts county jail after emerging from a 30-day sentence for disorderly conduct.
When Miami Beach police arrested him in August 2001 for battery on an officer during a traffic stop, Benzino claimed it was, yet again, racial profiling. Beach law enforcement figures also felt a sense of déjà vu.
"We've had some other agencies up north fax us some of the arrest reports. They read like a carbon copy of ours," then-Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto skeptically told the Sun-Sentinel when asked about Benzino's allegations. "When black officers stop him, he calls them Uncle Toms. When white officers stop him, they're accused of racism."