Will the real thugs please stand up? After two and a half months of fearful teeth-gnashing preceding the arrival of last week's Source Hip-Hop Music Awards, South Beach endured ... just another weekend. There were no hotel trashings, no melees with police, and aside from the occasional woman about to bust out of her skimpy leopard-skin halter-top, there was nothing holding up the usual Friday-night crawl down Washington Avenue. Excepting a somewhat bizarre traffic altercation involving a Source honcho, there wasn't even much in the way of juicy gossip. The only real threat of mass violence and civic unrest came from -- surprise, surprise -- old-school Cuban exiles attempting to crash Miami's other music fete, the Latin Grammys.
The contrast was put into sharp relief at the August 19 Source Youth Foundation Hip-Hop Image Awards Dinner & Fundraiser. At $500 a seat, the stage was set at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala for Mayor Alex Penelas to welcome the gathered audience of Source magazine executives; business impresarios such as Russell Simmons, Rap-A-Lot Records CEO James Prince, and FUBU clothing's Daymond John; artists such as Master P and Ludacris; Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O'Neal; and keynote speaker Jesse Jackson.
Penelas, however, was a no-show. Instead we had to settle for a brief video clip of the mayor doing a bizarre funky-chicken dance, no doubt an approximation of the First Amendment shuffle he was trying to placate crusty exiles with at that very moment across town.
By the following evening it was all over. As the Source awards were getting calmly under way at the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater, local officials were trading bitter accusations over just who sent the Latin Grammys fleeing back to Los Angeles.
There's a certain delicious irony in el exilio being one of the last segments of American society that refuses to buy into capitalism. They may claim to loathe Fidel and all he stands for, but South Florida's most virulent anti-communists hold dear to one of Fidelismo's central tenets: Culture matters. In this world view, pop songs aren't just aural commodities to be bought and sold. They may also be leftist Trojan horses carrying the seeds of subversion.
Jessie Jackson on the other hand -- a man many Cuban exiles deem America's foremost pinko -- has learned how to love the Billboard charts. And he could care less what those songs actually say.
Striding into Club Tropigala's bar as Coo Coo Cal's "My Projects" boomed overhead, Jackson made it clear that embracing the Dow Jones was precisely what his struggle was about now. "You couldn't have had this convention in Overtown," he explained, adding that Kulchur was missing the big picture by questioning why such an assemblage of black economic clout wasn't being staged within the black community.
"We're still cut out of access to capital," Jackson told Kulchur. "It's early in the morning of economic self-sufficiency for this generation." Getting to noon required a serious injection of cash -- hip-hop entrepreneurial cash. "We used to just sing on records; now we're producing them," he enthused. "I see more people interested in learning how to sell products than in flaunting a gun. Some people react to rap's language.... I see money for scholarships."
All this cheerleading for black capitalism was a bit odd coming from the Martin Luther King disciple most associated with that leader's late-Sixties espousal of democratic socialism. It was as if Che Guevara had gone off for his MBA and come back declaring, "One, two ... many Russell Simmonses!"
Indeed during his subsequent speech, Jackson thrust his fist in the air and led the crowd in chanting, "Take hip-hop to Wall Street!" Not that he wanted to bum rush the New York Stock Exchange. He just wanted more blacks to get in the front door, and in his eyes the rap game currently provides the best wedge. As for his own previous misgivings concerning hip-hop's lyrical nihilism and sexism, he had a new outlook, one he'd suggest to any of the genre's remaining critics: Get over it.
Jackson dropped his voice into a mock falsetto -- perhaps mimicking that of a concerned Anglo pundit -- and whined, "What does it mean that Eminem can have a hit record?" He paused for effect and then thundered back: "It means they can have more markets!"
Capturing market share certainly was the operative theme at the Source awards show. For the magazine's owners, ensuring a trouble-free taping for later nationwide broadcast on UPN-TV wasn't just a matter of saving face after last year's event was marred by audience slugfests. With Morgan Stanley Dean Witter currently fielding offers for the Source from an array of media suitors -- reportedly including Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, Spin and Vibe parent Miller Communications, and AOL Time Warner -- a smooth evening could only boost the bidding higher. How high? Individuals privy to the ongoing negotiations credit the magazine and its spin-off properties with pulling down more than seven million in profits annually, a number that could put its final sale price at $100 million.
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Hovering ominously over the Source's payday was the presence of Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight. Just two weeks prior, Knight had been released from jail, and he seemed eager to relive the coastal war of words with Puff Daddy that eventually resulted in the late-Nineties shooting deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. (and which some cite as the cause of last year's awards-show fracas). Adding further tension, Knight announced he'd be flying to South Beach and holding his own party at Club Cristal, just a dozen blocks from Puffy's scheduled awards performance at the Jackie Gleason.
Only days before finishing his gun possession, assault, and parole-violation sentence at California's Mule Creek Maximum Security Prison, Knight had spoken with a British reporter in the visiting room there. He issued vague threats to Puffy, as well as to estranged Death Row artists Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre. "I'll be out of this place soon," Knight warned, "and it'll be like the Wild West all over again. I got plenty of scores to settle."
Whether Knight was grandstanding or not, there was a simple solution to all this drama, one Miami's Cuban-exile community could learn from. Snoop Doggy Dogg, set to be a presenter at the awards show, stayed home. Puff Daddy and Dr. Dre protégé Eminem sidestepped the matter; rather than risk any confrontations or Death Row nonsense inside the Jackie Gleason, both artists wisely decamped to Watson Island, where they taped performances for insertion into the TV broadcast. Business is business -- they do have new albums to promote, after all. But today's top rap stars are just too busy managing their portfolios to engage in pointless schoolyard fights anymore.
Back in New York, Puffy had a telling reply to a Details writer inquiring about Suge Knight's threats on his life: "Time is money to me. And you wasting my time."