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Hundreds of angry audience members milled outside of First Avenue while police cars lined the curb and an ambulance idled nearby. Inside, hundreds more jostled toward the exit. It was past midnight, and legendary rapper Rakim had failed to show for his 11:45 set. Rumor has rippled through the hip-hop community since that Monday night, July 6, as burned fans wonder what went wrong, and speculate on how a bad scene--and nearly an ugly one--could have been averted. "That whole night was strange," says one local fan about the concert, which showcased Twin Cities talent for more than four hours before rapper Top Tone took the stage to announce that Rakim wouldn't be appearing. "It felt like a setup."
After the show, frustrated fans complained of being scammed by promoters, while promoters themselves questioned the excuse given by Rakim's manager. Paranoid Promotions, a small Minneapolis production company, brought the rap giant to town and said that his manager, Bill Blass, told them that the star's wife was in a car accident back in New York, forcing the headliner to check out of his hotel and catch the next plane. (Blass failed to return City Pages' phone calls, making this account impossible to verify.) Yet this doesn't explain how such a potentially precarious situation arose--with more than 1,100 fans informed just past midnight, after waiting up to four hours in the club, that their hero had left the time zone. In fact, the events of that evening are a snapshot of how a positive event can go dangerously south.
That evening's lineup included five winners of the "Rap with Rakim Contest," a judged showcase that was held on June 21 at First Avenue. Each of the 17 participating groups and artists had paid to play, handing over a $100 "entry fee" per act for the chance to take the stage at the Rakim show for approximately 10 to 15 minutes in an opening slot. Both the contest and the Rakim concert were promoted by Paranoid, managed by the husband-and-wife team of Michele and Michael Earney, which had previously hosted hip-hop nights at the Red Sea bar, but had never worked with a national act. The Earneys collected $1,700 from mostly young, amateur contestants to cover Rakim's airfare, while the $9,000 down payment (half of the headliner's fee) was covered by local rapper and promoter Top Tone and his companies, 2Da Top Records and Beetle Productions. Tone, a.k.a. Antonio Holliday, had previously promoted such national performers as Adina Howard and Montell Jordan, and was the principal investor behind last Monday's show.
The concert was a logistical chore, sporting 12 opening acts including MCs, DJs, and dancers, but things ran smoothly for the first two hours. Contest winner Jaded Diva rapped her North Side anthem "Broadway," a potential Minneapolis break-out single, while featured openers Abstract Pack laid down some catchy, invigorating mic-play. Still, the audience--most of which had paid $20 to see an artist fans casually refer to as "God"--withheld even polite applause from most acts. As the hour neared 11, the crowd began to get unruly, and booed Michael Earney, performing as Ice Berg Slim, off the stage, tossing cups at the performer.
Earney, though, had more to worry about than a bruised ego. By 11:15, Rakim still hadn't shown, and rumors were spreading through the crowd that the R was MIA. Top Tone had picked up Rakim and his manager, Bill Blass, at the airport that day, and Blass told Tone that the artist needed to rest at the hotel. When Rakim didn't appear for a sound check, First Avenue manager Steve McClellan held the doors. "I was ready to start refunding right then," he says. "But the Paranoid Promotions people said he was at the hotel and just didn't want to do sound check."
Though audience members remained cordial with each other (if not with the performers), by 11:30 both club management and promoters could hear the crowd chanting "Ra! Kim! Ra! Kim!" between sets, and they began to fear (correctly) that the headliner, due to perform at 11:45, had pulled out without telling anyone at the club. As Top Tone and others performed onstage, both Earneys drove to Rakim's hotel, the Holiday Inn Metrodome at 1500 Washington Ave. S., only five or 10 minutes away from downtown. According to Earney, they found Bill Blass in his room, and he related the story about the car accident. "We drove Bill to the airport," says Michele. "And we used the cell phone to call Top Tone."
The whole evening had played out like a hip-hop version of Ionesco's absurdist play The Chairs, where an elderly couple assembles a room full of invisible guests for an orator that, when he shows, delivers only disappointing nonsense. Now Top Tone, hearing Michele's message on his pager voice mail, had to deliver the disappointment to the crowd, and make sense of what sounded, on first listen, like nonsense. He quickly made a backstage announcement and employees soon emptied the tills and set up a refund system for tickets. Then the stage was cleared of performers, and Top Tone took the mic a few minutes after midnight to break the bad news. As groans arose, he even offered to pay refunds out of his own pocket if the lines in front grew too long.