A Hard Knock Night

"Nicole, Nicole! It's me," exclaimed a woman outside Level, trying to get the attention of one of the keepers of the door late last New Year's Day. Clad in a green sweater and a green-and-yellow-stripe knit cap, Nicole surveyed the more than 1500 fans trying to get into the first solo appearance on Miami Beach by Roc-A-Fella recording artist Memphis Bleek (Malik Cox). She seemed more focused on the dollar signs each person represented than on the calls of a regular. "I come here all the time, and now you're gonna act like you don't know me," the woman on the other side of the rope complained. Nicole finally acknowledged the patron, holding up a finger to signal her to wait one moment.

"Yo! They trippin' out here, dawg," a gentleman wearing an oversize burnt-orange leather jacket yelled into his cell phone, pressing one finger against his earlobe to block out the noise. "Yo! Don't forget about me, dawg," urged a voice behind him. Orange jacket motioned to his friend. "I gotchu, dawg," he assured him. "Just come outside and tell them we wit chu," he said into the phone. Simultaneously another guy dressed in a gray hip-length Polo sweater and speaking on a cell phone stepped out of the VIP door, following the same strategy. "Where you at?" asked Polo sweater. A bunch of hands went up. Polo let go of the door, got the bouncer, and pointed out his people. "How many?" Polo screamed at the first pair of familiar eyes. A man in a camel-color leather jacket stepped up and answered, "Like ten, dawg." A young lady next to him pulled on his camel jacket. Camel turned to see a friend he'd just made in line. Despite the heat from the bodies around her, she was shivering in her full-length leather coat, bra top, leather skirt, and strappy Nine West sandals. "Like twelve," said camel, correcting himself. Then he paused and asked, "Hold up. How many you got wit chu?" The girl said two people. "Like twelve," Polo finalized.

"I got you," the bouncer noted, urging the man back into the club. Polo smiled as he went back inside. He was flossing for the crowd, showing that he not only had the VIP status needed to make it through the middle door but that he could bestow that status upon his friends. "I'll see you inside, dawg," he said as the door shut.

Not everybody was so lucky. Darlene, a West Palm Beach resident, had driven an hour and a half to see the Brooklyn-born rapper, only to be left out in the cold. She had an invitation that should have allowed her to catch the show for only $15, half the cost of general admission. As the crowd grew, however, the promoters at High & Mighty Entertainment seized the opportunity to raise the price. By the time the clock struck twelve, a bouncer in a yellow leather jacket announced, "Okay, this line is $50 general admission, and this line is $75 for VIP." Pointing first to the left and then to the right, he demanded, "Choose a line and let's go." No one moved. Hoping to be recognized as real VIPs, most of the crowd milled in the middle, trying to get the attention of the bouncers.

Pandemonium continued until nearly 3:00 a.m., causing many disappointed fans like Darlene to head home without seeing the show. "It's not like I didn't have the money to pay for it," she explained on the sidewalk outside, "but from the way the management staff was acting -- especially that girl in the green -- I am not going to give the money I earned just for crap treatment no matter who was performing." In the meantime hip-hop celebrities, such as Def Jam recording artist Drag-on of the Ruff Ryder crew, sailed through the middle door.

"[The security] couldn't control what was happening," the manager of High & Mighty Entertainment, Jason Norris, told New Times a week after the show. "No matter how good the management [staff] is, it was just too crazy. There was so many people trying to get in." For Norris the size of the crowd justified jacking up the price. "I am being very honest," he asserted, "because of all those people at the door, the price should have been raised to $150 to get in. If they did that, there would not have been that many people in the VIP. From the customer point of view it was messed up, but from the business point of view it was not messed up, because people were willing to pay to see Memphis Bleek perform. But there was too many people to control."

Apparently the flossing that night didn't stop when people passed through the middle door. According to Norris the packed VIP was the scene for a scuffle shortly after 3:00 a.m., when an unknown person began throwing dollar bills into the crowd. Two men grabbed from the same stash. A brawl broke out. "What did they expect to happen when they throw money into the crowd?" Norris asked vehemently. "I would've started fighting, too." One policeman, rushing to break up the fight, was injured when a patron smashed a magnum of champagne on the officer's nose. After the media picked up the story of the melee, one member of Level's marketing department speculated that owner Gerald Kelly was "furious" and would not rent out the club in the foreseeable future. (Kelly was on vacation and unavailable for comment.) For his part Norris hopes to return to the club. He has offered to contribute to a reward for clues leading to the capture of the champagne-wielding assailant.

Although the injury of a police officer is an extreme instance, flying champagne bottles are not uncommon in the art of flossing. In an MTV interview last year, Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Clan crew addressed the issue of fans showing off at clubs by saying, "Those cats be worse than bitches, waving expensive bottles of Cristal and Moët like they got money, just so we can see them and let them run with our crew."

This kind of fronting by clubgoers is nothing new to Bleek, who addresses the topic at length on his latest release, Understanding. Bleek's sophomore effort debuted at number one on the Billboard charts this past December, lifting the up-and-coming rapper out of the shadow of Roc-A-Fella founder and platinum-seller Jay-Z (Shawn Carter). As head Roc-A-Fella lyricist, Jay-Z has illustrated over the years that his crew, unlike others in the rap industry, has the right to floss. "I ain't running through the club on some loco shit," raps Bleek on "Hustler," setting the tone with which he and the rest of the Roc-A-Fella clique call out those who front. On "Do My..." Bleek breaks down who can and cannot floss: "The ladies know the difference between dem niggaz and us." The Roc-A-Fellas are not just talking about rival MCs but about the men showing off at clubs. But what's wrong for them is all good for us: "If my niggaz run it/let 'em know you still gunning/Throw a drink in the air/let 'em know you still thugging." By waving dollar bills and champagne bottles, the crowd on South Beach may just have been following the Roc-A-Fella's cue. The folks outside the club have to prove they are not the scrubs Bleek is rhyming about. They have to show they are the real deal.

Of course Memphis Bleek did not directly inspire any violence. As Norris reported, the rapper was secluded from the incident in his own VIP section, enjoying his own champagne (no word on whether it was Cristal or Moët) and waiting to perform. "I'm a promoter and like to keep the artists I bring protected from situations like that," said Norris. "He didn't know until I told him back in his hotel room that there was even a fight."

"Bleek did not know anything," agreed Georgina Prentice of the Roc-A-Fella management team. "Bleek felt bad about what happened and wants to make it up to the people that did not get to see him perform." High & Mighty and Roc-A-Fella Records plan to put on a repeat performance in February, featuring the entire Roc-A-Fella roster. Hoping to prevent further incident, Norris plans to enforce a dress code and charge an even higher ticket price. Still, with mo' money comes mo' flossing.

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Emonde Prosper