Still in the Hood

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

Having several Made Men on staff could even come in handy. Hinds describes one 1997 afternoon when Damon Dash, CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, burst into the offices with an incensed group of cohorts, hollering that Jay-Z -- then an up-and-coming Roc-A-Fella artist -- had been promised the cover by Mays. An "OK Corral-ish scene" ensued, and Hinds credits the ready-to-throw-down attitude of several Made Men there for keeping the peace until the arrival of police sirens defused the standoff.

"However, by the summer of 1999," Hinds continues, "the stakes had grown. Mays had spent a considerable amount of political capital -- and no small amount of money -- to produce Classic Limited Edition, the album for the Made Men. Several hip-hop and urban music personalities were enticed to appear on the record, and more Sourcemoney poured into the construction of a top-flight recording studio for [Benzino] and crew in Boston. Over the past decade Mays had helped his friends secure several recording contracts, several opportunities to pump lifeblood into their career. All came to naught. Those involved viewed Classic Limited Edition as their last, best attempt."

Hinds treating the Made Men as something less than superstars ended with a tense editorial meeting: Benzino and his Made Men began screaming at Hinds, demanding a cover story. Mays sided with Benzino, and Hinds resigned shortly thereafter. (According to Tracii McGregor, then an editor and now a Source executive, Hinds's departure stemmed from creative differences.)

"I was only marginally surprised when, some two years later, the FBI showed up at my door," Hinds concludes. Sure enough, the agents were investigating Benzino. "There was nothing I could tell them about guns, drugs, or the like. But if the feds had their sights set on [Benzino] there was little chance of The Source escaping the rounds that would eventually come down range. Not with [Benzino]'s inextricable attachment to Dave Mays, as well as his newly public position as having been co-owner of The Sourceall along -- either a marvelous piece of revisionist history, or the best kept secret in the world since it escaped those who worked there in the decade between 1990 and 2000."

"I never wanted the credit," Benzino grouses when asked to explain why his ownership role was kept off The Source's masthead until September 2001. "The situation got overwhelming, to where even the police were asking, 'What is his relationship here?'" Benzino throws up his hands in exasperation: "Fine! I've been co-owner since '96. I've got a percentage. As my percentage grew, my duties grew." Currently those duties include launching the magazine's own fashion line.

And just how much did he pay for his share of The Source?

"I didn't buy in," Benzino replies. "Dave said 'You're my partner' when the other partners were bought out [following their 1994 walkout]. He just showed his loyalty and friendship to me." Given that 2001 buyout offers for the magazine were reportedly upward of $100 million, he stood to see a healthy return on his investment. "I didn't give Dave a dollar," Benzino bristles. Instead of cash, "I gave him my love, my loyalty, my honor, and my vision."

Whose culture is it? Benzino grabbed national coverage in January -- from MTV News to the Los Angeles Times-- with several new songs slamming Eminem as a prototypical blue-eyed devil: "You the rap David Duke, the rap Hitler, the culture-stealer." And he had a final solution to this debasement: "The only way we gonna turn this shit around is to put this little bitch in the ground."

To more than a few observers, the imminent release date of Benzino's new album, Redemption, and his sudden passion for racial justice were hardly coincidental. As Eminem scoffed, was it just a PR gambit to sell records?

"Eminem has to say that," Benzino replies. "That's his only crutch. He can't sit in a room with me and discuss real issues. He's just a marketing tool for the machine."

The machine?

"Hip-hop has probably done more for race than the civil rights movement," Benzino argues, and the "machine" behind Eminem is devoted to reversing that process, throwing up a "blondie" as hip-hop's new image, and stealing away both record sales and the idolizing attention of white youth. Though this is a novel way of rationalizing the lackluster performance so far of Redemption -- only 54,000 copies have been sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- it doesn't explain why other black rappers, such as Nelly, had a banner 2002.

"Nelly is light-skinned and doesn't talk about what's going on in the hood," Benzino snaps. PR move or not, this is clearly a subject close to his heart. Jumping up, he begins pacing back and forth, speaking sharply. "The only way to get played on the radio now is to sin against women and shake our asses. Unless you're white! Eminem is allowed to rap about anything -- being rude to his mother, his life story in 8 Mile, getting out of his mind on Ecstasy pills. Nobody says anything about that!"

There's more than a little truth in Benzino's accusations. Scanning the FM dial between Miami's three commercial rap stations serves up a steady diet of the sinfulness and ass-shaking Benzino decries -- and little else. Still Benzino would seem an odd figure to be leading this moral crusade. After all, when he's not singing about having Eminem's daughter Haley "end up like JonBenet Ramsey," he's penning such sensitive odes as "Bootee" ("take it off and I'll give you a little cash, baby") and "Rock the Party" ("shorty got a fat ass, oh my God"). And for those more introspective moments, there's "44 Cal. Killer" and the self-explanatory "Got No Weed." Is this also the man who raps on the Eminem-bashing "Die Another Day" that's he's the "rap Huey, the rap Malcolm, the rap Martin"?

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