Rhyme & Reason
Butler says he went into the drug business around 1986, right out of high school, in what he describes as a sort of golden era of the crack trade in Southeast. Back then, Butler says, the business wasn't as severely afflicted with the internecine turf wars that have helped D.C. sustain one of the highest murder rates in America.
"We were family, and we just had fun doing it," Butler says. "Nowadays, someone goes into a 'hood, they shoot people and do all that stuff to take over a turf. We didn't do that. We fought. We'd go up to the man, and we were like, 'We trying to get up in here, what you wanna do?' We racked" -- fought -- "we literally racked, with our fists, not bats, not knives, not guns. And we earned respect, and that's how we got into all our spots."
St. Thomas More, Blyss's elementary school, is on Fourth Street SE, not far from where Butler says he plied his trade. "When he'd get out of school, he'd walk by and see us out there," Butler says. "We'd give him our pocket change, like a big stack of ones. His momma would go off, 'What are you doin', givin' my boy that money like that!' " When Blyss was around 19, during breaks from college, he began taking a more active role in the business, mostly couriering packages of money, though, Blyss says, he later began a short-lived sideline dealing on his own. "He saw the money, the cars and the women, and I think he just wanted to be a part of that," Butler says.
Butler and his associates looked out for Blyss. "He didn't have to do much," Butler says, "unless it was making a run somewhere, or picking up. It was family. You don't put family on the front lines if you're sittin' right, and we was sittin' good."
Though Butler paints a rosy picture of the early days, it was perilous work. Just as the operation was getting underway, Butler says, he served a five-year prison sentence on drug charges, and the two men who'd been supplying him met with even bleaker fates. One was murdered, Butler says, and the other was sentenced to 50 years in prison on a homicide conviction.
By the early '90s, things started to unravel, Butler says. "We relocated to another area to deal drugs, but nothing was ever the way it was . . . We just started separating, and it started to die out."
Though Blyss acknowledges that life in the drug trade wasn't without its appeal, he says he didn't want to make a career out of it, a decision he partly credits to his father's influence. Others around him didn't have father figures, but "I did," he says. "They didn't have anybody to say, 'Stop selling drugs. Do something positive.' "
Also, as Blyss began getting serious about his music career, he says, there simply wasn't time to pursue his illicit ambitions with any real dedication. "It's impossible to serve two masters," Blyss says. "When you're trying to get a record deal, you gotta ease out of that [expletive]. To get a deal, to have somebody give you millions of dollars? You have to be working on your music all the time. At that point, selling drugs -- that's just something that goes into your story."
ABOUT A WEEK AFTER THE SHOW at Dream, Blyss has a performance lined up at a fashion show in Greenbelt. The more modest audience at Fashion Xplosion 2004 won't rival the crowd he performed for at Dream, but these days it's still a game of inches for Blyss, of getting his name out one show at a time.
Blyss, Broadway and Chewy stroll into the backstage area. There are models everywhere, and none of them is wearing much. Several varieties of tallness and skinniness are represented here. There are racks of clothes: camouflage hot pants, some ambiguous things made out of airy tulle, napkin-size shirts, and a huge pile of pointy shoes and stiletto heels that looks like it would be hard to reach into without puncturing your hand.
Broadway takes a seat, gazing at a row of models. He points out a girl who is so lank in the limbs that her knees bend rearward like a wading bird's. Then she takes her shirt off. Broadway gallantly averts his gaze. "I feel like I'm seeing things I'm not supposed to see."
The main reason Blyss is performing tonight is that the show's producer, Kelly Hollywood, is a rapper herself and hangs out regularly with the Capitol Gainz crew. Hollywood is dressed in sneakers, fingerless fishnet gloves and form-fitting cargo-style pants with epaulets over the pockets. When she sees Blyss, she jogs over, jumps on him and shrieks happily.
Blyss and Hollywood go over the particulars of the show. He'll be performing an abbreviated set, consisting of a single song, which is fine with Blyss, who, for strategic reasons, never performs sets longer than four songs anyway. ("I've been in the crowd watching the local [expletive] perform," Blyss says later. "Even if he hot as [expletive], after four songs, you wanna go and get a drink.") Tonight he has selected "Take It All Off," a medium-core ode to casual sex, which has been getting a few spins a week on WKYS. Because Fashion Xplosion 2004 is going to be a PG-13-type event, Blyss has agreed to perform the cleaned-up version. Still, he haggles over the finer points of the arrangement: "Can I say [expletive], [expletive] and [expletive]?"
"We already discussed this," Hollywood says. "You're just trying to be cute."
"Can I say K-Y jelly?"
"That's one of the things I didn't want you to say," Hollywood says.
The crew goes to a dressing room upstairs to get ready. Broadway is tying a black do-rag around his head. Chewy tells him, "You look like Mister Miyagi," who is the old fellow in "The Karate Kid" who taught Ralph Macchio's character karate by having him do chores around his house.
"You look like a fat giraffe," Broadway responds. Then Chewy thinks of something else that Broadway looks like, and vice versa, and it goes on like this for a little while.
When the proceedings get underway, most of the seats are empty, though the models, parading clothes from local designers, don't seem to care. They have all mastered the swift parabolic hip swing of the pro-model runway walk, and the chilly, trancelike gaze of the pro-model runway face.
Well into the event, Kelly Hollywood's voice comes over the PA. "This is, by far, the most highly anticipated part of the show," she says. "You might have heard him spit with 50 Cent and G-Unit. It's highly probable that you're a big fan of our next guest. This is, by far, three-fourths of the way the best rapper of all time."
"This can't be true," a guy in the audience says to his friend. "Who they got?"
The two men look somewhat blank when Kelly says, "Put your hands together for Blyss!"
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Blyss (aka Ralph Chambliss), in red, performing at the University of Maryland last year.
(Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)
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