Thug Paradise

There are no dark-haired Europeans or designer Italian suits at Billboardlive tonight. No anorexic, blond model-types. Tonight this smoke-and-mirrored Eurotrash playground has been transformed into a thug heaven -- a house party for towners from da city across the causeway in the northwest sections of Miami. Here to celebrate the release of Trick Daddy's fifth album, Thug Holiday, it's just the fellas and dem hos they knows shaking that ass. For these folks, Trick is Robin Hood, stealing the dreams of the rich and delivering them to the ghetto hungry.

Freestyle Steve of the Sugar Hill DJs is prepping the early crowd with a set for those he calls Tupac Addicts. The few in attendance just after midnight recite Tupac lyrics word for word as though Shakur himself possesses their bodies and speaks through them from the grave. "Lord, I suffer through tha years and shed so many tears." In honor of the deceased rapper and recently departed South Florida DJ legend Uncle Al, the crowd bow their heads and raise two fingers in the air. A dreadlocked woman testifies as though this were a Baptist church.

Indeed the gathering looks more like a religious experience than a record-release party. Apart from a few local print outlets and the host radio station 99 Jamz (WEDR 99.1 FM), there is a surprising shortage of media. Are Trick Daddy and his commercially successful label Slip-N-Slide just a novelty to the likes of XXL magazine? Is the fact that he has survived the temperamental climate changes of rap music to do a fifth album not noteworthy to Source magazine?

Then again, the music tonight is not the typical New York DJ rah rah. Instead a dose of that Southern Hospitality is served up through oversized speakers, just as it has been for years by South Florida DJ crews. "Addictive" by Truth Hurts sends a small group into a dancing frenzy. Freestyle Steve leaps back and forth from old to new -- "Still Fly" by the Big Tymers, then "Before I Let Go" by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. He even throws in some dancehall and soca for good measure. It's like one of those house parties in the Eighties when mix tapes were more popular with the youth in South Florida than urban radio. The mobile DJs of the day were the personalities that provided the inside track to the latest dance crazes like Throwing the D and the Fila. Freestyle Steve talks over the records the way that mobile South Florida DJ crews like Jam Pony Express, the Ghetto Style DJs, and the Triple M DJs used to do. "One time for dem boys out up top in the VIP!" shouts the dancing DJ. The whole while he wears a smile, not just to show off his grill, but also to show the people how to have a good time.

Tonight even the VIP is filled with dem ol' boys from da city, local hustlers simply getting their swerve on in the company of beautiful women wearing outfits straight out of rap videos. Platinum and gold jewelry gleams. Nails done to the nines. No hairdo has been revealed before its time. These buxom princesses are full and curvy minus any silicone enhancement. It is almost as though they have been bred for this occasion, fed a strict diet of Similak and cornbread. The most popular look: plump cleavage, exposed midriff, full behinds stuffed into the smallest hot pants, legs locked up in knee-high boots. The VIP looks like a po' hustler's convention without the fur.

Hip-hop dignitary CO, from the Slip-N-Slide group Tre +, dances with a tall slim mulatto woman with long, wavy hair. The atmosphere is thick with smoke from a potent mix of tobacco and weed. This is no chronic. There may not yet be a street name for what they are toking on. Bottles of Cristal champagne and Skyy Vodka sit on every table. The VIP partiers move in slow motion. They don't seem to be so much celebrating the release of Trick's album as they are having a good time listening to music with friends.

Near the stairwell on the second level there is a man buckled over on the floor. Has he fallen ill from too much alcohol or is there a melee unnoticed by security? No, in the middle of this multimillion-dollar establishment, several men have started up a game of craps. The game is a brief one. The wagering gets too rich for one of the gamblers, who gracefully bows out. Following his lead, the rest of the fellas -- sporting Allen Iverson braids, brush-cut dos, or wave caps and wearing Gucci sun visors, Louis Vuitton short sets, and Izod and Sean John T-shirts -- sip rum and coke or Hennessey on ice while they exchange friendly pats on the back. The women standing around poppin' coochies to the music aren't much amused by boyish street games. They chat among themselves and occasionally dab their hair with products to keep their coifs looking dipped.

There is one thing thugs and fashion models have in common: Everyone must arrive late. Wearing a baseball cap and his famous gold-toothed grill, local rap legend J.T. Money (of the early-Nineties rap crew Poison Clan) leans over by the bar and watches the crowd slowly pile in. Everyone is waiting for the man who love da kids. Suddenly there is a commotion near the stairs leading to the third floor. Worm, an intimidating security guard, clears away a pile of eager bodies from the stairwell.

"Everybody gotta go back the other way," he shouts. "Back up!"

Somewhere in the gridlock, CO slaps five with a man wearing a black wave cap and a beige flannel pajama shirt over a black tank top. A camera's flashing bulb reveals the self-proclaimed "ol' sneaky, ol' freaky, ol' geechy-ass nigga" himself. Trick Daddy patiently stands shaking hands and signing autographs. His homeboy demeanor makes it hard to tell whether the crowd gathered around him is made up of friends or fans. Grinning like a man who has smoked about twelve blunts packed with a pound of weed, he greets everyone the same. Some of his admirers launch pen and paper at him while others reach out to touch him or pull him close to offer praise in his ear. At the center of the commotion Trick remains calm. There are no playa haters or "flodgin' ass niggas" here tonight. Worm is the only security in the vicinity. The entire club feels like it is filled with people from Trick's neighborhood.

CO leads the group in prayer. "We thank God for this occasion," he says solemnly. The men join hands above their heads and bow as they count their blessings. Surviving the streets of Brownsville or Carol City to succeed in the fledgling and often disrespected game of Miami rap is cause enough to praise the Almighty.

If Trick is the thug messiah, then labelmate Trina is the thug madonna, dressed in Chanel from head to toe. The Diamond Princess carries a large Chanel bag that could double as a suitcase. Red Chanel earrings dangle from her ears. While Trick flits among the faithful, she sits quietly with her own entourage. With her designer clothes and high-priced flash, she is the dream incarnate for her adoring fans.

Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m., Trick takes the stage with the entire Slip-N-Slide posse in tow. There is label CEO Ted Lucas and labelmates Rick Ross, CO, Money Mark, Iconz, J, Tre +. WEDR radio personality Supa Cindy also squeezes onstage alongside 99 Jamz mixer DJ Irie and lots of unidentified Trick Daddy friends and hangers-on. As Trick shares the microphone and the spotlight with his pals onstage, he looks small. He couldn't weigh much more than 150 pounds, but in the eyes of everyone here he is a giant.

CO notices that the audience not only sings along with old tunes from Thugs Are Us and, they can also recite the lyrics to most of the unreleased songs. He threatens to follow the crowd out to their cars to confiscate the bootleg CDs they must have copped in order to have studied the material so thoroughly. "You ain't download nothin' from the Internet," he jokes. "You ain't even got no computer!"

When the show ends around 4:00 a.m. one of the members of Unda Presha, a Slip-N-Slide teen rap act, reminds the crowd of the real party scheduled after the show. The posse plans to head back to the city to the strip club Rolexx. Billboardlive is nice and all, but you get the sense that Trick is ready to relax with a little stripper comfort. This hometown boy has basked in his moment of Beach nightlife, but now it is time to take it to the house. After all, baby, he's a thug.

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Lee Williams