Still in the Hood

Can Ray "Benzino" Scott's new hip-hop club survive his reputation?

After posting bail, Benzino's response was to call in both his attorney and The Source's own public relations team, and press on. As he had announced at one Boston court appearance, "I'm not going to stand here and pretend that myself or the [Made Men] grew up as angels, but the wreckage of our past should not be used to judge the path of our future."

For now that path runs through South Beach, where Benzino has just opened the eponymous Club ZNO. Rap music industry high rollers (and those who want to bask in their presence) have made the city their favored vacation spot, and with his new club, Benzino hopes to cash in on the resulting action.

Local partiers may recognize some of Club ZNO's interiors -- it's housed in the Washington Avenue space previously occupied by reputed Colombo mob family associate Chris Paciello and his Liquid nightclub. "The building is a landmark," Benzino says. "When people all over the world think of South Beach, they think of Liquid." He remains unfazed that Paciello is currently in the federal witness protection program after pleading guilty to murder charges stemming from a botched home robbery. The hours of wiretaps capturing Paciello planning to beat up or simply kill his clubland rivals also fail to dim Benzino's enthusiasm in invoking the onetime mogul's legacy. Then again, Benzino clearly sees the marketing cachet of gangster chic.

Rock the Party: Benzino on the microphone at Club ZNO, singing another tender ode to the female form
Rock the Party: Benzino on the microphone at Club ZNO, singing another tender ode to the female form
"I've been dealing with the race issue my whole life": Source co-owner  David Mays stands by Benzino
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
"I've been dealing with the race issue my whole life": Source co-owner David Mays stands by Benzino

"Chris Paciello did a great job of making Liquid equal South Beach," Benzino continues matter-of-factly. "And that's what we want with Club ZNO." Just swap out the dance-floor soundtrack of diva-driven house music. "Now hip-hop is in the mainstream, it's grown up. So that's where we want to be." And, he adds, everybody's welcome in his club: "You'll see people in $1000 suits, but you'll also see guys in Sean John T-shirts, jeans, and some gold teeth in their mouth." The common denominator is that they're all, like Benzino, "still in the hood."

Of course, nailing down a precise definition of hood-ness can be difficult. Benzino stresses that "who you are is not predicated on where you live" -- a convenient factor given his current digs. And, he continues, noting that he's currently house-hunting on Miami Beach, there are plenty of "hip-hop yuppies," wealthy middle-age executives who've made fortunes in the music industry and now reside in suburban mansions. They too can "still represent the hood," he says, even if they rarely associate with it anymore. He's weighing the purchase of a notable Collins Avenue boutique hotel. Apparently hoteliers can also rep the hood. In fact the more labored his definitions of hip-hop's all-important street credibility, the more Benzino's philosophy seems elastic enough to justify whatever lifestyle he sees fit.

Benzino isn't the only one having a hard time fusing ghetto aesthetics with newfound wealth. Hip-hop has long since transcended its modest Bronx origins to become the dominant force in pop culture: Of the 681 million CDs sold last year, 246.5 million -- more than a third -- were either rap or R&B, a figure that speaks to the genre's influence on everything from film to fashion.

Yet for all their business world ascendancy, hip-hop's biggest players remain plagued by affairs uncommon to most corporate boardrooms. From the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to the nightclub shootings trial of Puff Daddy, from the travails of Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight to last October's mysterious killing of Run-DMC member Jam Master Jay, the mayhem in hip-hop's lyrics is often all too real.

Hip-hop's biggest star of the moment, 50 Cent, freely boasts not only of his crack-dealing past, but also of his surviving no less than nine gunshot wounds. Hardly one for subtlety, the rapper is featured on the cover of his chart-topping, multiplatinum Get Rich Or Die Tryin' glaring back through bullet-pocked glass; his CD's liner notes picture him reaching for his gun in variously menacing poses. Despite the mounting body count, violence -- real or imagined -- seems an intrinsic part of the music's appeal, particularly to the white audience that composes nearly 75 percent of its total CD-buying market.

So even while this past March MTV aired footage of 50 Cent co-hosting the channel's Spring Break fiesta at South Beach's Doubletree Surfcomber hotel, leading an enthused throng of frat boys and corn-fed coeds in arm-waving cheers, 50 Cent's return was drawing a different response inside the Beach's city hall. During an April meeting there of the Nightlife Industry Task Force, former 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell addressed a gathering of city officials, police, and club owners. The rapper turned softcore porn filmmaker had adopted a new guise -- concert promoter -- and he argued that only his festival plans could prevent the Beach's upcoming Memorial Day weekend from becoming a violent debacle.

50 Cent and his gangsta-rapping ilk would be explicitly barred from his Umoja Festival's stage, Campbell promised the task force. But, he warned, unless 50 Cent was also similarly blocked from being booked into any local clubs, the rapper's thuggish followers would "clash" with his own event's peace-loving, middle-age Chaka Khan and Isley Brothers fans.

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