"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, November 27, 2006
money laundering and Jacob the jeweler
Jacob Arabo, photographed in the Jacob & Co. flagship store, in New York City, on August 22, 2006. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Is Hip-Hop's Jeweler on the Rocks?
Jacob Arabo owes his jewelry empire to hip-hop. But now the man whose diamond-encrusted watches, crosses, and Jesus pendants decorate everyone from Jay-Z to Diddy to 50 Cent has been snared by the underbelly of rap: accused of laundering drug money for Detroit's Black Mafia Family.
by Nancy Jo Sales November 2006 He left his house around 9:30 on the morning of June 15, the day he was arrested. He had dressed in a charcoal-gray suit with red pinstripes made for him by his friend the Italian designer Domenico Vacca.

Jacob always looked good; from the time he opened his stall in the Kaplan Jewelry Exchange, in Manhattan's Diamond District, when he was just 21, he had dressed dip-down, fly. He'd learned some hip-hop slang along the way. They had all come to him: LL Cool J, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z.

They're the ones who named him "Jacob the Jeweler."

Jacob, born Yakov Arabov in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, went by Jacob Arabo professionally, although everybody from his wife to the Prince of Dubai called him just Jacob. It was more than his name now—it was a modern brand, synonymous with bling.

And yet, there was something old-world about Jacob. With his thick black hair slicked back in its 1940s matinee-idol waves, he could have been an extra out of Casablanca—some savvy-looking guest at Rick's Café, winning at the roulette table.

He got into his car, a black Maybach, an expensive ride, around $500,000. There was a little bit of hip-hop in Jacob too. He could understand the pleasure of ostentation. He'd come to this country at 14, and now, at 41, he was one of the most famous jewelers in the world.

His Jacob & Co. didn't do Harry Winston's sales (although it made some cake at $20 million in gross receipts per year), but in terms of design it had become highly influential. It meant something to have a "Jacob," one of his giant, diamond-encrusted "Five Time Zone" watches, costing anywhere from $5,500 to $1 million. Everybody wore them now, Leo, Bono, Shaq. Elton John had bought 22 of them to give away as presents. They all came to Jacob.

His wife, Angela, got into the car beside him and fastened her seat belt. She was a petite, raven-haired beauty, a Bukharan Jew like himself, from a city outside Tashkent. They had married in Queens when she was 20 and he was 24.

She looked very nice, as usual, that morning, in a cream-colored suit, her hair pinned back in a curly halo. Jacob had named his line of Angel watches after her. J.Lo wore one. So did Paris Hilton.

Their driver, Alex, pulled out of the driveway of their multi-million-dollar brick Colonial in leafy Forest Hills, Queens, 20 minutes from Manhattan.

Jacob never imagined that, like something out of a hip-hop song, the police were trailing him into the city. As the car turned west onto the Long Island Expressway, the Manhattan skyline appeared before him, the Empire State Building rising like a platinum castle. Maybe Jacob had imagined it in diamonds. He had put diamonds on all kinds of things, from rapper Slick Rick's eye patch to the hood ornament on A Bathing Ape founder Nigo's Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Ever since he'd landed in New York, he had dreamed of owning a piece of it, and now he did: the $12.1 million landmark town house on 57th at Park, where he'd moved Jacob & Co. in 2004. Lenny Kravitz had come to the opening party. The windows glittered with bling.

At 10:15, when the car pulled up, there were six New York cops standing outside. More inside. Drug-enforcement agents and state police. Jacob opened his car door.

"How you doin'?" said a man standing there, commanding officer Glen Morisano of the N.Y.P.D.'s Drug Enforcement Task Force. "We have a warrant for your arrest."

Jacob stared at him a moment, smiled, and said, "Come on in."

He had a reputation for being accommodating.

When the story hit the papers the next day that Jacob the Jeweler had been arrested and charged with money-laundering for a notorious Detroit-based, alleged drug gang known as the Black Mafia Family, the question nobody seemed able to answer was: Why?

The New York Post ran the story on its front page—bling sting; "jacob the jeweler" in drug-$$ bust—with a picture of Jacob looking debonair, flashing his "Jacob." It was big news in New York, where Jacob had become a sort of celebrity, often snapped at events with other, bona fide celebrities—sometimes playfully flashing what looked to be his version of a gang sign. His 40th-birthday party, "held at the Midtown Cipriani's, was said to cost over a million dollars," reported The New York Times. Four hundred guests—including his friend Sean "Diddy" Combs, the Bad Boy Entertainment mogul whom Jacob called "Uncle Puff"—had celebrated as Mya, Pras, and Boyz II Men performed.

The United States District Court in Detroit had provided few details about the case. A single paragraph in its 39-page May indictment of the Black Mafia Family (in which "Jacob the Jeweler" is charged along with 40 others with lively and multiple a.k.a.'s) said that "Jacob Arabov facilitated the purchase of jewelry utilizing the drug proceeds of Terry Lee Flenory, Demetrius Flenory"—the brothers who were allegedly B.M.F.'s leaders—"in order to conceal the true source, nature and ownership of the funds involved in these transactions."

The Flenory brothers, now both in custody in Michigan, pleaded not guilty earlier this year. "[Terry] is not connected with B.M.F. in any way," said his lawyer, William Daniel, on the phone. "He denies everything in the indictment." "[Demetrius] denies all the allegations in the indictment," as well, said his lawyer, James Feinberg.

Meanwhile Jacob the Jeweler had worries. He was also being charged with "the failure to file Forms 8300"—required by the I.R.S. for cash transactions over $10,000—"after having received large sums of currency" from the Flenory brothers "and others on their behalf," and with the "knowing acceptance of large sums of currency, money orders and cashier's checks from persons he knew to be nominees" of the Flenorys.

"A 'nominee' is a person that provides fraudulent qualifications and/or identity so that the true identity of the money-launderer is concealed," says Glen Morisano of the N.Y.P.D., considered an expert in the field.

On the day of his arrest, Jacob's high-powered New York lawyer Benjamin Brafman issued a denial of all the charges against him, saying, "All of the cash earned by Jacob Arabov from the sale of jewelry was fully reported, and all the appropriate I.R.S. forms were filed."

"Based on the materials reviewed to date," Brafman said in a statement faxed to me a few weeks later, "it is clear to us that Mr. Arabov … had no knowledge about whether or not any people he did business with were themselves engaged in any unlawful activity."

"How could he not know?," I asked Brafman—whom I know a bit, having watched him wipe the floor with the prosecution in Sean Combs's Club New York shooting trial, in 2001. How could Jacob not know that these B.M.F. guys weren't exactly choirboys?

"What do you mean, 'How could he not know?,'" Brafman said. "A person comes into the store, they're involved in B.M.F., they say they're involved in the music industry, their billboards are on display in Atlanta."

B.M.F.'s gigantic billboard, set against the Atlanta skyline, declared, the world is ours, a line from Scarface. But it could have been referring to the group's drug business as much as its record label, according to the government, which maintains that B.M.F. Entertainment was largely a front. Between the early 90s and 2005, B.M.F. is alleged to have sold at least $270 million in cocaine, from a Mexico-based supplier, through a sophisticated operation extending from Detroit to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Orlando, and Louisville.

"The overall conspiracy is quite large and quite powerful," said U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy on the phone from Detroit.

A two-year investigation, conducted by the Detroit P.D. along with the D.E.A., I.R.S., and N.Y.P.D., led to the October 2005 arrest of the Flenory brothers and 26 others, who were all charged in a superseding indictment.

"These are bad guys," said a detective close to the case. "It's not impossible they threatened [Jacob]."

"The fact is that Jacob did not commit the crimes he is charged with," said Brafman.

A report from a case agent with the N.Y.P.D. alleges that B.M.F. "is responsible for numerous acts of violence including the murder of Sean 'Puffy' Combs's bodyguard Anthony 'Wolf' Jones"—Combs's close friend, who drove him away from the scene of the Club New York shooting in 1999. While it has been alleged that Demetrius "Meech" Flenory killed Wolf, in Atlanta in 2003, in a dispute over a woman, the case agent's report says that Wolf and Meech may have actually been beefing over drug territory, according to an informant. "[Demetrius] has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Anthony Jones and in no way, shape, or form was he involved in it," said his lawyer, Feinberg.

B.M.F. had lived large and, as they say in hip-hop, raw. "We got our own houses, cars, clothes, hos," bragged Meech in a reality-style B.M.F. video. They were known for throwing lavish parties featuring live exotic animals, and for taking over nightclubs, sometimes rolling "100 deep." "I'll spend $50,000, $100,000 in the motherfuckin' club," Meech said.

When they came to New York, according to a report from a case agent with the N.Y.P.D., they stayed in the Presidential Suite at a luxury New York hotel and paid "doormen to watch their vehicles instead of using valets. This [was] to prevent security or the authorities from searching B.M.F. vehicles for guns or drugs."

B.M.F. also flaunted their success with jewelry. "Everybody shining like new money," Meech said in their video, and, behind him, other gang members literally shined, dripping with pieces by Jacob the Jeweler.

Having jewelry by Jacob perhaps made them feel like the Wu-Tang Clan, even if they would never be. On the B.M.F. Web site (BMFent.net), Meech can be seen decked out in the slick executive style worn these days by Jay-Z, now the president and C.E.O. of Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella Records. But while Jay-Z, a former crack dealer from Brooklyn, rapped the kind of rhymes that get hip-hop called poetry, the artists on B.M.F.'s label never showed the same sort of promise.

"We thugged out," said their star rapper, Bleu DaVinci, driving around waving a very large handgun in their video. "I got some shit that'll take your life. That shit's gonna blow you about four feet back."

What B.M.F. was good at, according to the government, was not only selling drugs but laundering money. "They had extensive methods," said Detective Morisano. "They'd have nominees buy them properties and luxury vehicles."

Of B.M.F.'s alleged $270 million haul, Jacob Arabov is suspected of laundering at least $5 million, according to a case agent in the D.A.'s office in Detroit. "That's just one seizure," said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But why would someone as successful as Jacob the Jeweler do this?, I asked. "The only motivation I can think of is greed," the agent said. "Maybe there's more money in it for him."

"Any suggestion that Jacob did the things he is accused of doing for financial gain are baseless and preposterous," said Brafman. "Jacob is a very successful businessman who pays a fortune in taxes."

"It's customer service," said U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy, also speculating as to a possible motive for money-laundering. "Your folks come in, they have a lot of money, folks without jobs buying $200,000 worth of jewelry; it's like, 'Hey, I can help you.'"

"Jacob & Co. has very strict policies on how cash is handled," said Brafman. "It all gets deposited and reported. No exceptions, regardless of the client

If Jacob is found guilty, he could be facing up to 20 years in prison. "This is serious business," Murphy said.

"It's a bunch of bullshit," said the rapper Busta Rhymes, a longtime client and friend of Jacob's. (Rhymes has been in the news recently, having been arrested in August for allegedly assaulting a man who spit on his Maybach.) "Anybody that affiliates themselves with people that are from the street, they always go the extra mile to investigate them. At the end of the day, why would Jacob come this far, purchasing a $12 million building on 57th Street—why would he do anything illegally? Before Jacob, criminals were buying from [lots of high-end jewelers], but you never heard the fucking feds indict any of these other motherfucking people. What they fucking with Jacob for?"

‘There must be some mistake," Jacob said on the morning of his arrest as he led police into his store, according to a detective at the scene.

"I took out my card, and he looked at my card," said the detective, who asked not to be named, "and he says to me, 'Oh, I knew your boss, or your former boss,' and I said, 'Really?' And he goes, 'Yeah, Rudy Giuliani. I made his Yankee watch—very close friend of mine.'"

"If it was said, it was in casual conversation," Brafman said later. "Jacob would never look to inject any of his famous clients into this case. Jacob has regular customers who are far more powerful than the former mayor of New York."

Meanwhile, Angela had become "hysterical," according to the detective. "She just kept saying, 'I don't want any cops in the front, I don't want any cops in here.' She was making a lot of demands. And then [a police officer] sat her down and said to her, 'Listen—we're all gentlemen here. We have a job to do.' And then he"—Jacob—"said to her, 'Please.'"

"I think Angela was very upset," Brafman said. "As any wife would be, seeing her husband arrested for something he didn't do. I'm not saying these things were said."

Jacob "kept telling us, 'This must be a mistake.' And we said to him, 'We're looking at these guys, the B.M.F.' And he didn't say it, but you could read his face, like: 'Oh, shit,' ya know? Then he said, 'I'll give you anything you want, open the safe.' But we didn't want him to open the safe. We were interested in documents."

The D.E.A. officials at the scene had with them a search warrant listing 35 items sought as evidence: invoices, bank-deposit tickets, and files related to specific people and transactions. One of these people was Damon Thomas, a successful producer and songwriter who has worked with Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez. He is also, Vanity Fair has been told, one of at least five witnesses in the government's case against Jacob Arabov.

Thomas, 37, a native of Kansas City who now lives in Los Angeles, is half of the hip-hop producing team the Underdogs, with Harvey Mason Jr., son of the great jazz drummer. They have deals with Clive Davis's J Records and Universal Music Publishing. They've had several Top 10 hits and received a Grammy nomination in 2004 for their work on Justin Timberlake's Justified album.

In 2004, Thomas, according to police sources, became involved in producing music for B.M.F. Entertainment. (Despite numerous attempts to reach Thomas, neither he nor an attorney for him offered any comment.)

Sometime later that year, 36-year-old Terry Flenory, B.M.F.'s alleged co-leader, introduced Thomas to his jeweler in New York, according to authorities. "Jacob knew of B.M.F. through Damon Thomas," countered Brafman. "Thomas is a well-known person in the hip-hop community. Jacob's understanding of B.M.F. was that they were in the hip-hop business."

Thomas became a big customer of Jacob's, but apparently he didn't pay in a timely fashion. On February 15, 2006, Jacob filed a $1.9 million lawsuit against Thomas, charging that, between 2004 and 2005, Thomas "purchased numerous pieces of jewelry," and owed Jacob & Co. $950,000. The suit also alleged that on June 21, 2005, Thomas "borrowed various pieces of jewelry" worth $965,000 "and [was] either unwilling or unable to return any portion of the jewelry."

When Thomas was informed of Jacob's suit by the New York Post, the paper said he "sounded flabbergasted.… 'This isn't right,' he said, contending Jacob Arabo … was blaming Thomas for a dispute with an unidentified third person." Later on the same day, Jacob dropped the lawsuit.

What was going on between Jacob and Damon Thomas? Flash back to July 11, 2005, and imagine a stretch of Illinois highway. A sheriff with the Bonds County Sheriffs Department stopped Terry Flenory for speeding, according to an N.Y.P.D. case summary. "During this stop the sheriff noticed a significant marijuana smell emanating from the vehicle," said the police document.

While searching the vehicle, the sheriff reported that he found a stash of jewelry, later estimated to be worth at least $4 million. After being arrested, Terry Flenory told cops that the jewelry had been rented for a "video/photo shoot … by Damon Thomas from 'Jacob the Jeweler of N.Y.,'" said the same case summary.

Released on bail, Flenory (who was not indicted for drug conspiracy until that October) called Thomas and asked him for a favor: to be a nominee, said the N.Y.P.D. document. Flenory allegedly requested that Thomas come to New York with him in order to meet with Jacob and make a claim that the jewelry seized from Flenory at the time of his arrest had in fact belonged to Thomas.

"Mr. Flenory has no comments about any statements made by Damon Thomas," said his lawyer, William Daniel.

"Thomas stated that he did come to N.Y. along with Flenory," the police report continues, "and that they did meet with Arabov in order to fill out paperwork so that Thomas could make a claim that the jewelry seized from Flenory had belonged to Thomas."

On May 11, 2006, Damon Thomas testified before a Detroit grand jury as to his association with Flenory.

"I think desperate people do desperate things when they get in trouble to get out of it," said Brafman. "When you're a high-profile person like Jacob you're vulnerable. From what I've been able to put together, for every transaction that requires a form we have a form."

"The I.R.S. agents are still reviewing the financial records that had been seized from the warrant executed at Jacob the Jeweler's business," says a police report from June 20, 2006. "However, as an estimate at this point they can say that Arabov had falsified records at least approximately 22 times just from the 22 pieces of jewelry that were seized from Flenory at the time of his arrest."

Jacob wasn't sure what was going on as he led cops upstairs to his second-floor office on the morning of his arrest. His bookkeeper was already there being interviewed by police. She had let them in the store when she arrived at 8:15.

"His wife, Angela, told her, 'Don't say anything,'" said a police officer who had been at the scene.

"I think the reaction was 'We need to get a lawyer.' It was perfectly understandable," said Brafman.

But the bookkeeper had already been talking. "She said, 'I told him he shouldn't get involved with them,'" meaning B.M.F., said the detective with the N.Y.P.D. "She said, 'They would come in with bags of money. Most times we would count it upstairs,'" but sometimes "'they would count the money right downstairs.' She said, 'I knew it.'"

"The employee in question steadfastly denies making that statement," said Brafman.

"What she also may have been referring to," Brafman went on, "was the fact that there had been a problem with some of the purchases by B.M.F. because some of their checks did not clear."

When cops looked in the safe, they found five pieces of custom-made jewelry waiting to be picked up by B.M.F., which kept an account at the store: large pendants with the gang's logo in diamonds. "B.M.F. 4 Life," one said.

"I said to [Jacob], 'Listen—what's B.M.F. stand for?'" said a police officer who was at the scene. "And he said, 'I don't know, Be My Friend?' And I was like, 'Yo, man, come on.'"

"I don't believe Jacob said that," said Brafman, "but if he did, it was him, under the tension of the moment, trying to inject some humor." They led Jacob out the front of the store in handcuffs.

"His wife is telling me, 'You can't walk him out the front—he's not a crook. You can't put handcuffs on him,'" continued the officer. "And I said, 'Look, he's under arrest, this is procedure.'" "She did not want him to be embarrassed or publicly humiliated," said Brafman.

As they drove Jacob away in a black cop sedan, the rapper Bow Wow happened to pull up in front of the store, coming to shop. Seeing cops there, he leaned out and put a hand up as if to ask, "What's going on?"

"Sorry, we're closed," said an officer.

A few weeks later, I met Jacob at his store. The inside is fashioned to look like a diamond mine, lined with row upon row of bling.

"The first time 'bling' was used was in a Jamaican reggae song in 1969," I'd been told by Reggie Osse, co-author of the newly released Bling: The Hip-Hop Jewelry Book, "for the sound the sparkling of a diamond would make under sunlight if 'sparkle' could make a sound."

Jacob's other nickname is "the King of Bling." In Jacob & Co. you can almost hear the sound, from the elegant two- and three-carat platinum engagement rings (which the New York Times Style section tells us are now favored by "preppy girls from Connecticut") to the enormous diamond crosses favored by rappers who give thanks to God in their award-acceptance speeches.

"It's the quality of the diamonds," said Ines Gierke, Jacob's model-pretty German saleswoman. "They come from Russia." Actually, they come from all over, including the Angolan mines of Jacob's cousin Lev Leviev, the Israeli multi-billionaire and good friend of Vladimir Putin's. Leviev has mounted the first-ever challenge to the De Beers diamond cartel. In 2004, a controlling interest in Jacob & Co. was bought by Erez Daleyot, also an Israeli and owner of D.D. Manufacturing, with which Leviev has business interests.

Gierke led me back to a fancy private waiting area with a bar stocked with champagne; there was a noticeable absence of Cristal, which Jay-Z had announced a ban on after its president had said, "We can't stop them from buying it"—meaning rappers.

I waited for Jacob. He'd been released the day of his arrest on $100,000 bail. On July 12, in Detroit, he pleaded not guilty. He's not allowed to travel outside the U.S. without permission until his trial, which Brafman says could be postponed for up to a year.

Hip-hop Web sites had been buzzing with sometimes rude speculation about his situation, caught between the law and the law of the street. "Jacob da jewler better keep his mouth closed dem B.M.F. niggaz gona merck [kill] his rich ass," said "Real South Nigga" on the message board of XXLmag.com.

Jacob appeared. He was wearing another suit by his friend Domenico Vacca—gray with blue pinstripes this time, with a turquoise pocket-square. He looked great, as if he'd just come back from a month in the South of France. (Actually, he would miss his friend Diddy's perfume-launch party in Saint-Tropez the following week.)

I said something to him about my being sorry for his troubles. "What troubles?" he said, blinking his big, friendly brown eyes, moving around swiftly. Angela was with him, looking shy, or perhaps wary.

The condition of our interview was that I could not ask Jacob anything directly about his case; Andrea Zellan, an associate from Benjamin Brafman's office, was also there, to make sure that I did not.

Later, when I asked her if Jacob could tell me something about how he feels about the case, she faxed me a statement from him saying, "This is my worst nightmare.… I did not intentionally violate the law and I would never knowingly deal with people involved in criminal activity."

We all went to a small, sleek office at the back of the store, where, Jacob said, "we make deals." There was a large collage on the wall, all pictures from Jacob's former stall in the Kaplan Jewelry Exchange. It was like a hip-hop history lesson, with photos of nearly every rapper who ever mattered, coming to buy bling from Jacob the Jeweler.

Jacob gestured to a picture and said "Tupac" with a salesman's pride. "It gets hard on the fuckin' streets," Tupac once rapped. "I rhyme and do crime cuz either way pays me a little."

"Biggie Smalls," Jacob said, pointing to another picture. Biggie wrote a song, "The Ten Crack Commandments," a playbook of what he'd learned as a crack dealer in Brooklyn. (He was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997.)

It has become part of Jacob the Jeweler lore that Biggie was Jacob's first customer in hip-hop, after his girlfriend (later his wife), R&B singer Faith Evans, left a deposit of $5 for a diamond ring, saying her boyfriend would come back to pay the rest later. That was 1993.

"Fat Joe, Ludacris, Ja Rule, 50 Cent," said Jacob, pointing to more pictures.

"Fitty," as he is also known, has rhymed about his former life as a crack dealer in Queens. "Don't make me run to you, put the gun to you / Have yo ass on Phil Donahue explaining what the fuck I done to you," he rapped in 2005's "Make Money by Any Means."

"He's a good friend of mine," said Jacob.

There was Allen Iverson (in 2004, Jacob signed a deal with the N.B.A. to design watches with logos for all 29 of its teams), Missy Elliott, Ashanti, Christy Turlington—who wore a 42.9-carat, $180,000 necklace designed by Jacob when she wed Ed Burns in 2003—Nicky Hilton, Naomi Campbell, Kimora Lee Simmons. "She is a princess of jewelry," Jacob said appreciatively.

"You know this gentleman, right?" he asked. It was Brad Pitt. Then Spike Lee, Fred Durst, Justin Timberlake, Adrien Brody, Jessica Simpson. The pictures were a study in how hip-hop style had been adopted by Hollywood, and so had Jacob the Jeweler.

I asked him when he had known he had made it. "There was one moment," he said. "Puffy asked me to come to his suite at the Peninsula Hotel right before the MTV Awards," in New York, in 1999. "He was dating Jennifer [Lopez] at the time. He said, 'You're going to dress me and Jennifer for MTV.' They were the hottest thing in the world. And I was exclusive."

"It's hard not to become friendly with Jacob," Sean Combs told me on the phone. "He's a cool cat. At Christmastime, I was in there shopping with my girlfriend [Kim Porter], and he gave me a couple of things for my girlfriend and my mother. It was on him."

And there was Kanye West. "I went to Jacob an hour after I got my advance / I just wanted to shine," he rapped in 2005's "Touch the Sky."

West, who briefly considered doing a line of sneakers with Jacob, passed on commenting for this story. So did over 20 other hip-hop artists I called, many of whom have rapped about Jacob, in more than 40 songs—a priceless sort of advertising which marketing surveys say makes Jacob the Jeweler "cool."

"Which is your favorite?," I asked Jacob, of the songs.

"I don't know, I don't know," he said, smiling. He didn't seem to know any of the names. He liked U2, he said. He pointed to a picture of Bono wearing a "Jacob." "At this party, he kissed my hand. He says, 'You're a genius.'"

"He's an incredible salesman," Busta Rhymes told me on the phone. "He knows how to charm the shit out of his clients and treat them with respect. I respect the way he handles me."

"Nothing is impossible," Jacob said, telling me about his reputation for making custom jewelry. (He actually got into some hot water for this practice in 2004, when Cartier filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against him for putting diamonds on the faces of their watches and reselling them without permission. As part of the settlement, he had to take out ads in major papers including The New York Times condemning such "illegal conduct" and "unauthorized alterations.")

He told me he'd just made an 18-karat-gold BlackBerry cover for Pharrell Williams, the hot hip-hop producer and rapper. He seemed excited about it, dialing Williams on his own BlackBerry and handing it to me. "People are astonished by it," Williams said. "It's like art. It's like something a king would have."

I told Jacob a story recounted to me by the Rolling Stone writer Touré, who said he had gone on an interview with Kanye West, and "I started mocking him for having a white-Jesus [pendant]. So he called Jacob, and immediately Jacob was like, 'Sure, absolutely.' He dropped everything for Kanye. He spent hours trying to turn white Jesus into black Jesus"—pulling out trays of brown and yellow diamonds. "But in the end he convinced Kanye Jesus looked better white," Touré said.

Hearing this story, Jacob burst into laughter and started speaking Russian to Angela, who was sitting beside him. She'd been saying nothing the whole time. Now she also giggled.

"Nobody really sure that Jesus had blue eyes or brown eyes," Jacob said with a twinkle. Jacob & Co. now sells black and white Jesus pendants.

Tashkent, the city Jacob's from, is modern and dappled with the onion domes of ancient mosques. While mostly Muslim, it has an enclave of Jews (formerly from Bukhara, Uzbekistan) who never returned to Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, in 586 b.c. It was once a stop on the Silk Road, the trading route from China to the West.

Jacob's family, the Arabovs, were a "huge family whose history started 200 years ago," I had been told by Jacob's rabbi, Itzhak Yehoshua, the chief rabbi of the Bukharan Jews in the U.S.A., out in Queens. "They were honest businessmen in the silk trade."

In 1970s Tashkent, Jacob's father was in the liquor business, selling his own vodka, wine, and beer. But, Jacob said, "you couldn't be very wealthy man. Like, everybody had to be equal. All the furnitures look the same. Everyone has the same jewelry." Seeking a better life, the family immigrated to Brooklyn in 1979. They were helped by Orthodox Jewish organizations, although they were not religious themselves, having been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union.

Jacob's father worked in a bakery and sold hot dogs. "He was depressed a little," Jacob said. "He was stressed out because he couldn't provide the same things he could provide before."

At 16, Jacob dropped out of Forest Hills High School (his family had by now moved to Queens to live within its Bukharan community) and enrolled in a six-month jewelry-making course sponsored by Hasidic Jews. He graduated four months later. He'd always wanted to be a photographer. Jewelry, he said, was "just to make money, to support a family." But he found out he was good at it. "I have good eyes and I design, I create."

In the next nine months, he went from a craftsman's job in the Diamond District—"Here's a hundred bracelets, weld them together"—at $125 per week, all the while making his own jewelry from leftover gold and selling it on the side in Queens, to owning a jewelry factory near the district, at age 17.

For the next four years, he would work in the factory four days a week and, the other three, travel to jewelry stores throughout New York and New Jersey, selling his wares; it was the 80s, so there was a lot of gold and big hoop earrings. And then, he said, "I almost got robbed and killed on the road, and I said, That's it. I quit this. And that's how I opened my retail store"—his stall on Sixth Avenue. This was 1986.

What changed his mind, he said, wasn't his fear of being robbed of money or jewelry, but of trust. "You buy on consignment, and you buy on credit. You owe people. If you get robbed, your life is over, because nobody ever will trust you again. In our business, trust is everything."

In 1998, Jacob was arrested by the F.B.I. for criminal possession of stolen property. Brafman was not aware of this when I first told him about it. "It was a mistake," he said later. "The charges were dropped and the records have been sealed."

Actually, the first hip-hop jeweler was not Jacob the Jeweler, but Tito the Jeweler, also known as "Manny," for his father, an Ecuadoran immigrant who gained a cult following in the 70s, selling wild, custom-made pieces to pimps and drug dealers.

Hip-hop style soon followed street fashion. In the 80s, "I got a call from a gangster in Queens saying, 'I'm gonna send over a friend of mine.' It was LL Cool J," said Tito Caicedo on a hot day in July in the Diamond District.

"They were all mine—Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Biggie," said Tito, 47, wistfully. "Maybe I should have fought harder for what I had. Jay-Z rapped, 'I took my Fritos to Tito's.' But it's too bad in the end they took their bigger Fritos to Jacob."

"Why did you and all the hustlers start bringing your business to Jacob?" writer Minya Oh asked the rapper Roxanne Shanté in her book Bling, Bling: Hip-Hop's Crown Jewels.

"Because he did not question our money," Shanté said. "A lot of times, when you're someone bringing over $10,000 in cash, you want your money to be respected and accepted. Jacob didn't put you through no hassles—he took it."

"Jacob also filled out the appropriate I.R.S. forms and filed them," said Brafman. "There's nothing wrong with taking cash as payment. The fact that Jacob didn't embarrass people is to his credit."

"Jacob's the man," said Gary Koptyev, a jeweler at Diamonds, U.S.A., and also a Bukharan Jew. "He's got the charisma, got the style. A lot of people are jealous of him. He was cool just like me."

"Jacob thinks he's black," said a young jeweler called "Red," smiling.

Koptyev spoke to him sharply in Russian.

"I will tell you something about Jacob," said Koptyev. "He's the only man who could smoke cigars in a public place and no one would say anything. Even the owner of the restaurant would say nothing."

At the end of our interview I told Jacob I had just one last question: "Who's Damon Thomas?"

Immediately his demeanor changed. He stared hard across the table at me. "Who told you this name?" he said. Angela pursed her lips.

"We're not talking about that on the record," said Andrea Zellan, the lawyer. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

"What—is he running for president or something?" Jacob asked with a sarcastic smile.

And then he left without saying anything else.

"My grandmother had a saying," one of the diamond dealers on 47th Street had told me, talking about Jacob. "May your feet take you in the right direction, and with the right people."
posted by R J Noriega at 4:03 PM | Permalink | 144 comments
The Pharcyde - Otha Fish
posted by R J Noriega at 8:52 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop
By Kembrew McLeod

An interview with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Hank Shocklee

When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in 1988, it was as if the album had landed from another planet. Nothing sounded like it at the time. It Takes a Nation came frontloaded with sirens, squeals, and squawks that augmented the chaotic, collaged backing tracks over which P.E. frontman Chuck D laid his politically and poetically radical rhymes. He rapped about white supremacy, capitalism, the music industry, black nationalism, and--in the case of "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?"-- digital sampling: "CAUGHT, NOW IN COURT ' CAUSE I STOLE A BEAT / THIS IS A SAMPLING SPORT / MAIL FROM THE COURTS AND JAIL / CLAIMS I STOLE THE BEATS THAT I RAIL ... I FOUND THIS MINERAL THAT I CALL A BEAT / I PAID ZERO."

In the mid- to late 1980s, hip-hop artists had a very small window of oppor-tunity to run wild with the newly emerging sampling technologies before the record labels and lawyers started paying attention. No one took advantage of these technologies more effectively than Public Enemy, who put hundreds of sampled aural fragments into It Takes a Nation and stirred them up to create a new, radical sound that changed the way we hear music. But by 1991, no one paid zero for the records they sampled without getting sued. They had to pay a lot.

Stay Free! talked to the two major architects of P.E.'s sound, Chuck D and Hank Shocklee, about hip-hop, sampling, and how copyright law altered the way P.E. and other hip-hop artists made their music.

The following is a combination of two interviews conducted separately with Chuck D and Hank Shocklee. --Kembrew McLeod

* * *

Stay Free!: What are the origins of sampling in hip-hop?

Chuck D: Sampling basically comes from the fact that rap music is not music. It's rap over music. So vocals were used over records in the very beginning stages of hip-hop in the 0s to the early '80s. In the late 1980s, rappers were recording over live bands who were basically emulating the sounds off of the records. Eventually, you had synthesizers and samplers, which would take sounds that would then get arranged or looped, so rappers can still do their thing over it. The arrangement of sounds taken from recordings came around 1984 to 1989.

Stay Free!: Those synthesizers and samplers were expensive back then, especially in 1984. How did hip-hop artists get them if they didn't have a lot of money?

Chuck D: Not only were they expensive, but they were limited in what they could do--they could only sample two seconds at a time. But people were able to get a hold of equipment by renting time out in studios.

Stay Free!: How did the Bomb Squad [Public Enemy's production team, led by Shocklee] use samplers and other recording technologies to put together the tracks on It Takes a Nation of Millions.

Hank Shocklee: The first thing we would do is the beat, the skeleton of the track. The beat would actually have bits and pieces of samples already in it, but it would only be rhythm sections. Chuck would start writing and trying different ideas to see what worked. Once he got an idea, we would look at it and see where the track was going. Then we would just start adding on whatever it needed, depending on the lyrics. I kind of architected the whole idea. The sound has a look to me, and Public Enemy was all about having a sound that had its own distinct vision. We didn't want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff--bass lines and melodies and chord structures and things of that nature.?

Stay Free!: How did you use samplers as instruments?

Chuck D: We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds. Just like a musician would take the sounds off of an instrument and arrange them their own particular way. So we thought we was quite crafty with it.

Shocklee: "Don't Believe the Hype," for example--that was basically played with the turntable and transformed and then sampled. Some of the manipulation we was doing was more on the turntable, live end of it.

Stay Free!: When you were sampling from many different sources during the making of It Takes a Nation, were you at all worried about copyright clearance?

Shocklee: No. Nobody did. At the time, it wasn't even an issue. The only time copyright was an issue was if you actually took the entire rhythm of a song, as in looping, which a lot of people are doing today. You're going to take a track, loop the entire thing, and then that becomes the basic track for the song. They just paperclip a backbeat to it. But we were taking a horn hit here, a guitar riff there, we might take a little speech, a kicking snare from somewhere else. It was all bits and pieces.

Stay Free!: Did you have to license the samples in It Takes a Nation of Millions before it was released?

Shocklee: No, it was cleared afterwards. A lot of stuff was cleared afterwards. Back in the day, things was different. The copyright laws didn't really extend into sampling until the hip-hop artists started getting sued. As a matter of fact, copyright didn't start catching up with us until Fear of a Black Planet. That's when the copyrights and everything started becoming stricter because you had a lot of groups doing it and people were taking whole songs. It got so widespread that the record companies started policing the releases before they got out.

Stay Free!: With its hundreds of samples, is it possible to make a record like It Takes a Nation of Millions today? Would it be possible to clear every sample?

Shocklee: It wouldn't be impossible. It would just be very, very costly. The first thing that was starting to happen by the late 1980s was that the people were doing buyouts. You could have a buyout--meaning you could purchase the rights to sample a sound--for around $1,500. Then it started creeping up to $3,000, $3,500, $5,000, $7,500. Then they threw in this thing called rollover rates. If your rollover rate is every 100,000 units, then for every 100,000 units you sell, you have to pay an additional $7,500. A record that sells two million copies would kick that cost up twenty times. Now you're looking at one song costing you more than half of what you would make on your album.

Chuck D: Corporations found that hip-hop music was viable. It sold albums, which was the bread and butter of corporations. Since the corporations owned all the sounds, their lawyers began to search out people who illegally infringed upon their records. All the rap artists were on the big six record companies, so you might have some lawyers from Sony looking at some lawyers from BMG and some lawyers from BMG saying, "Your artist is doing this," so it was a tit for tat that usually made money for the lawyers, garnering money for the company. Very little went to the original artist or the publishing company.

Shocklee: By 1990, all the publishers and their lawyers started making moves. One big one was Bridgeport, the publishing house that owns all the George Clinton stuff. Once all the little guys started realizing you can get paid from rappers if they use your sample, it prompted the record companies to start investigating because now the people that they publish are getting paid.

Stay Free!: There's a noticeable difference in Public Enemy's sound between 1988 and 1991. Did this have to do with the lawsuits and enforcement of copyright laws at the turn of the decade?

Chuck D: Public Enemy's music was affected more than anybody's because we were taking thousands of sounds. If you separated the sounds, they wouldn't have been anything--they were unrecognizable. The sounds were all collaged together to make a sonic wall. Public Enemy was affected because it is too expensive to defend against a claim. So we had to change our whole style, the style of It Takes a Nation and Fear of a Black Planet, by 1991.

Shocklee: We were forced to start using different organic instruments, but you can't really get the right kind of compression that way. A guitar sampled off a record is going to hit differently than a guitar sampled in the studio. The guitar that's sampled off a record is going to have all the compression that they put on the recording, the equalization. It's going to hit the tape harder. It's going to slap at you. Something that's organic is almost going to have a powder effect. It hits more like a pillow than a piece of wood. So those things change your mood, the feeling you can get off of a record. If you notice that by the early 1990s, the sound has gotten a lot softer.

Chuck D: Copyright laws pretty much led people like Dr. Dre to replay the sounds that were on records, then sample musicians imitating those records. That way you could get by the master clearance, but you still had to pay a publishing note.

Shocklee: See, there's two different copyrights: publishing and master recording. The publishing copyright is of the written music, the song structure. And the master recording is the song as it is played on a particular recording. Sampling violates both of these copyrights. Whereas if I record my own version of someone else's song, I only have to pay the publishing copyright. When you violate the master recording, the money just goes to the record company.

Chuck D: Putting a hundred small fragments into a song meant that you had a hundred different people to answer to. Whereas someone like EPMD might have taken an entire loop and stuck with it, which meant that they only had to pay one artist.

Stay Free!: So is that one reason why a lot of popular hip-hop songs today just use one hook, one primary sample, instead of a collage of different sounds?

Chuck D: Exactly. There's only one person to answer to. Dr. Dre changed things when he did The Chronic and took something like Leon Haywood's "I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You" and revamped it in his own way but basically kept the rhythm and instrumental hook intact. It's easier to sample a groove than it is to create a whole new collage. That entire collage element is out the window.

Shocklee: We're not really privy to all the laws and everything that the record company creates within the company. From our standpoint, it was looking like the record company was spying on us, so to speak.

Chuck D: The lawyers didn't seem to differentiate between the craftiness of it and what was blatantly taken.

Stay Free!: Switching from the past to the present, on the new Public Enemy album, Revolverlution, you had fans remix a few old Public Enemy tracks. How did you get this idea?

Chuck D: We have a powerful online community through Rapstation.com, PublicEnemy.com, Slamjams.com, and Bringthenoise.com. My thing was just looking at the community and being able to say, "Can we actually make them involved in the creative process?" Why not see if we can connect all these bedroom and basement studios, and the ocean of producers, and expand the Bomb Squad to a worldwide concept?

Stay Free!: As you probably know, some music fans are now sampling and mashing together two or more songs and trading the results online. There's one track by Evolution Control Committee that uses a Herb Alpert instrumental as the backing track for your "By the Time I Get to Arizona." It sounds like you're rapping over a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass song. How do you feel about other people remixing your tracks without permission?

Chuck D: I think my feelings are obvious. I think it's great.
posted by R J Noriega at 9:58 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Private Enemy
Two New York rappers dreamed of stardom. MF Doom got it. MF Grimm didn't.
by Ben Westhoff

Sometimes you need to cut niggas off like a light switch. MF Doom, 'Deep Fried Frenz'

I don't deep-fry friends/Grimm Reaper nuke 'em/Hearts don't mend/Brothers turned to enemies, nigga/Enemies I eat them raw, nigga/MF Grimm is god of war. MF Grimm, 'Book of Daniel'

Percy Carey is a strong man. The 36-year-old South Bronx rapper, known professionally as MF Grimm, has broad shoulders and chiseled arms, the result of a daily routine including sit-ups and push-ups; he also regularly wheels himself six to eight miles in his wheelchair. Once an NFL-caliber outside linebacker and middleweight boxer, Carey was shot and nearly killed by rival drug dealers in 1994. He eventually recovered his vision and speaking ability, but he may never walk again. "I wronged a lot of people, but it's balanced out," he says. "And that's why I can live with myself in this chair."

Although Carey was once poised for mainstream success, his years as a drug-dealing thug led to a lengthy imprisonment, stunting his rap career while friend and onetime recording partner MF Doom was blowing up as a simultaneously whimsical and menacing underground supervillain. Now Carey feels that Doom has forsaken him, and he's fighting back with a dis track, a triple album, and a multifaceted company hawking everything from horror movies to energy drinks.

For a man who calls himself Grimm, Carey is optimistic, but he knows things could've been different. He grew up in a loving middle-class family on the Upper West Side. "I had decent parents that would always try to do for me," he recalls. "From a young age, I was taught right from wrong, how to be a man, to be a hard worker." Morgan Freeman, the family's next-door neighbor, quickly put Carey to work; the actor thought a three-year-old Percy—who then had an Afro and a potbelly—would look great on Sesame Street's stoop. Freeman put Carey's mother in touch with the show's producers, and for the next four years Percy regularly held court with Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and the gang. "One episode, I lost my tooth, and me and Big Bird had to go through Sesame Street and try to find it," Carey remembers.

As a teenager, he spent countless hours at his friend Jorge Alvarez's 97th Street apartment. The guys played video games, smoked weed, and honed their rapping skills. Eventually, a young man from Freeport, New York, named Daniel Dumile joined their rhyme circle, well on the path to becoming MF Doom.

"Doom was more conscious at that time," Carey remembers. "He stood for something big. He was for black culture. I rhymed about beating people up, about shooting at people, trying to make money."

Guns and drugs were quickly becoming his reality. As a Park West High School student, Carey rarely went to class, preferring to shoot dice in the hallways, get high in the bathrooms, and chase girls everywhere. He was expelled for assaulting a school dean: "We beat him up in the snow. He was on drugs, and he owed us money for dope. So we kicked his ass."

In the following decade, Carey built a mini–drug empire and a reputation for shooting enemies without remorse. "He was a fucking murderer. What do you want me to say?" longtime friend Sebastian Rosset recalls. "I have other friends that are a little less organized with that shit. He was a little more organized."

Nonetheless, rap remained a passion, and Carey spent increasing amounts of time making music with Dumile. Influenced equally by the styles of KRS-One and Dr. Dre (both of whom he eventually collaborated with), Carey tells straight-ahead gangland narratives in his raps, peppered with political—and at times New Agey— messages. With Dumile, he formed a clique, Monsta Island Czars (M.I.C. for short), named after the mythical home of Godzilla. For stage names, Grimm and Doom shared the "MF" prefix, which Carey says stands for "Mad Flows" or "Mother Fucking." After Dumile began wearing a mask, it took on another meaning: "Metal Face."

During the late '80s, Dumile founded the group K.M.D. with his brother Subroc and had a minor hit with "The Gas Face," a collaboration with affiliated group Third Bass. K.M.D.'s playful, politically conscious debut, Mr. Hood, came out on Elektra Records in 1991, but tragedy befell the group two years later when Subroc was struck by a car and killed. Shortly thereafter, Elektra dropped K.M.D. and refused to release their second album, Bl_ck B_st_rds, which featured an African American cartoon figure hanging from a noose.

Alone and depressed, Dumile disappeared from the music scene for five years, turning to Carey for support. "Things was on the downslope," Dumile admits, on the phone from his Atlanta studio. Carey is "like a brother," he says. "We've been through so much hard times. When we were both struggling, we had each other to lean off of."

Things got worse. On a snowy January day in 1994, shortly after getting his hair cut in Harlem, Carey stepped into his stepbrother Jansen Smalls's car en route to a meeting with an Atlantic Records representative, who was courting Carey for a record deal. But just as Smalls turned the ignition, bullets riddled the car, puncturing Carey's left arm, gut, neck, and lungs. Smalls was killed instantly.

"It was a blizzard, and snow was all over the windows, so I couldn't see much," Carey recalls. "There were several different people shooting, and the whole car was annihilated. I don't know who shot me. I was dealing, and when you get to a certain plateau, everyone knows you, though you might not know who they are. They think that doing something to you will benefit them, whether it's for a rep or financially."

At Harlem Hospital Center, doctors ripped open his rib cage to remove bullets, and for months afterward he couldn't see, hear, or talk properly. Spinal cord damage confined him to a wheelchair, and larynx damage affects his speech to this day. But his afflictions didn't stop him from dealing dope. Five years later he was pinched on narcotics and illegal-firearms charges and imprisoned for three years. Upon his release in 2003, Carey pledged to reform his ways and had reason to believe things were looking up.

During Carey's incarceration, Dumile found success as a solo artist, assuming aliases from Viktor Vaughn to King Geedorah and collaborating with increasingly famous artists. (His next album, slated for release in early 2007, will be a collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah.) Known for his dense flow and intelligent wordplay, Doom's become a hero or villain to hip-hop heads worldwide. His 1999 debut album, Operation: Doomsday, was a big seller by indie standards, and Carey, who, before his incarceration, helped finance the album and supplied samples in his role as executive producer, expected fat royalty checks. More importantly, he and Dumile could resume making groundbreaking music together, now with an audience to receive it.

But it wasn't to be. Dumile had left his friend in his dust. He says they grew apart, but Carey feels betrayed. "I consider him a brother to me, and it shouldn't have gotten to the point where it's at," he says, adding that his visionary former friend has changed. "Sometimes the line of genius and acting crazy is so thin, you might fall over the line and need someone to bring you back."

Carey's modest apartment in a gentrifying South Bronx neighborhood overlooks basketball courts, a concert pavilion, and rows of tidy houses. From the pale brick building's open windows, mothers yell in Spanglish for their kids to come home for supper. Inside, his abode is a shrine to hip-hop and comics. Action figures still in their plastic cases line the walls à la The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Most belong to Carey's roommate, rapper Robert Warfield, who became a member of M.I.C. in 2003, around the time Dumile dropped out. Warfield, a lanky Puerto Rican, plasters Transformers stickers on his recording equipment and assists Carey when he needs it, both with his record label and in pushing him up steep hills or lifting him up out of his chair when he needs to zip up his pants. Though Carey navigates the world with the relative ease of a man who's spent one-third of his life in a chair, there are still a few spots beyond his reach.

"There's nothing cool about being shot," Carey says. "It hurts. It changed not just my life, but also the ones around me. People have to help take care of me. I can't do shit on my own sometimes."

On this drizzly late-September day, Carey sits atop a towel in his black wheelchair. He rolls himself out into the hallway at the request of a photographer named Dumas, who has come all the way from Brussels, Belgium, to take his picture for an Internet site called 90bpm. ("Le 1er magazine de la culture Hip-Hop en France depuis 2000.")

Carey has dark skin, a thin goatee, and a muscular upper body that looks like it could still absorb punches. From beneath a backward-tilted ball cap, his deep-brown eyes stare menacingly back at the camera. He doesn't smile. But immediately after the shutter snaps, the veneer fades. "You got enough light?" he asks.

Though even now his lyrics don't always reflect it, Carey has renounced his violent past, and he's exceedingly polite. He calls men "sir" and women "ma'am." His deep voice contrasts with his still childlike personality—he prefers candy to beer and remains a comic-book fanatic.

It was his interest in superheroes like Superman and Green Lantern, in fact, that helped convince DC Comics to publish his life story as a graphic novel. Next fall will see the worldwide debut of Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm. Written by Carey and illustrated by Brooklyn artist Ronald Wimberly, the book will be released on DC's Vertigo imprint, known for titles like V for Vendetta and the Sandman series.

"There's a lot in common with comics and music, in particular the underground aspect of it," says Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger. "Certain songwriters, certain hip-hop artists, they're storytellers. That's the beauty of it. Percy has so easily moved from writing songs to writing a graphic novel. He's a great storyteller, and he's now found another medium to tell his stories."

Carey and Berger are also in talks to develop a comic series called Candy Land, set in an urban ghetto controlled by gangs of sugar-filled personalities. "There's a crew called the Donuts, led by Choco, a chocolate donut," Carey explains. "Chewy P. Newton, he's the political one, and tells kids they shouldn't be out there using bleached flour and refined sugar."

Comics aside, Carey's days are dominated with running the company he founded in 1999, before he went to prison, Day by Day Entertainment. Its musical arm has become a major independent hip-hop player in recent years, securing worldwide distribution and selling nearly 100,000 units by Carey's count. That figure includes 10,000 or so of an MF Grimm–MF Doom collaboration called Special Herbs and Spices, Volume One, released in 2004 though produced years earlier.

Originally conceived as a vanity rap label, since Carey's release from prison three years ago Day by Day has taken on more than two dozen artists (Rob Swift, Hasan Salaam, Mudville) and now features a successful rock 'n' roll division (Serengeti, the Shadow). Carey is also in discussion with Verve to collaborate on a pair of jazz albums. Day by Day's film division is set to release a low-budget, straight-to-DVD Australian horror movie called When Evil Reigns. Finally, there's an energy drink called MF Potion in the works, not to mention a makeup line featuring lip gloss, blush, fragrances, and soap.

"There's not a lot of products for women of color, from my understanding," Carey says. "It has to do with the pigments. A woman my complexion, normally, whatever type of makeup they use has elements of pink in it. But they need something that's based in yellow."

Expect Day by Day cosmetics at a store near you this summer.

"The oppressed are the heroes to the people," Doom says. "I'll be the villian."
photo: Sven Slimm
His varied projects aside, Carey's focus for now is his own new triple CD American Hunger. After spending much of the '90s working on other people's projects (he wrote songs for Kool G Rap's classic album 4, 5, 6 and, he says, Dr. Dre's The Chronic, though he's uncredited for his work on the latter), it's his fourth solo album, following The Downfall of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera, Digital Tears, and Scars & Memories.

Released in July, Hunger is among the most ambitious projects in rap history, featuring 60 tracks, including collaborations with hip-hop royalty like Large Professor and PMD of EPMD. At its heart a pop album, it sashays between themes of love and loss, redemption and revenge, flirting with the political but finally settling on the personal. "Trapped in the belly of the beast/Trying to get regurgitated because I am the feast," Carey raps on the first of the album's three title tracks.

Making a three-hours-long album is, of course, insane, but Carey somehow makes it work, partially through his compelling story and partially by stacking the deck with top-notch underground beat-makers like St. Louis's DJ Crucial, who plans to release his own album featuring the 12 songs he produced. "I was told it could not be done, but I like to do things people say can't be done; gives you a reason to still be on the planet," Carey says. "They can say the other 59 of them suck, but if somebody likes one song, I'm happy." (American Hunger is available at daybydayent.com for $13.50.)

A recent, largely praiseworthy Spin print review called Carey "the rapper who's taken almost as many bullets as 50 Cent." Wrong. "He was shot nine times, and I was shot 10 times," Carey grumbles, referring to both the crippling 1994 assault and a 1986 party in which he was shot in the stomach, knee, and wrist.

The Spin review also notes the album's Molotov cocktail of a final song, "Book of Daniel," which threatens Dumile by his first name and his stage name from his K.M.D. days: Zev Love X. "Zev Love X used to be merry/The mask took control of you like Jim Carrey," Carey raps over a blistering acid-rock sample, adding: "When the bullets start flying, who's gonna hide you?"

"You ain't a man/You a character," puts in crewmate MF Mez, adding, "M.I.C. gave you life/And we can take that shit away."

"Book of Daniel" is a response to a track on Doom's biggest success story to date: The Mouse and the Mask, his 2005 collaboration with superstar producer Danger Mouse, he of the Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up The Grey Album and this year's buzz phenom Gnarls Barkley. A goofy, literally cartoonish venture featuring the voices of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim stable (itself a favorite of Doom's largely white, frequently stoned fan base), Mask was a critical and commercial smash. The Washington Post called it "the craziest, coolest CD of the year," and it reached 41 on Billboard's album chart.

On the Mask track in question, "El Chupa Nibre," Dumile obliquely references his past: "Once joined a rap clique, Midgets into Crunk/He did a solo on the oboe, could have sold a million/Then the Villain went for dolo and cited creative differences."

Carey sees the "Midgets into Crunk" line as a dis of M.I.C. "I view 'Midgets' as saying he's big-time and we're small. And he probably thinks crunk is like a fad, so that's just his way of saying we're out of here."

"I never looked at it like that—if I want to dis niggas, I'll say it straight up," Dumile responds. "But, if the shoe fit . . . you know what I'm saying? People can take it how they want to take it. If somebody feels offended by it, that's on they own self."

Whether or not Dumile intended to hurt him, Carey reacted viscerally and immediately crafted a response. "He just gets in [the studio] and starts ripping this verse, and I'm just like, 'Oh my gosh!' " recalls producer DJ Crucial. "I'm looking around at everyone, 'cause Doom is like everyone's favorite right now."

"Book of Daniel" has listeners around the country duking it out on Internet message boards. Some see Carey's rage as justified, while others find the song a pathetic attempt to cash in on Dumile's celebrity. "Maybe Grimm looked at his sagging sales and said, 'Damn, I need to start a beef with someone,' " reads a comment to a blog posting about the song written by someone calling himself "i'm the skwidawd."

Carey insists "Book of Daniel" is not a publicity grab. "I do mean what I say. If I'm going to kill somebody, I'm gonna kill them. Am I looking to go hunt him down and kill him? Nah. But can it get to the point where someone could get hurt? Yeah. It's about respect. People get beat up for less."

So-called "dis tracks" are commonplace in rap music, of course. But "Book of Daniel" is different. When Carey isn't threatening Dumile, he's appealing for reconciliation. "Come home, Zev," he pleads near the song's end. "I can't act like I don't have no love for him," Carey says now. "I care about him so much that it caused the conflict that we have today. The more I speak about him, the more it becomes to the world like I'm bitter toward his success. He was bound to be successful, but the plan was for him to direct that success toward the others. If our plan is to get up over a wall, and I push you up and help you get over the wall and you don't throw a rope for me, then it's going to be an issue."

Dumile hasn't heard the song, but says he has no time for Carey's issues.

"It's funny, how, once it gets to where the name is getting recognized, everybody want to act like they got a problem with the Villain," he says. "I ain't got no friends. As soon as you think somebody's your friend, that's when you gotta watch out. When you're successful, there's always somebody that's cornering you, somebody that used to be your friend, talking about, 'He did this, he did that.' I open up my home to people, help people, and then motherfuckers turn around and try to stab me in the back."

Out on bail and awaiting trial for narcotics and weapons charges, Carey made a risky move in early 2000. Lacking a driver's license, he bought a fake one and used it to board a plane to Los Angeles.

There, he met Dumile. They came to negotiate with executives from Readyrock Records, who planned to release MF Doom's solo debut, Operation: Doomsday, and K.M.D.'s second and final album, Bl_ck B_st_rds. Carey contributed financially to and is credited as an executive producer on both albums.

Carey hadn't seen his friend in a while, as Dumile had moved to suburban Atlanta with his wife and their young son, Daniel Jr.—Carey's godson. After the meeting, the two men revived their bond and, stepping into a record studio, quickly recorded hours of songs, one of which Carey would use for Grimm's own The Downfall of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera, which was dedicated to stepbrother–shooting victim Jansen Smalls. "I expected me and Doom to make good music and become legends," Carey remembers of the session.

Miranda Jane, a Los Angeles–based music consultant, came to the studio to interview the guys for Stress, a now defunct hip-hop publication subtitled "NY's Illest Magazine." She even brought along dinner for them: homemade jambalaya and smothered cabbage. "They had a really good synergy together," she recalls.

Jane, who later became Dumile's manager, was one of last people to see his face. Since Operation: Doomsday, MF Doom has taken to wearing a metal gladiator mask onstage, in press and album photos, and even in everyday life around people he doesn't know very well. "Hip-hop tends to be about who's the flyest, who has the biggest chain," Dumile explains. "So it's kind of like the mask is the opposite of that. It's like, it don't matter what he looks like, what race he is. All that matters is the vocals, the spit, the beats, the rhymes."

The mask has metaphorical implications as well, Jane says. Having been scarred by the music industry, Dumile was reinventing himself as someone who wouldn't be played for a fool. "Doom was concerned with making money right now and feeding his family by any means necessary," she says, adding that this differed from Carey's long-term goal of building a black-owned distribution company from the bottom up.

"I got a different agenda," Dumile agrees. "It's about getting money, and that's that. I got children to feed." As for Carey: He "ain't got no kids."

Shortly after the L.A. meeting, Dumile returned to Atlanta, and Carey to the penitentiary. During his three-year confinement, he was transferred to institutions all over New York State. "I've been moved and moved. . . . Most of them wasn't wheelchair accessible," he says.

"I remember visiting him up in Fishkill, New York, and the facilities were a little better," recalls Elinor Tatum, a friend. "But he told me about how, before, he'd basically had to crawl to the shower. In another case, medical staff didn't want to have to change his catheter, so they gave him a drug that kept him from having to urinate. He got very ill because of it, because he was not eliminating the way he should have been."

Yet Carey found ways to make the most of a miserable situation, working on his chess game, teaching himself to cook, and studying the music industry.

"I got my hands on Billboard, Forbes, Fortune—anything that dealt with marketing," he says. "And I learned the business models of people like Quincy Jones, Russell Simmons, Tommy Mottola, and Jimmy Iovine. I basically took my years in prison and I used it as college."

Dumile visited him only once during that stint. Adding insult to injury, upon Carey's 2003 release, Dumile told him that the album deals with Readyrock had fallen through. He'd struck new deals to release Operation: Doomsday and Bl_ck B_st_rds, but they would pay the two men only a fraction of what was guaranteed by the original agreements.

"Dumile promised that he was going to do something to make it right, to get some thing to me," Carey says. "But he never did."

Answers Dumile, "It's funny how motherfuckers want to complain about how 'The Villain jerked me, and this and that.' I'm like, 'Get a lawyer!' "

Nonetheless, Carey was willing to let bygones be bygones, and he thought Dumile felt the same way when he invited Carey to perform at an MF Doom concert at Times Square club B.B. King's last year.

"I wasn't going to do any more shows," Carey says. "It's a very uncomfortable feeling sitting down and having to rhyme. It's like boxing—you don't want to be a boxer in a wheelchair. You want to stand up and fight."

But the chance to be with Dumile was more than he could pass up, and in a video of the concert DVD Carey has, he looks as happy as a kid at his first baseball game. "All the people on the sides know MF Doom is hot, MF Doom is hot, MF Grimm is hot," Carey raps from his chair at the beginning of the show, wearing a heavy sweatshirt and winter cap. "This is my brother, I love him," he adds as the lights are cut and Dumile bounds onto the stage, clad in a Patrick Ewing Knicks jersey and, of course, his silver mask. He continuously shouts out Carey throughout the set, using his other stage names, Jet Jaguar and Grandmaster Grimm.

"It felt good being onstage with him," Carey recalls. "It was good to see him rock. And after that, I thought we would be back to normal. It's apparent that he didn't think so." Carey heard "El Chupa Nibre" shortly thereafter and became convinced that Dumile had fundamentally changed since their days as teenagers on 97th Street. "I think he's caught up in an image he can't escape from. He has to be a villain."

Dumile doesn't entirely disagree. "The whole Villain thing is really like looking at how other people see him," he says. "The oppressors usually look at the people they're oppressing as the villains. But the oppressed are the heroes to the people, so I just accept it now. I'll be the villain. I'll be the hero to the hip-hop world."

Carey's apartment is full of cardboard boxes, some packed with promotional T-shirts and copies of American Hunger. Others are troves of old mementos. After digging around for a few minutes, Carey produces old copies of Right On! magazine, a locally based hip-hop fanzine aimed at young girls in which he once authored a column called Grimm Reaper's Harvest. Also in the boxes are photos from Carey's Sesame Street days and a picture of him standing with DJ Roc Raida in the early '90s, before Carey was paralyzed.

Eventually, Carey packs up the boxes and puts them away, along with the Doom concert DVD. The sun has gone down in the South Bronx, and the interview is almost over. But before that happens, he'd like to show off a new trick he's been working on.

"I'm learning how to stand up," he says, moving from his wheelchair to a leather recliner and motioning for Warfield to hand him his aluminum walker. He grasps the walker's soft handles and, trembling, pulls himself up. After a few seconds of struggle he extends, fully vertical, his muscular arms supporting his underdeveloped legs.

"I fully expect to walk again, but it's difficult for me to put a timetable on it," Carey says, after sitting back down. "It's not my body anymore. My body's back. It's just, there's a lot of things I've got to overcome in my mind."
posted by R J Noriega at 6:45 PM | Permalink |
Repentant Yet Defiant, a Rapper at His Best
Why you hate the Game?


That question is the title of the last track on the new album by the Game, the petulant hip-hop star from Compton, Calif. He’s not really looking for answers, but answers aren’t hard to find. Why would anyone hate this guy? Well, maybe because he’s an overbearing braggart, a tireless name-dropper, a mealy-mouthed provocateur, a sluggish rapper, a witless wag and a shameless sycophant. For a start.

And yet, barring some last-minute surprise, he has made the best hip-hop album of the year. It’s called “Doctor’s Advocate” (Geffen), and it comes out on Tuesday. (Although pirated copies surfaced last week.) And it puts the Game’s booming voice and bad attitude front and center. He’s needy in the worst way: desperate to be loved, respected, feared. And instead of hiding that neediness, he flaunts it; the result is a riveting portrait of the artist as a wannabe.

Let’s start with that title, which is either a heartfelt tribute, a desperate ploy, a veiled insult or — most likely — some combination of the three. In 2005, when the Game released his major-label debut, “The Documentary,” he was a protégé of both 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, the producer who helped invent the sound of Los Angeles hip-hop. Then 50 Cent and the Game began their noisy feud. It often seemed they were vying for Dr. Dre’s attention: The Game claimed that Dr. Dre would contribute to his second album; 50 Cent swore the producer would not.

50 Cent was right: Dr. Dre stayed away. But the Game decided to forge ahead anyway with “Doctor’s Advocate”; it’s hard to think of another rapper who would name an album after someone who declined to work on it. And in the extraordinary title track, the Game apologizes to his childhood hero, sort of. The first verse begins with a rapper who sounds as if he’s about to cry:

Dre, I ain’t mean to turn my back on you

But I’m a man, and sometimes a man do what he gotta do

Remember? I’m from Compton, too

I saw you and Eazy in ’em, so I started wearing khaki suits

I was 12, smoking chronic in ’92

Those extremes — the plaintive “Remember?”; the defiant “I’m a man” — echo through the verses. And though neither is totally convincing, it’s hard to tell where the Game’s bad faith stops. Is he merely pretending to be contrite? Or is he merely pretending to be defiant? Or, somehow, both? The skits that frame the song make it even harder to unravel. (The Game is drunk and depressed; Busta Rhymes tries to rouse him.)

The Game is clearly obsessed with the rappers who came before him, and it’s an obsession that demands a tally. In the course of 16 songs, he makes reference to no less than 44 different hip-hop stars, including two named Ice (Cube and -T), three named Lil (Jon, Kim and Wayne) and two named Young (Jeezy and M.C.). And no one comes up more often than Dr. Dre, whose name finds its way into nearly every song. By album’s end he has been invoked about 30 times; the absent mentor is everywhere.

Despite Dr. Dre’s absence, this album sounds much more like an Los Angeles album than its predecessor. “Too Much” has a typically smooth sung hook by Nate Dogg and a spot-on beat by Scott Storch, who knows how to make a track sound Dre-ish. (You’ll need a fluid bass line, some spare keyboard notes, some cinematic strings, an impossibly hard backbeat.) Hi-Tek produced the slow-rolling “Ol’ English,” a tribute to the Game’s favorite malt liquor and his favorite typeface, too. Even will.i.am, from the Black Eyed Peas, gets in on the act: he produced “Compton,” which lovingly recreates the menacing sound of old-fashioned gangsta rap.

The Game’s flow couldn’t possibly be described as nimble. (Neither could his wordplay: “Get stretched out like a limo”?) But he has a terrific voice, bassy and raspy, and there’s something enthralling about the way he pushes through to the end of the line, often falling slightly behind the beat, and sometimes straining to cram in extra words. He knows the value of negative space, so he doesn’t fill the songs with chatter and noise; he clearly loves the sound of sharp consonants and hoarse vowels over a half-empty beat. Compared with slick Southern rappers or wordy New York rappers, the Game is a minimalist, a true believer in the power of simplicity.

That simplicity has often been a hindrance on mixtapes, where you can find many of his vituperative but dull rhymes about 50 Cent. But here, the stripped-down approach serves him well. He knows how to reduce a violent story to its bare essentials: “Used to think that I was hard, so I stole my brother’s Glock/And that’s the day my life changed, ’cause that night, he got shot/Killed by another Crip over his Rolex watch.” It’s an appalling little story, but you can detect a hint of bravado in his voice, the same bravado, perhaps, that makes a boy steal a gun. If this album is a little bit less fun than “The Documentary,” it’s also a lot more memorable.

In hip-hop flawed protagonists rule; no one wants to hear a (purely) good guy rap. But the Game has an unusual flaw: his problem is that he really wants to be a hip-hop star, wants it so badly he can’t disguise it. He probably knows it’s a bad idea to call himself the “West Coast Rakim,” or to boast, “I’m B.I.G., I’m Cube, I’m Nas, I’m ’Pac,” or to obsequiously praise Snoop Dogg in nearly every song. He probably knows that thinly veiled criticisms of other rappers won’t earn him the respect he wants. (At one point he raps, “I don’t need no ‘Encore,’ no claps, no cheers,” alluding to the Jay-Z song.) He probably knows it’s embarrassing to release a whole CD about a guy who doesn’t seem to be returning his calls. But he is doing it anyway.

You don’t have to admire the Game’s approach to love this album. Even the Game’s many detractors may find themselves falling for these trunk-rattling tracks, whether they admit it or not. But the more you listen to these rhymes, the less unfathomable they seem. If the Game sounds too insecure, too greedy for admiration, too worried about how he’s perceived, well, maybe he’s not the only one. In other words, you might never grow to love that scowling poseur on the cover. But you just might recognize him.
posted by R J Noriega at 4:46 PM | Permalink | 0 comments

free hit counters
Best Buy Coupon