The alley outside the Spy Club is still empty. Doors opened at 10 p.m., but as of 10:15, the crowd for the night’s “hip-hop kulture” event has not yet arrived. Anticipating their arrival, Louis “Fahim” Smith patrols I Street NW with an armload of paper, strategically placing bright yellow posters on lampposts up and down the block. Fahim (Smith, he says, is his “government name”) is co-owner of D.C.-based Ofphspringg Entertainment, a prospering local promotions company. He flacks for major rap acts such as Helter Skelter and the Cocoa Brovaz as well as for the hiphop magazines Double XXL and Rap Pages. The posters and fliers Fahim is distributing on this occasion herald Kaos Theory, the forthcoming album of his new client, an 18-year-old rapper named Clinton Greene, aka Millenium.
Millenium is not performing at the Spy Club tonightmainly because very few people have ever heard of him or Kaos Theory. Fahim, for a not-so-modest fee, is on hand to help fix that by pitching him to a targeted crowd. Behind most major album releases, companies like Ofphspringg are hired to spread the word on the streetin addition to whatever advertising big rap labels like Columbia’s Ruffhouse or Def Jam or Priority deem worthwhile to bring their artists to the masses. These expenses add to the phenomenal cost of producing and distributing DMX, Raekwon, Lil’ Kim, or Master P albums in the first place. In all of these cases, the record companies foot the bill. In Millenium’s case, his first album and its requisite promotion, estimated at about $60,000 and counting, have been paid for by a guy in Alexandria named Abdul.
Born in Baltimore but raised in D.C., Millenium started rapping in his early teens, idolizing and imitating the rugged Wu-Tang Clan. He eventually developed a more low-key narrative style of his own. “What you want in a story is details,” he explains. “I take what I know, what I’ve heard, or what I’ve been through, and I write it in such a way that when you listen to it, you can almost see it happening.”
Then came the ultimate test of the aspiring MC: taking his skills to the streets. Rapping at small clubs in Northwest D.C. at the age of 16, Millenium was not afraid to risk being defeated by older, more seasoned lyricists. To the contrary, as typical MC legend would have it: “People, like, three times, twice my age at little clubs [would be] gathering around,” Millenium reminisces. “I’d just be rapping and battling themand winning all the time.”
One night recently, at Soul Camp, a popular D.C. hiphop club, Fahim was “politicking” with the DJ, giving him free vinyl copies of Millenium’s first single, “She’s Leaving With Me.” It’s one of Kaos Theory’s more party-oriented tracks: The album, for the most part, perpetuates the “thug life” ghetto-survivalist aesthetic pioneered by such artists as the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. Millenium’s deceptively laid-back delivery and descriptive ability belie the record’s content, which is quite rough. Millenium stood a few paces away from Fahim, silently surveying the young crowd through tinted shades. He was an ominous presence: thick, dark, and surprisingly solemn amongst the throng of dancing college students.
Up close and in more adequate lighting, some of Millenium’s mass reveals itself as baby fat. In a cafe the day after his 18th birthday, Millenium’s quiet bearing seems to stem more from shyness than hostility. He raps that “somebody gotta die tonight,” but when he speakswhich is rarelyhe does so softly and with an occasional stammer. Even from his hard-core lyrics, it is tough to tell whether he was the big bully on the playground or the overweight butt of jokes. Nevertheless, he maintains: “My album speaks for me, you know. That’s why I don’t really have to say much. I’ve got faith in my album and the people I’m working with. That’s why I don’t worry about anything. That’s why I’m calm.”
If Millenium were inclined to say more than he does, he wouldn’t have much of a chance around his fast-talking, charismatic manager, Casino. Born Charles Parker, Casino is a rhythm-‘n’-blues musician turned talent scout, ready with a silky remark for almost any situation. “My name is Casino,” he explains, “because everybody that I deal withthey always come to me and give me a part of their life to do something with. You know, you go to a casino to gamble…hoping to get something more out of it.”
In fact, it was Casino who came to Millenium, seeking out the rapper after hearing of his ability from a friend. He phoned the teen and presented himself as a possible manager, promising not to give up until he had found the kid a label deal. Despite the difficulty of keeping such a promise, Millenium perceived Casino as a person with “a good heart” rather than as a risk. He took him on. So far, Millenium’s appraisal appears accurate: Without any solid guarantee of making money, Casino remains heavily involved in Millenium’s career, acting as a big brother as much as a business partner. “I feed him, clothe him, everything. I take care of the whole job of managing,” Casino asserts. “And if I can’t do it myself, I can call Abdul and it’s done.” Casino invokes Abdul’s name with complete confidence, as if Abdul were a minor deity. If Casino serves as Millenium’s on-call guardian angel, there is no question that Abdul plays the role of the young man’s enigmatic fairy godmother.
The ad went something like this: “Rappers Wanted. Contact House of Abdul Records.” It began appearing in D.C.-area newspapers as well as in the nationally distributed Source and Rap Sheet magazines about four years ago. Casino admits that he completely missed the potential of this ad at first: “I kept seeing it…but I’d just go past it. ‘Oh, House of Abdul. That’s an ugly name. I don’t want to sign to no House of Abdul!’” After Casino and Millenium decided to do business, the two encountered nothing but closed doors over the course of a year. One of the major objections was Millenium’s age: At 17, he couldn’t get into the clubs at which he hoped to perform. Eventually, Casino came across the ad once again and called the House of Abdul.
“Casino called me, and we were playing phone tag for about a month,” recalls Abdul, 32, whose full name is Abdullah F. Rufus and whose timid demeanor and style of dresswhich the dapper Casino describes as “straight out the hamper”do not fit the physical profile of a record-label bigwig. “I’ve just been trying to go from gut experience, and there was something about Casino that I liked, period. So I did the phone tag thing with him,” Abdul explains, “and he was about nothing but business.”
The not-your-average-youngun’ spiel by which Casino pitched Millenium to the budding record-label owner was not nearly as impressive as the artist’s prolific nature. Millenium went to see Abdul with nine songs he had recorded in a basement studio, as well as with some 40 additional songs he had written. Abdul responded favorably: “Most people who can freestyle, a lot of them can’t write hit songs,” Abdul asserts. “And a lot of people who can write hit songs can’t freestyle. But with Millenium, the dude is incredible live. He can freestyle with anyone, and he wrote 40 songssome of which I thought had the potential to become hits.”
Casino and Millenium confess, amid a shared chuckle, that they were not quite as bowled over by their first encounter with Abdul. But Abdul’s sincerity and nose for potential profits soon changed their minds. “After we talked to him,” Casino says, “there’s just something about him that I was just like, ‘This cat seems like he’s about his word.’”
After a couple of weeks, Millenium signed exclusively with House of Abdul, and Casino put whatever profit he might hope to gain in Abdul’s hands. “I signed everything over to Abdul when I first met him for Milleniumfor Millenium’s sake, not for me,” Casino maintains. “I didn’t do this for me; I did it for [Millenium]. I know I’m going to get mine. If he’s signed with Abdul, and Abdul takes everything a label is supposed to take and doesn’t give me anything, when [Millenium] gets paid, I’ll get mine. You have to trust your artist, and the artist has to trust his management.”
“I have nothing but respect for them,” Abdul begins, by way of explaining his thirst for control behind the scenes. “But I don’t trust anybody. I don’t even trust myself.”
When not talking business, Abdullah F. Rufus is quite guarded about details of his life. The dark, thin brother with the high-pitched voice resides in Alexandria. A woman often answers his home phone. He’s usually available all day, except at around 8:30 p.m., when “the baby” has to be put to sleep. Two or three times a week, he works as an engineer at National Public Radio. Abdul attended Hampton University, where he launched House of Abdul.
“I used to do rock albums and punk albums and stuff like that,” he says. He has stuck to small, regional releases, and each project has been bigger than the one before it. “I’m not a major, and I’m not going to pretend to be a major. No, I could not afford to spend a quarter of a million dollars on an act, but I put at least $50,000 or more on [Millenium]. And I’m going to put even more on him.”
Abdul may seem like the next poster boy for upstart labels in the D.C. area, but he is not much of a crusader. “I’m just doing what I know. I don’t believe in independents vs. majors,” he says. “I believe there’s nothing to prove; it’s already been done before. It’s been done by Motown, Stax, Enjoy, Sugar Hill, Geffen, Def Jam. It’s been done to death by a million other labels. It’s just my turnhopefully.”
Millenium’s Kaos Theory has been out for almost a month now, and, in Abdul’s opinion, sales have been disappointing. “I don’t have any sales figures,” he admits. “All I know is that it’s not blowing out of the box.” That may be an incredible understatement. Consignment managers at Willie’s, Tower Records, and Sam Goody’s, where the album has been advertised as supposedly for sale, report having no record of the album being in their D.C.-area stores. Word on the club scene is not particularly encouraging, either: One of the DJs that Fahim visited confesses to having played “She’s Leaving With Me” only once at his club. “I wasn’t really feeling the delivery so much,” this DJ says. “The content was ‘eh,’ and the beat was whack,” he says. “And beyond even being whack, the production wasn’t very strong.” Another local nightclub DJ is more positivebut not much more: “It was all right….I don’t think it’s whack,” he offers. “It’s just not something I’m going to remember….If I went to Twelve Inch or Willie’s, I wouldn’t really buy it.”
Among the most scathing comments about Millenium’s single comes unsolicited from his own promoter. “The song is nice, but it’s nothing that a club DJ would want to play,” Fahim remarks. “You couldn’t put that up to Noreaga or Cam’Ron, you know what I’m saying? It’s just not danceable.”
Yet, regardless of the less-than-spectacular feedback, rock-solid apathy from commercial radio DJs, and mounting expenses, House of Abdul will continue to push the Millenium project. Abdul laments that he lost sight of his initial vision somewhere along the waythat he began listening to too many other people. “Whenever I do what I know is the right thing to do, it works,” he says. “I have no guarantees as far as the stuff I do, but that’s the only thing that gives me the solace to put up [these] amounts of capital.” Apparently, Abdul trusts himself more than he lets on.
To regain focus on the project, Abdul has scrapped the pop-themed “She’s Leaving With Me” in favor of a new single. As of this week, Abdul will have shelled out another $15,000 in hiring a production crew and shooting a video for Millenium’s next release, which is titled “How Far Will You Go?” CP