South Beach as Thug Central

A month ago Miami Beach city planners sat down and soberly mapped out their vision for the future of South Beach, specifically the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. It's a future in which families stroll along a high-end shopping strip and eat pricey meals unmolested by street performers and panhandlers.

But a different future body-slammed South Beach this past Memorial Day weekend. Namely that big black phenomenon known as hip-hop, which descended in an adrenalized surge. An estimated quarter-million revelers swamped hotels and restaurants, spilling into the streets in a bling-bling parade of ice, Lincoln Navigators, and Motorola two-way pagers, taking everyone by surprise. It all begs the question: Is South Beach ready to be thug paradise?

No one -- not city planners, not the police, not even the club owners -- was prepared for how popular South Beach had become to hot rappers and the middle-class kids who followed them here. The celebrity wattage lounging poolside that weekend could have powered a Los Angeles blackout. Performers Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, and Eve sashayed through the VIP rooms of clubs like Level and the Living Room. Boxer Pernell Whittaker, along with a roster of NBA players, muscled through the throngs. "It was the most affluent crowd I've ever seen on the beach," said Gerry Kelly, co-owner of Level. "And there was amazing star power here. The Beach needed this after the recession."

Indeed the area's nightlife staple of idle rich playboys, many from Europe and South America, and their requisite models has dwindled lately. The hip-hoppers are filling the void. South Beach's glitz is a natural gravitation point, especially since the musical genre is going through a phase of excess right now, much like the "arena rock" stage of rock and roll. The money's rolling in, and some think it's best to play it as it lays.

Club owners, thirsting for a little celebrity juice to enliven the strip, will eat hip-hop up as long as it means profits. Sure enough Memorial Day weekend's events, rowdiness aside, showed off the clout of the new black middle class, which may be sampling the former playground of the Euro elite. "The crowd that was here is not here anymore," says Shawn Lewis, who is involved in a variety of clubs on the Beach, including the Living Room. "So now we're marketing more to the urban hip-hop crowd."

The real marketing, however, went on in New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, by out-of-town promoters pumping South Beach as ground-zero party town. Angie Martinez, a DJ at New York's Hot 97, hosted her own bash here, as did DJs from Philly and Atlanta. Ironically the one city-sanctioned event, Louis Oliver's Urban Fashion Week, was hardly the catalyst for the deluge of attention. "Here in New York the radio just kept talking about all the parties in South Beach," recounts Elliott Wilson, editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine XXL. "Everyone in New York knew they were going to Miami. They just didn't know it in Miami."

Like Don King's hair, Memorial Day was black culture at its most assertive. Even if the crowd had behaved, all that gangsta-rap posing would have been enough to scare the Amex out of the mostly white, Anglo, Jewish, and Hispanic Beach residents and officials. But many of the revelers didn't behave, and after roughly two hundred arrests, three shootings, two stabbings, and three sexual assaults, nobody is about to say their fears were misplaced. That has prompted a racially coded dialogue. At a planning-board meeting in the weekend's aftermath, promoter Michael Tronn blamed the city for attracting "the wrong kind of demographic." Tony Miros, who writes a nightlife column for Miami Metro magazine, wrote an open letter to the city commission and the mayor. "The disgraceful, rude, and unlawful behavior that I personally witnessed on Washington, Collins, and Ocean Drive this weekend was something I thought I would never see. It was literally a nightmare. Our town was under siege," Miros vented. "Were our police officers overwhelmed? Were they too afraid to take the appropriate actions? Or were they trying to be politically correct and not take action on one particular group of troublemakers?"

Tronn and Miros's idea is to make the city more "selective" in what events it allows in the future. But at a press conference, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez declined to get embroiled. "I'm not sure canceling Urban Fashion Week will solve the problem," he said. "Remember, Miami Beach is a tourist destination."

City Commissioner Nancy Liebman says she wasn't happy with the way visitors "felt like they could do whatever they wanted" but attributes such behavior to the lack of force shown by the city, which didn't enforce its own rules, such as making sure promoters registered their events. "People talk about “Oh, it's a racial thing,'" she says. "But it's not. They can have hip-hop concerts and things here, but we have to have the right controls in place."

The concept of race was so problematic that the Miami Herald didn't use the words "black" or "African American" until its followup stories, a week after the action. Some Miami Beach police officers, paralyzed by the same issue, decided to substitute the word "Canadian" for "black" in radio transmissions, as in, "There's a large group of Canadians gathered on Washington and Fourteenth."

Hip-hop's history on the Beach has always been controversial. Luther Campbell still complains that it was official resistance to a black-owned club -- Luke's on the Beach, which he opened on Fifth Street in the early Nineties -- that shut down his place. And the hip-hop business conference "How Can I Be Down?" had to take a three-year hiatus after the Beach's city manager complained of the fights, littering, and vandalism that dogged the event in 1996.

Ted Lucas, president of the Miami-based rap and R&B label Slip 'N Slide Records, home to Trick Daddy and Trina, is candid about all this. "All that rowdiness came in with the young black males. I ain't gonna lie to you. Things happened at Woodstock [1999] too. They tore all kinds of stuff up there. It ain't just black youth. But look how much money it brought in! I know people who were paying $6000 to rent an apartment! All the hotels were sold out. I just think we need to be prepared for it better. Just try to keep control of things. This is great for the city, and it's great for Miami to be known for this."

His point is, that along with the troublemakers, there was an equal number of well-behaved, MasterCard-toting folks down here to relax and have fun.

Some of the turbulence falls on the clubs themselves. "We were well prepared for the events we had knowledge of," says Miami Beach Police Department spokesman Al Boza. "But there were events we had no idea about. This happened at places like Club Level and others, where they may have sold tickets well in excess of their capacity." Level has a 2000-person capacity, and there were at least 3000 hip-hoppers outside. And these would-be patrons, unable to get into other clubs for which they had tickets, understandably were upset.

But Gerry Kelly flings it right back at the cops: "The biggest problem was the police and street control," he observes. "There were no barricades the first two nights, so crowds outside the clubs blocked traffic. I believe we owe more respect to the tourists that come down here to spend their money."

Indeed Washington Avenue's Level closed Saturday night when the crowd outside its door became unruly, a bouncer was slashed by a knife, and police had to move in to control things. A few blocks away, the Living Room, which hosted parties for Jay-Z and R. Kelly, had to be shut down Sunday when the mob clamoring to get in swelled to 4000 and spilled into the street, according to Shawn Lewis. "The city wasn't prepared, and all the signs were there that it was going to be a very big weekend. All the hotels were booked up. I'm not happy about how things turned out at all," Lewis says. "Remember, I live here too."

Some locals in the music scene knew better. Both Luther Campbell and Slip 'N Slide's Lucas held their events on Virginia Key, away from the maelstrom.

So why did all this break now? It's no mistake that the only comparison people seem to be making regarding the weekend's events is with the 1999 Super Bowl game between the white-bread Denver Broncos, and the funky and largely black Atlanta Falcons and their fans. That weekend turned into an impromptu hip-hop festival as well. More recently many rappers have been coming to Miami to record and shoot videos and actually get work done. "A lot of people are recording [here] to escape the hustle and bustle of New York," XXL's Elliott Wilson says. Jay-Z and Sisqó shot videos down here, while DMX and the Cash Money Crew are recording in Miami studios. Don't expect the Beach's allure to fade anytime soon, Wilson adds. "It's definitely a hot trend right now."

Then, of course, there is the perennial reason why the Beach, and South Florida in general, remains popular: the overt sexuality. As Lucas says, "In Miami you get what you can get in Jamaica or Mexico, and you don't need your passport. The beaches, the girls. There's nowhere like Miami." What adds to the attraction is that South Beach is no black ghetto. The races -- Latin, white, black -- mingle here in a uniquely sensual stew. And perhaps middle-class hip-hoppers enjoy the frightened looks they get from upper-middle-class Latins and whites, who mistakenly think they're seeing real gangstas swelling the former Euro-glam playground.

Some escaped the weekend unscathed. Ken Smith, co-owner of crobar, claims he had no idea what was coming and luckily "misbooked." "I had my normal programming," he says. "I had my gay night Sunday, like always." Needless to say it wasn't a big draw for the homies. Consequently the club was not bum-rushed.

The risk is that any event with a predominantly black audience could now be tainted by that weekend. Many locals were warily awaiting the Soul Beach Music Festival that began May 31 at the Miami Arena and featured performers such as Erykah Badu, despite those concerts attracting a more mature audience.

The comedian Sinbad, scheduled to perform at Soul Beach, arrived in town just as the Memorial Day partiers were leaving. He cut the kids a lot of slack. "Look what our parents were saying about us back in the Seventies," he commented. "The hip-hoppers are just the new version of that. Still, it's not a God-given right to go out and create havoc." In fact Sinbad couldn't check into his South Beach hotel room when he first got here. "It was trashed," he noted.

Staff Writers Juan Carlos Rodriguez and Susan Eastman contributed to this story.

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