Where's the Beat?

On the rooftop of its Washington Avenue headquarters, the label-mates of Miami Beach's SouthBeat Records — a motley crew of hip-hoppers, an R&B singer, and a scruffy, thirtysomething producer — are more or less piled on top of each other. The scraggly facial hair of Wrekonize, one of South Florida's most celebrated freestyle/battle MCs, scrapes against the long, red beard of Plex, the DJ/producer from local alt-rap duo Mayday. A few inches to their right, the equally bushy chin of hot producer Jim Jonsin lingers just above Mayday's other half, MC Bernbiz. "I'm close enough to feel you guys' breath," Jonsin relates with a nervous chuckle.

It's an uncomfortable arrangement, but photo sessions such as this one are oftentimes strained and taxing for the artists. And the guys try to mask their unease by cracking jokes about sexuality.

"We're going to look like the world's first gay hip-hop label," Bernbiz jokes. And when an onlooker suggests they take off their shirts for the homo-thug-luvin' demographic, only a couple of the artists crack anxious smiles.

But the unusually close quarters the group is enduring is an apt metaphor for SouthBeat's potential following its business realignment this past fall. What began as a promising new label has lost its initial steam and has only recently been resurrected with the help of one of Miami's hottest producers. His arrival does signal a more pop-oriented direction for the label, though, and some are concerned the true-skool hip-hop of Wrekonize and Mayday will be lost in the shuffle.

Those two acts have been central to SouthBeat's identity since its inception nearly two years ago. Although the 22-year-old Wrekonize has been a fixture in Miami's underground hip-hop community since the beginning of this decade — when he would venture down from his Fort Lauderdale home to compete in freestyle battles with local MCs such as Jin — he's best known outside the area for winning MTV's 2003 MC Battle of Champions, a competition that pitted MCs from around the nation against one another in an improvisational battle of wits. He was only nineteen at the time, and the pressure of performing in front of a national audience was daunting.

"I had a day job working at Quiznos, and I was saving up for gigs.... Coming up to New York was surreal. From being someone who was on the underground, listening to people like [freestyle legend] Supernatural and [Def Jux artist] Aesop Rock and battling in [underground hip-hop festival] Scribblejam, to appearing on TRL was absolutely crazy," Wrekonize comments.

Wrek was prepared, though. Like most seasoned battle MCs, he has a specific strategy to win over his audiences. Some try to integrate the crowd into it, while others study their opponents' histories beforehand and address their baggage. The key to Wrek's success is simple: listening to the raps of his opponents and directly addressing points made.

Wrekonize's talent and subsequent success did not escape the attention of Plex and Bernbiz, who were then trying to start up their own label, Guerilla Arc. The duo signed Wrek before he won the MTV competition, and when accolades began pouring in for him (including an article in XXL), they thought it best to approach promoter Greg Frankel, who had the right connections and managerial expertise to handle a larger act.

Meanwhile Plex and Bernbiz's own group, Mayday, was beginning to rise through the local ranks. The single "Quicksand," recorded as a one-off without any expectations of success, brilliantly blended Plex's piano-laced, formalistic hip-hop production with Bernbiz's populist lyrical themes that bemoaned the working-stiff life and hip-hop's focus on materialism and image. It closely reflected the golden era of NYC hip-hop, which spanned from approximately 1992 to 1996, and caught the attention of the local hip-hop community.

Frankel, impressed with both Wrek's talent and Mayday's material, contacted his investors, and SouthBeat was officially born in April 2004. Straight out of the gate, it was among the most well-financed underground hip-hop labels in the region. With a substantial investment from the smut purveyors at Bangbus, the leadership of Frankel, and a roster that included three of Miami's most talented hip-hop artists — Wrek, Bernbiz, and Plex — SouthBeat seemed destined to present Counterflow with a little friendly competition for the title of South Florida's most viable underground hip-hop label.

Somewhere along the way, though, the label began to flounder. To date, SouthBeat hasn't released a full-length album, and is only now beginning to release singles. And if not for their steady procession of live gigs, Mayday and Wrekonize would've fallen completely off the map. Questions have also sprouted up regarding the label's business practices, which many in the local hip-hop community feel are ethically dishonest and strategically foolish.

But the label's prospects do seem to be changing as of late. The label has certainly regained momentum with the September 2005 arrival of Jonsin, R&B singer J-Shin, as well as a couple of other managerial transplants from the Slip 'n' Slide organization. Jonsin has been on the scene now for nearly twenty years, first appearing as a bass producer and then with Trick Daddy and Slip 'n' Slide. Recently he has captured the Miami pop Zeitgeist, producing such hits as Pretty Ricky's "Grind with Me" and Trina's "Here We Go." Frankel calls this move a "realignment" before pausing, thinking better of his phrasing, and choosing the much more palatable term "expansion."

Jonsin's taking a lead role in the development of a local imprint is promising. And certainly no one will complain about another album from J-Shin, whose 2000 debut sold nearly 400,000 copies. The label has also taken under its wing Madrid-based artist Ravito.

Though this posturing would seem to marginalize the roles of Wrek and Mayday — a theory furthered by the fact that newcomer J-Shin is scheduled to drop the label's first full length next month — the artists are optimistic, if guardedly so, and hope Jonsin's addition will lead to not only more output but also a more polished finished product.

This spring Mayday will release what is bound to be a successful single, "Groundhog Day." The song features former Goodie Mob member and hook-slinger extraordinaire Cee-Lo, and there are plans to shoot a video. Wrekonize, meanwhile, has an EP coming out that features guest spots by Ras Kaas and production from DJ Spinna.

"I could be doing a million mixtapes like everyone else in Miami does," Bernbiz says. "But I'm in a place where I don't have to give away my music. We have a buzz going without having an album. Trust me, we're itching to get this album out."

"It is a machine that we're dealing with," Plex interjects. "And that is frustrating at times. But I haven't had to punch a timecard in nearly a year."

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Sam Chennault
Contact: Sam Chennault