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It's been quite a year for Rick Ross. He's gone from a No. 1 hit to career-threatening exposure on the Internet to his current high-stakes beef with the biggest brawler in hip-hop's fight club. Still, on the eve of the release of his third album Deeper Than Rap, the big Miami boss is here, flaunting, taunting, feeding the fire. Hoping rap fans may back his music.

Words: Clover Hope
Photography: Jonathan Mannion

Rick Ross came in with his sunglasses on. He's one of those guys who wears them everywhere. Light ones. Dark ones. During the day. At night. In the studio. The man loves his shades. He owns about six for every day of the year, he says. He’d wear them even if he weren’t a celebrity. Even if this wasn’t hot-ass Miami. The better to not see you with.

Today, Ross’s perpetually smoke-reddened eyes are concealed behind a pair of midnight-black, vintage ’83 Targa Cazals—a name most of us, you know, regular people have never heard of. We’re at the Tony BalHarbour Shops, a low-rise outdoor mall with designer stores like Chanel, Hermès and Cartier, the perfect place to flaunt one’s wealth. Palm trees engulf the building’s cream exterior, and part of the ceiling is actual blue sky, the same color as Ross’s matching linen-shorts-and-shirt set. Ross has a month or so of promo ahead for his third album, Deeper Than Rap, not to mention a high-profile war raging with 50 Cent. He needs new luggage. Louis Vuitton it is. Carol Ann, a Louis saleswoman, helps him settle on two carry-ons.

Ross’s personal economy doesn’t seem to need a stimulus package, so he decided to pick up some other necessities. Like these $980 neon-graffi ti-on-black sneakers from this season’s Steven Sprouse collection. Size 11. A younger Latina saleswoman tells “Mr. Ross” that if he’s in a club—she dances to demonstrate—the bottoms glow in the dark. “Oh, that’s even better,” says Ross. Sold. When Carol Ann tells him about the new white Evidence sunglasses about to come in (she must know of his fetish), he says to put him on the wait list.

“And I wanna know if I can get one of these for my house,” he says, indicating a pair of shiny black, neon-inscribed blocks sitting on a counter near the luggage display. Their purpose is a mystery. (Louis Vuitton paperweights?) It doesn’t look like they’re for sale.

He picks up a black T-shirt with, again, neon-green lettering that, looks way too small for his 300-some pounds. “I’ma let you in on a seeeecret,” he says, handing the shirt to his manager, Alex “Gucci Pucci” Bethune, VP of Poe Boy Entertainment. “What I do sometimes is, if I see a shirt that I really, really like, I buy it, even though it’s not my size, and I have my tailor get the same fabric and lift it and put it on there… It’s just like you almost just cuttin’ it out. Sometimes it actually make the shirt look better. Give it a little 3-D effect.”

Whatever he says. He’s the Bawse.

Like any other rapper, Ross has a taste for the fi ner things in life. But, lately, hip-hop heads have been wondering whether the things and the life he boasts about are real and whether his big-boss image is fabricated. All because of a bit of news thesmokinggun.com exposed on July 21, 2008—a date some rap fans jokingly mark as the death of Ross’s career. Before that, a photo had been floating around the Internet depicting a beardless 19-year-old Ross wearing a correctional officer’s uniform and shaking hands with a woman later identified as Marta Villacorta, who was then head of the South Florida Reception Center.

Initially, Ross claimed he was the victim of a Photoshop prank and continued to deny that he’d ever held such a job, until The Smoking Gun unearthed Florida Department of Corrections staff records including his government name and social security number. Finally, in a September interview with Don Diva magazine, he admitted that it was indeed him in the picture and that he was in fact employed as a prison guard. “I never tried to hide my past,” he said.
“I put my name inside my CDs… I never ratted on a nigga. I never prosecuted a nigga. I never locked up a nigga.” Since then, he’s simply evaded the question.

True story: Rick Ross, William Leonard Roberts II, was a correctional officer for 18 months, starting in December 1995, at a salary of $22,913.54 a year. This might be fi ne for the average 9-to-5er, but by the time it came to light, Ross had sold millions of copies of two No. 1 hit albums—2006’s Port of Miami and 2008’s Trilla—largely on the strength of his image as a drug-trafficking bigwig in Miami’s Carol City. The C.O. past was like finding out Barney’s a pedophile, and, for a minute, Ross was rap’s Milli Vanilli, caught in a lie.

“Me not answering or addressing that situation has nothing to do with my career,” explains Ross, now sitting on a bench outside Oxygene Mini, a store that sells children’s clothes. “I’ve accomplished enough, and I’ve made enough money for me to be good… Yes, it was me in those pictures. But I’ma tell you this. Me taking that job, I was doing my job. You understand what I mean?”

Why didn’t you say in the first place that it was you? Why was it this ongoing thing where people didn’t know?

“Because, to me, it was no big deal, but, at the same token, there were other people that was involved in something else that was going
on that—”

So you’re saying it was a street thing? The reason that you took the job?

“What I’m saying is, it’s certain things I can’t discuss, but what I’m telling you is—”

It’s not what it looks like?

“The truth is much more incriminating, on some street shit, than me worried about a fan or being ridiculed. I’m too big in the streets. I’ve never had a credibility problem and still don’t. Regardless of however anyone feel. But somebody just gotta read between the lines and understand you just don’t do certain things, and it’s… Shit’s deeper than rap.”

Villacorta, from the photograph, doesn’t recall Ross, and neither do any of the employees who currently work at the South Florida Reception Center. Information on C.O. qualifications vary, but according to Gretl Plessinger, the D.O.C.’s communications director an individual must have a clean record to become a C.O. Ross says he has arrests dating back to his teens. A representative at keepittrill.com, where Exhibit A originated, says the site received the photo from someone close to Ross who had had a falling out with him and preferred to remain anonymous. Fellow Miami rap stars Trick Daddy and Jacki-O have been named in speculation, but both have publicly denied leaking the picture. “Me and Ross ain’t never had no friction,” says Trick Daddy. “I’m a Rick Ross fan! I was amused by his music talents long before people even knew who Rick Ross was.”

Whoever leaked the photo, says Ross, “They did me the biggest favor in the world. Gave me another platform to make my music.”

He’s moving on, hoping his music will settle the matter, and he’s tired of reiterating his credibility. “The stuff I talk about is real. The dope is real. The gun talk is offi cial. Look up Kenneth ‘Boobie’ Williams. Look where he’s from. That’s not nothing to be proud of. I wish that on no man. But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’ma live by that, and I’ma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that shit, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.”

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Way back when, the streets of Carol City, Ross’s hometown, belonged to Kenneth “Boobie” Williams and his crew, the Boobie Boys, with whom Ross has claimed affiliation. The son of Tommie Ann Roberts, a nurse, and William Roberts, who worked in education and died in the mid-’90s, Ross was a chubby kid, “always too fat to play Optimus”—little league football—he says. But he chose to embrace his size as an adolescent, adopting the nickname The Fat Mack after hearing the term in an 8Ball & MJG song. “Maybe that’s just a part of me. I just been able to accept any conditions, whatever,” says Ross. “I go with the flow.”

He started rapping when he was 24, sold his first crack at age 15, he says, and got in good enough shape to play center on the Carol City Senior High School football team. Football earned him a free ride to Georgia’s Albany State University, but he dropped out after a few months of classes. “For somebody that’s in they right mind, it’s a great thing,” says Ross of college. “But I had bigger plans. And I wanted to be wealthy. The next few moves that I made, I feel, played a part in me being in the position I am now. ’Cause by the time ‘Hustlin’’ came out, I was established. That was my white-on-white Beemer. That was my life that I put into the music, and it was authentic. It was real. Twenty-twos.”

Ross was going by the rap name Teflon Don when Houston’s Tony Draper signed him to Suave House Records in 2000. At the time, he’d been ghostwriting for another of Draper’s artists, Noah, traveling to and from Atlanta. Though Ross never dropped an offi cial project through Suave House, Draper released an album of previously recorded material, Rise to Power, in 2007. “When I met Ross, my exact words was, ‘This is a fly, fat nigga,’” says Draper. “That nigga was wearing Pradas and Guccis and diamonds then. He ain’t no chump. He ain’t no sucka. He’s 100 percent real with it… I wouldn’t even say that if it wasn’t truth, ’cause I don’t have nothing to gain by giving him his just due.”

That right there alone could save 50’s career!” The final strains of his newest song, “I Solemnly Swear,” still vibrating in the air, Rick Ross is amped. “And it might not even make the album!”

Sporting a different pair of shades—gold-rimmed, jewel-encrusted Alpinas this time—and a shiny red jacket zipped halfway down his belly, he sits at the console in the main room at North Miami’s newly renovated We the Best Studio, where his friend and colleague DJ Khaled is setting up shop for Def Jam South. (A tireless ambassador for Miami hip-hop, Khaled was appointed president of the label in February.)

Deeper Than Rap will be released under Ross’s Maybach Music Group/Def Jam imprint, an extension of a deal he signed in 2005. That original deal—facilitated by Ross’s former manager, Poe Boy Entertainment CEO Elric “E-Class” Prince, and the late Def Jam exec Shakir Stewart—was a joint venture between Def Jam and Ted Lucas’s Slip-N-Slide Records. Back in 2002, Ross left Suave House to sign with the Miami-based Slip-N-Slide, where he ghostwrote for Trina and made his first appearance, as a guest on Trick Daddy’s Thug Holiday album. Earlier this year, he severed business ties with both E-Class and Lucas. While neither would comment for this story, Ross says there’s no bad blood. “Ted my nigga. E-Class, that’s my brother. So it’s all love.”

Even if you view Ross in a negative light, you have to admit the guy knows how to make a record. Grandiloquent anthems and street records with a commercial touch. He solicits producers like J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and DJ Toomp, sound-crafters whose imperial drums and trumpets provide the perfect backdrop for his king-size, coke-filled fantasies. Almost every track that the studio manager/engineer, Ben Diehl, cues up is fully developed and full of personality. “The direction of this album,” says Diehl, “you could tell it’s a little more soulful, a little more grown.”

Lyricswise, Deeper builds on the elementary rhymes of Ross’s previous efforts—those that have led critics to censure Ross for putting swagger over spitting. The self-proclaimed “Biggie of the South” now seems more focused on wordplay, in an effort to level the scale—not that he’s suddenly rapping like Rakim or anything. “We gotta bring music back. Not that funny talk. Music,” he says, teasing the next track, “Usual Suspects,” which is produced by the Inkredibles and features a bona fide lyrical legend. “I got a real New York cat. I got the realest nigga from Queens.”
He means Nas.

No amount of money could get them muthasuckas a record like that!” he says, waving his arms, playing conductor as the beat blares. “Fuckin’ No. 1 album of the year! What’s the best way to put it? I love it!”

The much ballyhooed “Maybach Music Pt. 2” co-stars Lil Wayne and T-Pain. Hook-crooner The-Dream channels a Jackson 5–era Michael on the radio-friendly “All I Really Want.” And on “Valley of Death,” which features Wayne again, Ross gets in another dig at 50: “Lord knows when I see this monkey, I’ma be the Devil/Beat him ’cause I’m clever, beat him at whatever/You never was a G, nigga.” In previous interviews, Ross has cited what he felt was a snub at the 2008 BET Awards as the genesis of his tiff with Fif, whom he now lovingly refers to as either Curly or “the monkey.” But to hear him talk today, his issues seem to stem from something bigger. “For the last few years, I’ve saw him do more destruction to New York City itself than actually bringing something to the table for the rest of the people that’s on the grind,” says Ross. “When you look at New York hip-hop, it has been stalled. And those negative effects, the shit just fucked their whole swag up. And I’m one of the biggest fans of New York City.”

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The beef went public with the late January release of Ross’s “Mafia Music,” which makes a less-than-friendly reference to the well-publicized problems between 50 and Shaniqua Tompkins, the mother of 50’s child: “I love to pay ya bills, can’t wait to pay ya rent/ Curtis Jackson baby mama, I ain’t asking for a cent/Burn the house down, you gotta buy another/Don’t forget the gas can, jealous, stupid muthafucka.”

Many thought it foolhardy, throwing stones—very personal ones, at that—at a gazillionaire rap titan and energy-drink mogul known for taking bullets and demolishing rivals for sport. (One who declined to comment for this story.) Ross shrugs at the concerns. “This is not the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ 50 Cent,” he says. “And I don’t agree that he’s ended careers. Fat Joe still tours, and he’s still a multimillionaire.

The 50 Cent and Ja Rule situation may have been a little different, because I feel like, when 50 came, he did come with an energy that’s real in the game. But, at the same time, I think he was really emulating Ja Rule’s music. I feel it was the same formula, and [claps hands three times] you get a cookie, monkey.”

The ensuing back and forth between Ross and 50 now tallies a dizzying array of verbal attacks, radio interviews, diss tracks and more.

50 responded to “Mafia Music” with “Try Me.”

Ross gave him 48 hours to “come with something better.”

50 told Ross he’d “fuck your life up for fun” in a Web interview. He then connected with the mother of Ross’s second child, Tia Kemp, and released a video in which he took Tia and her friend shopping for furs.

Ross released “Kiss My Pinky Ring” and its video, taunting 50 on the streets of New York.

The face of 50’s son, Marquis, appeared Photoshopped onto the body of a monkey on the site thisiscurly.com.

The video “A Psychic Told Me,” targeting DJ Khaled’s mom, went up on thisis50.com. (The photo and video were both soon taken down.)

Fif dropped “Tia Told Me,” a diss song you can two-step to, with a catchy chorus of “Officer Rickeeeee,” and launched a series of “Pimpin’ Curly” skits and “Officer Ricky” cartoons, both full of pointed jokes.

Ross released “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

Et cetera, et cetera. And now a huge hip-hop audience is being entertained by the daily exchanges, hoping it stays on the Web and doesn’t escalate physically. Ross says he knew the C.O. jibes would come. “This is a platform just to compare my music. Everything else, I love it. Keep it up,” he says. “50 Cent made a statement [that he’ll] ruin somebody life. Where I come from, it takes a AK-47 to do that. Cartoons, we laugh— funny. You put on a wig, come out the closet—funny. At the end of the day, we in the streets finna drop another No. 1 album, and we pressing on.”

Whether or not he prevails, he knows, rests on the opinions of rap fans and how many of them accept his music and his image. “If you speak to people in Atlanta, where they had a two-hour Rick Ross set on V-103, if you listen to those conversations and those calls, you’ll see where my bread and butter come from, and you know I’m loved,” he says. “50 Cent is very cunning, and I’ll give him that, but, at the end of the day, he’s a human. He’s what I like to call a human yeast infection... I have no agenda to end his career. His music is doing that. What I’m doing is speaking for the South and what we on. We not on that vibe… You gotta understand, in the South, you go to the hood, niggas ain’t on laptops. Niggas don’t go to WorldStar.”

“Hopefully, he’ll release his project,” he continues. “Hopefully, if he could get some singles, and probably still in the studio with Dre, recording. That’s great. If Dre want somebody to really rock those beats, send one to diamondsandmaybachs@gmail.com.”

“So don’t believe everything your earlobe captures/It’s mostly backwards/Unless it happens to be/As accurate as me/And everything said in song you happen to see/Then, actually, believe half of what you see/None of what you hear, even if it’s spat by me/And with that said, I will kill niggas dead/Cut niggas short, give you wheels for legs.”

With those few lines from American Gangster’s “Ignorant Shit,” Jay-Z put the endless contradictions of the rap game in an eloquent nutshell. Hip-hop likes its artists authentic and their lyrics 100 percent real. But, at the same time, come on, everybody knows this is entertainment. No, Hov will not really shoot you straight through the E.R. (whoa). He has too much money, a hot wife on his arm, much too much to live for. But he sounds good saying it. Ross’s rhymes, too, may be exaggerated, but he sounds good saying them, whether he got his hands dirty himself or just watched the dope boys do dirt.

Still, some will label him a phony. There’s a big difference between being a C.O. and being a drug kingpin, and he’s left himself open to questioning. When his song “Believe It” hit the Web on February 20, a nahright.com commenter named P wrote, “I’ll choose not to believe it.”

Louis luggage and other accoutrements procured and on the way home, Ross heads to the lavish Circle House Studios in North Miami. There he has the mixer, Ray Sea, cue up a new song featuring his old friend Trina talking about “gettin’ face.” He walks over to a corner of the control board and starts conducting again, punching the air, miming to the lyrics. He’s letting the music speak. Believe what you want. Analyze what you may. Rick Ross isn’t entertaining the reasonable doubt. “I’m still here today,” he says. “After all of the mockeries, after all the extra fabrications, and my armor isn’t dented. I’m making the best music of my career. I feel like y’all watching the making of a legend…I feel every great legend has an arch nemesis. I think every great legend has his trials and tribulations. And I think everyone should appreciate this moment… I’m the focal point of the industry. And all I could do at this point is smile.”

With his sunglasses, of course, on.