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What do you get when you take the greatest living rapper and the greatest hip hip producer. You get one hot album. Sign the petition and lets make it happen.

by kenn on 6/20/2004 02:34:00 PM


When arranging to meet Erica Kennedy, author of Bling, the first roman ¿ clef about the hip-hop world, I ask her what might be a fitting location for lunch. 'Hmm,' she wonders, 'where does everyone go for lunch on Saturdays? Well, everyone goes to the Hamptons at the weekend, but if they're in the city... We could meet at Cipriani?'
It's the first of many times she will say 'everyone', in a way so routinely blanket as to make the actual demographic of 'everyone' a little indecipherable. Is she talking about the hip-hop crowd? Or the merely very rich? And why are 'bling' ambitions - the weekend retreats, the fancy Italian restaurants, the powder blue Bentleys - based on such ostentatiously white values?

'I was thinking about that yesterday,' Kennedy says, 'because I saw a billboard in Brooklyn, and it said: "S Carter" - because Jay-Z's real name is Shawn Carter - and it had a picture of Jay-Z, and a picture of this tennis sneaker.' The hip-hop mogul has, like Sean 'Puffy' Combs before him, branched out into clothing and developed a signature line of Reebok trainers. 'I thought, that's so funny, because you know Jay-Z in his whole life never played tennis. It was such a white thing - really like a white tennis sneaker.'

So can Kennedy explain the phenomenon? 'You know, to me, the whole hip-hop world is so interesting, because it's just another form of the American Dream. Everybody wants to have a nice house, and a nice car, and a nice comfortable life. It's not so different from a person who wants to live in the suburbs and drive an SUV. That's the great thing about America - you can be from the ghetto, but if you make a lot of money, everybody loves you. You're gonna get a nice table at Cipriani and you're gonna be in the Hamptons, you know, like Puffy has these big white parties for Labor Day - if you don't wear all white, you won't get in - and everybody who lives in the Hamptons wants to go to those parties.' And so hip-hop has become, in turn, 'the dominating force in popular culture', as Kennedy puts it: 'Now, everybody wants to be more street, everyone wants to be black.'

Erica Kennedy is petite, and has the refined, delicate features of a model. She's friendly, funny, she has a low-key quirkiness - all of which lead you to imagine that she might fit into any situation. And it turns out she pretty much has. She's a black girl who grew up in a white neighbourhood, who fell in with an all-powerful hip-hop producing crowd when she was in high school, who went to an artsy university, worked in the music business, worked in fashion, worked in PR, and then became a writer. She seems to succeed first time at anything she turns her hand to - her first article was a cover story, her first book has now sold for a rumoured seven-figure sum and is soon to become a movie. The first time she bet on a horse she even won - $400. But piercing through that chameleon-like, unthreatening exterior is the sharpness of a pin.

Which is the secret behind Bling, a satire so apt one industry insider "shuddered" when she read it. Serena Kim, Kennedy's editor at hip-hop bible Vibe magazine, says the buzz about the book is 'deafening'. There is considerable discussion of who the hip-hop mogul hero might be (is it Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam records? Is it Andre Harrell, the man who discovered Puff Daddy and Mary J Blige? Is it Puffy himself?), and there are rumours that Naomi Campbell intends to sue Kennedy for basing her hopelessly vain supermodel on her. 'Naomi's very litigious. And she's also crazy,' says Kennedy. 'So I would not be surprised if she wants to sue me. My response is: bring it Naomi. The character's not about her at all.' Serena Kim sometimes wonders if Kennedy is 'inadvertently becoming the Truman Capote of the hip-hop world'.

The novel's rags-to-riches story follows the transformation of small-town girl Marie-Jean Castiglione into Mimi Jean, superstar, with the help, or perhaps the hindrance, of hip-hop mogul Lamont Jackson. Jackson is a self-made man whose second word (after 'Mama') was 'Gimme', and who has now adopted habits so alien to his one-time self that he thinks his favourite lunchtime snack is spelt 'bagel and locks' - when he means lox. Mimi, says Lamont, is 'sort of like J-Lo... But she can really sing.' She's a half-Italian, half-Haitian girl who is learning the lingo as she goes along. 'Booty', she finds, means 'tacky'; 'bangin' is good; office phones are apt to be answered with a 'What's poppin?' She tries to fit in by mastering certain affectations, such as supermodel Vanessa's regular sniff, unaware of what might be causing it. The book is peppered with brand names, platinum teeth and diamonds. There's a song with a chorus made up entirely of gunshots, so that people automatically duck when it's played in clubs. Characters call each other 'bitch' or 'playa'. There's a raunchy female rapper called Lady Di, and another who lost his left leg in a car accident, giving 'a whole new meaning to the term "hip-hop"'.

'For a while I'd been thinking, I should write a book about these hip-hop people, because their lives are so crazy,' Kennedy tells me. 'Yeah, I'm an insider, but at the same time I have a perspective on it. I know what the average person's life is like. I have to pay my bills. So when I step into that world I can still see it for what it is, and how it's just bizarre. The stuff they say, the things they do, the way they act - to me it's funny. Their lives are not normal. They don't see the absurdity of it.'

Kennedy has known Russell Simmons since she was 17. She was going out with a hip-hop producer at the time and she started hanging out with that crowd. When Simmons started seeing Kimora Lee, the half-African-American, half-Japanese model who is now the designer behind the Baby Phat fashion label, Kennedy was the only other girl among them, and the two became best friends.

'I knew all the stories, so when she started dating Russell I was like, "Mmm-hmm, watch out for that bitch, cos she wants to touch your man!" I'd give her all the background information on everybody.' Now Kennedy is godmother to the Simmons's daughter Ming, and was - along with Tyra Banks, Veronica Webb and P Diddy's girlfriend Kim Porter - a bridesmaid at their wedding. 'It was crazy,' she recalls. 'It was in St Barts at Christmas,so everybody was there.' The bridesmaids wore lavender empire-line dresses: 'my hair was really frizzy, and I'm walking down the aisle and Martha Stewart's taking pictures, and I'm like, "Oh God!"' It was in this very restaurant, a year ago, that Erica Kennedy first broke the news to Russell Simmons. 'He knew I was writing a book,' she says, 'but he never asked what it was about, 'cause Russell has the attention span of a six-month-old baby. So this time he was like, "How's your book going?" And I said, "You do know it's a satire of the hip-hop world?" And he was like this' - she pops her eyes open and freezes - 'mid-bite of his risotto, he was like, "What?!" And then he goes, "Is it about ME?" I said, "No, it's not about you." And he's like, "What's it about? Who are the characters? Is there a mogul in it?" And I go, "Yeah, there's a mogul, but he's such a nice guy..."' Kennedy laughs. 'And he goes, "Great, great. You know, you should have written it, had it come out, then I would have found out about it, and I would have yelled at you. That would have been a lot more fun." He doesn't care. He blurbed it.' (Simmons's back-of-the-book blurb reads: 'All these characters feel like people I know. But, for the record, the mogul is not based on me!')

When the book was finished, and up for sale, Simmons gave Kennedy an impromptu lecture. 'We were in the Hamptons,' she tells me, 'and he's like, "Erica, I'm going to give you the most important piece of advice you've ever got." He's getting dressed to go out to lunch, and he goes, "This is the most important time right now. Savour it. Erica, it's not about the money. You need to be valued for your work. This book is hot, there's a buzz on it, this is the most important time. The money doesn't matter. You know all these rappers, they always dream about getting out of the ghetto, like 50 Cent; he says, "Get rich or die tryin", but then you get rich, and then what?"' Kennedy squeals with laughter. 'I was like, "What are you talking about?" He's like, "It's not about having a Bentley." I was like, "Russell, do I want to buy a Bentley?! You should be giving this speech to people like 50 Cent, not to me."'

Erica Kennedy grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Queens, New York, the daughter of an interior designer and the vice-president of a large pharmaceutical company. Her father died when she was 17; her parents had divorced before that, when she was 10, and she moved with her mother to an area where she was the only black kid. 'I think that's a fucked-up thing to do,' she says now. 'It's one thing if you're an Eskimo - like, there is no Eskimo community. But why make your kids feel different because they're black?' Later on, she went to Stuyvesant, a famously successful public high school in the city (Tim Robbins and Thelonius Monk are among its former pupils), which she describes as 'more of a melting pot'. But still, her home life was 'really boring, which is probably why I'd run and hang out with these [hip-hop] people - because I hated it, hated it, hated it - I can't say it enough, how much I hated where I grew up.'

She went to Sarah Lawrence College, and spent a year in Oxford as part of that course, and all in all was as far from the ghetto as 50 Cent was near it. She may have been familiar with the mogul scene, but she picked up the down-and-dirtier details for her book on assignment for hip-hop magazines. For the first, she was sent to interview an entirely gold-toothed rapper in 'the worst slum in Miami', and when she arrived, a kid had just been shot, so she and the rapper suddenly had to flee the scene. 'And I'm like writing,' she tells me, mimicking a novice note-taker, 'and thinking, "Oh my God, this is so exciting!"'

In Kennedy's book there's a wonderful scene in which the hip-hop mogul tries to explain to his young protege that, for the purposes of record sales, she's black. 'Uh, yeah, I know,' she replies. But he persists: 'You can't just say your dad is black, you are black. We can't have you doing that "I'm a little this, a little that" thing... We need you to read black.' When I ask Kennedy what her own identity politics are, she says she hadn't heard of famous black revolutionaries like Nat Turner until she met her hip-hop boyfriend as a teenager, and he, as the producer of Public Enemy, was very political. At Sarah Lawrence, she says, there were few black girls, and a lot of those were too emphatic for her taste.

'It was overkill,' Kennedy says. 'They'd wrap up their hair in some kind of kente cloth, and they'd say to me, "What's wrong with you? Get in touch with yourself, girl." But me and my friend Anika Poitier, Sidney Poitier's daughter, we wouldn't go to their meetings, because they were on Thursday nights, and that's when we watched The Cosby Show.'

Has Kennedy felt any kind of solidarity with the rappers she's interviewed? She thinks about it, then puts her finger on an essential aspect of American culture: the abiding myth that it is a classless society. 'I think a lot of the issues we talk about in terms of race are really issues of class,' she suggests. 'We might not necessarily feel comfortable talking about issues of race, but we're used to it. And all these people in the hip-hop world, yeah, they all came from the ghetto, they all came up the hard way, but you know what? Russell and Jay-Z and Puffy have a lot more in common with Donald Trump than they have with the average black man living in America. Because it's an issue of class, it's Have and Have-not - and now they're all Haves, in a major way.'

When I ask Kennedy what she's doing with her days now that she's made so much money, she talks about her publicity tour, then admits that she's mostly shopping. And from the few days I have known her, I can tell you she has a talent for it. She's just bought the floral silk camisole she's wearing from Anthropologie (she now wishes she'd worn the specially monogrammed pink snakeskin Baby Phat sneakers Kimora sent her the other day - 'They're, like, really ghetto, that's why they're so cute'). After lunch she buys an army green jacket in Olive and Bette's, a Soho boutique. The thing is, she explains, you should buy things when you find them, so you have them when you need them. If you try and buy things when you need them, you never find them.

I can't argue with the wisdom of this, so I decide to accompany her on some of her meanderings about town. She tells me she's disappointed by Gwen Stefani's handbags this season, and introduces me to Splendid T-shirts (the latest style has a deep V-neck and V-back, and Kennedy's not sure about it: 'I'm not feeling the double V,' she says). She finds me some shoes for an upcoming wedding, and in the days that follow she sends me other fashion tips: websites, dates for sample sales, instructions on how to get discount cards - quite apart from telling me where J-Lo and Oprah get their eyebrows done. Then, she calls me from the Miguelina sample sale to ask where I am. I explain that I can't make it because I am writing the article about her. 'You have to come!' she says, 'Everybody's going crazy in here! People are just taking their clothes off in the open and walking around in thongs!' I say it's probably just as well I have a deadline, then, as Kennedy reels off a description of all the things she's bought - silk dresses, linen skirts, resort wear... I can't help laughing. I've never met such a contagious shopper. Erica Kennedy is most definitely 'down', and, coolly, quietly fabulous.

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