Get Your Break On
Kirk Nielsen

Get Your Break On

By late Saturday evening it was clear Hurricane Hip-Hop had been downgraded to a tropical depression at best. While the Miami Beach and county police departments had been on high alert -- with war rooms set up and riot control in place -- the huge, mostly black invasion, still fresh in the mostly white Beach minds from Memorial Day, had failed to materialize. Even the parties, hyped with promises of lots of stars and even more gold and green, were turning out to be lower velocity. Not that rumors and hyperbole hadn't been blowing. Suge Knight, just out of prison, would churn up the East Coast-West Coast rivalry when he reintroduced his Death Row Records, now called Tha Row, here in Miami. He called a local radio station from L.A. on Friday night and had dis to say about his sometime rival P. Diddy and old colleague Snoop Doggy Dogg. Luther Campbell, Miami's original booty rapper, was feeling a little dissed himself, claiming the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards were not giving him his due as a rap leader and he would boycott the awards. Hotel elevators would be guarded, streets would be cleared of cruisers, the Fruit of Islam would be keeping order.

But then MIA showed some love, and got it in return. There was the obligatory boasting onstage and off (how many number-one thug-life gangsta rappers are there anyhow?), but there was also a mellower edge. The message delivered from this hip-hop nation to overprepared Miami Beach might have been articulated across a scanty tank top stretched to its limits by a pair of bold, black breasts: Make Love, Not War.

10:00 p.m. Friday: Inklings that all is very very quiet on Miami-Dade's far eastern front. About 50 bright yellow shirts straggle into the sweaty Tenth Street Auditorium on Ocean Drive for the changing of the Goodwill Ambassador guard. The brainchild of the U.S. Department of Justice, the team of about 100 volunteer city and county employees is charged with answering questions and mediating between the police and the civilians out on the street. The first shift finished without incident, and the second group is gearing up for six hours on the streets. The volunteers help themselves to bottled water as they listen to an impassioned pep talk by Rev. Willie Sims, director of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board. "Don't be hanging out there looking foolish, as if you're homeless or something. I want to see these shirts all the way up and down Washington Avenue," Sims directs lightheartedly.

But the mood turns serious when the reverend moves into religious territory. "Don't do anything without invoking the name of the Almighty God," Sims instructs. "The police chief might not be there, but God'll be there."

After receiving their assignments (the six volunteers assigned to patrol the weekend's epicenter, Level nightclub, cheer and give one another high fives), the ambassadors hit the streets.

Back at the Tenth Street "control center" fifteen minutes later, where five volunteers will work the phones throughout the night, all's still quiet. One woman begins to nod off, waking quickly as the opening strains of the Married with Children theme song pipes out of the small television. Another volunteer reads the paper. They quibble good-naturedly about who's going to get ice to chill the stacks of water bottles.

It's going to be a long night.

2:30 a.m. Saturday: Inside Level at the Slip 'N Slide Records party, time continues on a leisurely pace. About a half-hour before Trick Daddy, Trina, and the Miami-based Slide crew take the stage, the DJ is imploring the anemic crowd for some action. This is the first big party of the weekend, and Slip 'N Slide is looking to make an impression. The DJ tries a few tricks to get the crowd fired up. "If you don't give a fuck, put your middle finger in the air and say, “Fuck you,'" he commands. It seems to work -- the dancers respond, and seconds afterward a jubilant "Fuck you!" rises from the floor. Still, the pep rally doesn't stick, and the DJ returns minutes later with a blunter approach. He flatly begs the crowd to make some noise. "Pleeeeease," he howls into his microphone.

Soon the stage is full of Miami's own: Young men saunter and stomp in baggy T-shirts that read, "I'm a thug" in bold white letters. Atop the megaspeakers they hold platinum records above their heads that read in shiny letters, "Thugs are us." Slip 'N Slide makes claim to the well-worn corner of the hip-hop, slip-hop world. "We are real niggahs -- we are street niggahs," offers a hefty middle-age black man who chokes the microphone with massive tattooed forearms. "I am the South -- I am the Dirty South."

Somewhere in the midst of the hype and posturing, one of the label's stars and Source nominee for best new artist, Trina, takes a cell-phone call while on center stage. She closes out the appearance with a quick and sassy rap and promises the half-full dance floor at 3:30 a.m.: "My album's coming out, it's coming out!"

3:53 a.m. Sunday: In the VIP room at Level. Below, the beaded, pierced, and braided circulate at a seductive clip. Women grind in micromini outfits, bursting with curves; men pitch attitude, backs against the wall in baggy shorts and shirts; the smell of marijuana adds a festive air to the Ruff Ryder (the rap collective featuring DMX) party.

Above it's another story -- like the pope overlooking Vatican City during Easter Mass, except the congregations are radically different. A group of handsome, square-shouldered gay men sits on a couch, well above the thumping din of black culture. Club owner Gerry Kelly holds court in the highest tier of this mammoth dance palace; alongside the pinstriped and gracious proprietor, the well-tailored men and Iranian house singer Persia dwell in a pocket of old-school South Beach whiteness. The boys sway to the music and sandwich a skinny blonde Latina safely in a back corner. They may be partying in the same club as hip-hop nation, but they are worlds apart.

A few minutes later, the blonde clings to her escort as they wend down to the dance floor. Despite her grinding, she is nervous. "Stay close to me," she demands. Then she lets slip, here at party central for rap America: "There's all these black people here. It's not that I'm prejudiced, you know, but it's kind of weird." After a few gyrations she abandons the foray and retreats upstairs.

From 1:00 a.m. Friday to just hours before the awards taping, about 90 people had been arrested in Miami Beach, reports police spokesman Det. Al Boza. The numbers are raw and likely to change, but from a random reading of the types of arrests, it's clear all hell has remained chained. "License suspended, shoplifting, loitering and prowling, bench warrant, indecent exposure, possession of marijuana," Boza reads. "All the same stuff we see on a regular weekend." A few people, though, rose above petty crime. An unidentified man was arrested for pulling a gun at club 320 Sunday night during a three-man brawl. He later was arrested driving a silver Mercedes across the Julia Tuttle Causeway. No shots were fired in the incident, Boza says.

Then in the waning hours of the uneventful weekend, at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday in front of Level, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd broke loose. There was a rush at the door as people started jumping barricades. Somebody pulled a knife in the melee, and for a moment the Source awards lovefest got angry. At press time a 25-year-old man with multiple stab wounds was in critical condition, and a 26-year-old man was in good condition. Both were treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital. A third man was taken to South Shore Hospital with superficial wounds to the arm. No identities had been revealed, and investigators were not sure whether the men had been singled out or if the stabbings were the result of shoving at the door. No suspects were arrested. "What's the real shame here," laments Boza, "is that we got 72 hours of outrageous success and 30 seconds of grief."

Not that the city wasn't ready -- this time -- to squash skirmishes. That was obvious in the presence of helmeted squads of police, equipped with batons and mace, who appeared a few times outside Level. To the untrained eye, such a force looks like a riot squad, but Miami Beach Det. Bobby Hernandez is quick to point out the group is actually a "field force." "There's no such thing as riot police," he explains. The troops were ordered on the street to nip fights in the bud before they escalated into the unspoken word: riots.

Further north at the Miami Beach Convention Center, as many as 200 county police on overtime duty wait for a deployment that never came. When they aren't on patrol -- often in bicycle squads -- the brown-uniformed men and women sit around tables in a mammoth room, playing cards, watching television, and speaking on cell phones. Across the street at city hall, a team of city employees mill about a bank of telephones in the city manager's conference room, manning a hotline: the city's communications nerve center. As the clock nears 1:00 a.m. Monday, the crew gets its first call on the hotline -- from a resident asking for directions. They make conversation and pick at a garbage bag full of dried wasabi peas, pistachios, and the remains of fried turkey bits.

Some of the calm could be attributed to the presence of the Fruit of Islam, dapper men of Louis Farrakhan's Chicago-based organization, the Nation of Islam. They were at the heart of the Source's security strategy this year, after a fight shut down last year's award ceremony in Pasadena. Who but dozens of edgy ex-cons in suits and bow ties could be the guardians of order, provide a buffer between the hip-hop set and the cops, and preserve the tough-guy allure of rap culture?

When the 47-year-old FOI security chief Dennis Muhammed first arrived, he believed the Miami Beach Police Department was not exactly hip to the nuances of interacting peaceably with black people. Muhammed, in charge of the approximately 150 soldiers on guard, began meeting with Miami Beach police just after the Memorial Day mayhem. "I learned that because there's not a black population on the Beach, [Miami Beach police officers] had not had the proper training in terms of really knowing how to deal with African Americans," he says during an interview Friday at the FOI's command post in the Shelbourne Beach Resort. "That's a reality." But he adds the officers with whom he worked displayed a "willingness to learn" how to relate to blacks.

So what advice did he give them? "Don't be so quick to enforce the law," Muhammed replies. "I pointed out to them that the term no tolerance has a different interpretation with black people. When you say “no tolerance' to black people, that means harassment. So I said to the department and to the commanders that you can't use that language. You have to have tolerance." In other words, he adds, "The objective is not to arrest people. The objective is to make known that people can't do certain things, and at the same time enforce the law."

Rev. Willie Sims concurs that cops have to be more sensitive to the gangsta rappers. "It's all in the approach," he explains. "Be courteous. You don't have to use abusive language.... You don't have to be offended by the language. The word MF is a common word among the hip-hop crowd."

Amazingly Muhammed maintains that in his two decades of FOI service, his subordinates have never had to manhandle a single ruffian. "I have to say over all the years, we have a zero record in terms of having incidents," he reports. "We thank God and give him credit for that."

Sims also gives them credit: "The Nation has a mystique that works in their favor." That mystique was still strong at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, when 60 FOI men stationed outside Level walked rapidly in single file along the Washington Avenue sidewalk, turned east along Thirteenth Street, then disappeared down the alley at the club's back entrance. "Oh, oh. They're going to kick someone's ass," said a wiry hip-hop entrepreneur, who briefly stopped passing out promotional copies of his video to watch the men.

But back in the alley, the FOI soldiers merely performed a drill. They broke into three rows, turned to the east in unison, and then marched back to Washington and resumed their posts along the metal barricades lining the sidewalk.

The two guys ejected from Level at 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning by the club's own security team could have thanked God, and perhaps the light touch of the FOI, for their fate. The two bounced men, who wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Freedom or Death," were involved in a scuffle inside the club. One simply wandered away through the crowd. The other ended up on Washington Avenue with a group of Miami Beach officers in front of him on the landscaped median. One cop wearing black leather gloves propelled him toward the other side of the avenue with a series of shoves. For a moment tension rose, then deflated: neither of the two (one was white and one black) was arrested.

By Monday evening time had almost ground to a halt.

The awards show itself was more tortuous to sit through than a VH1 Hammer special. Ticket holders swaggered proudly to the appropriate door only to be informed by a clipboard-carrying Source staffer that "things were running a little late." Doors would open in fifteen minutes. Two hours later they were still pacing and sweating through their Phat Farm jerseys while their shorties tugged on booty-popping SoBe Lycra tube dresses, scoping out a place to rest their Lucite heels. The media was bull-penned just outside the red carpet waiting for the big guns. But no such crumbs were thrown this group, which appeared more and more agitated -- and soggy -- as the hours dragged on without any sign of star power. Though the show was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., performers didn't even show up outside the Jackie Gleason Theater until 6:10. A handful of big names -- Busta Rhymes (a host with actress Vivica A. Fox), LL Cool J, Russell Simmons, Method Man -- paraded and posed, while the more elusive stars, such as Mary J. Blige, were hustled around the side of the building to their dressing rooms.

Escaping much attention was Musiq Soul Child, a Lilliputian nu-school soul singer who had tucked his cute self inconspicuously behind photographers and his hollering counterparts, a crochet hat pulled down over his sunglasses, singing to himself. Jesse Jackson, who the previous night had given an ironic speech that condemned rap culture for encouraging the baby's daddy mentality, conversed with producer James Prince in the lobby while two women in hip-hugging FUBU excitedly waited for an autograph. Around 7:00, a voice over the PA distracted two-way pagings in progress, announcing that everyone should take a seat. The show was about to start. (Translation: The show is going to start in another hour.)

Inside the auditorium, which was bedecked with glittering putrid-green palm trees, the crowd buzzed as fans mixed with celebrities. Method Man skipped up and down the aisles. Always the animated one, he crowd-surfed on the two pools of people crammed mosh-style inside the stage's belly. Without entertainment from the Wu-Tang member or the occasional videocam shot of Jackson throwing the peace sign, the show was as dead as Tupac.

Here's how it went: A very unfunny comic shouts senseless quips for 45 minutes. Then DMX and some pyrotechnics open the show. Wait twenty minutes. Host Vivica Fox appears. Pause five minutes for crew to locate Busta Rhymes, her cohost. They introduce another performer who doesn't bother to take the stage for another half-hour. Audience gets restless. They two-way page, they walk around. Crew, flummoxed that there are plenty of empty chairs, finds some seat fillers, a.k.a. eager kids, to run around and fill them. After Mary J. Blige gives the most high-energy performance of the night and the P. Diddy satellite performance from Watson Island is booed, the Wu-Tang Clan is cued to introduce the Best New Artist. Houston rapper Scarface is on the magic envelope. But where is he? Tick, tock. Minutes are seconds in hip-hop time. When he finally makes it to the stage, he declares himself "fucked up, y'all." After a speech thanking God and Grandma, he's told someone has called do-over for taping reasons. He disappears into the audience. More minutes drag by while Wu-Tang emerges from the smoky bowels of the theater. The rest of the show continues like molasses. It begins to make sense why the VIP section isn't offering much high-end food, only copious Frito-Lay munchies.

Last year's Source awards lasted twelve hours. By the time you read this, they may still be taping. Did you expect the Oscars? A finely oiled machine? A force that lives up to its ridiculous hype? Sorry. For that simply refer to Miami Beach's unnecessary full metal forces.


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