Last year Smilez and Southstar wandered around Miami Beach on Memorial Day weekend just like the rest of the hip-hop hooligans scoping out the honeys and gawking at the stars. Their names weren't on any of the lists at the clubs on Washington Avenue. Their rhymes weren't pressed on vinyl for any of the celebrity DJs to spin. The Orlando-based rappers weren't even a duo 365 days ago; they knew each other from the mouse-ear scene, but they came down to Miami separately for Memorial Day 2001, running into each other on the street just long enough to say, "Yo, this is craaazy!"
Riding in the Escalade parade down Collins Avenue late last Saturday, Memorial Day 2K2, Smilez and Southstar may not have had the Cadillac grills, Cadillac mills, or Cadillac fills that Ludacris raps about, but this year -- since attracting attention last summer when their unsigned single "Who Wants This?" beat out Ludacris's "Roll Out" on a call-in contest in Fort Myers -- record label Artist Direct picked up the tab on the young men's rental van and booked their rooms at the Fontainebleau. Smilez and Southstar breezed into clubs as guests of DJ Epps and wined and dined jocks from the Power 96 crew at Houston's steak house in North Miami. They performed their single "Who Wants This?" to a packed house at Salvation and sat for an interview with video program Video Mix. Saturday night, three street teams of six people each pushed through the hip-hop throngs, passing out postcard-sized stickers flashing the rappers' faces. Somewhere out on the sidewalk, there were girls with Smilez and Southstar temporarily tattooed on their skin.
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For rappers on the rise, this is no vacation. "A weekend like this you can reach out to thousands of people," says Alfonso Alvarez, who handles the rappers for Street Dwellaz Management. Backed by boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman and a high priority for Artist Direct, Smilez and Southstar are about to break big with catchy tracks produced at Trans Continental Studios by Orlando's Dakari, and a grainy street-fight video for "Who Wants This?" directed by Gregory Dark. (Dark is popular with gangstas Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Xzibit and teen queens Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, too.) "When the Source ads come out," predicts Alvarez, "people will say, 'Yo, I saw these guys at Salvation.'" Smilez can already see himself on Memorial Day 2003. "Next year we'll have a big foot [a mobile billboard] out there," he grins.
Where the party people go, marketers follow. "The holiday has become a hub for urban trendsetters," says Artist Direct marketing director Chace Johnson. "We're a brand-new label establishing ourselves with the market. We gotta do things like this. You can affect so many different people from so many different regions."
Miami is home to No Good, another rap duo on Artist Direct. All the more reason for locals Mr. Fatal and T-Nasty to represent, recruiting over 100 people to pass out posters, pens, key chains, CD samplers, and copies of their hit single "Ballin' Boy." No Good manager Nikki Kancey surveys with satisfaction the empty boxes in her Alexander Hotel suite, transformed for the weekend into street team command central. "We captured some of the people from different areas where 'Ballin' Boy' has not caught on yet," she says. "It's almost like the basketball game," observes Mr. Fatal. "It's time for everybody to step up and show what they get paid for."
If Memorial Day weekend gives rappers on the rise a chance to take their music to the streets, getting up close to the fans can also be disturbing. After the celebrity basketball game at the Miami Arena Saturday afternoon, T-Nasty was approached by a young woman claiming to be his biggest fan while he was eating a shish kebab from a vendor's cart. "Can I have your shish-kebab stick?" she asked. T-Nasty gave her the hat off his head instead, but the young lady insisted on the stick. "After I gave it to her, she started crying," T-Nasty recounts. "Then I heard her friend tell her to lick it. That's scary, but I guess it just goes with the territory."