Every five minutes, rapper Mike West sticks a pair of fingers between his vertical blinds and peers out the window. A pair of drive-by auto detailers is in his driveway, giving West's maroon Chevy Caprice the royal treatment. Operating from the back of a rundown van outfitted with a 150-gallon drum of wiper fluid, the car-wash crew rubs the rims and shines the chrome as West sits inside watching The Matrix on a small color TV. That Caprice -- West's pride and joy -- is also a frequent object of interest for the Sunrise Police Department. On July 1, while West was cruising past the Swap Shop, he was pulled over.
"I had the windows down," he recalls, "and the pipes was goin' -- they sound really nasty. And I had my music up. So they was like, 'Target, right there!'" The Caprice looks just like a cop car, but the reason Sunrise police stop West so frequently -- or at least one of the reasons -- is that his windows are tinted several degrees darker than regulations permit.
"They pull me over because, number one, they always fuckin' with me, and two, I got illegal tints. The limo tint -- it's crazy illegal. But I have that for my privacy and my protection. This particular time they pulled me, they was harassing me, asked me for my Social Security number. It don't make any sense. I mean, would you give the police your Social Security number? That's crazy."
West divides his time between a modest home in Sunrise and an apartment in suburban Los Angeles, but he's not splitting genres. He's quick to align himself with rap's Dirty South faction. While his local profile may seem low at the moment, West has assembled everything necessary to change that. On this bright, steamy, Friday afternoon, a photographer and reporter from Mass Appeal magazine have visited his home. He's also been featured in October issues of The Source and XXL. And just last month, he turned down a chance to work for rap's biggest baddest mogul, Suge Knight. Knight -- currently locked up on probation-violation charges -- wanted to sign West to his label Tha Row (formerly Death Row Records).
"He sent me, like, two letters tryin' to get me on Tha Row," West says. "But what he was offering wasn't a good deal." Knight was talking satellite radio as a way to generate exposure, but West is into making singles that end up on mix tapes and CDs to get the word out independently. He blasts the idea of signing to a major label for an advance and a percentage. "Fuck that," he says. "I wanna take all the money!"
Generating a small ripple of controversy is West's low-key beef with SoFla hip-hop has-been Father MC (real name Timothy Brown, of "I'll Do 4 U" fame). West met him through their common mentor, Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, but their relationship soured in the late '90s.
"I was politicking with him -- we was like best friends," West says. "Then he got a hold of my Social Security number and fucked up my credit!"
No wonder West hangs tight to those digits. When the rapper moved back to his home base of Broward County after living on the West Coast for a couple years, he tried to get utilities turned on and discovered he'd been hosed. The battle isn't terribly heated by hip-hop standards; the threat level remains minimal, and even West's dis of Father MC, "Never Saw Me Coming," doesn't broadcast its discontent loudly.
"I'm not screaming his name out," West explains, "'cause the industry doesn't give a fuck about him no more. But I let it be known -- it's been spoke on. Fuck Father MC -- he's a nobody."
Welcoming controversy and attention, even courting the press with a directness not usually seen from reclusive rappers, West is ready to sell himself. Preparing for yet another photo shoot, he asks if there's a "Welcome to Fort Lauderdale" sign nearby he can pose next to. Against the TV set are several framed articles -- a 1999 profile in the Sun-Sentinel, for instance -- of which he's proud.
From the television, Laurence Fishburne's voice intones, "You're living in a dream world, Neo."
Proving that the apple never falls far from the thug family tree, West infiltrated the Outlawz, the young posse overseen by the late Tupac Shakur. Mopreme, Pac's half-brother, took West under his wing.
"Mo's taught me a lot," West announces. "Since early '99, we've been choppin' up the game with each other. And he looked out for me like a big brother." Interjecting a small dose of West Coast laissez faire into more typical thug trappings, West's output -- a 2001 album, They Never Knew, and an appearance on the following year's Thug Lifestyles compilation -- reeks of the hard grind of the Dirty South.
If chopping up the game is any measure of success, the 24-year-old West -- whose rather ordinary cognomen hardly backs up his street appeal -- certainly plays the part. Carefully coifed hair, a baggy beige shirt, a modest diamond ear-stud, and a thin gold chain seem to give him an air of community-college suburban cool. Yet when he takes off the shirt to switch into a wife-beater, he's unmistakably a descendant of the Shakur legacy. Washboard abs and whisk-broom eyelashes fade into the background as his rippling mural of flesh and ink takes center stage. Most are of the de rigueur thug-life variety, but one tattoo stands out: Jesus adorned with his crown of thorns and the phrase "ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME."
As a photographer poses him against the side of his house, next to a dripping window-mounted air conditioner, West turns to his young raven-haired fiancée. "Could you get some lotion for me, please?" he asks. A few minutes later, she emerges with a blue bottle of Nivea, which he applies to his chest and biceps.
During a subsequent drive through the hood in West's Caprice -- during which he blasts Tupac's "Ballad of a Dead Souljah" loud enough to be heard for blocks -- we end up at Sunrise's St. George Park for another photo shoot. As Mike postures, preens, and stares down the camera, a trio of curious grade-school boys runs over.
"You a rapper?" one asks skeptically. West merely scowls.
"Y'all listen to Tupac, little homies?" he inquires.
"Yep," the three answer in unison.
"Listen to Outlawz?" he asks.
"Listen to Luke?"
"Nope," they say.
Still unsatisfied, one of the kids asks the photographer, "He gettin' money for this?" When he's told no, the kid shoots back: "How come he do it then?"
The photo shoot drags on, and the kids scatter back to the ball courts. Bandwidth and photographer pile back in the Caprice. West puts in a CD featuring an a cappella track from Pit Bull, a Hialeah Cuban rapper with whom West has been working. Suddenly, there's a whole lotta crunk in his trunk; the twin bins behind the back seat shudder wildly, and it feels as if spit might actually fly out of the speaker cones:
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"Grand finale, dawg, I'ma tryin-a end this beef/Y'all can look hard and talk shit/But when I creep up with the semi-auto, the only thing that follow is death!"
When West drops his new album, A West Side Story: Chapter One, early next year, he's counting on the media and the photos and the tattoos and the buzz and the blitz and the blunts and the unmitigated thuggery to coalesce into a career. For now, he's stuck slipping tracks into the underground marketplace, waiting for the industry to take notice.
"I know a lot of people," West says matter-of-factly. "My connections run deep in the game." Savvy enough to try to cultivate a crew on both coasts, he still insists he's a representative of local 954. "This is where it all began," he says, pledging allegiance to South Florida. "For real! But the West Coast always shows me love, that's the thing! My West Coast connection is very, very strong."
No matter which locale gives the most affection, West is ready. "I'm just tryin' to hold it down, as much as I can, you know? I'm making history."