One Live Jew

After years in the shadow of Luther Campbell, Joe Weinberger has emerged with his own label -- and a tainted reputation

In 1994 Campbell fired Weinberger and sued him for tortuous interference in the 2 Live Crew negotiations. The case was later dismissed.

As it turns out, Campbell's suspicions might not have been so misplaced. In his years as company adviser, Weinberger had seen the tremendous profit potential of the business, and he reacted accordingly in the aftermath of Luke Records' collapse. Rather than returning to the cloister of corporate law, Weinberger decided to launch his own music label.

In a postbankruptcy fire sale overseen by Wolfe, Weinberger bought the rights to 2 Live Crew's music for about $800,000 plus the outstanding money he claims Campbell owed him. Weinberger then signed the remaining members of 2 Live Crew to record with him, along with other Luke Records artists, such as Poison Clan and Bust Down. Thus was born Lil' Joe Records.

Lil' Joe Records has not grown much, but plans are big
Steve Satterwhite
Lil' Joe Records has not grown much, but plans are big

To Campbell, Weinberger's actions smack of personal betrayal. "He's selling stolen property," the rapper declares coldly.

Weinberger counters that his decisions were simply good investments. "When you can buy something that's worth $10 to $15 million for about ten cents on the dollar," he explains, "that's an excellent business opportunity."

Unfortunately as the top man, Weinberger learned firsthand how difficult it can be to run the show. The 2 Live Crew members he recruited were no happier at Lil' Joe than they had been at Luke Records. They put out two albums, 1996's Shake a Lil' Somethin' and 1998's The Real One. Although they may still be under some contractual obligations to Lil' Joe, the group has splintered. (Mark Ross was so upset with Weinberger over his alleged treatment that he keyed the record executive's car, prompting one Lil' Joe employee to chase him down the street. The two men faced off, but no one was injured.)

Chris Wong-Won and David Hobbs declined to comment for this story. Ross, who has found God and is recording a gospel album, says only: "I hate and regret that I met [Weinberger]. At first everything is cool with him, but when things don't go his way, he can get nasty with you."

It was an accusation Weinberger would hear again.The unwritten rule of any hip-hop label is that you have to hire staffers who know what's happening on the street, because part of what's being sold is a street image. "Joe definitely knows the music industry," says attorney Richard Wolfe, who was hired by Weinberger to represent Lil' Joe as soon as it was founded. "The only weakness he has, the same as me, is that we're upper-middle-class Jewish guys; we don't have rap ears. But he recognized his limitations, and he relies on the people around him."

A successful label, however, needs more than just rap ears. It requires a more specific kind of street credibility, the sense that the operation is tough enough to defend its turf -- by any means necessary. Weinberger hired several young men whose qualifications in this regard would seem impeccable.

Jackson Couamin, an articulate and energetic 32-year-old Haitian American, is in charge of A&R (artists and repertoire). He has an arrest record dating to 1986 for everything from armed robbery to grand theft auto, though he has never been convicted in Miami-Dade. François Capems, another Haitian American, worked at the company until last winter. Since 1987 K Ponce, as he is known, has been charged more than ten times for crimes ranging from assault to armed robbery to auto theft. In 1994 a judge sentenced him to three years for grand theft, resisting arrest, and escape. A third employee, Sammy Flanders, spent five years in prison for burglary.

"Three people currently working with me have felony records and are trying to clean up their lives," Weinberger says earnestly. "And I told them I don't care about their past as long as they do a good job for me. Now they have jobs and real lives."

But these hires were not simply a testament to Weinberger's social conscience. They helped establish Lil' Joe's street cred. And perhaps just as important, they surrounded Weinberger with men who knew how to handle dangerous situations. "I've probably had five death threats against me here," Weinberger notes casually, as if discussing electrical outages in the office or a problem air-conditioning unit. "We've also had a Suburban [SUV] stolen from here." The point is clear: A certain amount of crime comes with the territory.

Weinberger should know. In the early '90s, he was robbed outside Campbell's studio on NE 72nd Street. Ever since then the lawyer has carried his permitted 9 mm pistol.

The gun didn't help him on the evening of January 8, 1997. Weinberger and a man named James Byrd were leaving Lil' Joe's offices when a black man in a skullcap jumped out and leveled a pistol at Weinberger, grabbed his shirt, and ordered him and his companion to fork over their wallets, Rolex bracelets, and other items.

Given the obvious risks, it might seem odd that Weinberger continues to don expensive jewelry. He insists he wears the stuff not because he's trying to play the part of a fat-cat, hip-hop exec but simply because he likes the look. The Jaguar? Same deal. He seems baffled that Campbell and others portray him as a wannabe simply because his taste runs to the flashy.

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