I knew he had something to do with my motherfuckin' cousin gettin' killed! X-Con snarls into his cell phone. I'm gonna get the motherfucker! His back turned to Kulchur, X-Con drops the phone to his side and gazes out ominously at Biscayne Bay from behind 79th Street's Crab House restaurant. Apparently he's not being quite ominous enough. Stop smiling! commands a voice from stage right. Remember, you're angry. You just found out who killed your cousin.
So it's take two for Miami's latest entrant into the gangsta-rap game: X-Con (a.k.a. Shelton Poitier). With a single cameraman and two staffers from his record label, First String Entertainment, X-Con is wrapping up the final shots of his straight-to-video movie The Mighty Dollar. A quick-and-dirty blaxploitation gangster flick, the picture isn't going to win any Oscars. But then, its creators hardly have their sights set on Hollywood, or even Sundance. Teddy Taylor, First String's director of promotions (and The Mighty Dollar's co-screenwriter) explains it simply: "The whole reason we did this movie is totally for marketing."
Within a few weeks, the $20,000 digital-video production will be on the shelves of independent record stores nationwide. Its loosely autobiographical scenes of gunplay in Liberty City ("We made sure to take all the bullets out of the clips," notes First String A&R director Kenny Gooden off-handedly) and X-rated strip-club antics (All the radio DJs love that stuff) are designed to produce an anticipatory buzz for X-Con's forthcoming album Dirty Life. The video is just one gambit in the carefully orchestrated campaign to create rap's next larger-than-life superstar.
The 26-year-old X-Con certainly looks ready for the role. Standing six feet one and weighing 285 pounds, his sheer physical heft commands attention; a mouthful of gold teeth glistens like a beacon. The net effect is that of a vintage-James Bond villain suddenly come to life. And unlike those he derisively refers to as studio gangsters, X-Con has the police record to match his moniker: a string of arrests, including tussles with officers and a 1995 incarceration stemming from a cocaine deal.
It all makes for fertile material for Dirty Life, an album X-Con intends as a cautionary statement: Either you grew up and did what I did, or you can learn from my mistakes so you don't do what I did.
Of course the drug dealer-turned-legit rapper is hardly a new persona in hip-hop; in fact it's one of the form's well-worn stereotypes. And Dirty Life isn't exactly breaking new lyrical ground in either its lighter moments, such as Whoa! lil' Mama, an ode to the talents of a particular stripper (I don't care where you shake it, just don't drip it in my cup); or in the more reflective No 1 2 Talk 2 (I was born addicted to drugs, my daddy was on coke/Mama pushed me out her pussy, nigger damn near choked/I'm asthmatic, most of my life it's been hard to breathe/Growin' up you wouldn't believe bullshit I seen).
Subtlety and nuance, however, aren't what X-Con is going for here. The idea is to craft a product, a commodity that will immediately grab ears (and the wallets attached to them) and move units. And in that respect, Dirty Life is easily one of the season's most consummate pure-pop pleasures. X-Con has a gift for head-nodding hooks and forcefully delivered turns of phrase, as well as the talent to wrap it all up in an infectious package that separates him from the glut of generic industry aspirants.
Major label Elektra Records agrees. They've picked up distribution rights to Dirty Life and are prepared to put their promotional muscle behind its November release. Such a development says as much about Elektra's confidence in X-Con as it does about the changing nature of hip-hop itself.
Just two years ago, an independent label like Miami's First String wouldn't even have bothered approaching a major such as Elektra with one of its artists. Chart-bound hip-hop was dominated, both sonically and economically, by the coasts. Elektra in particular focused on New York City-style rappers or their softer R&B cousins: thick grooves with breaks that hark back to Sixties and Seventies soul. Drawling gangsta rappers with their synth-laden tunes and thin-sounding drum machines were considered a regional phenomenon. Sure, they sold respectable numbers in Southern cities, but that kind of music would never fly on a national scale. And beyond the sales reports there existed an attitude of cultural condescension.
Those major labels aren't snickering anymore: Master P's New Orleans-based and proudly Southern No Limit label grossed more than $200 million in 1998, a trend mirrored in 1999 by fellow Crescent City outfit Cash Money.
Everybody wants the South vibe now, remarks X-Con from the passenger seat of a van barreling south on I-95. A lot of rappers come to stay in Miami now. They party on South Beach, shoot videos -- but nobody shows what's really in Miami. He pauses and nods at the highway in the direction of Miami proper. You don't see them on the other side [of I-95]. They don't go to places where I come from. He contrasts that behavior with New Orleans's Cash Money Millionaires, who after their Miami Arena concert, retired to an all-night gambling session inside an inner-city recording studio. When they lost a hand, instead of forking over money, they'd simply head into the studio's vocal booth and lay down a few a cappella verses. Inserted into an up-and-coming rapper's song, explains X-Con, such prominent cameos are better than cash.
That type of street-level economic thinking is seemingly lost on Elektra. X-Con has just learned that the label objects to the inclusion of the track used as the video's title, The Mighty Dollar, a first-person narrative of a murderous jewelry-snatching. Elektra has demanded the song be pulled from Dirty Life. Reportedly the son of an Elektra executive was killed in such a robbery.
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My goal was to get on to a major; that was my dream, says X-Con with clear frustration in his voice. Now they're trying to tell me how to do my music, to shut me up.... I gotta roll with it. It don't get no bigger than a major. I can't just say, Fuck it!'
Kulchur decides to do a little role-playing. I'm the head of Elektra. I'm deeply offended you would even write a song like The Mighty Dollar. What's your response?
Without looking away from the road, X-con answers flatly: Two of my own [friends] got shot sixteen times apiece. My cousin just got killed a few months ago. My homeboy just died right around the corner. I got a funeral to go to next week. You offended by [my song], but this is the shit I go through. If anything, I want you to understand that by listening to my music, it's a learning experience. The owner's son got killed? Maybe he was doing something to attract a certain robber to come up.
With a slight edge, he continues: People need to hear this stuff, so it's a learning experience for motherfuckers who aren't really up on street game and street knowledge. If you were somebody at Elektra, I'd let you know that you're holding back a record that's letting people know what's really going on.