Still in the Hood

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

Such a critique holds little water with Benzino. Isn't he allowed to have different moods? "I've been the human dartboard for years for certain insecure journalists and envious people," he sniffs. "It's nothing ... I keep having the support of the streets."

To most South Floridians, Benzino is still best known for his jousting with the Miami Beach Police Department. In August 2001 The Source moved its annual Hip-Hop Music Awards Show to the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater for a national television taping. By all accounts, the show was a success -- until, as most of its celebrity attendees were already flying home, Benzino's yellow Ferrari was pulled over by a Beach police officer.

After careening through the afternoon rush on Harding Avenue at more than twice the speed limit, the traffic stop ended with Benzino wrestling with Ofcr. Robert Silvagni, and once he'd been subdued, receiving felony charges of battery on a police officer, resisting arrest, reckless driving, driving with a suspended license (for the third time), and attempting to pass off his passenger's license as his own.

Steve Satterwhite
Photo by Steve Satterwhite

In the days that followed, Benzino accused Silvagni of senselessly attacking him, and Miami Beach itself of deep-seated racism. David Mays hosted several press conferences; with a bank of TV cameras rolling, he promised a federal civil-rights lawsuit and, under the leadership of the Source-funded Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a large Beach rally come Labor Day.

For their part, Beach police were cynical about both men's motivations. Then-police Chief Barreto alleged that Mays had met with him and 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."

None of this occurred. Instead, this past July, state prosecutors agreed to drop two of Benzino's felony counts, reduce two others, and allow him 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 -- still less than a single night of his stay at the Shore Club.

Benzino spent considerable time this past fall holed up at both Collins Avenue's South Beach Studios and North Miami's Hit Factory Criteria, recording Redemption -- all without a single public word on the Beach's so-called prejudice or his earlier vows to spearhead efforts to root it out. He even quietly withdrew his internal-affairs complaint against Officer Silvagni.

Mays too has changed his tone. After angrily pulling his awards show from Miami Beach in the wake of Benzino's arrest, he recently contacted Mayor Dermer's office in the hopes of returning the gala to the city this fall. In a formal letter to the mayor, Mays cites the financial boon to the city the show provides, and asks for "a financial package of $500,000 to be provided for us in order to help defray the [show's] significant out-of-pocket costs." As for Club ZNO, Mays writes, "we see the club emerging as the hub for a series of business initiatives on our part in the Greater Miami area."

Even Benzino's father has come around. At one of Mays's press conferences back in 2001, he bitterly announced that his son's brutal treatment by Silvagni had caused him to change his retirement plans: "I wouldn't come to Miami ever again." Yet there he was at Club ZNO's opening night on May 2.

So was a quid pro quo at play here? Did Benzino call off his well-publicized attacks on Miami Beach in exchange for a free hand from the city in opening Club ZNO?

"If I had sued the officer and kept it going," Benzino explains carefully, "it would have been hard for me to make a better situation for everybody." He points to the philanthropic work of the Source Youth Foundation, including a recent $15,000 donation to the Overtown YMCA, as well as future charity events at Club ZNO -- such as an Al Sharpton presidential campaign fundraiser. "I think I can do more for Miami and Broward if I set an example of less confrontation, and come here as an investor."

As for the canceled Labor Day rally, "It's not like I was Will Smith." He chuckles ruefully. "I was the wrong person for it because of my past: I've been portrayed as such a monster. Me protesting just gives them more bullets to shoot at us, it makes everybody supporting me look bad."

Could this be a kinder, gentler Benzino? Or has he simply learned a more effective way to game the system?

"The real demonstration is us coming down here and doing Club ZNO. Getting involved with the community is going to help the situation a lot more." He pauses and then grins: "You attract more bees with honey."

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