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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.
"I knew he wasn't coming," shouted one fan, as a few bottles smashed on the floor from the upstairs balcony. But though tempers flared--one scuffle resulted in a knife injury, and a couple audience members tried to hop the refund counter to get to the register--the throng exited mostly without serious incident, a fact that club management and many fans attribute to Top Tone's having taken responsibility for the no-show. "We were worrying about people's safety," he says. "We had a potential riot situation, and Paranoid was no longer there, so it was up to me to go up there and explain what was going on."
While they were carting Bill Blass to the airport, the Earneys were being accused of ducking out of a volatile situation--a charge that Michele, who MCed most of the night, denies. But by the time they returned to the club at about 1 a.m., First Avenue's manager Steve McClellan was incensed. "When this whole thing exploded, Paranoid Promotions left the room, weren't here; Top Tone was the savior," says McClellan. "And when we were doing refunds, we discovered that they'd sold laminants [which are typically complimentary VIP passes] without telling us." In fact, Top Tone admits he sold the passes, but he says he refunded them out of his own pocket. Michele maintains she gave hers away. "A scam is when someone gets something out of it," says Michael, sounding rattled but in good humor. "I've got nothing but bills now."
In the end, it was probably best that no one from Paranoid made the dreaded announcement to the audience. "Michele Earney was amateurish," says McClellan. "Several times during the night, I said, 'Would somebody please get her off the stage.' Her emceeing was abysmal." And given that the already hostile crowd had been drinking for three hours by the time it booed her husband, Michele's chastising statement that Rakim wouldn't perform "until all the talent is heard and gets love" was unwise at best. The speech prompted club-operations manager Chris Olson to hail her on the club's staff radio system. "I told her not to talk about the headlining performer anymore," he says. "For a first-time promoter who wasn't even sure the talent was in the state, that was just a really unprofessional thing to do."
All parties feel stung by the no-show and its aftermath, which flirted with physical disaster and now promises economic havoc as well. "My name is all over this," says Top Tone. "My record-company name is all over this, and my money is all completely involved in this. I've got to keep my credibility: I mean, I've worked too hard to build a label out of here." Top Tone was counting on profits from Rakim's concert to fund the national release of his forthcoming third CD. Co-investors were also scalded when Tone was forced to subsequently cancel Rakim's concert the next night in Des Moines, which he and Paranoid had also promoted.
Tone says he saw Rakim at the airport when he picked him up Monday, but he didn't speak to him and took a separate vehicle to the hotel. He now wonders if the great rapper, who had flown in from Europe, even knew why he was in Minnesota. "Why would he come here, have a potential $18,000, go into his hotel, and then leave?... I don't know, because all channels go through Bill Blass."
For their part, the Earneys fired off a press release on Tuesday morning, July 7, saying that Blass gave "a reason we feel is not valid" for the rapper's quick departure. They claim Blass left with Tone's $9,000 down payment; at press time, they add, he has refunded neither that money nor Paranoid's promotional expenses, which Michael estimates to be $6,000. After two days of crossed wires, Blass did call both Top Tone and the Earneys. According to them, he was apologetic, but emphasized that Rakim did indeed rush to his wife's side. He also reportedly offered to reschedule a discounted--or perhaps free--concert.
Given the bad blood between Paranoid Promotions and First Avenue, a reset date for a Rakim concert at the old club seems unlikely. The Earneys instead say that they are looking at an offer from Bad Boy Entertainment to put on a concert for disappointed fans.
Michele doesn't, however, intend to refund the $100 entry fees to bands that competed to perform with Rakim, and never did. "We've talked to the artists who were in the show," says Michele, "and they were really happy that they got to perform, even though Rakim did not."
At First Avenue, McClellan remains disturbed by the whole affair, which he calls "a nightmare." After assembling employees at 1:30 a.m. that night, he told them he was sorry, in his words, "for working with an artist who put you all on the line." McClellan, long wary of booking large national rap acts, is still optimistic about the club's Soundset Wednesdays, a new hip-hop night hosted by Rhyme Sayers Entertainment that kicked off two days after that strange night. He sees the whole incident as a step backward for hosting hip-hop stars.
"We really did feel like the [black and white] audiences were mixing again, and that it was going to work," he says of the show. "If Rakim had showed up and played, it would have been a step forward. You can actually do a hip-hop show without all the terror. All that got set back Monday."