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4 Eva Ballin'

There is a cloud of grief wafting through the offices of XELA Entertainment in downtown Miami, but it's not because today is September 11, two years after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks changed the course of American history. The sadness that lingers here is caused by something...
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There is a cloud of grief wafting through the offices of XELA Entertainment in downtown Miami, but it's not because today is September 11, two years after the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks changed the course of American history. The sadness that lingers here is caused by something much more immediate and poignant: The company's vice president and co-CEO Alexander Bernard Harris was killed on Saturday, September 6, alongside his friend, Emmett Todd Green. According to a story published in the Miami Herald on September 8, the two were inside Cutz on Biscayne Boulevard when four hooded gunmen walked into the barbershop and shot them in the head. Miami police are investigating the incident.

XELA Entertainment, as president and co-CEO Alex LeCount will later forcefully point out to me, is not a "rap" label subject to stereotypes of thugged-out rappers involved in street violence, but a respectable entertainment company. Its lead artist, Marion "Strawberri" Taylor, is an R&B vocalist who is garnering radio spins for her XELA debut, "Spend Some Money," a winsome duet with local hip-hop star Trina. Concurrently there are no young, flamboyant rappers lounging about here, cracking jokes, and smoking weed; just small work rooms filled with people finishing up their work for the day. But as publicist Nikki Kancey-Williams leads me to a conference room, it becomes clear that Harris's death is weighing on everybody's mind. She immediately reminds me that, per a previous agreement, there is to be no talk about the ongoing police investigation.

Minutes after she leaves, another unnamed publicist walks in with a yellow notepad, followed by LeCount himself. Although they had readily acceded to this interview, it becomes clear that both are wary of my presence. (Afterward the anonymous publicist refuses to give me her business card for fear that I'll print her name in this article.) LeCount, dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt with a large photo of Harris emblazoned on the front, seems especially shell-shocked, and at times it's difficult to tell if he's about to break down or simply collapse from dealing with the media attention surrounding the murder of his best friend.

A lifelong Miamian, LeCount remembers meeting Harris shortly after the former graduated from Miami Central High School. "We were just kids in the neighborhood, just running around, playing basketball, riding motorcycles," he says. "Back then we had a thing for motorcycles." He notes how Harris was "a speed demon. He does everything on speed," never noticing that he's referring to his late business partner as if he were still alive.

While LeCount focused on building his music career -- DJing with a local crew called the Triple M DJs and starting up a short-lived record label, Jumping Jack Records, with another friend, Jackie Holmes -- Harris was leading a life that eventually led to his arrest and conviction in April of 1993 on charges of cocaine trafficking. "At that time, he and I had lost contact," LeCount says. But he went to go see Harris in prison while the latter was serving out his sentence. "I was mostly headed towards this music thing. I was working and I had my family," he adds.

The two did discuss what Harris would do when he got out of jail. That was when Harris broached the idea of starting a music company. "It was basically his idea," says LeCount. "It was like, 'Man, if we going to do this, why don't we just do it right?'"

Just then one of LeCount's associates enters the room and begins whispering in his ear loud enough for everyone to hear. "Are we talking about you or about Alex?" the associate asks. "Talk about the music. Don't talk about Alex." Suddenly the two walk out of the room. When LeCount returns minutes later, his expression is even more enigmatic than before. What was intended to be a discussion of the life and times of Alexander Harris has now turned into a painful question-and-answer session.

After his release from prison in 1999, Harris began buying and selling cars. "He loved cars," says LeCount after he returns to the room. "He had a body shop and a couple of tow trucks." But the police continued to watch him, eventually charging him with running a "chop shop" full of stolen vehicles. So he sold the business and put his time and money into forming XELA Entertainment. The company was incorporated in November 2002.

LeCount says that his role in the partnership was "more businessman, paperwork kind of guy, focusing on the vision of the company." Harris, he smiles, was "the talker. He's the person that'll say, 'I got this, follow me.' He's the person that's going to motivate everyone. Both of us named Alex. It's like one person with two different sides."

XELA has only released two promo singles to date: Strawberri's "Spend Some Money" and "4 Eva Ballin'/Fire," Oczaveus "Zay" Williams's debut. Strawberri is a veteran who released two minor hits, "Saddle You Up" and "Secret," both of which scaled the lower rungs of the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop Singles charts; and a full-length album, Nothing Better, on Warlock Records in 1999. A review on All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) praised her "smooth, smoky, laid-back vocals" and called the album "an accomplished collection of sensitive, sensual R&B songs."

Zay has had a rougher time in the music industry. On June 12 he and his hype man, Elijah "Chamber" Vaughn, were shot at during a block party in Richmond Heights. XELA subsequently sent out a press release alleging that Zay "was targeted by former rivals from his time dancing for Luther Campbell and Slip-n-Slide/Atlantic recording artist Trick Daddy," prompting me to write a story about the incident ("For the Love," June 26). But LeCount now says that the statement was inaccurate and that the publicist who wrote it no longer works for the company. "I don't think that press release was proofed," he says, now portraying the incident as a case of what happens "when you've got young guys drinking and no one's thinking straight. It's just something that happened ... [the shooters] probably didn't mean to hurt anybody.

"There's no reason for anybody to 'hit' us," he continues. "We're the new kid in town, we know everyone, we're friends with all the other labels, so there's no kind of beef." He notes that local artists and producers have frequently worked on tracks for XELA at no charge in order to help get it off the ground. But he clarifies that the Miami Herald's contention that XELA is "collaborated" with Slip-n-Slide is inaccurate. "They just help us out," he says.

LeCount plans to continue building XELA into a brand name by holding events and promoting Strawberri and Zay. Some of its recent ventures include throwing a party in late July at Bermuda Bar in North Miami and co-sponsoring the Miami Music Awards honoring local hip-hop artists on August 20 at Miami Beach's Code nightclub. Strawberri has opened for a few of 50 Cent's many concerts here, and she has also hosted a television show, The Ultimate Man, for E! Television that has yet to be broadcast.

Meanwhile the company is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Harris's assailants. Some observers have typified him as a man who couldn't escape his criminal past. But was he the victim of a past beef or just a father and aspiring businessman who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

"You grow up," is all LeCount will say. "You realize that things you've done in the past are things that you've done in the past. Whatever he's been accused of, that's been in the past. But he has a little boy that's of age; he has a little girl that's a teenager. You have to look at the future and what you're going to provide for your child."

Two days after the interview Harris and Green's families hold services at Grace Funeral Home. But Harris leaves more behind than a grieving family and a fledgling entertainment company. There are probably other, more intimate memories that LeCount holds dear and keeps to himself, fond recollections of better days that he doesn't want to share with the public.

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