Still in the Hood

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

Assistant city manager Christina Cuervo and police Maj. Tom Weschler exchanged dubious glances: 50 Cent, along with a host of gunplay-saluting rappers, had been regulars throughout the Beach's VIP rooms all season long, with the only danger coming from flying champagne corks. Still neither they nor anyone else on the task force raised their voice in dissent. Perhaps, the thinking might have been, we've just been lucky so far. Caught between cries from residents that they'd lost control of the streets during 2001's anarchic Memorial Day weekend, and subsequent counteraccusations of racist overreaction, city officials were desperate for a smooth ride this time around. It may have all been calculated bluster on Campbell's part, but he clearly knew which civic fears to prey upon.

"A couple of decades after it emerged," observes writer Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, "hip-hop remains the pig in the python of American culture -- the indisputably new thing that refuses to get digested ... the normal twenty-year cycle of shock and acceptance has been broken." Gopnik continues: "Marvin Gaye, a cocaine addict shot with his own gun by his own father, was, almost immediately, a saint of pop humanism, a man you played at weddings. The Notorious B.I.G., dead [six] years, remains largely notorious." Why? "The first theory, beloved of criminal-defense attorneys and the pop music critics of the New York Times, is that rap and its artists just can't get a break from the watchdogs of the white middle classes: the cops and the critics both take them too literally. What are essentially signs and symbols in 'distanced narratives' are treated as threats. Yet highbrow resistance to rap long ago crumbled." These days, the Times's arts section features just as many rappers as it does classical violinists. "As for the police, well, it is hard to miss guns going off in people's faces."

Not that Gopnik is wholly unsympathetic. The generational claim that rap remains undigested because it is indigestible "involves a little back-page revision of the parent's own music -- suicide and cocaine, the rock vices, being judged more obviously wholesome than homicide and Dom Perignon, the rapper's."

Ja Rule, wading through his fans at Club ZNO's opening
Ja Rule, wading through his fans at Club ZNO's opening

Which leaves the notion that criminal activity -- whether it be Puffy's flying ordnance or Suge Knight's creative accounting -- may simply be a vestigial remnant of hip-hop's gritty roots, one that endures no matter how Wall Street-ensconced the music becomes. That's certainly the implication of the latest drama to sweep the rap world: Even as hitmakers such as Ja Rule and Ashanti boosted its net worth to $70 million, Murder Inc. CEO Irv Gotti (better known to his mother as Irving Lorenzo) boasted that he ran "the world's most dangerous record label." According to the Internal Revenue Service, Gotti's claim is more than just braggadocio.

This past December, federal agents swept into Miami Beach's Loews Hotel and arrested convicted drug dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, simultaneously seizing several of his bank accounts. "While Gotti is the public face of Murder Inc.," states a recently unsealed federal affidavit, "McGriff is the true owner of the company. It is well known in the music industry that McGriff has provided Murder Inc. with 'muscle' -- threats, violence, and intimidation. It is also well known among employees of Murder Inc. and its affiliated companies that McGriff provided the necessary start-up money used to found the company, which money came from McGriff's drug business."

The affidavit cited both subpoenaed Loews employees and McGriff's own two-way pager, found in his Loews hotel room, whose messages allegedly detailed the use of McGriff's "reputation to extort a prominent music executive from another company," his laundering of drug trafficking proceeds through Murder Inc., even his ordering of the shooting of 50 Cent after the rapper publicly mocked him.

McGriff's denouement speaks to the Beach's present vibe. At the very moment the city has become the chosen destination for hip-hop's machers, its residents have become increasingly opposed to the public disorder they view as part and parcel of this influx. And while there may be a tinge of hysteria behind this reaction, McGriff's case doesn't exactly help matters. Attempting a careful balancing act is Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, who has formed the South Beach Black Host Committee to not only nurture hip-hop events, but also promote the local flowering of black professional gatherings -- from this July's NAACP national convention to the Black Film Festival.

Yet Dermer, with one eye on his re-election bid this November, has also been strongly supportive of "quality-of-life" crackdowns, much of them aimed at the noisy hip-hop spot Opium Garden. Accordingly, Benzino's claims of extensive private meetings with Dermer, and the warm reception his hip-hop-focused Club ZNO had received from the mayor, seem a bit odd.

Speaking by phone, the mayor himself is quick to downplay the supposed blessing he bestowed on Benzino, describing their tête-à-tête as a "very cursory" encounter. "It was just an introductory meeting to say hello and tell me who they were," Dermer says of Club ZNO's management.

As for Benzino's long history of tangling with the law, "obviously I have concern -- whichever business in the community it is -- that everybody behave properly." But, he added, "It's not within the purview of the mayor's office to be concerned over who opens what business. If the business is legal: That's the issue."

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