By Liz Tracy
By Alex Rendon
By Abel Folgar
By Lee Zimmerman
By David Rolland
By Lee Zimmerman
By Alex Rendon
By Liz Tracy
"Drive Me Crazy" by Don Yute featuring Amerika
Six cops sit in patrol cars outside Diamonds Cabaret, a swank-meets-hood black strip club on the western, industrial edge of North Miami Beach. It's just before midnight, and three security guards stand near the door. The club once had a bad reputation it's trying to outgrow — but the feeling that tonight is going to be a wild night is inescapable.
For starters, it's Miami rapper J.T. Money's birthday, and a bunch of local rappers and producers are expected to attend his bash: Trick Daddy, the Dunk Riders, Grind Mode, Ball Greezy, and a crew from Miami's Poe Boy Records. A lot of these hip-hop artists don't clock much radio play, but their songs are anthems in urban neighborhoods throughout South Florida. And a big portion of their popularity is related to one thing: Their music is played at local strip clubs.
A place like Diamonds is the perfect barometer to judge what's hot with urban music. Songs still months away from radio play are on regular rotation here. And girls who work at Diamonds consider themselves to be the best black strippers in Miami — so the place is always a party.
Only moments after stepping inside the small lobby, where admission is paid and patrons are patted down, there's already a touch of trouble. A reggae artist named Don Yute and his manager are here to see the DJ. But the girls in charge of admission won't let them in for free.
"It's $10, boo," a stylish black woman with long, curly hair says with attitude. "Your name is not on the list."
"What do you mean, we can't come in? This is Don Yute," his manager says with confidence. "Tell the DJ Don Yute is here."
Don Yute, born Jason Williams, is a 30-year-old reggae artist from Port Antonio, Jamaica. Yute isn't a big name in his native country, let alone Miami. But they're hoping to slip Yute's latest single to one of the DJs. That single, "Drive Me Crazy," is a sexy, up-tempo dancehall track geared toward erotic dancers. Doors could open if they can get the record played tonight — most likely by tipping the DJ ten bucks.
But they've got to make it inside first. Eddie "DJ Fattboi" Desrosier, 28, who spins music at Diamonds and bears an uncanny resemblance to the animated character Shrek, doesn't recognize Yute's name. He won't approve them to get in for free. Opting not to pay $10 apiece, the manager, in desperation, slips me a CD of Yute's music.
"Tell him to play track five," he says while being ushered out the door. "Track five! That song is perfect for the strip clubs."
A bouncer turns in my direction. "We get this all the time," he says. "Nowadays, all of the local artists come here to try and get their music played."
For a lot of urban musicians in South Florida, the popularity of their music inside black strip clubs is directly linked to their success. More new songs are debuted in these erotic venues than on any mainstream local radio station. And it appears to be a phenomenon only in the dozen or so South Florida strip clubs that cater to a black clientele while other clubs play mostly Top 40.
In the eyes of artists and record-label executives, titty bars are an ideal place to test new material. If girls can bump and grind to a new song and it entices guys to spend money, there's a good chance the track might be a hit.
Jack "DJ Suicide" LaLanne spent 15 years working as a radio personality at 99 Jamz and as a DJ at strip clubs. "It's very common for artists to perform in strip clubs to stay relevant in the streets," he says. "That's where most major records are being broken anyway. All these new songs on the radio that you hear, even national stuff, it doesn't get broken on the radio. Those songs are big in strip clubs first, whether it's a Young Jeezy or whoever. Radio is last nowadays."
The 28-year-old DJ Chico, who declines to use his real name because he works for pirate radio stations, also spins records inside black strip clubs. He's currently working at Flavors, a black topless bar in Pompano Beach. Chico asserts that DJs in these venues fill the void that mainstream radio stations leave open by not supporting enough local artists.
"I feel like the radio stations, they don't play music for the people," Chico says. "And it's not right. The little person, they don't have any other opportunity to get their music heard, so they come to titty bars."
It was the mid-1980s when local hip-hop entrepreneur Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell and his 2 Live Crew partners began using strip clubs as their venue of choice for breaking records. They claim they were the pioneers of breaking into music via strip clubs.
"I went to Tootsie's back in like '83 for the first time," Campbell recalls. "And when I saw what was going on, being creative, I said, 'I'ma get this 2 Live Crew group and create music around sexually oriented dancing.' "
"Just Know Dat" by Flo Rida
In Campbell's eyes, strip clubs at that point were mostly for bikers and white guys. The music played at local clubs was for that same demographic, with guitar-heavy rock of the Alice Cooper and Poison variety. Campbell saw an opportunity for Southern rap to sneak in.
In 1986, 2 Live Crew's first single, "Throw the Dick," was a hit at Miami strip clubs like Coco's and Club Rolexx (now called Club Lexx). National attention followed almost immediately. Most bands at the time spent promo money on videos. But Campbell said he figured out that making a song popular in topless bars throughout South Florida, and eventually around the country, ensured that it would be played during lap dances for years.
"Everyone was trying to figure out, 'How is he selling 500,000 records out of his mother's wash house, with no radio play whatsoever?' " Campbell recalls. "I'll tell you how: 'Cause I captured the strip-club market, and the streets started following, that's how." The group's label, Luke Skyywalker Records, was the first black-owned indie label to notch two gold records, and much of it was attributed to the group's popularity in nude cabarets around the world.
Campbell eventually split from 2 Live Crew in 1993 to start his solo career, but group member Chris Wongwon — AKA Fresh Kid Ice, AKA Chinaman — recalls those early days of titty-bar promotions the same way. "Yo, we figured out early on, if you got 50 strippers all dancing and shaking they asses to one song, saying 'That's my jam,' the guys in the club are gonna be like, 'Oh shit, that's my jam too,' " Wongwon said by phone from his home in Miramar. "It really is that simple."
Given 2 Live Crew's raunchy image and the highly sexual nature of their songs, there weren't other outlets that could play their earliest recordings.
"All those songs like 'Pop That Pussy' and 'Face Down Ass Up' could never work on radio, so we used the strip clubs," Wongwon says. "And we were doing that way before anybody else was."
"Radio stations in South Florida have gotten so bad, it's like you hear the same 12 songs all day long," Campbell says. "But when you go to the strip clubs, you're hearing all kind of new stuff. The girls listen to music and request songs that they like. 'Cause they want to dance to songs that will generate them the most revenue. There's an entire music culture that exists inside of these [strip] clubs if you pay attention to it. When I'm in there, I always watch what the girls are requesting — it helps keep me current."
It's early Sunday morning at Flavors in Pompano Beach, and a black woman wearing a cropped red polo shirt, red-and-white panties, and black heels works the center pole. She dips down and flexes her butt cheeks repeatedly the way a bodybuilder flexes his pecs. Patrons start tossing dollars toward the stage, yelling "Pop that shit, baby" as she blushes.
In the DJ booth, Chico blares music perfect for rump-shaking. Lyrically, none of the songs are erotic, but in strip clubs, the beat is more important. In between calling different girls up to the stage, Chico can't pass up the opportunity to talk shit on the microphone.
"Fuck 99 Jamz," he says. "They don't play local artists the way we do in here, so fuck 'em.' " And with that, he drops Miami rapper Bizzle's "Naked Hustle," a catchy strip-club anthem marketed solely at erotic venues.
Asked why he disses local radio, Chico leans and says, " 'Cause they need to start playing music that the people like. Man, I been playing Bizzle and Grind Mode and Billy Blue for so long. Those other stations need to catch up."
Any artist savvy enough to get his music played in South Florida strip clubs stands to benefit from it. For instance, Opa-Locka rapper Brisco recently signed a deal with Cash Money Records based off street buzz alone. It wasn't until recently that Brisco started getting national radio play, and his new song, "Just Know Dat," featuring Flo Rida, is now in heavy rotation. Before that, strip clubs were a lifeline. "Sometimes a hood spin," he says, "is bigger than a radio spin."
He tests all of his songs in the strip clubs. "That's where all my records get broken," Brisco continues. "If the girls can bounce their ass to it, it's a hit. Down here, you can give a nigga $10 and say 'Play my shit,' and it's a way more cost-effective way to get your music heard."
Miami rapper Billy Blue, who recently signed with Poe Boy Records, got his start the same way. "When you're an unsigned artist, money has to be spent," he says. "Even if it's just giving $10, $15, or $30 to $40 to the DJ to play my record, I'll do it."
Blue also knows to use the dancers to get his record circulated. "They move from club to club all the time, so you always treat the dancers well and tip them good so they'll request your songs at whatever clubs they work at."
"Danger" by Lee Major
Blue once moonlighted as a DJ at Angels All Nude Revue in North Miami. He played his own music enough that dancers mentioned it everywhere else they worked. "Now I'm signed to Poe Boy. And being big in the strip clubs and the streets had a lot to do with that."
Near the end of the night at Flavors, two guys walk over to the DJ booth, and Chico hands them his own mix CD. Every night, he makes new ones on the spot from the music on his hard drive.
"How much?" one of the guys asks.
"Just give the money to the girls," Chico replies. "As long as you take care of them, I'm straight."
Before the night is over, most of the dancers come up and tip him $10, which is a club rule, except for one girl who says she's short.
"Hey, Chico, I'ma give it to you tomorrow," she says with sad eyes.
"Hold on. Girl, you need to stop doing this," Chico quips back.
Later, he explains: "Money in strip clubs can be an issue sometimes. Some girls appreciate the DJ and tip accordingly, but others don't."
Meanwhile, some DJs don't need to worry about getting tips from the dancers when the artists keep slipping them money.
The inside of Diamonds Cabaret is like an adults' playground. There's a full-length basketball court for guys, a barber on hand, free Hennessy shots, and large, thick asses galore. Young girls with swollen backsides that defy gravity gyrate naked around the club, and DJ Fattboi is doing a delicate balancing act of spinning music that girls like but that also makes guys want to throw money. The music here is all hip-hop. But you're not going to hear any Mos Def or Talib Kweli. It's mostly street rap, and the bulk of it is local.
"Not a night goes by that somebody isn't putting a CD in my hand," Fattboi says while transitioning between Young Jeezy's "Vacation" and Brisco's hood anthem "Bitch I'm Me." The latter is a local track that was broken and heavily promoted in strip clubs throughout South Florida because the chorus isn't exactly radio-friendly, with lines like "I got a hard dick buffet they feast."
"We show love to the local artists," Fattboi says. "For a lot of them, strip clubs are the only place where they can get their music played. So me and my partner DJ Papo, we take CDs all the time."
Fattboi says he doesn't charge artists. But a new song typically doesn't get played without money changing hands. "If they want to throw $20 our way, that's cool too. Hey, we all in here hustling."
DJ Papo, a skinny, white Cuban-American, sits at the bar across the room wearing dark sunglasses, a low-cropped fade, a light-blue polo shirt, and jeans. He's got a wireless microphone in his hand, and he's emceeing the night. Fattboi's responsibilities include cuing up the music and calling the dancers to the stage. Papo jumps on the mic to announce that, in 15 minutes, Miami rapper Flo Rida is expected to show up with a film crew from Cinemax. That sends a buzz among the dancers — they know Flo Rida's crew will rain money on the club.
Flo Rida walks in with a posse of 20, including a full camera crew. Fattboi plays Flo Rida's new single, "Love," featuring Brisco, and the cameraman, lighting guy, and sound technician follow him through the club. The energy is amped. Four guys who have been at the club all night sit near the back of the club and float dollar bills in the air over two naked dancers, who promptly bend over, touch their toes, and shake their asses like a gallon of paint being mixed.
Flo Rida and a crew of hangers-on who work for Poe Boy Records make a beeline for the VIP area, and dancers follow. When the cameras start filming, about seven strippers give lap dances to guys sitting on couches. Flo Rida throws as much cash as he can palm at the women, overhand-style, like a pitcher. In one motion, he tosses 50 or 60 singles toward dancers, and then — whoosh — another wad of cash gets lobbed in a different direction. With so much money in the air, it's hard to see from one side of the VIP area to the other.
"In the South, this is how we do it," Flo Rida leans over and says amid the celebration. "Certain strip clubs down here, the energy is just like regular clubs in other places. So I know that if my music is hot here, it can be hot anywhere."
By the time Flo Rida leaves an hour later, there's so much money on the ground that the staff has to sweep it up with push brooms and dump it into trash bags for the girls to divvy up later.
Meanwhile, artists who are less established keep making their way toward DJ Fattboi. Ball Greezy stands near the DJ area flirting with a stripper, and two minutes later, his song "Shone" is playing over the speakers. It's another track that grew popular in local strip clubs eight months ago, and now it's playing on Florida radio stations.
"Get Like Me" by David Banner
"For me, strip clubs have played a big role in my success," Greezy says. "That's where I get the most spins. That's where I'm welcome at, and you don't have to go through as much of a hassle to get your music played."
In Greezy's case, he used "Shone" 's popularity in black strip clubs as leverage when dealing with program directors at radio stations.
"My record just took off in the strip clubs. Then the underground stations played it, and the main stations had no choice not to play it. It was basically like, 'Everybody else is playing it, so why are y'all not playing it?' "
Next up at the DJ booth is 23-year-old Leo Croissy, AKA Lee Major, a rapper and president of the upstart Liberty City label Boss Grind Records. Minutes later, the DJ spins his new single, "Danger." The beat has a West Coast feel, and a dancer on stage with an ass like a brontosaurus two-steps and shimmies to the music instead of working the pole. It's a ghetto ballet, where pussy-popping and booty-bouncing look like performance art.
"Most of my raw music, I take it to the strip club first to see if the dancers can get a feel for it," Major says while standing next to the DJ booth. "Radio, they want the songs to be mastered and be clean. Certain things I can't do 'cause I don't have money like that. But I can take my songs to the strip clubs and get a real reaction from the people."
It's 3 a.m. Sunday morning inside of B.T.'s Gentlemen's Club, just south of the University of Miami. The dimly lit club is packed with a strange mix of students, middle-aged white guys, high rollers, and average Joes. As for demographics, the club is mixed, with dancers of all ethnicities.
Longtime strip-club DJ Billy Rice works the boards. He plays the gamut: Lenny Kravitz's "I Belong to You," Grind Mode's "I'm So High," T-Pain's "Can't Believe It," Snoop Dogg's "Sexual Eruption," and Pitbull's "Shake." Billy is a pro at reading a room and figuring out if he needs the erotic songs to up the sexual tension or the ones with the better beats to help raise the energy.
"Don't judge me by tonight, though," Billy says after passing me a business card. It reads "DJ Billy Rice — Strip Club Professional." Billy explains that the owners told him not to play too much hip-hop that night. He says he's keeping it safe. "If it were up to me, I'd be playing more street stuff."
To look at Rice, you'd never expect this graying, 55-year-old white guy could be so up-to-date on hip-hop.
"I get stuff from guys that nobody has," Billy brags a few days later by phone. "And with me, I want the new stuff." If somebody asks him for something he doesn't know, Billy says he writes it down so he can look it up later. "Some DJs, you ask them for a song, and if they don't have it, they don't write it down, and they couldn't care less to find it. They won't even go home and download it for free off Limewire. To me, that's just lazy."
His interest in keeping up with new strip-club music has earned him fans. "The other day, I was at DJ Khaled's CD signing, and Flo Rida comes up to me, then Brisco, Grindmode, Ace Hood, all these people are saying hello, 'cause I play their music in the club. Sometimes, I look around and think, 'Who the hell am I to be rubbing elbows with all of these people, Pitbull, Rick Ross, and those guys?' But they always show me love, and I show it right back."
Born and raised outside of Boston, Rice has a heavy New England accent. He initially started out in the late '80s running a mobile DJ business, working weddings and parties. Looking for a change, he moved to Florida 11 years ago and started moonlighting as a DJ at the old Nice and Naughty strip club in Miami. He's still doing it partly for the money but also for the thrill of being the puppet master in a room full of sexually charged, naked women.
"I laugh and joke around — half the stuff that comes out of my mouth is sexual in nature, but I don't date the girls," Rice says. "It's my job to make sure they're making money but also that they always stay safe and don't get in too much trouble." With a hearty laugh, he adds, "Now, if a girl ends up on her knees, I'll say thank you, but I'd never ask for it."
John Todora, the longtime DJ at Tootsie's Cabaret in Miami Gardens, has been the face of numerous strip clubs from West Palm Beach to Miami for a decade. He laughs when recalling the story of how he first got into the business. "A friend of mine was telling me how he'd just trained to work at a strip club the night before. And he goes, 'The guy I was working with made $300 last night and got three blowjobs.' He and I went back and forth about what was better, the $300 or the three blowjobs... But either way, I knew I wanted in."
"Dance Like a Ho" by 2 Live Crew
He doesn't brag about the dancers he's slept with. But he says he met a former Penthouse Pet at a club in West Palm Beach while he was DJing and she was the featured dancer. They're divorced now, and the stocky, 38-year-old Italian-American doesn't like to reminisce. Especially not with so many attractive women walking past him every two minutes pining for his attention.
"Can you play that new Usher song?" a white dancer named Dreamer requests.
"Hey, I really like your hair," Todora answers back with a smile. "Did you do something different to it?"
"Really? You like it?" she says with a smile. It's her time to dance, and she hits the stage without getting the song she wanted.
"In this business, you learn how to say no without saying no."
A few minutes later, a dancer makes it known that she's not happy with Todora's music selections. "That motherfucker keeps playing bullshit music for me," she complains to another dancer. "Give me Pitbull or Daddy Yankee or something. I'm fucking Puerto Rican!"
Todora says he can't be bothered trying to satisfy every dancer. About 170 girls dance at the club, and catering songs to all of them isn't possible. "You have no idea what it's like back here some nights," he says. "Playing music so that the customers are happy, that's my job."
The music culture is drastically different here than it is inside of black strip clubs. Todora says he gets CDs passed to him all the time, either from artists themselves or middlemen. But he says the way it's done has changed significantly since he started.
"It used to be, guys in suits would come by, and you knew right away they were from a record label or something like that," he says. "They'd buy you a bottle, hang out, and sort of schmooze you into playing a few songs. Now, guys just walk up, give you a CD, don't even give you a business card or anything, and just walk away." He points to a bin with about 20 CDs given to him recently that way. "It's all hip-hop stuff," he says. "I used to have guys bringing rock music in, but that hasn't happened in a long time. Rock music isn't stripper music any more; rap is. These guys are now like the Mötley Crüe of the '80s."
At 3 a.m inside of Take One Lounge just north of Little Haiti in Miami, Ball Greezy stands behind the bar like he owns the place. DJ Nasty is on the one and twos, and the music is all local hip-hop. The club's other popular DJ, Sam Sneak, has already left for the night. Greezy's "I'm da Shit" is playing, and even though there's barely 30 people, the tiny club feels packed. DJ Nasty is a comedian when he's on the mic, and he's cracking jokes on everyone — bartenders, security, dancers, anyone. He calls out customers by name and tells them to throw money on stage. "I just like to make people feel appreciated," Nasty says between songs. "That goes a long way. A lot of DJs don't do that."
"Hey, nephew," he yells, "throw a hunnit on the stage." Without hesitation, a short, bearded black guy wearing a gray T-shirt and a blue-and-orange baseball cap takes a stack of a hundred singles and tosses it toward a black stripper dancing on stage behind him. The woman, a Georgia transplant whose stripper name is Bianca, barely acknowledges the money as it falls. Sticking singles inside a woman's G-string barely exists inside Take One.
Nasty's spinning Trick Daddy's "Take It to the House" now, and the energy level picks up even more. Greezy is on hand testing out his new song, "So Amazing," that he finished mixing just two days ago. Nobody else has heard it yet, and he's previewing it here at Take One to gauge the reaction.
"My relationship is with the DJs — that's who I attend to when I show up," Greezy says. "Once a nigga feel like you're supporting him and what he's doing, he'll play your music just out of love. So many people come in and say 'Play my song, play my song,' but I'd rather build a relationship. So whenever I get a new song, they don't hesitate to play it."
As if on cue, Nasty teases Greezy's "So Amazing." "This is the new Ball Greezy track," he says two or three times before spinning it.
Now girls are dancing all over Greezy, and the usually screwfaced rapper can't help but flash a bright smile. A guy in the corner takes off his shoes and drapes his shirt over his shoulders. Judging by the hoodtacular reaction, Greezy thinks he might make the song his new single. Nasty pulls up the track after a minute and says into the mic, "I got that new Ball Greezy. Nobody else has got it." When he drops it again, the reaction is even better. It's impossible to say if the song will go national, but on this night, it's a hit. "This is what I needed to see happen," Greezy says. "I want folks to lose their minds when this song comes on. If this happens more frequently, then I'll be all right."