Authors: J. J. Salem
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
The Vibeology crowd had erupted into a cacophony of applause, cheers, whistles, and standing ovations. Gabrielle was stunned. She merely stood there, frozen in shock. Theory had come to the rescue, piloting her out of the spotlight and into a cramped backstage office. He offered her water, secured her telephone number, and promised to call, then disappeared to finish out the rest of the night.
Open mike at the club became a weekly ritual, and Gabrielle gained more confidence and performance flair each time she took the stage. Though initially supportive, a growing faction of jealous poets began turning against her. Among their reasons: She had risen to audience favorite and featured attraction too quickly; she had a deep reservoir of material, each piece better than the last; and her relationship with Theory, which had blossomed into a hot romance, gave her an unfair advantage.
Gabrielle had trouble taking the Vibeology vipers seriously, and her condescending attitude only intensified their hostility. She wanted to parlay her spoken-word success into more than a social avocation. Her attempt to use her MTV clout went nowhere. Poetry recordings were dismal sellers. Every label rep told her that the interest level would be less than zero. When she queried literary agents about representation, they rebuked her as well, citing contemporary poetry collections as impossible contenders in the marketplace. And her own efforts to contact publishers directly only provoked more of the same discouraging news.
Theory had talked up his own industry contact, but the man turned out to be a smarmy sales executive for a vanity press. Gabrielle had no intention of
a printing company to turn her poems into a book. This was not an ego trip for her. She wanted her poetry to work as a career. Gabrielle's instant dismissal of Theory's source triggered a major fight. He accused her of trying to sell out commercially, and lectured her about the artistic honor in struggling for financial rewards. She countered that he chose to stay in the small world of Vibeology because he was afraid of going after something bigger, and possibly failing. That night they broke up, and Gabrielle said good-bye to Theory and the club forever.
The man who would change her life called a few days later.
"I miss seeing you do your thing at the club. Where've you been?"
The voice had sounded vaguely familiar. But Gabrielle couldn't place it. "Who is this?"
A cocky laugh. "Answer my question first."
A gut thing told her not to be alarmed. This was no stalker. She knew the guy, and he knew her. The voice continued to tickle her brain. "Let's just say that due to creative differences I won't be going back to Vibeology. Now it's your turn. Who are you?"
"AKA Bomb Threat."
Gabrielle had almost dropped the phone. Here she was, hibernating in her cramped East Village apartment, reading a Terry McMillan novel, eating cheese popcorn, and picking up the phone to find one of the hottest music moguls in the business on the other end. Even though she worked for MTV and regularly encountered many music stars, this was surreal.
AKA Bomb Threat was a walking hip-hop cliché. Born Curtis Ash to a single, welfare mother in the Coney Island projects, he had been on the fast track to prison—or worse, to pushing up daisies—before his twentieth birthday. He possessed the court skills to become a pro baller, but that meant college, and Curtis had dropped out of high school. Besides, wanting to be the next Michael Jordan was a starry-eyed punk's dream. Everybody knew that a black man stood a better chance of getting in on the action that was going to thug Trump types like P. Diddy, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg.
So Curtis began moonlighting as a party DJ. He wanted to soak up the reactions of end users, to find out what beats made the crowd move, to know which songs pumped them into a frenzy. Then he became the drug dealer of choice for guys who were already in the place he wanted to go. He made deliveries to recording studios, hung out, talked shit, and asked about the production process. It didn't take long before he was schooled enough to get started and teach himself the rest. After all, he was a fast learner. Curtis Ash had hot-wired his first car at twelve, fathered his first child at thirteen, and cooked up his first crack supply at fourteen.
He booked studio time and cut one track, a song he wrote called "My Bitch Pays for Everything." His rapping prowess was mediocre at best, but the music bed was a toe-tapping, booty-shaking, head-bobbing delight. And his lyrics hit straight to the heart of the misogyny and materialism taking over the hip-hop scene in the void left after the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
Curtis pressed a few thousand copies and slapped written, produced, and performed by AKA Bomb Threat onto the label. The first time he saw his moniker in print, he laughed his ass off. Calling in a bomb threat had been the reason for his last expulsion from school. His marketing plan was guerilla all the way—cold-calling area radio outlets, playing the track when he did his own DJ thing at parties, pushing the song into the hands of club spinners. But the results had been merely modest.
Until a station in Georgia got hold of the track. Suddenly, "My Bitch Pays for Everything" fever began to spread across the state. And then it infected Florida, and, ultimately, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Dirty South couldn't get enough of AKA Bomb Threat. And it wasn't just urban radio, either. Across the region, the song scorched top-forty playlists, too. That's when the major labels began paying attention.
The courting process was fast and furious, the executives thinking Curtis Ash was just another dumb dropout who would sign the first contract they put on the table. "You must be joking, bitch." That's what he told the first A&R guy, a white Jewish dude fresh from graduation at Brown University. And then AKA Bomb Threat negotiated like a legal eagle from Harvard Law. In the end, he got a huge advance and his own label imprint, Riot Act.
"My Bitch Pays for Everything" went national and blew up everywhere. The video, featuring AKA Bomb Threat covered in white gold, platinum, and diamonds and surrounded by a throng of bikini-clad dancers, was quickly shot and serviced to all music channels. A full-length CD was rushed into stores. It went on to sell five million copies, and generated two more hits on the same theme, "Love Me a Ho with a Rich Daddy" and "I Swear That Bitch Didn't Ride in Your Mercedes."
He became the music industry's newest showman, front man, and idea man. What began as a vanity label imprint quickly became a powerful empire. AKA Bomb Threat built a stable of acts that soon surpassed his own success as an artist. Pretty Boy was a soulful ballad singer with the voice of a young Luther Vandross and the looks of a young Denzel Washington. The Sluts were three interchangeable teenage girls who performed in lingerie and cooed catchy ditties about sex. Chicken George was a bone-thin rapper and former pimp whose rhymes centered around his flashy style, his way with women, and his fat bank account.
AKA Bomb Threat stepped back as a performer but stepped up as a mogul, looking out for new talent, reviving stalled careers by bringing has-beens to Riot Act and reinventing them for a younger market, venturing into fashion with his own line of sportswear, partnering with Nike for a special edition sneaker emblazoned with his name, and throwing massive parties in Manhattan's most exclusive venues, a move which amped up his social profile and garnered him boldface status in all of the columns.
Gabrielle realized that she'd fallen silent as AKA Bomb Threat’s rags-to-riches biography played out in her head. "I'm here."
"You've got style and skills. So check this—I'm looking to break a female solo artist on my label. I think it should be you."
Gabrielle had been stunned. "But every other label has told me that spoken word doesn't sell."
"They're right. It doesn't. I'm talking about you as a rapper. Punch up the rhymes. Throw down some beats. Show off that body. You'll be unstoppable."
Gabrielle had not jumped at the offer right away. Philosophically, she struggled with hip-hop's impact on the larger culture. On the plus side, the industry had empowered more young black people than perhaps the civil rights movement had in its day. And the golden era of the genre from the late eighties to early nineties had produced some truly consciousness-raising, gifted artists—Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, De La Soul. Back then, hip-hop truly was an urban folk art. But now it had evolved into little more than a modern-day minstrel show. Everything was about violence, sex, and material excess. When it came down to the image of black America, hip-hop was playing directly into the white, right-wing fantasy.
But Gabrielle had decided that she should try blazing her own trail. She would not hide her curves behind bulky clothes and spooky special effects like Missy Elliott. And she would not present herself as a glorified prostitute like Nicki Minaj. No way. Gabrielle vowed to be the kind of woman the rap world had never seen before. Breasts
brains. A feminine force of sexuality and intelligence. Like liquid lightning, the inspiration for her stage name struck down.
Come on, brown sugar. Give us some of that sweet chocolate.
The bigoted monsters had taunted her with those words on the most harrowing night of her life. Inside, the memory blistered and burned. But with a strange and instinctive notion, Gabrielle had known that this was her chance to turn misery into triumph, to go from weak to strong.
The next time someone called her by that name, it would be a positive and powerful experience.
The next day, Gabrielle quit the job at MTV and began working on her first CD. Collaborating with AKA Bomb Threat was alternately exhilarating and infuriating. He pushed her to mainstream her poetry for the record-buying youth. She fought against it. He refused to back down. She compromised.
The result was
a debut that
called "the most important new record of the year . . . Brown Sugar is a hip-hop revelation." With the critical praise came commercial success. Her first single, "He Was," stormed the charts, followed in short order by "Prince of My Pain" and "Monsters in the Night," each song climbing higher than the last.
What Gabrielle had never counted on was the image that would become her personal prison. Hip-hop artists were viewed as people pressed up against the windowpanes, looking in on lifestyles that had always rejected them. From the jump, AKA Bomb Threat had told her that being a Grosse Pointe princess with an Ivy League pedigree would keep her down. She had to be "real" for fans to embrace her.
All Riot Act artist publicity was handled by the umbrella label's PR office. A flack there scratched out a press kit bio that had Gabrielle growing up in the Detroit projects and being orphaned at fifteen when her single mother was killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting. At first, Gabrielle had been appalled and was prepared to revolt. But everything happened so fast. The first hit single, the second one, video shoots, promotional appearances, a slot on Riot Act's summer tour. Suddenly, it was too late. The media had played up the ghetto rags-to-riches story too much. Thankfully, more interest began to be paid to Gabrielle's fashion choices and whether or not she and AKA Bomb Threat were a couple. Still, in every story printed about her, there was always that single paragraph that perpetuated the big lie.
Rita Coolidge's band was rocking hard, seducing most of the guests at the reception to dance with abandon. "When I get you in my reach . . . I'll never let you go," she sang.
Gabrielle came hurtling back to the present. She shook her head, as if that alone could cast off the anxieties of the past.
"Look at her," Babe was saying, referring to the visibly tipsy Lara, who had armed herself with yet another flute of Cristal. "Any minute now she's going to fall off those stupid heels and land flat on her face."
An impulsive idea sprang into Gabrielle's mind. She locked a serious gaze on Babe. "Let's get out of here and have our own party."
Babe was hesitant.
"My producer has a house in East Hampton. He's working in L.A., so it's mine for the night. My driver can take you back to the city in the morning."
Suddenly, Babe grinned. "Okay... I'm game."
Gabrielle smiled. "Then let's rescue the drunk angel."
They headed straight for Lara, flanking her on either side.
"We're kidnapping you," Babe announced.
"What?" Lara slurred. "No . . ."
"I have full run of an incredible house not far from here," Gabrielle informed her.
Even in Lara's intoxicated state, she proved reluctant. "No . . . I have a car service waiting. I just want to go back to my—"
"This is no time for any of us to be alone," Babe snapped. "We're going to have a girls-only party, and we're going to enjoy it! There are two things that we just need to accept and move on about. Number one, we've all touched Dean Paul's dick. Well, so what? And number two, he got married, and it wasn't to any of us. So screw him!"
"How could he marry her?" Lara slurred. "She's not good enough for him."
Baby Bear hustled to get the white stretch limousine into position.
Gabrielle couldn't quite believe it. The three of them together after all these years. But she had to wonder. Would they be friends again? Or was this merely an isolated group therapy session for Dean Paul survivors?
The It Parade
by Jinx Wiatt
Fill in the Blanks
Now that America's dashing young prince has tied the knot (he's the golden son of a certain senator and a certain former movie star), it won't do for him to continue his playboy ways. That's right. He just might have to get a job like the rest of us. Talk has swirled for years that he would follow in Daddy's footsteps and enter the political fray. No trouble attracting volunteers to that campaign! But a rumor is rampant that junior is mulling a job offer that has nothing to do with shaking hands and kissing babies. Prepare to be shocked. Mommy and Daddy sure will be.