Risky Business

Seems like every joint on the Beach these nights is blaring a Latin dance, trance, or get-in-my-pants tune from behind velvet ropes; not much reason to slow down and take a listen on the way home. On a Thursday night, though, there's something strange booming out of the Marlin Hotel. No mistaking a beat by Brand Nubian. Big black doorman on the porch says, "Come in, dawg." This is not the usual South Beach hang, with music straight off the FM dial and all eyes on who's who and how they dressed. No fuss about attire in here: baggy jeans, K-Swiss kicks, Kangol caps. Laid-back, streetwise, old-school vibe. Make a person pay attention.

Must be Paid Attention, the weekly Thursday-night party at the Marlin. Count on most Beach promoters to keep old-school, underground, or alternative hip-hop off the decks, but this is a night for hip-hop connoisseurs. Turntables slice beats for MC stars in the flesh and up onstage. B-boys and girls bounce and spin on the slick hotel lobby floor. Paid Attention's all about promoting a positive hip-hop lifestyle while puttin' a brand-new flava in ya ear.

"Clubs are not taking chances, simply doing what's safe to fulfill the bottom line," writes the night's founder, Danny Dominguez, on his invites. "That shit is played! Our bottom line is quite different."

The bottom line at Paid Attention is just good hip-hop. And if you don't know what that means, check out Dominguez's record label, Counterflow Recordings. The label was born when the now twenty-year-old Dominguez released Spirit Agent, a compilation of local Miami rap acts, in 2000. Before that the teenager bartered his youth to do marketing for other labels, like Rawkus in New York, and gained experience that helps him push his own discs. He emptied his bank account and used credit to fund the label. A few months after putting out Spirit Agent, he began signing artists and setting up distribution deals.

When EMI subsidiary Caroline Distribution contacted Dominguez about some records he had sent them, he showed up at the company's Los Angeles offices with a record bag, ready to fill it with promotional material. Instead after chatting with the execs about his marketing plans, release schedules, and cross-promotion ideas, he walked out with a distribution deal for his fledgling label.

Dominguez doesn't like making an issue of his age. He wants the focus on his artists, not his precociousness. "It isn't something that comes up," Dominguez insists. "I do what every other record executive does." Meaning deal with industry bullshit, like distributors taking time with the checks. He knows firsthand: "People in this business are out to fuck you, not help you. It's all about the cash flow. [Distributors] try to keep it on their side as long as they can."

His disposition doesn't give Dominguez's age away. He's one serious cat, who's known around the office as Danny Dolla's. His label is now with Studio Distribution, another established company, which takes a gentler approach with indie labels, especially those with a roster as up-and-coming as Counterflow's.

"People can see I know about making and promoting a record; I'm dedicated," Dominguez says of his label's progress and ability to attract respected, and most of all talented, artists. The talent signed to Counterflow is impressive considering it was a house (as in, located in a home) label just a couple years back. Last month Doodlebug from Digable Planets rhymed at the Marlin. He's a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling MC, as bona fide as it gets and one of Counterflow's newest artists, now recording under the moniker Cee Knowledge. Up at the annual hip-hop event Scribble Jam in Cincinnati two years ago, Dominguez hooked up with Five Deez, a critically acclaimed hip-hop quartet that incorporates jazz elements, a little Pete Rock mixed with some Isaac Hayes. Playing their own instruments, the Five Deezers released Koolmotor last year, Counterflow's first full-length album. Otherwise the label has an extensive catalogue of twelve-inch singles by these artists and locals like Induce, Algorithm, and SevenStar.

And it isn't just hip-hop. "We're a music label," reminds Dominguez. Post-rock band ROM and downtempo electronic act Secret Frequency Crew round out the roster. Most of these artists are established; all are forward-thinking. They see Counterflow as a chance to make the music that comes from the heart, the kind of tracks the majors would smother in market research.

Panda One, who runs his own label, Good Vibe, out of L.A., also releases his own tracks with Counterflow. He sums up what attracts so much talent to the label: "I could have put my music out on my label, but thought it would be fun to do it through Counterflow so I could concentrate on being an artist. It was the only other label, aside from mine, that makes a serious effort to bring real music to the forefront. We are fighting a big system that doesn't care about real music, real politics, or real love."

Counterflow works toward carving a niche for the new. Even the packaging is progressive -- and very fan-friendly -- with extra flow laid out for fold-out "Digi-packs." And Counterflow's scratch and instrumental releases like Induce's Cuticle Scrapes and Five Deez's Table Noise come with a second copy for DJs to cut through, for free.

"More bang for your buck, Counterflow loves the kids," clowns Al Moran, Dominguez's business partner and one of the heads of GTC Media along with party and printing impresario Carlos Perez. Together they form a team of fearless entrepreneurs with a grand scheme called 4 The Hard Way, which encompasses the Bomb 12 clothing line, a street-art magazine called The Vapors, and just about anything else that promotes urban culture. "It's about the lifestyle," says Moran. "We're going to hit 'em up with how we live day in, day out."

The Counterflow crew expects a big breakthrough this year. "Last year we were bogged down by finances," explains Moran. "This year with a new, cooperative distributor we can concentrate more on the music." Due to drop in 2003: full-length albums from Cee Knowledge, Panda One, and Dave Ghetto, who Dominguez calls the "next Mos Def."

To get to that breakthrough, Dominguez doesn't mind playing "Danny Knows Best" with his artists, even though most of them are older than he is. "There are deadlines and sometimes you gotta have that conversation: 'Do you want to make it? Don't slow down the process,'" he says. That's one reason Dominguez chooses artists for their compatibility and attitude. "Someone might send a kick-ass demo, but if they're pricks or don't want to work hard, we won't work with them."

If the guests dropping in at Paid Attention are any indication, people definitely want to work with Dominguez. The night is attracting big hip-hop names looking for a place to perform in Miami. Prince Paul, Rob Swift, and Biz Markie all plan to show some skills in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile Thursday nights just get bigger. Crowds spill out the side doors and front porch. There are two smooth-talking brothers with a camera interviewing some unsuspecting chick for a documentary about "pimps 'n 'hos," they say. Dominguez is somewhere inside, making sure everything is smooth. This could be the time for a twenty-year-old to lay back and enjoy it all, but not Danny. Why does Counterflow continue to grow? "I work hard," he says, never flinching.