Rhyme & Reason
"Say no more," Blyss says.
"He spends a lot of time by himself writing," Broadway says. "He don't just throw [expletive] together."
"If that [expletive] is wack, it's wack," Vines says. "Start over."
"Nah, I'll spend time with it," Blyss says. "I got, like, a wack mechanism in my brain, dog."
"That [expletive] right there," Vines says, pointing a finger at the speaker. "You put the right [expletive] with that, that's straight club, radio -- "
" -- everything," Broadway says.
"Everything," says Blyss.
WHEN BLYSS IS IN NEED OF PEACE and relaxation or just something to eat, one place he likes to go is a nude-dancing establishment not far from Dupont Circle. It's about 5 p.m. Blyss and Chewy are sitting along the back wall. There's a smattering of middle-aged businessmen in here on their way home from work, sitting at tables trimmed with green linens, white carnations and little oil-burning candles.
Blyss is not in high spirits today. A while back, a promoter offered him the opening spot on a bill with Ludacris, one of the rappers Blyss admires most. But the promoter isn't returning Blyss's calls, and it seems clear now that the offer has fallen through. He also got a call recently from an artist and repertoire agent in Los Angeles who said he wanted to shop Blyss's CD to Interscope, a label with an illustrious rap catalogue. As it turned out, the guy was an independent A&R agent, who, by the way, wanted $750 in exchange for his services. It's a common enough show-business scam, though being approached as though he were a starry-eyed dupe struck Blyss as a grievous insult. "It's frustrating, dog," Blyss says, with a note of anxiety in his voice. He's ready to put the dues-paying phase of his career behind him.
"I'm doing good in D.C., in the local market, but if you think about it, that's nothing compared with what's happening in the rest of the country," Blyss says. "It's nothing compared with what's happening to people in St. Louis or Atlanta. If I was in Atlanta, I would probably have a deal by now."
"In Atlanta, it's different," Chewy says. "If you ain't signed, and your [expletive] hot, then you're on the radio. You're in rotation."
Fifteen feet away, a nude woman is winding down her routine. Another dancer comes and starts Windexing the mirror and the dancer's pole. Every entertainer has to do her own Windexing before her set gets underway.
"We grind so hard, but in D.C. there just aren't outlets to be heard," Blyss says. Sure, he says, you might get the occasional show at places such as Club Dream, but otherwise opportunities are scarce. "I tried the open-mike circuit," he says during a later conversation. "But the only people there are other [expletive] who rap, too. We would just rap for each other every week. It's like, 'Damn, where's the audience?' " Suddenly the club's bouncer materializes by Blyss's table. "Take your headband off," the bouncer says, on the grounds that the headband is technically an infringement of the club's "No Hats" policy.
"Man," Blyss replies tersely. "I spent about $900 in here today," an overstatement the bouncer ponders for an uncomfortable moment before leaving. Blyss hails a waitress and orders another drink.
Chewy leaves, and soon Blyss's lawyer, Anthony Richa, stops by. He's not here to discuss anything momentous, just to have a drink. Richa, a thickly built man with gelled hair, wearing a dark suit and a necktie, is 29 and not long out of law school at George Washington University. Blyss catches him up on the latest developments. "I'm very, very frustrated," he says. "I'm getting a lot of love, but I don't know if it's good love or bad love."
A tall, dark-haired woman walks by. She has an unruly sheaf of bills tucked into her garter belt that looks like a frayed head of romaine lettuce. A few tables over, a man who looks like Wilford Brimley proffers a dollar with a trembling hand.
Blyss sets his drink on the table. As an artist hoping for a million-dollar deal, he's saddled with anxiety. "I got a lot at stake right now," he tells Richa. "My biggest fear is that I get an offer for $400,000, and I back away from it. Then what if no other offers come, dog? Then I go from Blyss the [expletive] who could have put D.C. on the map to Blyss the [expletive] who was stupid, who let it go."
THE NEXT WEEK, Blyss goes into the studio (not the soundproofed closet at Broadway's, but a pro-caliber recording studio in Washington) to start laying down vocal tracks for the new record. He records a handful of new songs, plus his part for the joint effort with Ginuwine, though it'll be a few weeks before the R&B singer finishes up a tour and joins Blyss in the studio. Blyss wishes it could be sooner. "He's got some things to attend to," Blyss says, "so that just leaves me being here, anxious." But the new songs, Blyss says, "are hot, the best songs I've ever done." Jerry Vines, who is generally not one for idle compliments, agrees. "There are quite a few on there that we think are gonna be big hit records for us." The record executives who've auditioned it are hearing promise in the album, too. "We got a few record companies that are already interested," Vines says. "Def Jam and Interscope, just to name one or two, and they don't even know [the single with Ginuwine] is coming." Once the single's out, Vines says, "we'll be seeing a lot of bids on the table."
One cool spring night, Blyss and Broadway return to Club Dream. Earlier in the evening, Beyonce performed at the MCI Center and rapper Jay-Z made a surprise cameo. The club is hosting an afterparty in their honor. It is not, as the term "afterparty" might imply, an intimate get-together so much as a giant bash open to anyone willing to pay the door charge. But Blyss hasn't come just to have a good time. A couple of months ago, Blyss approached Jay-Z at his 40/40 Club in New York. Blyss handed him a copy of "Mixtape" (he also handed a copy to Jay-Z's driver), and he wants to follow up with him to see what he thought of it. "There are a hundred [expletives] in here trying to give him their CD," Broadway says. "But he already has our product . . . and that's why we're trying to holler at him. We don't play checkers; we play chess."
Chewy shows up with his girlfriend, and the bouncer waves the whole group through the door. "I never pay to get in places," Blyss says. "Another perk of being in the game."
The music's loud. The club is crowded with young people in club raiment: lots of low-rise jeans and lots of people wearing subtly tinted sunglasses that you can wear at night. The dance floor is approximately 98.6 degrees, and packed with exultant, limber people, grooving to the generalized aura of Beyonce and Jay-Z, who (though unseen) are supposedly somewhere on the premises. Blyss charges off for the backstage lounge, vectoring past woozy drink-stricken revelers and couples perspiring in his path. His purposeful beeline seems somehow at odds with the hundreds of people around him, all consumed in the full-bore pursuit of leisure while Blyss is very much at work.
The backstage lounge is full as well, but it takes only a second or two for Blyss to realize that Jay-Z is nowhere in the throng. The crew follows Blyss back across the main room, and up into a roped off VIP plateau, which offers a better vantage from which to scan the crowd for Jay-Z. Nothing.
Then, for the first time in the half an hour or so since they arrived, they all seem content to take the moment and to enjoy themselves. Broadway springs for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and pours a round. Chewy and his girlfriend ease away from the group and start to dance. Broadway catches the eye of a pretty girl with long blond hair weavings. She comes over, whispers something in his ear and then saunters off. Blyss, however, has not forgotten the task at hand. He downs his champagne and goes off to ask security where, exactly, Jay-Z might be found. He's back a moment later. "Let's break out," he says. "Jay and Beyonce left."
Hearing this, Blyss's companions set down their champagne flutes with a chorus of quiet chimes. They fall in behind him, and Blyss walks briskly down the short flight of steps, past the bouncer, past the velvet rope, and vanishes into the crowd of dancing strangers.
Wells Tower is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
© 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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