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.
A business associate recommended Weinberger's firm to Campbell, who was looking for help in organizing his finances. "I used them to do my tax work," Campbell says. "Because I didn't want to get caught up in the life, the shit most other artists get caught up in when they don't do their taxes." Eventually Campbell hired Weinberger as his in-house counsel. "He wanted to come work with us, you know, a lawyer from a leading law firm getting involved in the music industry. I was like, OK, cool."
Weinberger remembers it differently: "He wanted me to get involved. I kind of felt sorry for him. I really didn't want to see him go out of business, and I was brought in to try to restructure things." By "restructure" Weinberger understood his job to mean firing people from a bloated payroll.
Campbell says he was drawn to Weinberger precisely because of his bookish tax attorney demeanor. "The reason why I hired him was because he was just that: someone who had no interest in the music business," Campbell emphasizes. "In certain areas in your business, you got to have the person that don't fit. A person that has no interest in being in that type of business or environment. He does his work, and he goes the fuck home. He doesn't go hang out at the strip club with the artist and all that."
Campbell came to depend on Weinberger. And Weinberger bonded with the star as well. Shortly after joining the company, Weinberger bought a house and moved in just down the street from Campbell in the Country Club of Miami Estates. The neighborhood of pricey homes was situated at the edge of a golf course. Campbell has a passion for the game, but Weinberger didn't even play. There was some light socializing. "We used to watch football games," the lawyer remembers.
Company underlings were less than enchanted by Weinberger's no-nonsense approach. For one thing he was viewed as Campbell's hatchet man. But the mistrust ran even deeper. Former Luke Records employees say they never believed Weinberger shared their vision to see the underdog recording agency thrive. The lawyer kept to himself and didn't mix with the other employees, virtually all of whom were black. "He didn't make that much of an impression on me, but the impression he made on Luke I wasn't happy with," an ex-employee offers. "Luke was almost brainwashed by him. Anything he said was like the final word."
Campbell concedes this may have been true. "During the course of time, a lot of the people in my office used to say that I gave Weinberger too much leverage, which I did to a degree, because in the position that he was in, I felt that he needed to have a little latitude with folks," he explains. "But I gave the wrong person too much leverage."
Weinberger insists he was eager to see Luke Records succeed. So eager, in fact, that he floated his boss personal loans to help cover the payroll. Weinberger claims he loaned Campbell a million dollars altogether and was never paid back $400,000 of it. Campbell says he never asked Weinberger for these loans and was blind-sided when Weinberger sprang the news that the rapper owed him a huge sum of money.
Campbell says Weinberger consistently kept him in the dark about the company's finances. "I had no financial breakdown of how my business was, whether I was making money or whether I was not making money, and I asked him that on different occasions," Campbell recalled in a deposition a couple of years ago. "I never got that information. I had no conceivable idea of how my company was doing financially."
"That's simply not true," Weinberger says, adding that Campbell received regular statements from an accountant.The problem is those statements weren't looking good. Beset by lawsuits and Campbell's profligacy, Luke Records had begun to unravel. In 1992 Campbell's 2 Live Crew cohorts, David Hobbs (Mr. Mixx), Mark Ross (Brother Marquis), and Chris Wong-Won (Fresh Kid Ice the Chinaman), left the company after a dispute over money, and then sued Campbell for royalties. A short time later, Peter Jones, a Campbell-produced rapper who went by the moniker M.C. Shy D, also sued, claiming he wasn't paid enough for his album Gotta Be Tough.
Weinberger hired Nicolas Manzini, a Princeton-educated attorney with no experience in entertainment law, to handle both matters. Manzini dispatched the 2 Live Crew matter swiftly and painlessly. But he made several key errors in the Jones case, most notably turning down several settlement offers from Weinberger's old classmate Richard Wolfe, who was representing Jones.
In the end Wolfe won a $2.3 million judgment for his client. Campbell didn't have the money on hand and was forced to declare bankruptcy. (The judge in the case appointed Wolfe trustee of Luke Records. In this capacity he sued Manzini for legal malpractice. That case was settled last year.)
Weinberger says when he saw the mistakes Manzini was making, he told Campbell. But by this time, the rap mogul didn't trust his consigliere. They had already clashed over Weinberger's loans. And when the rapper's efforts to re-sign his old group stalled, he blamed Weinberger. "I was signing 2 Live Crew back up to my company," Campbell said in a deposition taken for Manzini's malpractice suit. "It seemed like Mr. Weinberger wasn't representing the company; he was representing [the other 2 Live Crew members] by giving them certain things that he wouldn't normally give any other artists in the contract. So at that point, I felt like there was some kind of connection with him and these guys."
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.
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.
But one thing Weinberger has long since learned is that the hip-hop business is driven by image and rumors. His greatest frustration, in fact, is that he has been accused of thuggery. The record executive was understandably perturbed that New Times would discuss matters to which he has never been linked other than through word of mouth. And it's worth noting that Weinberger has never so much as been interviewed by the police, let alone charged with or convicted of a crime.
Still, it would be impossible to ignore the curious aura of menace that has grown up around Weinberger in recent years.
One of the most-talked-about incidents occurred in the fall of 1998 in the parking lot of Criteria Studios on NE 149th Street in North Miami. Darren Rudnick, better known as DJ Spin, a widely respected music producer around town, had just finished recording some tracks at Criteria for former Lil' Joe artist Mark Ross.
As Spin, who is white, relaxed in the passenger side of an Infiniti coupe that night, two men jumped from some nearby bushes and beat him unconscious. It was not a robbery. Spin says he had about $2500 in his pocket and a sleek Movado watch on his wrist. When he came to, his cash and timepiece were still with him. Other than a concussion and some cuts, he suffered no serious injury. Spin didn't recognize his attackers, and no arrest was ever made. But a rumor circulated in the industry that Weinberger was behind the beating, perhaps because Spin was close to 2 Live Crew when the group was feuding with Lil' Joe. Whatever the reason, a half-dozen people interviewed for this story brought up the incident and mentioned Weinberger's name. To this day Spin doesn't know why he was attacked. "I don't know who it was," he says. "I don't have 100 percent proof, but people at his label told me that he was behind it. I was thinking of taking matters into my own hands but figured whoever did it will get what's coming to them anyway."
Weinberger says the accusation is patently absurd: "I do not hire people to go beat up people. Criteria Studios is in a rough part of town."
"Joe didn't have nothing to do with what happened to Spin," Jackson Couamin says, adding that there is a lot of ill will against his boss stemming from the dispute with Campbell and the fact that Weinberger is white. "A lot of guys who look up to Luke see it as, "This white cracker stole [Campbell's] company.' They don't know the truth. But that's what the street tends to believe."
Indeed, among his critics in the predominantly black hip-hop community, Weinberger earned the sobriquet Suge White, a mocking homage to Death Row Records chief (and convicted felon) Suge Knight.On November 23, 1999, Sterling Brooks, Lil' Joe's radio-promotions director, arrived at work in his black 1996 BMW 740i. He had been on the job for six months. Although his tenure at the company had been tempestuous at times -- he often clashed with coworkers and his bosses -- he claims nothing prepared him for what happened that day.
When the 36-year-old Brooks entered the office, he found a threatening voice mail waiting for him. "We thought he had some gambling debt or that it was drugs," recounts Robert MacDonald, the company's chief financial officer. They called the police and filed a report.
Later that day MacDonald and Weinberger say they met with Brooks to talk about his job performance. During the session Brooks excused himself to take a call in his office. "He comes back in and says the guy called again and threatened to kill him," Weinberger recalls. "We told him he should call the police right away. We found out later he didn't."
The capper came around dusk: Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through the passenger-side window of Brooks' BMW. Everyone ran outside. "It was a small fire," remembers MacDonald, whose champagne-color Diamante was parked on the other side of a thin swath of grass. "There was a lot of smoke." Weinberger's Jaguar faced the BMW.
A week later Brooks was gone from Lil' Joe Records. His bosses claim he stormed off the job, vowing never to return. Brooks says Weinberger fired him, violating the terms of a two-year contract. In December he sued for breach of contract. Then in March, Brooks, who declined to be interviewed for this story, amended the lawsuit to include accusations that Weinberger was behind the death threats and the car bombing: "Weinberger, in an effort to intimidate Brooks and force him to quit: solicited and procured one or more persons to firebomb Brooks' car; solicited one or more persons to telephone Brooks at work and threaten to kill him; and solicited one or more persons to physically assault Brooks." Court papers don't reveal what evidence Brooks has to support his claim, and his lawyers, Randy Webber and Howard "Skip" Pita, aren't saying, but to avoid defamation they'll need something more than Brooks' word.
Weinberger says they won't find any evidence. "If I'm going to blow up someone's car, I'm not going to do it while my car is parked right next to it," he comments. "Also, I'm not going to do it in front of Lil' Joe Records." Police never questioned him while investigating the matter. (No arrest has been made.) Weinberger has countersued for defamation. He portrays Brooks as a disgruntled ex-employee.
Ironically Weinberger had high hopes for Brooks, whom he lured away from his competitor, Slip 'N Slide Records, in April 1999. But Brooks didn't get along with other employees. He was abrasive enough that Yanet Martinez, the company's college-marketing representative, quit owing to, as she wrote in her resignation letter, "unreconcilable [sic] differences with Sterling Brooks." Brooks also had his troubles with K Ponce. He openly accused K Ponce of starting the car fire, according to Weinberger and others. Weinberger says he had to caution Brooks to stop throwing around baseless allegations.
These days Weinberger seems more bemused than anything by Brooks' lawsuit. On a recent afternoon, sporting his trademark plaid shirt and a black leather New York Yankees baseball cap, Weinberger wondered aloud what Brooks was after. Brooks received unemployment for a short period before being rehired by Slip 'N Slide, so the income lost was negligible. And his insurance covered the car. "He's trying to shake me down," Weinberger asserts.
In the rap business, he adds, people will try anything for a buck: "I saw a lot of shit when I was at Luke's, a lot of frivolous lawsuits, and Luke's position was, and I think it's the correct position, if you allow them to get away with it, a lot of people will come out of the woodwork." In other words he'd rather fight in court than look like an easy mark. For the moment Lil' Joe is making money. One person with knowledge of the company says the 2 Live Crew catalog alone generates $2 million annually. Weinberger won't provide the actual numbers but says it's more than that. The company has released about 40 albums, many of them compilations that include 2 Live Crew music, such as Booty Summer Party. But the label also is actively recording new artists, such as the yet-to-be-released rapper Verb. "I intend to grow the company at a safe rate," Weinberger explains. "I'm not going to take the risks other people took and failed. I want to be around five years from now."
Fiscal health, however, has yet to translate into admiration. Many in the industry see Lil' Joe Records as a factory churning out units, not a place that nourishes artists. And they see Weinberger as a bean counter. And of course there is his biggest and most insurmountable hurdle: his skin color.
"He doesn't get any respect around town," offers one music-industry insider. "They say he's got a Napoleon complex."
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Adds Campbell: "He can't get records played on the radio and in the store, because everybody knows that's my shit."
Weinberger concurs to some extent: "I've had a lot of difficulty with blackballing, no pun intended, at the radio stations because of the stuff Luke says about me." And he acknowledges that race plays a part. "A lot of people are jealous of my position. And it's the nature of this business to sling mud."
That begs the question: With all the hassles, the backbiting, the tempers, the lawsuits, and the violence, would he ever consider backing out of the music biz? "That's not an option," Weinberger says, his voice even. "I've got the company structured where it's very profitable."
And like any true player, he's not about to walk away from that.