By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
-- Terrance Smith, blackbeachweek.com
Terrance Smith may live far from the surf and sand, but the 34-year-old entrepreneur from Missouri knows his beach parties. As owner of the Website www.blackbeachweek.com since 1999, he keeps track of events that draw African-American students and professionals to resort areas across the United States and the Caribbean. He travels the circuit himself, brokering deals with promoters, hoteliers, and tour operators, and then drums up business by reporting where the party's at.
"Right now Miami is my favorite," he says over the phone from St. Louis. Smith will be spending Memorial Day weekend here, although his site is also promoting competing events in South Carolina and Cancun. Why Miami Beach? Smith explains, "It's like stepping into a music video."
Smith does not have precise figures for the number of guests who have booked through his site, but he reports that most of his hotels, including the Roney Plaza and Days Inn, are already full. (An informal survey of representative hotels by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau on May 19 showed hotel occupancy on Miami Beach already at 87 percent, with many hotels on South Beach sold out. Last year, occupancy hit 96 percent.)
Smith predicts more than 200,000 people will show up this weekend, as they have for the past three years. Each visitor will spend a minimum of $400 in Miami Beach over the weekend, he estimates, with many spending more than $1000. Hotel rooms begin at $270 a night. Getting into a club costs $50 to $100. Then there's food and shopping. "People save up all year for this," he says.
On Memorial Day weekend, the first commandment is not just live large, but live gangsta. Despite hip-hop's domination of popular culture around the globe, fans still get off on the music's outlaw status. Some artists earn street cred as much for their rap sheets as for their raps. And the question music video producers most frequently ask when seeking permits, reports Graham Winick, film and print coordinator for Miami Beach, is the location of the "Scarface house," meaning the dazzling mansion with a glass elevator featured in the 1983 crime drama. "[Scarface is] in some ways a bible by which the culture lives," says Winick. But for most middle- and upper-class fans who trade in their ties for diamond-encrusted chains or their stockings for thong bikinis, the thug life is just another part of a hip-hop holiday.
"The crowd is very polite, very black, very ghetto," observes Boris Morales, manager of Club VIP, a nightclub nestled in the honeycomb of hip-hop hot spots on the 600 block of Washington Avenue. Make that ghetto fabulous. "They wear the hip-hop gear, but really they're a lot of black professionals. The people that come over to Miami Beach are the nice ones, because it's expensive."
To sit in one of the five VIP areas at Club VIP, patrons must buy a bottle of liquor at a minimum cost of $200 -- and buy another when the bottle is empty or get kicked out of the area. Hanging out in the club's more exclusive "ultra-VIP" room costs $500 up front and the purchase of at least three bottles. Morales says Memorial Day crowds think nothing of spending $500 on a bottle of Cristal. "Once a year, it's worth it," he explains.
Morales has fond memories of last Memorial Day weekend when rapper Wyclef Jean dropped in with an entourage of more than 30 people. He remembers one of the crew shaking up a "cheap" $200 bottle of champagne, and then spraying it on a friend. To retaliate, the friend bought two more bottles and emptied them on a few more friends. By the time the bubbly dried on the floor, the entourage had dropped between $12,000 and $15,000 in cash.
Morales believes that for such well-heeled and ultimately harmless visitors, the police presence over Memorial Day weekend is excessive. That may be because an earlier Urban Beach Week caught police unawares. The event began in 1999, with a few promoters from New York City putting on parties that went largely unnoticed by Miami Beach residents or officials.
Word of mouth and coverage on Websites like blackbeachweek.com began to spread, but it wasn't until 2001 that the crowds hit critical mass.
That year more than 250,000 mostly African-American young adults filled the streets, horrifying residents more accustomed to the Beach's then-waning European and model-friendly club scene. Much like the largely Anglo-American spring break crowds who terrorized Fort Lauderdale residents in the mid-Eighties, the Memorial Day 2001 crowd left behind complaints of drunken brawls, snarled traffic, urination on the sidewalks, and public fornication.
In 2002 police lined the streets. There were squad cars and motorcycles parked at every corner along Washington and Collins avenues. Officers on foot patrolled the congested corner of Collins and Seventeenth Street, stopping cars with tinted windows or music blaring. Whenever eager young men jumped into a convertible packed with bikini-clad beauties, officers would literally pull the men out of the car, even if the honeys seemed happy with the company. Cowed by the cops, underage or underbudget wannabes from Kendall, Perrine, and Liberty City stood outside the clubs, hypnotized by the spinning rims on passing Escalades. In one glorious moment, rapper Method Man called out the window of his SUV, asking for a lighter for his blunt. The scene looked less like Scarface than detention hall with the police as hall monitors. Except that when fights broke out, the cops wore riot gear and wielded pepper spray.
The show of force curbed the excesses of 2001, so the tactics were repeated in 2003 and will likely be used again this weekend, when Miami Beach plans to have 700 officers on the streets. "We'd rather be overprepared than underprepared," says Miami Beach police public information officer Bobby Hernandez. The PIO reassures New Times that riot gear and pepper spray are not visible except in the case of "large crowd disturbances." For example? "They've been deployed a couple of times when the crowd has gotten a little rowdy." So basically, the riot police are as much a part of the scenery as the palm trees.
Eager to deflect criticism for overpolicing an African-American event, Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer formed the Miami Beach Black Host Committee last year to work with the police and make sure African-American visitors feel welcome. Committee chair Henry Crespo says the motivation is money. "The economic impact has political impact," he argues. So the Black Host Committee organizes workshops and public symposia on hip-hop culture before the weekend's events.
But Crespo insists that when you've got fine women, you've gotta have police: "Women come to Miami Beach dressing sexy and they shouldn't feel intimidated." And then there's all that expensive champagne. "When guys get drunk and act disorderly, surely there should be some warning [from police]," he says. "But if the person continues to act irate ..."
"They will beat your ass," laughs 21-year-old rapper Reynos. The Dominican American has been coming down from New York for Memorial Day weekend since 2001, when he was a seventeen-year-old rhyming on the mixtape scene. "Since before I could get into clubs," he says. So what did he do? "I got my ass in clubs!"
Now legal age, Reynos is returning to shoot his first music video for his debut album, Stand Up, on indie label Latin Flava. Like so many other genuine and aspiring stars, whose faces are seen on flyers, vans, and mobile billboards all over the Beach, Reynos will have a street team building a buzz about his single, "Tato OK." A party anthem in English whose chorus comes from Dominican slang for a-ight, he represents the growing Latin side of the urban scene, a supersize rapper like his idols Biggie Smalls, Big Pun, and Fat Joe.
Reynos views the police presence as just another part of the crazy scene. He remembers seeing a group of drunken men who appeared to be play fighting, only to be rushed by police and then hauled off to jail for the rest of the weekend. He didn't protest, because he didn't want to get hauled away himself.
"I don't know what type of law enforcement is going on over there," Reynos says, still laughing. "In a way it keeps everybody focused, trying not to get locked up the whole weekend. It makes everybody feel safe. You don't walk around thinking that something's going to happen to you."
After all, it's fun to pretend to be gangsta. But that doesn't mean you are a gangsta.