Still in the Hood

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

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.

Steve Satterwhite
Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Rock the Party: Benzino on the microphone at Club ZNO, singing another tender ode to the female form
J. LASH
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
Ja Rule, wading through his fans at Club ZNO's opening
ROCKI COOK
Ja Rule, wading through his fans at Club ZNO's opening

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."

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.

"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.

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."

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."

Curiously, even though Club ZNO is named after him, and despite all its own press releases, Benzino is not actually an owner -- at least according to the club's incorporation records. David Mays and local restaurateur Peter Thomas are listed as its sole co-owners. Are Mays and Thomas trying to safeguard Club ZNO's liquor license, or perhaps shield the club from future Benzino-aimed litigation?

Mayor Dermer refuses to get drawn into such speculation, or to comment on a 2001 FBI investigation of Benzino, one the FBI itself also declines to elaborate on. "If people have a legal right to open a business, then they should be allowed to open a business," he reiterates. As for Benzino's background, "I don't go around doing checks."

"Over the past fifteen years, I don't think two days have gone by where we don't talk to each other," Benzino says of David Mays. "It's a close, close relationship: Jewish kid from D.C., Puerto Rican and black kid from Boston." He begins chuckling as he runs the equation through his head: "White kid from a predominantly black city, black kid from a predominantly white city. It's weird how these things sometimes work out."

Mays views the duo as a living example of hip-hop's ability to bridge cultural barriers. As a Harvard University student hosting a rap show on the campus radio station in the late Eighties, Mays says he naturally sought out Benzino.

"He had the hottest local rap group in Boston," Mays explained in an earlier interview. "Hip-hop is what brought us together, and it's what kept us together," as roommates, close friends, and eventually business partners. Mays soon developed The Source from a photocopied two-page newsletter in 1988 into the glossy magazine that today sells 500,000 copies a month, and lies at the heart of a multimedia empire grossing an estimated $25 million annually.

If Mays and Benzino's resurrection of the old-school civil rights alliance -- middle-class Jew and inner-city black -- has raised a few eyebrows, it hasn't been without its benefits. Having someone like Benzino at his side certainly didn't hurt Mays when dealing with race-baiting critics who wondered why a magazine dedicated to a black art form had an Anglo at its helm.

Less clear has been what Benzino gains from this partnership. Indeed Mays's championing of his pal's music has been a constant irritant within The Source.

Mays's stance first came to a head in October 1994. At that time, Mays was the Almighty RSO's manager, and to many of his staffers, his advocacy of their music was a serious violation of journalistic ethics. And the more Mays pushed, the more his staff resisted. James Bernard, Source co-founder and co-editor in chief at the time, claims that Benzino threatened to "put niggers in body bags" if RSO's new album didn't receive a glowing review. Benzino says he was merely joking, though one of his subsequent songs brags of administering a "beat down" to recalcitrant journalists. Conversations with several Sourceemployees attest to the brandishing of weapons, as well as a general climate of fear and intimidation between opposing factions inside the publication.

As the November 1994 issue of The Sourcehit the streets, staffers were shocked to discover that three pages marked as advertising during layout actually contained an Almighty RSO piece written and surreptitiously inserted by Mays. Outraged at what they considered an ethical breach, Bernard, fellow co-founder and co-editor in chief Jon Shecter, co-founder and music editor Reginald Dennis, and five other staff members resigned in protest.

One of those figures explained his bitter decision to leave The Source: "This was a violation of a business relationship. Everybody saw this disaster coming from way back, and it just continued to grow and fester ... trading coverage in the magazine to labels in exchange for favors for [Benzino] -- everything that you could imagine someone could do to abuse their position. And it's still being done." Referring to Benzino's uncanny ability to land his current record contract with Elektra -- after being previously dumped for poor sales by Tommy Boy, Restless, Virgin, RCA, Interscope, and Motown -- this former staffer asks, "How do you think he keeps getting these major-label deals?"

Nonsense, says Mays. "They sought to usurp control of the magazine by concocting a media story," Mays observes of the staff walkout, and he still stands by his decision to run the RSO piece. "The Almighty RSO -- whether they were my partner or not -- merited some kind of coverage in the magazine, the way any other group that had an album on a major label that was making some kind of noise deserved coverage. Because of their problems with me, [the staffers who quit] refused to cover the group in any way. It was my position as the person in charge of everything that there should be something written on the group. So I made sure there was."

"The magazine's done in my mind," griped Bernard at the time. "You can't rebuild credibility."

Perhaps leery of the public black eye his magazine had received, Mays ratcheted down his cheerleading for Benzino. Selwyn Hinds, the Source's replacement for departed music editor Dennis, recalls the mood in his 2002 memoir Gunshots in My Cook-Up."I was well aware of [Benzino's] dark Boston reputation," he writes, "but for the better part of my time at the magazine, the snarling, threatening, nemeses of the old Source editors were just guys who'd pop into town every other week or so and hang in Dave Mays's office 'til the wee hours as weed smoke, loud music, and laughter poured out."

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"?

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.

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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