Hip-Hop Fame at South Florida Strip Clubs
It's just before midnight outside Diamonds Cabaret, a swank-meets-hood black strip club on the western, industrial edge of North Miami Beach. Six cops sit in patrol cars outside, and three security guards stand near the door. The club once had a bad reputation it's trying to outgrow — but the feeling that tonight is going to be a wild night is inescapable.
For starters, it's Miami rapper JT Money's birthday bash, and a bunch of local music scenesters is expected to attend: Trick Daddy, the Dunk Riders, Grind Mode, Ball Greezy, and a crew from Miami's Poe Boy record label. A lot of these hip-hop artists don't clock much radio play, but their songs are anthems in urban neighborhoods throughout South Florida. A big portion of their popularity is related to one thing: Their music is played at local strip clubs.
A place such as Diamonds is the perfect barometer to judge what's hot in urban music. Songs still months away from radio play are on regular rotation here. And girls who work at Diamonds consider themselves the best black strippers in Miami. So the place is always a party.
Only moments after I step inside the small lobby, where patrons pay admission and get patted down, there's already trouble. A reggae artist named Don Yute and his manager are here to see the DJ. But the girls in charge of admission won't let them in for free.
"It's $10, boo," a stylish black woman with long, curly hair says with attitude. "Your name is not on the list."
"What do mean we can't come in? This is Don Yute," his manager says confidently. "Tell the DJ Don Yute is here."
Yute, born Jason Williams, hails from Port Antonio, Jamaica. The 30-year-old isn't a big name in his native country, let alone Miami. But they're hoping to slip Yute's latest single to one of the DJs. "Drive Me Crazy" is a sexy, up-tempo dancehall track geared toward erotic dancers. Doors could open if they can get the record played tonight — most likely by tipping the DJ 10 bucks.
They have to make it inside first. Eddie "DJ Fattboi" Desrosier, age 28 — who spins music at Diamonds and bears an uncanny resemblance to the animated character Shrek — doesn't recognize Yute's name. He denies them free entry. Opting not to pay $10 apiece, the manager, in desperation, slips me a CD of Yute's music.
"Tell him to play Track 5," he says while being ushered out the door. "Track 5! That song is perfect for the strip clubs."
A bouncer turns in my direction. "We get this all the time," he says. "Nowadays all of the local artists come here to try and get their music played."
For many South Florida urban musicians, popularity in strip clubs means success. More new songs are debuted in these erotic venues than on any mainstream local radio stations.
If girls can bump and grind to a new song, and guys want to spend money while it's playing, there's a good chance it'll be a hit.
Jack "DJ Suicide" LaLanne spent 15 years working as a radio personality at 99 Jamz and as a DJ at strip clubs. "It's very common for artists to perform in strip clubs to stay relevant in the streets," he says. "That's where most major records are being broken anyway. All these new songs on the radio that you hear, even national stuff, it doesn't get broken on the radio. Those songs are big in strip clubs first — whether it's a Young Jeezy or whoever. Radio is last nowadays."
Twenty-eight-year-old DJ Chico, who declines to use his real name because he works on pirate radio stations, also spins records at black strip clubs. He gigs at Flavors, a black topless bar in Pompano Beach. Chico asserts that DJs in these venues fill a void.
"I feel like the radio stations, they don't play music for the people," he says. "And it's not right. The little person, they don't haveany other opportunity to get their music heard, so they come to titty bars."
Local hip-hop artists know a good single can get support from strip clubs DJs, even if other outlets aren't paying attention yet.
In the mid-Eighties, local hip-hop entrepreneur Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell and 2 Live Crew began using strip clubs as their venue of choice for breaking records. They were pioneers. "I went to Tootsie's back in, like, '83 for the first time," Campbell recalls. "And when I saw what was going on, being creative, I said, I'ma get this 2 Live Crew group and create music around sexually oriented dancing."
In Campbell's eyes, strip clubs at that point were mostly for bikers and white guys. The music was for that same demographic, with guitar-heavy rock of the Alice Cooper and Poison variety. Campbell saw an opportunity for Southern rap to sneak in.
In 1986, 2 Live Crew's first single, "Throw the Dick," was a hit at Miami strip clubs such as Coco's and Club Rolexx (now Club Lexx). National attention followed almost immediately. Most bands spent promo money on videos, but Campbell figured out that making a song popular in topless bars throughout South Florida, and eventually across the nation, ensured it would be played during lap dances for years.
"Everyone was trying to figure out, 'How is he selling 500,000 records out of his mother's wash house, with no radio play whatsoever?'" Campbell recalls. "I'll tell you how: 'cause I captured the strip club market, and the streets started following — that's how." The group's label, Luke Skyywalker Records, was the first black-owned indie imprint to notch two gold records. Play in nude cabarets helped.
Campbell eventually split from 2 Live Crew in 1993 to begin a solo career, but group member Chris Wongwon — a.k.a. Fresh Kid Ice, a.k.a. Chinaman — recalls those early days of titty bar promotions the same. "Yo, we figured out early on, if you got 50 strippers all dancing and shaking they asses to one song, saying, 'That's my jam,' the guys in the club are gonna be like, 'Oh shit, that's my jam too,'" says Wongwon, who lives in Miramar. "It really is that simple."
Given 2 Live Crew's raunchy image and the songs' highly sexual nature, there weren't other outlets for the group's earliest recordings.
"All those songs like 'Pop That Pussy' and 'Face Down Ass Up' could never work on radio, so we used the strip clubs," Ice says. "And we were doing that way before anybody else was."
After 2 Live Crew's strip joint success, others followed, including MC Shy D, Poison Clan, JT Money, and Quad City DJs. Soon the concept caught on in Houston and Atlanta.
"Radio stations in South Florida have gotten so bad, it's like you hear the same 12 songs all day long," Campbell says. "But when you go to the strip clubs, you're hearing all kinds of new stuff. The girls listen to music and request songs they like, 'cause they want to dance to songs that will generate them the most revenue. There's an entire music culture that exists inside of these clubs if you pay attention to it. When I'm in there, I always watch what the girls are requesting — it helps keep me current."
Diamonds Cabaret is like an adult playground. There's a full-length basketball court, a barber, free Hennessy shots, and large asses galore. Young ladies with swollen, gravity-defying backsides gyrate naked around the club, and DJ Fattboi does a delicate balancing act of spinning music that girls like but that also makes guys want to throw money. The music here is all hip-hop. But you're not going to hear any Mos Def or Talib Kweli. It's mostly street rap, and the bulk of it is local.
"Not a night goes by that somebody isn't putting a CD in my hand," Fattboi says while transitioning between Young Jeezy's "Vacation" and Brisco's hood anthem, "Bitch I'm Me." The latter is a local track that's heavily promoted in strip clubs throughout South Florida; the chorus isn't exactly radio-friendly, with lines such as "I got a hard dick buffet they feast."
"We show love to the local artists," Fattboi says. "For a lot of them, strip clubs are the only place where they can get their music played. So me and my partner, DJ Papo, we take CDs all the time."
Fattboi says he doesn't charge artists to spin their music. However, a song typically doesn't go on without money changing hands. "If they want to throw $20 our way, that's cool too. Hey, we all in here hustling."
Fattboi's partner, DJ Papo, a skinny white Cuban-American, sits at the bar across the room. Wearing dark sunglasses, a low-cropped fade, a light blue polo shirt, and jeans, he holds a wireless microphone in his hand; he's MCing the night. Fattboi's responsibilities include cuing up the music and calling the dancers to the stage. Papo jumps on the mike to announce that, in 15 minutes, Miami rapper Flo Rida is expected to show up with a film crew from Cinemax. That sends a buzz among the dancers — they know Flo Rida's crew will rain money on the club.
Flo Rida walks in with a posse of 20, including a full camera crew. Fattboi plays the rapper's new single, "Love," featuring Brisco, and the cameraman, lighting guy, and sound technician follow Flo Rida through the club. The energy is amped. Four guys who have been there all night sit near the back of the club, floating dollar bills in the air over two naked dancers, who promptly bend over, touch their toes, and shake their asses like gallons of paint being mixed.
Flo Rida and a crew of hangers-on who work for Poe Boy Records make a beeline for the VIP area, and dancers follow. When the cameras begin filming, about a half-dozen strippers give lap dances to guys sitting on couches. Throwing overhand, like a pitcher, Flo Rida tosses as much cash as he can palm at the women. In one motion, he hurls 50 or 60 singles toward dancers, and then — woosh — another wad of cash gets lobbed in a different direction. With so much money in the air, it's difficult to see from one side of the VIP area to the other.
"In the South, this is how we do it," Flo Rida leans over and says amid the celebration. "Certain strip clubs down here, the energy is just like regular clubs in other places. So I know that if my music is hot here, it can be hot anywhere."
By the time Flo Rida leaves an hour later, there's so much money on the floor that the staff has to sweep it up with push brooms and dump it into trash bags for the girls to divvy up later.
Meanwhile, artists who are less established keep making their way toward DJ Fattboi. Ball Greezy stands near the turntable area, flirting with a stripper, and two minutes later his song "Shone" is playing over the speakers. It's another track that grew popular in local strip clubs eight months ago, and now it's getting rotation on Florida radio stations.
"For me, strip clubs have played a big role in my success," Greezy says. "That's where I get the most spins. That's where I'm welcome at, and you don't have to go through as much of a hassle to get your music played."
In Greezy's case, he used the popularity of "Shone" within black strip clubs as leverage when dealing with program directors at radio stations.
"My record just took off in the strip clubs, then the underground stations played it, and the main stations had no choice not to play it. It was basically like, 'Everybody else is playing it, so why are y'all not playing it?'"
Next up at the DJ booth is 23-year-old Leo Croissy, a.k.a. Lee Major, a rapper and president of the upstart Liberty City label Boss Grind Records. Minutes later, the DJ spins his new single, "Danger." The beat has a West Coast feel, and a dancer onstage with a brontosaurus-size ass two-steps and shimmies to the music instead of working the pole. It's a ghetto ballet, where pussy-popping and booty-bouncing look like performance art.
"Most of my raw music, I take it to the strip club first to see if the dancers can get a feel for it," Major says while standing next to the DJ booth. "Radio, they want the songs to be mastered and be clean — certain things I can't do 'cause I don't have money like that. But I can take my songs to the strip clubs and get a real reaction from the people."
It's 3 a.m. Sunday morning, inside BT's Gentlemen's Club, just south of the University of Miami. The dimly lit space is packed with an eclectic mix of patrons: students, middle-age white guys, high rollers, and average joes. Dancers of all ethnicities gyrate and jiggle.
Longtime strip club DJ Billy Rice works the boards. He plays the gamut: Lenny Kravitz's "I Belong to You," Grind Mode's "I'm So High," T-Pain's "Can't Believe It," Snoop Dogg's "Sexual Eruption," and Pitbull's "Shake." Billy is a pro at reading a room and figuring out if he needs the erotic songs to up the sexual tension or the tracks with better beats to help raise the energy.
"Don't judge me by tonight, though," Billy says after handing me a business card. It reads, "DJ Billy Rice: Strip Club Professional." Billy explains that the owners told him not to play too much hip-hop tonight. He says he's keeping it safe. "If it were up to me, I'd be playing more street stuff."
To look at Rice, you'd never expect this graying 55-year-old white guy could be up-to-date on the latest hip-hop.
"I get stuff from guys that nobody has," Billy boasts. "And with me, I want the new stuff." If somebody asks him for a song he doesn't know, Billy says, he writes it down so he can look it up later. "Some DJs, you ask them for a song, and if they don't have it, they don't write it down and they couldn't care less to find it. They won't even go home and download it for free off LimeWire. To me, that's just lazy."
His interest in keeping up with new strip club music has earned him fans. "The other day I was at DJ Khaled's CD signing, and Flo Rida comes up to me, then Brisco, Grind Mode, Ace Hood, all these people are saying hello, 'cause I play their music in the club. Sometimes I look around and think, Who the hell am I to be rubbing elbows with all of these people — Pitbull, Rick Ross, and those guys? But they always show me love, and I show it right back."
Born and raised outside of Boston, Rice has a heavy New England accent. He initially started out in the late Eighties running a mobile DJ business, working weddings and parties. Looking for a change, he moved to Florida 11 years ago and began moonlighting as a DJ at the old Nice and Naughty strip club in Miami. He's still doing it partly for the money but also for the thrill of being the puppet master in a roomful of sexually charged, naked women.
"I laugh and joke around — half the stuff that comes out of my mouth is sexual in nature, but I don't date the girls," Rice says. "It's my job to make sure they're making money, but also that they always stay safe and don't get in too much trouble." With a hearty laugh he adds, "Now if a girl ends up on her knees, I'll say thank you, but I'd never ask for it."
John Todora, the longtime DJ at Tootsie's Cabaret in Miami Gardens, has been for a decade the face of numerous strip clubs from West Palm Beach to Miami. He laughs when recalling the story of how he got into the business. "A friend of mine was telling me how he'd just trained to work at a strip club the night before. And he goes, 'The guy I was working with made $300 last night and got three blowjobs.' He and I went back and forth about what was better, the $300 or the three blowjobs.... But either way, I knew I wanted in."
He doesn't brag about the dancers he has slept with. But he says he married a former Penthouse Pet. He met her at a club in West Palm Beach while he was DJing and she was the featured dancer. They're divorced now, and the 38-year-old stocky Italian-American doesn't like to reminisce. Especially not with so many attractive women walking past him, pining for his attention.
"Can you play that new Usher song?" a white dancer named Dreamer requests.
"Hey, I really like your hair," Todora answers back with a smile. "Did you do something different to it?"
"Really? You like it?" she says, grinning. It's her time to dance, and she hits the stage without getting the song she wanted.
"In this business, you learn how to say no without saying no," Todora notes.
A few minutes later, a dancer makes it known she's unhappy with his music selections. "That motherfucker keeps playing bullshit music for me," she complains to another dancer. "Give me Pitbull or Daddy Yankee or something. I'm fucking Puerto Rican!"
Todora says he can't satisfy every dancer. About 170 girls dance at the club, and catering to all of them isn't possible. "You have no idea what it's like back here some nights," he says. "Playing music so that the customers are happy — that's my job."
The music culture is drastically different here than at black strip clubs. Todora says he gets CDs passed to him all the time, either from artists or middlemen. But he says the way it is done has changed significantly since he first started.
"It used to be, guys in suits would come by, and you knew right away they were from a record label or something like that," he says. "They'd buy you a bottle, hang out, and sort of schmooze you into playing a few songs. Now guys just walk up, give you a CD, don't even give you a business card or anything, and just walk away." He points to a bin with about 20 CDs recently given to him that way. "It's all hip-hop stuff," he says. "I used to have guys bringing rock music in, but that hasn't happened in a long time. Rock music isn't stripper music anymore; rap is. These guys are now like the Mötley Crüe of the Eighties."
At 3 a.m., inside Take One Lounge just north of Little Haiti, Ball Greezy stands behind the bar like he owns the place. DJ Nasty is on the one and twos, and the music is all local hip-hop. Greezy's "I'm da Shit" is playing, and even though there's barely 30 people, the tiny club feels packed. DJ Nasty is a comedian when he's on the mike, and he's cracking jokes on everyone — bartenders, security guards, dancers, anyone. He calls out customers by name and tells them to throw money onto the stage. "I just like to make people feel appreciated," Nasty says between songs. "That goes a long way. A lot of DJs don't do that."
"Hey, nephew," he yells, "throw a hunnit on the stage." Without hesitation, a short, bearded black guy wearing a gray T-shirt and a blue and orange baseball cap takes a stack of a hundred singles and tosses it toward a black stripper dancing onstage behind him. The woman, a Georgia transplant who goes by the name Bianca, hardly acknowledges the money as it falls. Sticking bills in a woman's G-string barely exists at Take One.
Nasty spins Trick Daddy's "Take It to the House," and the energy level picks up even more. Greezy is on hand, testing out his new song, "So Amazing," which he just finished mixing two days ago. Nobody else has heard it yet, and he's previewing it at Take One to gauge the reaction.
"My relationship is with the DJs; that's who I attend to when I show up," Greezy says. "Once a nigga feel like you're supporting him and what he's doing, he'll play your music just out of love. So many people come in and say, 'Play my song, play my song,' but I'd rather build a relationship. So whenever I get a new song, they don't hesitate to play it."
As if on cue, DJ Nasty teases "So Amazing." "This is the new Ball Greezy track," he says two or three times before spinning it.
Girls dance all over Greezy, and the usually screw-faced rapper can't help but flash a bright smile. A guy in the corner takes off his shoes and drapes his shirt over his shoulders. Judging by the hood-tactular reaction, Greezy thinks he might make the song his new single. Nasty pulls up the track after a minute and says into the mike: "I got that new Ball Greezy. Nobody else has got it." When he drops it again, the crowd's response is even better.
It's impossible to say if the song will go national, but on this night, it's a hit. "This is what I needed to see happen," Greezy says. "I want folks to lose their minds when this song comes on. If this happens more frequently, then I'll be all right."
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