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The owner of the hip-hop label Lil' Joe Records pulls up to his northwest Miami-Dade offices most mornings in a true player's ride, an aquamarine Jaguar S-2000. He wears the right accessories for his role. A diamond-crusted Rolex jangles from his right wrist. Fat gold rings glisten on both hands. He even carries a 9 mm automatic pistol tucked into a pants pocket. If this were the beginning of a movie, a deep bass track would announce his arrival.
But when the Jaguar's door swings open and Joe Weinberger steps from the car, the soundtrack scratches to a halt: Weinberger is short and white. Very white. Today he is wearing a plaid shirt tucked into khaki pants and Vibram-soled oxfords. His words and gait are deliberate, suggesting anything but braggadocio. Minus the jewelry Weinberger looks for all the world like a tax attorney, which, until a few years ago, is precisely what he was.
In the early '90s, South Florida's reigning booty-rapper, Luther Campbell (a.k.a. Luke Skyywalker), hired Weinberger away from the carpeted hallways of a swank Brickell Key law firm to help manage a growing musical empire and its attendant lawsuits. Within five years Campbell was bankrupt and Weinberger had purchased the rights to his music. Rather than return to the comfy confines of his former life, the 42-year-old lawyer, who is single and childless, opted to launch his own label, Lil' Joe.
In doing so Weinberger joined some pretty rough company. Rap impresarios such as Suge Knight, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Campbell himself have all been charged with violent offenses. Ted Lucas, the owner of Miami's booming Slip 'N Slide label, keeps two live .45-caliber bullets on his desk to, as he says, "let 'em know I mean business." The rule in hip-hop is simple: If you're going to pimp outlaw music, you'd best be an outlaw yourself. All of which would seem to make Weinberger -- an upper-middle-class Jew with enough diplomas to cover a wall -- an odd fit.
But a few months ago, folks began reconsidering that impression. A lawsuit filed in March by a former employee alleges that, behind Weinberger's nebbishy façade, lurks the heart of a true thug. Nestled in a standard breach of contract complaint are allegations that Weinberger ordered a car bombing and hired thugs to make a series of death threats against an employee. Weinberger calls the lawsuit a frivolous shakedown and has countersued for defamation of character.
To Campbell, who gave Weinberger his start in the biz, the allegations are evidence of a man desperately seeking to reinvent himself. "What I hear about him is that he's obsessed with being me," Campbell says. "I hear he's running around with his hat turned backward and gold around his neck and rings and shit like that."
Weinberger's response is typically laconic. If he is an anomaly in the rap world, he insists, it's because his company is so clean it squeaks. "I've never been arrested; I pay all my taxes. I do everything legally," he notes quietly. He scoffs at the notion that he's a wannabe: He was wearing a Rolex and driving luxury cars before he was in the music business. "To me this stuff isn't hip-hop. Hip-hop would be a Rolex that was all diamonds, including the face."Miami's inner-city music scene is a world away from the small town on Long Island where Weinberger grew up. As a teenager in the late '60s and early '70s, he wore his hair a little long (never long enough for a ponytail) and grooved to the riffs of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and the Byrds. He attended concerts, but a career in music was never his ambition.
Instead Weinberger applied himself to studying. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School with a baccalaureate business degree in 1979, and then enrolled in the University of Miami Law School. "I sat next to him for a year," recalls Miami entertainment lawyer Richard Wolfe, whom Weinberger would later hire. Although the two didn't socialize, Weinberger came across as a workaholic. "He worked hard," Wolfe says. "He's a smart guy."
It was in law school, Weinberger recounts, that he began casually listening to rap pioneers such as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy. "Most people in college were listening to that stuff," he remembers. "I just liked the message; it was interesting."
In 1984 Weinberger finished off his education with a master's degree in tax law at New York University. But the palm trees beckoned, and Weinberger returned to Miami to begin his career. By 1991 he was working at one of the city's top firms, Bailey & Hunt. That's where he first met Luther Campbell, front man for the group 2 Live Crew.
Back then 2 Live Crew was putting Miami's rap scene on the map with bawdy bass-music hits such as "Me So Horny" and "Banned in the U.S.A." The outspoken Campbell became a convenient target for politicians and cops who decried his sexually overt lyrics. What's more Campbell was investing his money as soon as he got it in nightclubs, recording studios, even a mortgage agency. He was getting sued for everything from obscenity (by the Broward Sheriff's Office) to skimping on royalty payments. This made life at Luke Records,Campbell's recording agency, tumultuous -- and exciting. A sense of purpose pervaded the place. "All of us, we wanted to see Luke make it, the company make it," recalls a former employee.