Hustlin' Flow

On the Saturday before the Monday that was Memorial Day 2006, the poolside party at Hotel Victor in Miami Beach was off the chain, even by hip-hop holiday standards. In a swelter of humid human heat thick with pot smoke, unmoved by even a breeze from the ocean across the street, a jamup of celebritude sweated and swam while clutching flutes of Cristal and plastic cups of Armadale vodka and orange juice. Elaborately underdressed female groupies swarmed the water. J.D. Williams, the handsome young breakout star of HBO's The Wire, stood on the table beside his cabana, seemingly stunned by the over-the-topness of it all.

Williams wasn't alone in his daze. Nelly and his St. Lunatics held center court on the hotel's veranda; Timbaland ditched his lo-carb diet for a platter of tacos; Uncle Luke and Trick Daddy moved from bar to bungalow, ungainly entourages in tow, as MTV's self-consciously "conscious" commentator Sway nearly swung his boom mike into Deco Drive's competing crew.

With bartenderettes, and thus drinks, a bit scarce, and marijuana paranoia high, tempers flared up here and there. A few people were on the receiving end of shoves, and a few of those ended up in the water — cum Rolexes, Blackberries, and diamond-encrusted Mercedes pendants.

In a flicker after the splash, an enormous man appeared at the edge of the pool, his girth separating would-be brawlers. Seemingly impervious to the tension in the air, the dude just stood there, sipping his cranberry juice, absorbing the Victor's crosscurrents. He was dressed in pressed denim shorts, an Arab T-shirt, a somewhat comical Gilligan hat, and sunglasses opaquing his expression.

This was Rick Ross to the rescue. He hung quietly for a few more minutes, nonthreateningly. His silent intervention calmed the proceedings, even as it upstaged the antics of this most highly profiling crowd.

"Supposed to be a party," Ross grumbled as he eventually lumbered to a seat by the pool. "I'm always surprised how different — different worse — some people act when they get two dollars in their pocket."

That's fitting because Ross, in the midst of his second successful career, is startlingly, shockingly, suddenly everyplace. Though he released his debut album, Port of Miami, to great acclaim September 1, he's barely begun the struggle to remain at the top of the pop charts. Yet he's been anointed the 305's new hip-hop heavyweight; the title is his to lose.

According to Billboard, Port of Miami shot to number one the week it was released in September. Ross pragmatically recounts his drug-dealing past in this autobiographical album of a cocaine dealer's exploits. From arrival via freighter to a bust in a strip club, the disc waxes docu-gritty rather than Scarface cinematic. In real life, Ross (born William Roberts in 1977 in Carol City) omitted the consequential chapter.

"I don't deny that was my past," Ross rumbled a few weeks ago while searching for a grouper sandwich at On the Rocks on the 79th Street Causeway. "There'd be no point; I'm from here and everyone else from here knows me from then. Everyone who is alive."

He says this as a matter of fact, not a threat. Ross often lyrically mentions Ran Rover, a fellow Carol City MC who was found dead in 2005 ("Thinkin' 'bout Ran Rover/Damn that was fucked up/Found him in the trunk with another dude"). And Ross's past beefs have dogged him from time to time: A scheduled September performance at downtown trouble magnet Metropolis was canceled after the club's management got jittery when rumors of Ross-hating armed thugs hit the block; the University of Miami backed out of its sponsorship of another Ross show.

But you wouldn't know it to see the hip-hop star on the street. And he's seen a lot, tooling around in his blue convertible Rolls Royce Phantom, which he is quick to point out that he purchased with proceeds from his trade in unregulated pharmaceuticals. "I wasn't thinking about the cars I was going to buy when I was making the record," Ross says.

Ross and the car are featured prominently in the video for "Hustlin'," the ubiquitous summer single from Port of Miami. Port could've been a landmark to rival Jay-Z's The Black Album. Typical of crunk and Dirty South hip-hop albums, though, the record contains eighteen tracks — about ten too many.

But Ross isn't just some no-talent making vanity music with his drug money. When he throws his throaty growl over million-dollar beats, the result is something more than typically Southern bounce music or Miami bass; unlike Trina and Trick, his scope is epic.

"I don't have a gimmick line, either," notes Ross. "I have a certain type of flow, and it's all about the flow; it's not about yelling 'Yeah!' or 'Thaaaat's riiiight!' or speaking in tongues or whatever. I try to kill every beat."

Listening to Port of Miami is submersive. It plunges into a narrative of cocaine-dealing, gun-toting, and sex-fueled nights in which no one ever sleeps or really even closes an eye. "What's missing is an elegant sense of meter. He often seems to be rapping through the beat, and instead of flowing lines, you get a series of stand-alone phrases," observed Kelefa Sanneh, the hip-hop critic and history keeper at the New York Times, in a late-September review of the disc.

Still, Ross's real-life rock tale, unusually direct delivery, and use of repeated incantations attracted the attention of Jay-Z in 2005. The hip-hop star then made way for Def Jam distribution of Ross's label, Miami's Slip-n-Slide. Ross says his street-wise image isn't compromised by affiliation with Def Jam; his objective is for people to hear his record.

"This album was twelve years in the making to be a classic," says Ross. "I had connections in the music world through business. Those individuals became aware of my interests, my writing, my talent.... I ghost-wrote raps for years. This is more than a decade of my life, and people who hear it — a lot of people — are going to stop and think about Miami."

Ross is similarly unapologetic and direct about the image he presents — as a gangster turned music mogul — to his fans.

"Look, my philosophy is this: Get the money," Ross says. "My objective for my people, the example I wish to set is: When we have more money, we have the agenda. Once we blacks control financial operations, that's where talking about other things begins."

Ross ties his identities — wealth accruer, sensitive musician, former hoodlum, lifeguard — together with a rather nimble sense of humor that doesn't come through clearly in lyrics or dialogue. The condition upon which Ross granted New Times an interview was that it "better not be boring." When we presented him with a word-association game, he provided the following multiword responses:

New Times: NASA

Rick Ross: You mean, the Space Shuttle? Why'd you pick that?

NT: I think it's about to take off again or something. Hawaii.

Ross: Weed! Really good weed! The best weed in the world. I think the best of the best is from ... which island is it? Kahoolawe?

NT: I don't know! Construction.

Ross: Oh, man, there's too much construction in Miami. I'm just driving, right now, trying to get something to eat, and I can tell it's going to be another hour before I even make it to the next light. That's too much construction.

NT: Multitasking.

Ross: No, I try to resist that. If you're really important, you're not tied down to a cell phone, an instant message. I try to do one thing at a time.

NT: Ocean liner.

Ross: Really big, large ships. Extremely large vessels.

NT: Um.

Ross: At ... the Port of Miami! Oh, I get it.

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Jean Carey
Contact: Jean Carey