New Thugs on the Block
Along Dixie Highway, just west of Young Circle Park, an innocuous strip mall with the usual strip-mall businesses sits quietly at the side of the road. V.I.P Hair Salon. Interactive Solutions Inc. -- for all your signs, marketing, and web design needs. Stamped Concrete, featuring one-way concrete delivery.
As in many such locales, a single door, this one of dusty glass, leads to a set of narrow stairs that comes out on a second floor of offices hosting various fly-by-night firms. The stained beige carpeting leads to plain wooden doors, some professing to contain a travel agent or a paralegal inside. And behind one of these doors, Screwge and crew plot world domination. Down a hall is the recording studio, the performer's booth pieced together inside of what used to be a shower; little bits of tile are still visible through gaps in the foam padding. But just inside the front door is the war room. This is where the planning goes on. Discussions of marketing tools, album cover art, the latest remixes. Do we have enough stickers and fliers? What about posters? Shouldn't there be posters? Oh! And how about those T-shirts? The soldiers and commanders of the underground-rap collective known as Block Bottom Entertainment plot each move carefully.
The room itself is just slightly messy, just slightly lived in. A few long turds of tobacco lie in a corner, the remnants of a few blunts recharged with more potent stuff. And there are the Remy Martins on the mantle, 22 of the 375-millimeter bottles, with a 750ml one as a centerpiece. A camouflage blanket and a black blanket cover the windows, and the air carries a vague trace of smoke and old mildew. One entire wall boasts a mural of the company logo: three dice rolling forward, with four, five, and six showing.
The image is more than apropos. In many ways, a lot of this started with a street dice game called C-Lo. It has its own rules, and to the outsider, can be as confusing as craps betting -- Come? Don't Come? Hardway? Horn Bets? Suffice to say, in C-Lo, your best throw is the four, the five, and the six. But in the logo, the dice are rushing out toward the viewer. It's impossible to tell where they are going to land. One can lose a great deal of money very quickly in this game. Screwge dropped several hundred dollars in one Christmas Eve afternoon, back when he was in high school. He had to help boost a convenience store to break even. The would-be robbers were caught after driving around all day in the same car they used to hold up the store. Happily, Screwge has proven to be a far more astute businessman than he was a delinquent. After all, an afternoon's losses at a C-Lo game pale in comparison to the amounts of time and money that could be wasted if Block Bottom's plans go awry.
Tonight, the studio finds Killa Bean and Unique, two of Block Bottom Entertainment's relatively new rappers, trying to lay down a track. The only other person around is Screwge. "Nights like this, we don't have a sound engineer," Screwge clarifies. "So I gotta step up. You do whatever it takes."
Killa Bean and Unique bonded together to form a rap duo called Tru to Life upon joining Block Bottom last November. "I was gangbangin'; it didn't work for me," Killa Bean says. "I tried to sell drugs; it didn't work for me. And I see all these rappers, they don't have to worry about bills, know what I'm sayin'?" The rapper shuffles a few steps away and takes a seat on the floor next to the couch to look carefully through his script. As Screwge sets up the studio, Unique paces the room with a bottle in one hand and a blunt in the other. As with most of his companions, his clothes fit loosely around him, hanging off his shoulders like a robe, the requisite gold chain draped around his neck. He mumbles rap under his breath as he paces the room. The dreams of fame and fortune that dog Screwge and everyone else who started this company don't seem as relevant to the pair. They are here to rap.
The backing music begins, and Killa Bean starts laying down rhymes in a throaty rasp. Unique steps in for emphasis. He lets out an approving "for sure" each time Killa Bean gives a shoutout to Hollywood, Liberia, or just the 954 in general. His voice, higher and clearer than Killa Bean's, comes through easily over the low bass of the music and the deep voice of his partner.
But on this night, the backing music begins to skip, then fizzle out. They try to go on for a moment, but it proves impossible -- amid the seven-foot console of monitors, soundboards, and digital equipment, a marred CD has gotten the best of them. The two complain after they get out of the recording booth.
"We had it down," Unique says with a shrug, once seated with Screwge in the control room. "We had the fucker down."
"We deep into the rap game, know what I'm sayin'?" Killa Bean concurs.
Screwge has dedicated himself full-time to Block Bottom. Though the group is ostensibly a democratic collective, he has taken on a sort of svengali role. Ideas pour from the man. Slender and not too tall, he nevertheless carries a certain quiet authority. Most of the big notions that have run through the group came from him. Or at the least, he played a large part in their creation. Though Block Bottom is a means to a very successful end, it has also become something of an obsessive hobby and far more than just a rap group.
"I want to make a movie," he says. "We call it The Sto. It'll be about how a store in the neighborhood can be different things to different people. You buy what you need, but you also meet your people there; things happen there. It'll be the first film to come out of Block Cinema." And that's not to mention the similar plans for commercials and videos and graphic-design interns from local high schools. But the video-production plans are only an extension of the rap group. Even within the smaller circle of hip-hop, plans have been made that far surpass the foundations Block Bottom has already laid.
"Once we get up and running, we gonna start Cell Block," Screwge says. "We'll get people who have, you know, for whatever reason, wound up in jail, and we'll get them to record." He enjoys a quick laugh at the convicts' expense as he adds, "You think you hard out here? Try these guys rappin' about how they just pumped a punk."
Not all of the ideas revolve around ways to expand the group commercially. Last Thanksgiving saw Block Bottom handing out turkey and all the fixings to people on Foster Street in front of a fish market.
"It was meant to bring us together as a family, but it really brought us closer to the whole community," Screwge states. Ideas such as that one are meant not just to get Block Bottom's name out on the streets but also to unite people from the various neighborhoods. "Hollywood, Hallandale, Carver Ranches, Liberia... we gotta unite so all those people outside will sit up and take notice," Screwge states. With that in mind, Block Bottom also has plans to sponsor a Little League football team. The reason is also somewhat selfish, though, as the neighborhood's football talent is currently split among several teams, and Screwge and the others are tired of these various teams getting stomped when uniting them could result in a force to be reckoned with.
Not everyone in Block Bottom is so fully dedicated to the cause, though. While Killa Bean is between jobs, Unique works at South Broward Hospital in what he terms "facilities service." Miss Onyx, the group's public relations rep, works in a doctor's office during the day. Breezy, by night a producer/rapper with Block Bottom Entertainment, digs graves by day.
"You get used to it after a while," he says of digging corpse holes. "When I first started the job, though, I couldn't stay in a room alone. Had to have someone with me all the time." An acute bout of the willies, though, is a small price to pay for helping himself and his Block Bottom brethren bring their childhood dreams to life.
In the late 1980s, when rap outfits now seen as dinosaurs were blasting the new genre across the airwaves, Screwge and Miss Onyx -- along with Kelton "Allworld" Reed, Damion "Bolansky" Lyons, and Bentellysavalas Greene -- decided this was the game for them. They wandered the halls of Hollywood's McNichol Middle School throwing out rhymes at lunch, recess, after-school basketball practice, and whenever else they could get away with it. They vowed to one another that as soon as one of them broke into the world of hip-hop, the others would grab hold of some coattails and ride them to fame and fortune.
"It may seem like nothing," says Onyx, the lone woman of the group that made a playground vow to be rap stars. "But it's what brought us all back together after being apart for so long."
It was a different time, when Onyx was still Granell Burrows and Screwge was Taj Dixon. And like 99 percent of childhood dreams, this one passed with nary a whimper as the people who tied their fortunes together slowly went their separate ways. Two of the men got themselves in trouble with the law and vanished in the system for a time. For those on the outside, it became harder and harder to stay in contact with their fellows in state prison. Onyx stayed straight with far more success than any of her male counterparts. She debated going to school for journalism, eventually studying communications; her studies have certainly helped her in her PR duties for Block Bottom. While his friends were going to school or jail, Screwge almost managed to combine both of the experiences.
"I had to get out there for a while," Screwge maintains, as he maxes out on an overstuffed couch beneath the row of Remy Martin bottles in the sanctum sanctorum of Block Bottom Entertainment. He looks not at all like he did a decade ago, when making it in the hip-hop game became a possibility in his mind. The gold teeth and dreads are gone, but the ambition remains. "A lot of people think college is all fine and dandy, wine and candy," he says in typically showy style. "But it's got its problems too."
Screwge majored in business at Southern University, an open-enrollment college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "What that means is," he explains, "they'll take anybody. You can go straight from prison to school. I didn't have the best grades, so I wound up there."
When Screwge went away for a few days, it came as little surprise that his room had been broken into. A quick hunt for the culprit and a quick stomping when he was found and Screwge found himself in the staggering position of getting thrown out of an open-enrollment college. Luck was on his side, though.
"The dean sort of knew me, so I finished up in New York," Screwge says. From 1997 to 2000, Screwge lived and worked in New York City. Through his job at Manny's Music in Times Square, he got major discounts on the recording equipment that would prove useful once he moved back to the old stomping grounds.
When Screwge returned, it was like stepping into yesterday. "None of us had seen a lot of each other," Onyx says. "But when we got back together, it all sort of clicked. And we remembered what we had told each other, and we all still wanted to do it."
The group of friends formed Block Bottom Entertainment in October 2000. "Florida is sort of the bottom of the country," Screwge explains, "And it worked on other levels as well. Where we were at the time looked like the bottom. There was nowhere to go but up." Block Bottom put together two compilation albums, based on skills and songs that had been honed to a sharp edge over years of freestyle rapping. Neither of the CDs was distributed in stores.
Like so many rappers before them, the boys of Block Bottom did it the street way -- selling albums out of car trunks. "We did it however we could," Screwge says. "Anyone who had a car got a stack of CDs to sell. We'd drop some off at stores that sold CDs at the counter. Whatever we could do to get the word out." Despite the lack of distribution, the crew maintains that the last compilation sold 3,000 copies. With no distribution, that is an incredible number. The market, however, was far more viable now than when the BBE crew-to-be was rapping through the halls of McNichol Middle. By the time they formed Block Bottom Entertainment, the hip-hop trails had been blazed in South Florida.
In 1986, while Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys were dominating airwaves with this strange new thing called rap, Luther Campbell began writing his own page in hip-hop history. From the release of 2 Live Crew's first album, 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, the group has gotten slapped for sleaze. A record-store clerk narrowly missed a harsh prison sentence for selling the album to a 14-year-old. Still, the album went gold. The second, Move Somthin', alleviated the fears of agitated parents by offering clean and dirty versions, as did the 2 Live Crew's third release, As Nasty as They Wanna Be. And yet, that record forever placed South Florida on the rap map for its wanton naughtiness.
Even Democratic lawmakers and talking heads, usually representatives of the party more dedicated to free speech, stood up and screamed. Tipper Gore was titillated. Parental advisory labels are an indirect result of "Me So Horny." Between that song, which opened the album in the Crew's traditionally sex-crazed milieu, and other similar offerings such as "Dirty Nursery Rhymes" and "If You Believe in Having Sex," the album got pulled from record stores across the country. Luckily for Campbell, his other talent, aside from coming up with degenerate lyrics, is that of capitalizing on rampant publicity. The follow-up album, Banned in the USA, cashed in on all of the antismut crusading and the unsurprising anticensorship backlash. The Crew slowly fizzed out throughout the 1990s, but on Campbell's 1996 solo record, Uncle Luke, a young rapper who shared lead vocals on the lead-off track, "Scarred," stepped up to bring South Florida back into the limelight.
Trick Daddy Dollars, as he was billed in those early years, impressed more than a few people, among them concert promoter Ted Lucas, who had just started his Slip-N-Slide Record label.
"Trick was like my brother," Lucas says. "I grew up with Trick. He was incarcerated at the time [Slip-N-Slide started], but he always wanted to rap. So when he come home, I really felt he had the potential to be a big rapper like he is, and I invested everything I had into him. Everything just jumped off from there. I put my life savings behind Trick."
Trick Daddy's own debut, Based on a True Story, caused a bit of clamor on its release, though nowhere near the foam-dripping furor the Crew garnered in its heyday.
"His first album sold, like, 300,000 copies independently," Lucas says. "That was major. You sell 300,000 copies independent, you makin' noise. They started giving us calls, but they weren't saying what we wanted them to say, so we put out Trick's second album, which was www.thug.com, and it went platinum and finally made the major companies recognize us. They wanted to sit down and talk then. Everything jumped off from there. That's when we discovered Trina, and she blew up, and we just kept going on."
After nearly breaking into the mainstream on two separate occasions with two songs performed with Trina -- "Nann Nigga" and "Shut Up" -- Trick Daddy became, along with Ludacris and Mystikal, the national representative of the Dirty South. His 2001 album, Thugs Are Us, gave "Take It to da House" to the clubs and "I'm a Thug" to the radio. Since Mystikal is now so mired in legal trouble, what with all of the rape, extortion, gun, and marijuana charges, and Ludacris has gone albumless over the past two years, Trick has become the last man standing. But though he started out on a Campbell record, his success was pure do-it-yourself.
"It's a 24-hour job," Lucas says. "The music business never stops. In the daytime, you record music. At night, you in the clubs makin' sure people play your music and they listening to it. You're always out there promoting; you never can stop. 'Cause while you sleep, somebody else is out there making it happen. So you can never sleep in this business. It's a 24-hour business. If you not doin' something, something's wrong. You always gotta be finding a new idea, a new way to promote it, a new way to make sure that record is getting played. It ain't about spending a whole bunch of money; it's the way you go about doin' it. If you come around to a DJ every time he spins records and you're in his face, he'll show you some love. So that's what I say. Anybody startin' up, just don't stop. If that's where your heart is at and you believe you can make it, hard work pays off."
With Slip-N-Slide proving that the DIY ethic could work in South Florida rap, Block Bottom, and any other would-be hip-hop group, has a blueprint to follow. Many have tried, but few have had even the local success enjoyed by Block Bottom Entertainment.
Although Miami is now established as a hip-hop hub, South Broward, an area with a large African-American community, has gone completely untapped in the lopsidedly African-American world of hip-hop. Many in Block Bottom suspect blackballing. "We supported the Miami scene when it was coming up," Screwge says. "And now that we doin' the same, it's like they try to make sure nothing we do gets past the local level."
Unique confirms Screwge's assessment: "You know what they say in Miami. 'Cowards in Broward get sprayed in Dade.'" He rolls his eyes. Despite the apparent lack of respect to the south, there are plenty of groups in Broward with a whole lot of dreams and an uncanny knack for busting rhymes. Just ask John the Barber.
John Hardwick understands people with dreams. As president of Top Shops International, Hardwick runs a sort of beauty-salon owners' union. The group helps people get started in the salon business and offers cheap legal services, business counseling, direct-marketing services, and a variety of other benefits for people in the business of making other people look good. Of course, as an industry advocate for barbers, Hardwick is a haircutter himself. But his shop has taken on a far different role in recent months.
On Friday nights, once Hardwick's barbershop at Foster Street and Seventh Avenue in Hallandale Beach has closed, local rappers converge to prove who has the rhymes and who has to crawl back to momma. The location has been a community meeting point for years.
"This used to be a restaurant, like a diner," Screwge says as he enters one Friday. "My grandparents owned it. They made Ghetto Burgers." He turns to a gold-toothed fellow sitting in a barber chair and calls out, "Yo, Ghetto Burgers! Best burgers ever, right?" The man nods his silent assent. Aside from that quick proclamation, Screwge says nothing about the store, the burgers, or his relatives. There seems to be little love lost on the place. Hardly surprising when one considers that Screwge has set his sights quite a bit higher than the role of restaurateur. For Hardwick, though, the opportunity to offer his place of business to local talent is an end in and of itself.
"Kids need this sort of thing," he maintains in a peppy tone. "They need an outlet, something to keep them off the streets. They see these rappers making all of this money, and they think, 'Well, why not me?'"
The "kids" in question are hardly that --Screwge and Onyx are 25, and the oldest among the whole crew is Bolansky, who's 27. Maybe a bit young compared to 30-something John the Barber, and certainly youthful when contrasted with the old man in the corner, sipping beer from a tall can in a paper bag. He mumbles occasional words about stars and signs -- astrology and fortunetelling -- but no one pays him any mind.
As a whole rogue's gallery of would-be rap stars comes and goes, Hardwick sticks out like a sore thumb in his own shop. A crisp, starched white shirt and a black tie draw the sort of attention that the rest of the shop's occupants get when they go out in the straight world.
"This keeps these folks off the street and gets them doing something they enjoy," Hardwick avers. As the hustlers and rappers and hangers-on exchange greetings and swap tales, Hardwick raises his voice and gets his point in as often as he can. "Nothing gets done for these kids, but they see the lifestyle, they watch TV. They see these rap stars living a life they can only dream about." He glances around his shop momentarily before reiterating, "This keeps them out of trouble."
But compared to most Friday nights at the barbershop, Screwge finds the turnout disappointing.
"Come on," he says after a moment. "Not much happening tonight."
And so, on to South Broward High School, where Screwge's alma mater -- Hallandale High -- is playing in the first round of the state championships. In fact, despite the rivalry between the two schools, Screwge spent three years at South Broward and one at Hallandale. Tickets for the game cost a fiver; a hot dog with all the fixin's costs just one. Screwge, along with many of his friends, played football for South Broward High. Always one to take the lead, Screwge played quarterback.
At the game, it's easy to see why everyone came back to the neighborhood after drifting apart. Despite his time spent away from the city, it seems half the people at the game know Screwge. Unique stands behind a chainlink fence, working security and tossing Nerf balls back to kids when they accidentally lose them over the fence.
South Broward wins. For Screwge, this calls for celebration, and after a quick drive around the town to find his cohorts, he locates Bolansky and a handful of other guys sitting in an alley to the side of a house, passing around a blunt. A few more men come out, until nearly a dozen are sitting around. These men provide an example of how hard it can be to leave this neighborhood without big dreams to take you away -- each and every one of them was there, all those years ago, when Screwge lost his life savings in a C-Lo game. The group squats or stands in the little alley between the house and a chainlink fence separating it from the backyard of a next-door neighbor. Silence falls over the group after a while, broken after several uncomfortable moments by one of the men saying, "This is how we live, see?"
Although everyone associated with Block Bottom maintains that the last compilation, Campaigning for the Streets Vol. 1, sold 3,000 copies, like any record, buzz begins to mellow out. Block Bottom must put out its next release soon. But the managing of talent and the myriad details of the business side of the company prove too much for Screwge by the beginning of February. Which is why the group finally decided to call Shawn "Dallas" Edwards. Somebody needed to take care of the business side of things while Screwge looked after the people.
"I definitely want to do something with Remy Martin," Screwge says as he slouches on the tan leather sofa beneath the cognac bottles. "Maybe a sponsorship or something."
Luckily for Screwge and Onyx, many of their childhood friends provided the first talent. One of the highlights of the first compilation album, The Hollywood Underground Vol. 1, features Allworld and Bolansky, both of whom go back to the inception of the company, back in grade-school days. The song, a marijuana anthem titled "Blue Smoke," is straight Dirty South. It sounds like any number of hip-hop records coming out of New Orleans or Houston. Still, even drawing that much comparison grates on the performers' nerves.
Bolansky says little, unlike his recorded persona. The stocky star of Block Bottom's next record may be laconic in person and loquacious on wax, but he speaks his mind when anyone tries to pigeonhole him.
"I can do it all," he says upon hearing the comparison of his and Allworld's song with typical Dirty South fare. "South, West, East, gangsta, all of it. It's all the beat."
Onyx, Unique, Killa Bean, Breezy, Screwge, Bolansky, and Dallas are sitting at home base, and Dallas is a shoo-in to be someone in charge of something. Amid all the thuggery -- gold chains, natty hair, baggy pants, mumbled words -- Dallas is dressed all in neat black clothes, down to the black leather shoes. Although he is the last to join the staff, he knows why he is here. Having proven himself as a moneymaker in the burgeoning world of South Florida porn, producing both films and websites, Dallas has been brought in to make sure the next album Block Bottom puts out is a success.
"Administrative work," Screwge says. "That's where Dallas comes in. Every successful company's got a couple of people behind it making things work from the inside. That's what we doin' now. Otherwise, this whole year's just a bunch of music that ain't goin' further than Hollywood."
"You could have an A-plus album," Dallas chimes in, "but if you don't have the right people pushing it..." He trails off and shrugs his shoulders in a helpless gesture before adding, "I've seen a lot of D and F albums out there that don't deserve it."
And pushing the next album is absolutely mandatory for everyone in the group. This will be the first album released by Block Bottom to have distribution. It will be in Specs, Blue Note, and CD Trader. The first major Block Bottom album will be Bolansky's solo debut. It had to be either Allworld or Bolansky; those two have their game down better than the others. But Allworld has other things on his mind some of the time. He has a son and a daughter to worry about. Bolansky became the obvious choice.
"It's gangsta," he mumbles. Roughneck stylings about life on the street fill the album's tracks, lending credence to Bolansky's statement. "Straight gangsta. Nothin' like what you hear on the radio. None of that booty-shakin' stuff," he adds. This is N.W.A., not TLC.
Everything looks to be falling into place. The business, the talent, is all coming together. All that remains is for someone to sit up and take notice. There is no end to the dreams, nor will there be until the requisite amounts of fame and fortune are achieved, and those amounts are different for everyone. For people who dream this huge, it could very well be that no amount of recognition, no amount of cash, no amount of Remy Martin, will ever be enough. With Bolansky's album ready to drop within weeks, the folks at Block Bottom will either realize the childhood dream or try again with another album and another roll of the dice.
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