By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Vender Davis irons her son's Dickies pants, sets them neatly on a chair, and goes to bed around 8 p.m. As he leaves, Darnell grabs the clothes and puts them in his backpack. He whispers, "Night, Mom," and locks the front door behind him.
At a neighbor's house, a few younger girls are lounging, smoking weed, and sipping soda from plastic bottles when he shows up. Darnell is blessed with big dark eyes, a muscular frame, and a quiet confidence. He has a way of playfully teasing that makes you drop your guard.
When he was 5, his family nicknamed him "21" because he acted like a grownup. His dad wasn't in the picture, and his stepfather was in and out of jail, so Vender worked long hours to pay the mortgage on the family's modest Allapattah home. By the time he was a teenager, Darnell had taken on the role of protector in the neighborhood.
"He was like a big brother to us," says a 17-year-old neighbor who asked not to be named. "But some people was hating on him because, you know, he dressed good and had money."
After taking a few hits from a joint and laughing about neighborhood gossip, Darnell checks his bright-blue square-faced wristwatch. It's about 11 p.m. "Man, I don't even feel like going out tonight," he tells the girls. But there's a birthday party, and he promised to go to Studio A. "I'll be back in a couple hours," he says.
Toro finishes recording a new track called "We Do This" and takes off his headphones. The sun is going down at Underworld Studio near the Venetian Causeway, and tonight he's on a mission: He burns 20 copies, slides them into demo cases, and tells his boss at Iconz Music he's headed to the clubs to promote. "I'm gonna make you rich!" he beams, high on the song. "I'm about to take over the world!" He gives the record label owner a fist-bump and swaggers out the door.
Toro has an image to keep up. You could say he looks intimidating: The rapper has an inch-long cross tattooed next to his eye, the build of a linebacker, and a gold grill in his mouth. Even his MySpace page boasts he's "ya baby mama's favorite hood nigga." But his close friends know it's an act, partly for his own protection, partly for his record label image. The façade fades behind closed doors.
Despite growing up with no mother in the slums of Opa-locka, the private-schooled 33-year-old has never been in trouble. He is too smart for the gangs and too driven for the drugs. He's the kind of guy who takes his grandmother to the grocery store.
Before hitting the clubs, he first swings home to change. The small blue house has a sun-bleached lawn and a single white plastic chair sitting on the porch. Around the corner is a boarded-up building with a sign that reads, "Section 8 Housing." "I'm gonna get you away from here," he tells his grandma, Addie. "Once I got money, I'm gonna take you someplace beautiful."
He changes into a new pair of designer jeans and climbs into an Escalade. Inside are a neighbor named Travell and his girlfriend Venis. Addie thinks they're bad news. Travell has been convicted for possession of cocaine and carrying a concealed weapon, according to court records, and was recently released from prison. (Both friends declined to comment.)
As the SUV pulls away, Toro's lyrics seem to echo behind him: "See all these killers 'round me?/Lotta drug dealing 'round me/Going down in Dade County."
When Charlene and Chelsea arrive at White Room around 11 p.m., the club is empty. They show their IDs for the underage event and stroll past the bamboo-lined front entrance. On Mondays, the place usually thumps gritty, indie glam beats while a powwow of artsy college kids suck on cigarettes in the outdoor courtyard. But tonight there's nobody lounging under the white canopy tents.
Inside, where bands sometimes wail next to oval-shaped mirrors, the dance floor is vacant, aside from a 20-something gay boy who has come alone. The DJ is a no-show, and even the manager looks bored. "Come back in a couple hours," he tells the girls.
The lone gay customer offers to escort them to their car. It's a rough hood, he warns. With a couple of hours to burn, Charlene and Chelsea offer to give him a ride to South Beach, where they drop him off and grab a pair of plastic chairs in front of a luxury Ocean Drive hotel. Charlene listens to her pal vent about the breakup as they people-watch under a nearly full moon. With the palm trees etched in the distance, it seems a world away from the neighborhood where they plan to return. "It was just like any other night out," Charlene remembers. "Nobody expects to get shot."
By the time Darnell gets to Studio A — an industrial-chic warehouse with chandeliers — the crowd is rowdy. The speakers are the size of refrigerators, and they send the clack of Southern hip-hop through club. These walls are shaking.