Anatomy of a Hit
South Beach's famous Lincoln Road promenade, with its clean sidewalks, chic designer boutiques, and smartly dressed tourists, seems a long way from the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of Liberty City. But it is here in the offices of SoBe Entertainment, hidden away in a nondescript white office building a few doors down from the Van Dyke Café, that Poe Boy Entertainment is convening a first press day for its signature artist, rapper Angela "Jacki-O" Kohn. The setting that the three-year-old record label chose, a stark contrast from the neighborhood in which it was first born, reflects a desire to achieve success in the music industry no matter what the cost.
For the past three years the fledgling urban music company, led by 32-year-old Elric "E-Class" Prince, has fought to overcome a host of overwhelming odds, from the death of E-Class's best friend in a shootout with police to a distribution deal with well-known indie label Rufflife Records that went horribly wrong. Along the way, it has collected a host of allies in the music business as well as some unlikely foes. But it wasn't until the release of Jacki-O's debut single, "Nookie," in May of 2003, that Poe Boy finally began to taste national acclaim, win a major-label distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records, and perhaps become a successor to other legendary Miami rap imprints such as Luke Records (mastermind behind Eighties superstars 2 Live Crew) and Slip-N-Slide (home of current hit-making rappers Trick Daddy and Trina).
Which makes Jacki-O hot. She's so hot, in fact, that an appointment to talk to her turns into a 40-minute wait. When she finally walks into a conference room set aside for her with three publicists, including Alex "Poochie" Bethune, one-third of Poe Boy production team the Execs, she's stylishly dressed in a Dolce & Gabbana black jersey with matching jeans, augmented by a string of Chanel pearls. Though far from a typical grand entrance, her entourage is the first sign that there's more to this scene than meets the eye.
"Okay," Poochie announces after everyone is seated, "let's have a good interview." Unfortunately that proves to be impossible with three overprotective publicists carefully vetting every question. They even bristle when Jacki-O is asked how old she is, although that may be a concession to her vanity. "He wants to know how old I am," she laughs to Poochie.
"Let's not get into the personal stuff," he replies.
Jacki-O describes her hit single, which was originally titled "Pussy" until commercial considerations motivated Poe Boy to change the "clean" version to "Nookie," as a message of female empowerment that will encourage women to enjoy their bodies without submitting to domineering men. "I don't see nothing wrong with me saying, 'I'm a girl, I have nookie, it's good,'" she says. "But me being a woman, you get to a point where you're, like, 'What can I do to make this man like me?' Just be yourself. If he don't like you because of that, fuck him."
She says she wrote it when producer Gorilla Tek gave her a beat CD, a collection of instrumentals for her to rhyme over, sometime last May. Her ears honed in on one slinky, sensuous track titled "Horny Toad." "I thought, 'That's a nice, funky track. It would be nice if we did something with a Southern twang to it,'" she remembers. "We came up with 'Nookie.'"
A few days later the funky, freaky romp was blasting from the radio and at local strip clubs. On Memorial Day weekend, the Poe Boy street team cruised up and down Ocean Drive, playing it at top volume from a boom box as they made their way through the throngs of college-age revelers. "The strip clubs was eating it up, the clubs was eating it up, the streets was playing it, so it was like ... yeah," she says, smiling.
Naim Ali, an A&R executive for Warner Bros. Records, fell under the power of "Nookie" during a business trip from New York last June. "I went to the club at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and they were blasting the Jacki-O record 'Nookie,'" he says during a phone interview from New York. "The dance floor erupted." Impressed, Ali eventually signed Poe Boy Entertainment to a multimillion-dollar distribution deal in August.
Warner's industry muscle ensured that "Nookie," which was already garnering respectable airplay in other radio markets such as Detroit and Chicago, would make the rounds of the New York rap world. As regionalized as hip-hop has become -- two of the genre's biggest acts are Eminem from Detroit, and Atlanta duo Outkast -- the Big Apple is still the culture's chief tastemaker. After Poe Boy signed its deal, the label began organizing industry meet-and-greet parties in Manhattan. On August 23, "Nookie" entered Billboard magazine's hot R&B/hip-hop singles and tracks chart at number 78. Meanwhile influential Miami station 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) spun the track nearly every hour, turning "Nookie" into a corporeal, inescapable presence.
Now Poe Boy is assembling a strong team for Jacki-O's debut album, Poe Little Rich Girl, including multiplatinum wunderkind Timbaland, Red Spyda (who has made beats for bullet-riddled superstar 50 Cent), and Cool and Dre (a local production duo that has worked with P. Diddy and Fat Joe). "Poe Little Rich Girl is me. People that don't know me will get a chance to know what I'm about," she says. "Just the hard street life ... that's what Poe Little Rich Girl is about."
Jacki-O doesn't like to divulge too much about her "hard street life," but she will allow that none of her boyfriends have been "corporate guys"; none of her friends are "college graduates." She attended both Barry University and Florida Memorial College, though, studying forensic science and Spanish before dropping out. "It's not that I wasn't motivated. It just didn't work out," she says. College also left her in financial straits, she moans: "My credit's still messed up from that."
How did she survive those prestardom years? "From the fruit of the land," she replies. When asked what that means, she coyly laughs, half-joking, "Somebody might want you to give them a song. Somebody might want you to give them a ride up the block. You do it. You take that job because you need the money ... escort services, giving people rides, whatever."
Was Jacki-O an escort? Both Jacki-O and Poochie quickly shake their heads. "No, I'm just saying that in general," she responds. "You can scratch that. I'm just talking about different jobs in the street that you can make money from."
Jacki-O somehow manages to give polite, generic answers without coming off as evasive or angry. After all, the "escort" question could have yielded a well-deserved slap in the face. But there are other pressing questions that remain unanswered. First there is SoBe Entertainment itself. Not just an upscale publicity firm playing host for Jacki-O, it has a considerable financial stake in Poe Boy Entertainment. SoBe's CEO is Cecile Barker, a multimillionaire from Washington, D.C. who made his fortune with OAO Technology Solutions, Inc., an information technology consulting firm with offices in North America and Europe; he owns other businesses around South Beach, including the nightclubs 320 and Club Krave.
Several phone calls are made to SoBe to determine the extent of its involvement with Poe Boy. Finally, a man who identifies himself as "Dana West" angrily answers the phone, demanding that a list of questions be faxed to the office. When a follow-up call is made, another woman who also identifies herself as "Dana West" confirms receipt of the fax. But no one is willing to answer such basic questions as "What is SoBe Entertainment?" In fact no one is willing to identify who any of SoBe's executives are.
As weird as SoBe's support staff act, their behavior (which seemed a parody of a bad 60 Minutes episode) and apparent fear of the press only masks what's really at stake. Another Miami rapper has just gone public with his claim that much of "Nookie" was actually lifted from him. In fact this veteran songwriter knows all about Poe Boy executive E-Class -- they used to be partners. Now their relationship is just another gone bust in the Magic City's small, tightly knit, and frequently litigious hip-hop industry.
Charles Trahan has been making music since the late Eighties when he and Leonarist "Prince of Power" Johnson formed Young & Restless and made national rap hits like "B Girls" and "Poison Ivy." The 32-year-old has since refashioned himself as a producer, lyricist, and arranger for hire. His recent efforts include two buzzworthy tracks for Slip-N-Slide artist Duece Poppi, "Lose Your Mind" and "Nasty Ho."
Back in the day E-Class used to be a member of the Young & Restless entourage. But Trahan isn't jumping on the Poe Boy bandwagon. Instead he's accusing the label of stealing one of his songs to create "Nookie."
Trahan says the theft took place while he was shopping his song "Pussy Good" back in November of 2002 to several local companies, including Slip-N-Slide, Miami's biggest hip-hop label thanks to platinum hits such as Trick Daddy's Thugs Are Us; and Pandisc, an important bass, dance, and rap imprint that has released countless influential records over the past two decades. (Slip-N-Slide owner Ted Lucas could not be reached for comment.)
He also serviced, or gave away, copies of "Pussy Good" to several underground DJs, and its airplay on local pirate radio stations allowed him to register a clean version titled "Coochie Good" with BDS Radio, a service that charts how often a record is spun on radio stations throughout the country. (A representative from BDS confirmed that it registered "Coochie Good" sometime in 2002.) Trahan alleges when he brought it to Poe Boy, E-Class saved it to his hard drive so he could consider it for an upcoming compilation. Trahan believes the label executive later played it for Jacki-O. (After the initial interview, Jacki-O could not be reached.)
E-Class turned down several requests for an interview. But at Poe Boy's warehouse office in Hialeah, his brother, Poe Boy COO Elvin "Big Chuck" Prince, categorically denies that Jacki-O listened to "Coochie Good" before she wrote "Nookie." He says E-Class would entertain Trahan's offers and sometimes purchase a few beats out of sympathy because, he explains, "His career isn't going so well." He concedes that his brother did play the song on his computer, but never made a copy of it.
"When he brought it to us, [E-Class] was like, 'No. I don't like it,'" he says. He claims it was never considered for a future Poe Boy compilation: "I don't want to hear a guy sing about 'pussy, pussy, pussy.'"
Though E-Class passed on the song, Pandisc's Bo Crane, who has a long relationship with Trahan dating back to when Young & Restless were stars on his label, decided to purchase rights to the track in March of 2003 for around $5000. Trahan had already signed a contract with Crane to release his solo debut on Pandisc under the name Mr. Charlie. Crane decided to buy "Coochie Good" too, so he could release it as the album's first single.
Trahan says he first heard about "Nookie" when a friend called him about it. Big Chuck confirms this, noting how when the song was played during a Poe Boy party at the Club Honeys strip club, that same friend approached him and said, "That's our song." "I was like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" says Big Chuck. "But they were adamant about it."
Days later Trahan went to Poe Boy's offices, hoping to discuss the matter with E-Class. But the label executive's response was alternately sarcastic and dismissive. "He was in a 'playful' mood," Trahan remembers. "He said, 'Well, when Jacki-O and Rick Ross brought me the song, I told them that Charles had a song like that ...'"
Trahan then brought "Nookie" to Crane's attention. "I thought it was strangely, almost uncannily the same as his version," says the latter. "Same subject matter, same lyrics." While Crane threatened to bring a lawsuit against Poe Boy for copyright infringement, Trahan tried to convince E-Class to reach a settlement. "A couple of friends of mine who talked to him said, 'Y'all try to work it out,'" he says. "So I tried to call him again, but he had a more arrogant attitude, like, 'I don't want to talk about that.' So we're going to court."
Last November Trahan and Pandisc Music Corporation filed a complaint against Poe Boy Entertainment, Inc. and Eric [sic] Prince, charging that the label "conceived of a way to exploit Trahan's musical compositions and ideas without compensating Trahan." They also allege "Prince and Poe Boy caused the musical compositions 'Pussy (Clean)' [or "Nookie"] and 'Pussy (Dirty)' to be recorded. These Poe Boy musical compositions copied Trahan's ideas." They're seeking $15,000 in damages along with attorney fees, and plan to seek an injunction to stop Poe Boy from selling the "Nookie" track.
On the surface, "Nookie" and "Coochie Good" sound markedly different. While "Nookie" slinks along at a slow pace, "Coochie Good" is a high-speed bass romp co-starring funk legend Blowfly. But there are a few similarities. The former's chorus goes, "Nookie real good/That nookie real good"; "Coochie Good" goes, "Coochie good/Coochie real good," mimicking Salt-N-Pepa's Eighties dance classic "Push It." At the end of "Nookie," Jacki-O starts shouting out different countries ("Bahamian nookie/Puerto Rican nookie"), just like "Coochie Good" ("What about Puerto Rican pussy?"). Big Chuck calls these similarities "a coincidence."
According to a local entertainment attorney familiar with the case who does not want his name disclosed, Pandisc's suit will hinge on three factors. First Pandisc will have to demonstrate that "Nookie" carbon-copied part of "Coochie Good," whether that is "common lyrics or common melodies," he says. The more commonalities that are found between the two songs, the more likely that "Nookie" will be found to be in violation of Pandisc's copyright. The second factor is that the copied elements must be original to the infringed work. For example this would invalidate the claim (which wasn't a part of Pandisc's written complaint) that "Nookie's" chorus unfairly copies "Coochie Good," since the latter itself appropriates the Salt-N-Pepa hit.
The case may be decided on the third and final factor: Did Jacki-O have "access" to "Coochie Good," which would have allowed her to copy it? Even if one discounts Trahan's belief that E-Class saved the track to his computer, there were probably several other opportunities for her to hear it. Trahan and Jacki-O separately claim allegiance to Club Rolexx, a local strip club and community hangout that often breaks new and unreleased Miami rap tracks as the dancers perform; Trahan says he gave a copy of "Coochie Good" to one of the club's DJs back in late 2002. Furthermore BDS's confirmation of its existence that year, well before "Nookie" was even written, means that the song was garnering airplay, no matter how minuscule.
But that doesn't prove that Jacki-O was at Club Rolexx, or listening to the radio, at the exact time it was being played. Big Chuck is adamant that she never heard it before writing "Nookie": "She came up with it totally on her own."
You could say that Trahan is indirectly responsible for Poe Boy Entertainment. Back when he was rapping in Young & Restless, he used to take a teenage E-Class along with him on tours through the South with artists such as Public Enemy and Ice Cube.
"We was cool ... he used to stay with me and cook. He was a great cook!" laughs Trahan, noting that E-Class often stayed at his house back then. "He could cook anything: kitchen peas and rice, chicken, macaroni and cheese."
The success of Young & Restless's 1989 debut, Something To Get You Hyped, led to a lengthy lawsuit over royalties with the album's executive producer, Sam "P-Man" Ferguson, who had the group under a production contract. By 1992 it was able to extricate itself from Ferguson's P-Man Productions and sign directly with Pandisc. But the legal proceedings proved to be too much of a distraction for the young rappers, and their 1992 followup, That Was Then -- This Is Now! sank without a trace. "We didn't put no creativity into it like we did with the first album because we were unhappy," laments Trahan.
Meanwhile Trahan claims that E-Class "got more into the streets. He started hustling." When asked to elaborate, he only says, "I'll let you figure that out." Miami-Dade County court records show that E-Class accumulated several criminal charges in the Nineties, from a battery misdemeanor (for which he was acquitted in a jury trial) to petty larceny and theft (for which he paid a fine). But in August of 1993 the U.S. government indicted E-Class for conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. He was extradited along with ten co-conspirators to the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Tallahassee.
Trahan testified on E-Class's behalf, using pictures the two had taken together during Young & Restless tours to illustrate why the defendant was innocent of the charges. "I told the jury that there was no way he could have been with [his co-defendants] at the time they said he was with them," says Trahan. Thanks to his testimony, E-Class was acquitted of the charges in 1994.
When asked to comment on the charges, E-Class's brother Big Chuck would only say, "I know he never got convicted, so it was kind of thrown out. They didn't have any evidence, so that was the end of that."
As the decade wore on, Trahan built his reputation by working with a variety of local artists, including J.T. Money and Luke Campbell. But most of the tracks never saw the light of day. He did manage to get a few projects off the ground, though, including a 1996 album (Who Am I?) for Fort Lauderdale label Neurodisc as the leader of a group called Southern Conference.
Trahan's closest brush with Young & Restless-style fame came when he recorded "U Like Piña Colada," a minor but memorable club hit that mimicked Rupert Holmes's kitschy classic "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" ("U like piña colada/U like drinking champagne"), for And Then There Was Bass: Dis Bass Game Real, a 1997 compilation. He roped in E-Class for an appearance in the song's video; Trahan feels it was this moment that convinced E-Class to "get serious" about the music industry.
In 1998 Trahan and E-Class formed Fat Pocket Entertainment, a production company that would make music to sell to record labels. "The deal was, 'I'll handle the production and you handle the finance part,'" Trahan says he told E-Class, who had steadily built a nest egg from sundry ventures like selling real estate and selling cars at local auction houses. The business soon foundered. Unsure of the partnership's viability, E-Class refused to put up enough money to make it work. "It got to the point where we got into bigger arguments and bigger arguments. Then we stopped doing it," says Trahan.
By 2000 E-Class had begun assembling his own record label. He named it Poe Boy Entertainment after Kenin "Poe Boy" Bailey, a Liberty City associate who was shot to death by police in 1999 while trying to rob a check-cashing store. Big Chuck notes that Bailey was just trying to get money for E-Class's label. "That's when things got serious and people started to straighten out," he says. Big Chuck says Bailey exemplifies "the Poe Boy mentality. When we go out in the streets, we promote ourselves," he says. "We handle ourselves accordingly, but we still have that aggressive mentality to go out and do this."
As E-Class struggled to establish Poe Boy, he recruited his old Liberty City companions to help out. Among them were former Young & Restless member Johnson, who now called himself P.O.D.; younger brothers Big Chuck and producer Lee "J-Freezy" Prince; and producer Poochie, who would also serve as the company publicist. Another artist, rapper/producer Dwayne "Cognito" Webb, had once been a part of R&B act Distinguished Gentlemen, who only managed to release one single in 1994 on major label Def Jam, "Soakin' Wet." Finally there were other Liberty City upstarts such as Jacki-O, Brisco, Six Six, and Rodney.
From the start, E-Class set out to secure a distribution deal with a bigger label. One of the first he spoke to was Pandisc, who would later bring the copyright lawsuit against him. "He came to me two and a half years ago," reveals Crane. "I listened to the stuff and I turned him down."
For its first CD, P.O.D.'s The Power of Dollars, Poe Boy secured a guest appearance from the more famous Trick Daddy on the lead single, "Something Going On." Trick's presence ensured airplay on local urban radio stations Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.1) and 99 Jamz. But when the album was released in 2001, it fell victim to yet another lawsuit filed by Atlantic Records on behalf of platinum rap-metal band P.O.D., who discovered the CD through Amazon.com. "P.O.D. was the name [Johnson] always used, even when he was with Young & Restless," Big Chuck erroneously points out, though Johnson did use the name for a 1996 album on Atlanta-based Ichiban Records, Life. The lawsuit, which Big Chuck says is currently being settled, forced Johnson to change his rap moniker to Mr. Flim-Flam.
However, the zeal with which Poe Boy promoted The Power of Dollars -- from pushing copies of "Something Going On" into the hands of local DJs to pressing up T-shirts with the Poe Boy logo, riding around in vans with wraparound ads for the label and its artists, and even hawking bottles of water marked "Poe Boy Natural Spring Water" -- sparked a buzz that eventually reached New York City.
E-Class talked to several majors, including Elektra and Sony, but eventually settled on a one-year distribution deal with independent Rufflife Records (best known for putting out a record by Eminem's former crew, the Outsidaz), which planned to distribute Poe Boy vis-à-vis its own distributor, ADA Distribution. He also found a major investor in SoBe Entertainment, which agreed to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the label. Big Chuck says the alliance -- though he's not sure what percentage of the label SoBe owns, he refers to it as a "parent" company -- helped fund bigger street teams and advertising campaigns. "They've helped a lot," he says.
By the time of Cognito's 2002 debut, Tru Cognizance, Poe Boy was backed by some powerful allies. One of the album's executive producers was Cedric "Hollywood" Anderson, who also happens to be the program director at top-rated 99 Jamz, deciding which songs make it into the station's rotation. The album also featured several guest spots from the Slip-N-Slide roster. One of its skits, "I'm Feelin' Ya," starred DJ Khaled, a mix show personality for 99 Jamz and one of the most popular DJs in Miami.
Poe Boy worked hard at pushing Tru Cognizance by running commercials on BET and MTV, purchasing ads in hip-hop magazines like The Source, and filming a video for its first single, "Big Bank." Unfortunately Rufflife lost its distribution deal with ADA midway through the campaign, which made it unable to get the album into stores around the country. Tru Cognizance flopped and has only moved a paltry 1600 copies to date, according to industry sales tracking system Nielsen SoundScan. Big Chuck blames Rufflife for the failure of the Cognito project. "They really didn't do anything to help at all," he complains. "It was in a lot less places than they said it would be."
Trahan, of course, paints a different scenario. He believes that, after two costly disappointments, E-Class may have been under pressure from SoBe Entertainment to produce a winner. "I think what happened was that he knew the response that the 'Pussy Good' song that I had was getting on the streets, and just had Jacki-O push it around and do it over," says Trahan. "I just feel like he was desperate for a hit."
Regardless of who really wrote it, "Nookie" is definitely a hit. But how big? After debuting on Billboard's hot R&B/hip-hop singles and tracks chart in late August, "Nookie" bubbled in its lower depths before peaking at number 61 on October 4, then disappearing from the chart altogether. Meanwhile the "Nookie" video, where a bikini-clad Jacki-O floated on a raft in a pool amid dozens of scantily clad models while the Poe Boy crew mugged for the camera, only garnered light rotation on MTV Jams.
Recent rap history is littered with raunchy novelty tracks from sexually flamboyant women. In 2002 there was Khia's "My Neck My Back," which sailed to number 42 on the Billboard pop chart. But she never released a convincing followup. On the other hand there's Trina, who successfully used her outrageous debut with Trick Daddy, "Nann Nigga," to build a more lasting career. Whose path will Jacki-O follow?
Ali, Poe Boy's advocate at Warner Bros., swears Jacki-O has big potential. "She's going to be the Madonna of hip-hop," he proclaims. To build on "Nookie"'s promise, Poe Boy put out a remix version with multi-platinum musician Wyclef Jean, who has also written hits for Carlos Santana. They also released Jacki-O's "Sugar Walls," a brand new track produced by Red Spyda.
But Poe Boy is understandably anxious to get Poe Little Rich Girl out in stores to build on "Nookie"'s waning buzz. In spite of its considerable strengths, the song already seems old, last year's memorable soundtrack to a blazing hot summer. The label lobbied hard for Warner Bros. to stick to the album's original November 4 street date, but Ali says that after careful consideration it will now be released on February 24.
"There were a lot of heavy hitters" competing for consumer dollars in November, he says, noting that multiplatinum rappers Jay-Z, 50 Cent's group G-Unit, and the late Tupac Shakur all dropped albums that month. "So we decided to pull back," he adds. Warner Bros. has something to prove as well. The venerable record company hasn't had a big rap hit since Ice-T fled the label during the 1992 "Cop Killer" controversy. The recent Poe Boy deal is one of many moves it is making to try and win back a prominent role; impressively, it also signed another imprint, white-hot rapper/producer Lil Jon's BME Records, to a national distribution deal.
In the meantime, of course, Poe Boy has a pending legal battle with Pandisc and Trahan. If Pandisc is able to secure a court injunction on "Nookie," Poe Little Rich Girl might not appear in stores for the next several months, all but derailing Poe Boy's chances of capitalizing on the biggest hip-hop song to come out of Miami in 2003.
Poe Boy clearly has a lot to lose. But Big Chuck is confident that his crew will prevail. "I think we're going to come out on top in the long run," he says. He characterizes Trahan's lawsuit as a pathetic attempt to cash in on "Nookie"'s success, the sad result of a career in decline. "I don't know what he's doing," he notes wistfully about his former friend. "It's a shame because we all grew up together."
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