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.