We Won't Get Fooled Again
If you stand outside Miami Beach's City Hall and listen carefully, you'll hear the distinct sound of gnashing teeth, followed by the anguished turning of calendar pages. "We're not doing anything other than Memorial Day weekend for the next two months," groaned Christina Cuervo, Beach assistant city manager, at a March Nightlife Industry Task Force meeting.
Looming ominously is a possible repeat of last year's holiday weekend, which saw more than 200,000 predominantly young black partiers converge on South Beach, turning it into a real-life Jay-Z video. As bottles of champagne were hoisted aloft through the sunroofs of cruising SUVs, Collins Avenue became one gridlocked block party. By nightfall the bacchanalia turned uglier, with a slew of disorderly conduct arrests, a mass brawl in the middle of Washington Avenue, and pepper spray-wielding security guards wading into what one onlooker termed a "near-riot" in the Loews Hotel's lobby. Beach officials freely admitted they were caught by surprise; many residents were left feeling under siege in their own homes, seething at what they deemed civic neglect.
A law-and-order solution for this year's go-round -- lining the boulevards with phalanxes of police -- may placate aggrieved locals, but it also opens up Beach officials to charges of racism. Why is it, critics such as activist and radio host Bishop Victor Curry ask, that heavy-handed responses only seem to apply to black visitors? After all, the thousands of mostly white Winter Music Conference attendees, spilling in and out of the Beach's clubs, raised barely an eyebrow.
It was just such heated accusations that led to a black boycott of Miami Beach in the early Nineties, costing some $20 million-$50 million in lost convention bookings and tourist dollars, and ending in 1993 only with the awarding of a contract for a so-called "African-American-owned hotel" to controversial developer Don Peebles. In a stroke of delicious timing, that hotel -- the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza -- is set to open just in time for Memorial Day weekend.
"Nobody wants to stick their neck out on this," observes one Beach administrator, pointing to current plans that have Miami Beach's police force of 380 supplemented by 87 Miami-Dade officers and an unset number of Florida Highway Patrolmen. "Look at Daytona Beach: They have 700 cops to deal with 150,000 spring break kids. We're expecting nearly twice that many people! So either we let people come and tear up the city or we're all a bunch of Klansmen. We can't win."
With the Loews and National hotels already projecting full occupancy for that weekend, Beach officials have been desperate to find somebody, anybody, who represents the incoming Memorial Day crowd. Yet there is no single organizer, no central promoter. Despite former football star Louis Oliver's Urban Fashion Week being originally scapegoated as the draw for last year's bash, only a handful of the 200,000 that hit South Beach even knew of its existence then. Instead the lure was the much-hyped appearance of hip-hop's glitterati and the chance to party alongside them.
And as with the spring break parties on Texas's South Padre Island or Florida's Panama City Beach, it was dozens of out-of-state promoters (not to mention the exaggerated folklore of thousands of fraternity brothers) that fueled attendance. Accordingly, city officials have been left to anxiously surf the Web, monitoring Internet sites such as blackbeachweek.com, trying to track that ever-nebulous word of mouth.
Enter Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell, who has offered himself up as Miami Beach's savior. "This city does not understand hip-hop culture," Campbell says matter-of-factly inside his 12th Street Luke Records office and recording studio, just two blocks west of the Atlantic Ocean. "These club owners don't have a clue. The Nightlife Industry Task Force doesn't have a clue. But when people admit they don't know how to deal with certain people, that's when you can help them."
What the Beach desperately needs, Campbell argues, is a hip-hop expert, someone well versed in the music's language and economics, someone like, well, him.
"If you want to have a bar mitzvah, I wouldn't know when to stand up and when to sit back down," he laughs. But throwing the biggest party the Beach has ever seen? Now you're in his world. "I've been in the music business for twenty years. This is a no-brainer." Campbell's proposal is for his group Progressive Righteous Organized Inc. (PRO), which consists of local promoters George Dukes, Michael Gardner, and Joseph Lewis as well as the Nation of Islam's Gerald Mohammed, to be placed in charge of coordinating Memorial Day festivities. Ocean Drive is to be closed down for an African arts street fair, and a late-night concert is to be staged inside the Beach Convention Center, all in the hopes of drawing some of the people who would otherwise be hanging out on the sidewalks of Collins and Washington avenues.
Referring to spring break fetes he's hosted around the country, Campbell concludes, "If I can do it in Galveston, Texas, or raggedy Daytona [Beach], it can be done in Miami Beach." The Beach's city manager's office seems to agree. At press time, it had given a preliminary okay to PRO's plans, subject to the city commission's approval.
Indeed, based on the stack of glowing hometown media profiles that Campbell has received over the past decade -- from his platinum-selling 2 Live Crew's 1992 obscenity trial before the Supreme Court, to his more recent solo work and X-rated video releases -- he would seem to be Miami's preeminent hip-hop playa.
Outside of South Florida, however, Campbell is viewed as less macher than schlemiel. That point was painfully driven home during last August's Source Hip-Hop Music Awards. As the industry's movers and shakers descended on the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theatre, Campbell was left out in the cold, angrily grousing on WEDR-FM (99.1), "Where's my award?" The message was clear: 2 Live Crew and its hits were ancient history. More than a decade on from such introspective odes as "Me So Horny" and "We Want Some Pussy," Campbell may not have changed (on his 2001 album Somethin' Nasty, he'd progressed as far as "Eat the Pussy"), but hip-hop has. And in its eyes, Campbell may be entertaining, but he's little more than a relic.
In fact since emerging from a 1995 bankruptcy, Campbell's focus has been less on music than film. His Luke's Freak Show adult-video line ("mo', mo', and mo' women take it off") is up to volume 11, with each edition selling upwards of 30,000 copies. At $16.95 a pop, that's kept ol' Uncle Luke in a comfortable six-figure income bracket.
Not that he doesn't still have his creditors. After recently winning a $10,913 judgment against Campbell for past-due legal fees, attorney Danny Kaplan griped to the Herald's Joan Fleischman, "Luther has the money -- or access to it. He's a slippery guy."
Campbell doesn't exactly argue that contention, instead branding Kaplan a shyster: "I'm suing him for malpractice." And the $27,738 the United Parcel Service is suing him for?
"Shit, only $27,000?" he laughs to Kulchur. "With all the videos I ship every month, that's a good bill."
It's just such a cavalier business attitude that leaves some Beach circles nervous. Campbell says PRO has been meeting with club owners, asking them to use the group as a booking coordinator for all their Memorial Day weekend activities. Otherwise "out-of-town promoters would bring crazy-ass artists that attract crazy-ass people to see them." In exchange for this guidance, Campbell continues, so far Level, Liquid, Steam, and Static have agreed to pay PRO a $2,500 "sanction fee" to cover the cost of Nation of Islam security and event advertising. "I'll probably only make a little money on that," he notes, with the bulk of his take accruing from Ocean Drive vendor sales and his Convention Center party. "My main thing is to make sure folks come down here, have a good time, and not just get written up as if they live an animalistic lifestyle."
Not everyone, however, sees Campbell's moves in such a benevolent light. To some, Campbell is simply trying to capitalize on the racial tension and public jitters surrounding Memorial Day, ensuring that PRO snags a sizable chunk of what promises to be a very lucrative weekend.
"They're just trying to reserve clubs so other promoters can't book them," says one prominent nightclub figure who was approached by PRO. When he rejected PRO's bid to rent out his establishment, calling it half of what other promoters were offering, he says the PRO rep went ballistic. "He threatened me: We control Ocean Drive, we control the streets! If you don't want trouble, you better deal with us.' I had to throw him out of the building."
Campbell doesn't deny he's encountered resistance from some nightclub operators, but he flatly rejects the allegation of a thuggish shakedown. "Nobody was ever threatened," he insists. "You don't have to give us your club. If you want to work with promoter X instead of PRO, fine, but please come talk to us. When you work with us, you work towards the overall program of the weekend." His voice rising, he arches an eyebrow and continues: "If certain clubs work against us, then they don't give a damn about black people, Miami Beach, the whole community! I don't have a problem with going to the press, the police, and the city to let them know who's not on board."
That sounds a bit like a threat.
"If shit hits the fan, it reflects on all of us," Campbell counters sternly. Then, with an exasperated sigh, he shakes his head and smiles. "If the city doesn't want to work with me, fine." Gesturing to the office around him, he quips, "When Memorial Day weekend comes, I'll put up my storm shutters and be out of here. I do not need the grief. I'll be on vacation at a golf tournament."
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