I can't stand the rain, and I still have jet lag from my belly-dancing trip to Egypt, but I want to check out Zo's Summer Groove block party on a soggy Sunday last month. Looking for the press room in the tunnel beneath the American Airlines Arena, I get lost in a sea of security guards and double doors locked tight, then wind up face to face and cell phone to cell phone with local hip-hop force Buggah, a.k.a. the Governor, marketing director for Miami-based On-Point Entertainment. I mean, nothing goes hip-hop in this town without this guy.
I follow Buggah's long and tidy dreadlocks to the VIP area, where I find the raspy-voiced Cuban Link and his protégé, Don Dinero. The former-Terror Squad fixture missed out on Dinero's show at the New Times Vibe 2001 last spring because he was laid up after his face was slashed on April 13 at Jimmy's Bronx Café in New York City. Three months later two long scars on the right side of his face tell the story of the violence that is still a part of hip-hop culture.
On that not-so-Good Friday, Cuban Link showed up at the record-release party for New York DJ Angie Martinez's joint Up Close and Personal. Somebody got a little too close to Cuban Link, however, cutting his face twice. "I went to show [Martinez] love," recalls the rapper, "but I had this funny feeling." That feeling came from tension between him and Terror Squad leader Fat Joe. Earlier that week Cuban had asked Joe to be released from his contract since Terror Squad has delayed the release of his solo album completed last year. Although there is no proof that Fat Joe was involved in the slashing, the incident proves once again that in the rap game life imitates art, and -- in the case of the Terror Squad -- if the name fits, it can hurt you.
Last week I meet with Cuban at Lincoln Road's Nexxt Café to discuss the attack. Unlike the night at Jimmy's, where the rapper was flowing solo, this afternoon Cuban walks in with an impressive entourage. Fellow artists Don Dinero and 1 Solo stride regally on either side, followed by impresario Oscar Guitian from the local Last Laugh Entertainment; Manhattan moneyman and spiritual advisor Vladimir; and two world-class jujitsu fighters from Brazil. Buggah drops by later.
When asked about the fateful night, Cuban is candid and resigned. His coarse voice and soothing demeanor match his cream suit and neat Caesar haircut. "I felt I wasn't getting the spotlight I deserved," he offers as his reason for wanting out. "I wasn't being made a priority. I felt I could do my own thing better without them." After speaking with parent label Atlantic, Cuban made a verbal agreement for his release with Fat Joe, but something didn't feel right.
A sense of foreboding came over Cuban as he entered Jimmy's that night. He went onstage and dropped his rhymes from Martinez's merengue-looped single "Live at Jimmy's": "Who's this? Cuban Link, no te asustes." "Don't be afraid," he rapped, but the advice did not apply to him once he stepped offstage and headed back to the VIP. "That's when the problems occurred," remembers Cuban. When the room went to blows, he found himself with his hands behind his back. "A Jimmy's security [guard] was holding me," he continues, "and someone from the back came and slashed me." Former labelmate Remy Martin rushed the bloody rapper to the hospital. When a parade of fellow artists and hangers-on visited him there, Fat Joe was not among them.
Under the SoBe sun, I notice that the enormous solid gold Terror Squad pendant Cuban Link wore the last time I saw him has been replaced by a smooth and spiritual Piedra de Rayo -- a stone consecrated to the Yoruban god of lightning, Shangó. "Yeah," Cuban said of the Terror Squad emblem, "a week after I got cut, it was stolen from my house!" He does not want to focus on the negative, however. Instead he's setting up his own clothing line, CLK Clothing, and releasing the first album on his own Cuban Connection Records, featuring, you guessed it -- the long-haired Cuban, Don Dinero.
"I don't consider myself a Latino rapper," Cuban declared. "I'm a Latino that happens to rap." Born in Cuba but raised in the Bronx, Cuban is committed to keeping hip-hop's original recipe. "I'm Bronx," he says, "that's where hip-hop is from."
Despite the assault Cuban says he does not see Latino rap making a violent turn. "Every race got their own shit," Cuban argues, "but one thing about Latinos, we're known for sticking together. Latin love is strong." Is face-slashing a sign of love? "Spanish men have a lot of pride," he explains, "but this doesn't question Latin unity. It's more about the shiesty motherfuckers in this game."
Cuban Link is making a commitment to the game's positive aspect as the official spokesman for the Source Youth Foundation, an organization the Source magazine owner David Mays says he created to "give back" to the hip-hop community and "highlight the benefits of hip-hop culture." As spokesman Cuban claims he wants to show "that everything you see on TV is not exactly real. That we need to stop the violence." Although it's not clear just what is not real about the scars on his cheek, Cuban declares enthusiastically: "Everything is positive about this!"
Foundation director Ed De Jesus came to Miami early to coordinate the Source Hip-Hop Image Awards dinner scheduled for the Fontainebleau Hilton on the eve of the music-awards ceremony. He also is implementing the Making It program, which consists of teaching at-risk youths what De Jesus calls "six universal survival laws." The energetic De Jesus believes the Bronx-based rapper is the perfect role model. "Cuban Link has really taken to the third law: Produce Positive Emotions,'" he says. "Cuban's been emphatic about [the principle of] Infinite Drama: The only way to stop it is to never start it." Cuban will perform Don Dinero's soon-to-be-released tropical rap anthem "Where You At?" at the Image Awards show.
As De Jesus gears up local youth, Don Dinero gets busy at hot spots around Miami Beach last week, shooting the video "Where You At?" featuring Cuban Link. I scored a gig belly-dancing in the video, but my plan of relying strictly on my dance training is dashed when Cuban Link's manager, Rico, called out to me before my shot: "Ma, now really FREAK your stomach for the camera!" I do my best in a belly shot with rapper Sunkiss and bling-bling sonero D'mingo. I guess technically I haven't joined the throngs of ass-shaking video 'hos right? Right?
Back in my reporter gear, I search the set for the music-video version of Pygmalion: a Daisy-Dukes-wearing diamond in the rough with a heart of gold or some kind of upwardly-mobile ass-shaker spewing out her modern-day "A-E-I-O-U's." Instead I discover a shapeless yet eager half-naked hoochie who mouths "F-U-C-K-E-D UP" to her friend to describe her mental state after the lunch break just before trying to kiss Cuban Link's chauffeur on the mouth. Talk about six degrees of separation.
Perhaps the hoochie hopes to get "bumped up" and steal the spotlight from the beautiful professional dancer known as Annette, who dances alone with Cuban during a scene shot at Goddess nightclub. Annette admits that she gets booked for many rap videos but said she doesn't often stick around after her work is done because of the shenanigans on the scene. "I mean all those girls in white are totally wasted," she says, gesturing in disgust to a group of background dancers. "A lot of these girls see these jobs like an opportunity for free weed."
Oh well, bimbos are festive. The high-glam high-budget video brings out all the local stars to strike a pose or play a bongo. DJs Felix Sama and Miguelito from Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5) along with the Big Lip Bandit from 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) add high-frequency flavor. Miami bad-boy promoter Jason Norris and the crunked-up members of Iconz show up for face time, along with Po' Boy Entertainment and famed New York DJ Tony Touch.
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A woman in front of me rolls a blunt and takes a pull. A plump little boy next to her waves the smoke out of his face. Local comedian Larry Dog tells me the woman is the widow of the late Big Pun, the most famous member of the Terror Squad who died of heart failure related to obesity. She is here with Pun's sister and the rapper's two kids, who are featured in the video singing "I love New York!" Jumping up and down behind the camera dolly, Rico eggs on the children. "Happy! We're happy! You love New York!" he tells the kids, who start giggling and loosen up.
While Pun's children finish their part, Bull Dog of Miami's rap collective the Iconz sits next to me, looking more casual chic than thuggish. Some dork interrupts our chat to tell Bull Dog how coked up he is and how he hasn't slept in two days. "Well, chill," Bull Dog commands, "'cuz everyone's at a five, and you're at a twenty." The very scary pair of pupils whisks away to tell his tale somewhere else.
The Iconz are collaborating with Cuban Link on a number of projects. Bull Dog sees the relationship as building a healing bridge. "The black and Latino communities have to come together," he observes. "We listen to the same music, share the same passion. Most of us are family men; then there's the family of music. We share a lot of things in common. It's real important that we make music together, respect each other's women, and learn from each other."