Hip-Hop Cyrano

Varick "Smitty" Smith doesn't look like a ghostwriter. The baby-faced rapper has a smooth countenance that belies his 23 years; he could be your typical high school senior. Instead he's writing verses for Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, filling the Bad Boy mogul's mouth with outrageous playboy fantasies like "Your man talking about Hummers and little cars/That only fit in his little house, little garage/His lifestyle is just a little mirage/He's the type of cat that never had a menage."

"Stuff like that is easy to write because it's not me," Smitty says, smiling, while picking at a plate of shrimp and fettuccine Alfredo during lunch at the Cheesecake Factory in Aventura. Like any budding star he has a small entourage in tow, which includes a female companion and two childhood friends, Frank Leo and L.T. Hutton. Both have their own careers: Leo has produced tracks for several local artists, while Hutton worked on Krayzie Bone's sophomore album.

But Smitty is the center of attention at this hour-long powwow, dropping names like Dre and Alicia as if they were familiar friends instead of platinum-plus icons. He casually explains how he wrote "Show Me Your Soul" from the Bad Boys II soundtrack: "It was me, Lenny Kravitz, Pharrell [Williams], and Loon. We recorded it at Circle House." In a few hours he's flying out to Los Angeles for the inaugural Vibe Awards. Several weeks later, his work on another Bad Boys II hit, "Shake Ya Tailfeather," will help P. Diddy garner a Grammy nomination for best rap performance by a duo or group.

Smitty's focus isn't on writing bars for others, however, but building a solo career for himself. That journey hasn't gone as smoothly; there's been plenty of bumps in the road since he first drove out to Los Angeles in 2000. Born and raised in Little Haiti, the Bahamian upstart had been rapping around Miami for a few years, but found himself the odd man out in what was then considered the bass capital of the world. "I just went out there hungry, like, I gotta make it happen," he remembers. Luckily things started happening for him right away: Shortly after finding an apartment he "ran into this dude" whose godbrother, Calvin Valrie, managed artists. Valrie took him under his wing, introducing him to MC Lyte, who in turn referred him to Will Smith. Both artists used Smitty as a ghostwriter, paying him on a "work-for-hire" basis for several tracks. Smith tried to secure him his own label deal but, says Smitty, "things didn't go right." He eventually fell out with MC Lyte when the previously unreleased cuts quietly began turning up on sundry compilations overseas; since she paid him up front, he couldn't earn any additional money for publishing points, or copyrights, on his material.

Meanwhile Smitty linked up with Dr. Dre, who also put him to work in the studio. The two's relationship was much more informal: Smitty would write verses for Dre at $5000 a pop (including Truth Hurts' "Hollywood"), then record his own material. Unfortunately Dre's ongoing contractual woes with Death Row -- he secured his release from the infamous gangsta rap label in 1996 by turning over rights to several of his future solo albums -- meant that Smitty wouldn't get publishing rights for his work, which had become a top priority for him. "I didn't go out on bad terms with him," he says.

How was he able to hook up with Dr. Dre and Will Smith anyway? Modestly, Smitty, who has since returned to Miami while frequently flying to Los Angeles and New York for recording sessions, claims, "It's just networking, you can be anybody. If you've got the right connections, you'll get heard." However, he knowingly adds, "Anybody can get into the industry, but not everybody's going to get recognized."

Smitty's grateful for the industry attention he's received as a result of Billboard number-one pop hits like "Shake Ya Tailfeather" and B2K's "Bump, Bump, Bump." But he doesn't take his ghostwriting chores too seriously. He considers himself more of an MC who flips rhymes instead of catch phrases. When he met P. Diddy at a taping of the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he frankly told the superstar, "I'm not even trying to sign with Bad Boy. I just want to write." Granted, Bad Boy's roster of hip-pop MCs like Making of the Band would be an ill fit for someone who wants to be known as a hip-hop lyricist.

Instead Smitty has aligned himself with J Records, joining a growing roster led by Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean. Though he says he's "top priority" at the label, with an album scheduled to come out in the summer of 2004, he has already suffered a setback. His collaboration with Alicia Keys, "If I Were Your Woman," was hastily dropped from her chart-topping The Diary of Alicia Keys just before it was released on December 5. Though another high-profile rap track, "Streets of New York" with Nas and Rakim, didn't make the cut, either, the incident served as proof that nothing's a sure thing in the tumultuous music business.

Still Smitty isn't afraid to admit: "When I get big, buying yachts and things like that, I'm wanna talk about it, too. But I want to have it before I talk about it." He doesn't notice the confidence in his voice. For him, future success is a given.

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Mosi Reeves
Contact: Mosi Reeves