I have to pretend like I haven’t a clue that Malik is scheming widowerhood so I continue with business. The truth is I have no choice. The blockbuster sales of Ankhanetics keep the Coven afloat. Neither my wallet nor my spirit can ignore that the only man on my record label – the husband who wants me dead – is its bestselling artist. So even though I just want to drown in my bedsheets like I did after the miscarriage, I keep my meeting with Ridin’ Hood at a restaurant in the northwest Bronx.
As a one-woman A&R department, this is the last step in my vetting process. The first time a potential talent comes to my attention, I invite them to our studio in Mott Haven where I put them through a series of tests.
Test #1: I choose a random track from the online links they sent me and have them perform off the cuff. Although you’d be surprised how often heads will fluster at reciting their own verses, most obviously ace this not realizing it’s both a warm up and a setup. Over the years, I have passed on several people who surely didn’t write their own lyrics, and that’s not going to fly at the Coven. I’m not really looking to see how comfortable they are with their own material which they should be if they truly wrote it. What I’m looking for is how they behave after they nail it. Confidence is good. Nervous optimism is good. Unreadable focus is good. Arrogance gets the pass which is why I didn’t sign Sugar Shane who Malik never lets me forget eventually joined Roc Nation. Ride advanced with a jittery smile, knowing she had done well but anticipating the next test.
Test #2: I throw a topic at them, and they have to freestyle. Malik and I have so many arguments over this, but as the founder and HBIC at the Coven, I always have the final say. I’ve passed on some incredible talent because they couldn’t spit off the dome, but time has proven me right on this. Everyone I chose not to sign because they couldn’t freestyle made one or two mediocre albums and then faded from the scene. Malik accuses me of being too ol’ school for insisting that the ability to improvise rhymes is a reflection of raw talent, but for me this isn’t just about that. When it comes to freestyling, discipline cultivates the talent. If you’re not practicing your delivery, expanding your vocabulary and the like. So if you can freestyle, I know I’m dealing with someone who gives a fuck about the craft and isn’t just in this for money and fame. Someone for whom consistent improvement is its own reward. It tells me you have a thick skin, too, which is especially important since I sign mostly women in an industry that is still overwhelmingly male.
Test #3: I throw out a prompt and give you twenty minutes to produce sixteen bars. They don’t have to be flawless, but they need to be coherent, clever and without cliche. Most folks take shortcuts, turning the prompt into a hook, and that kind of slickness irks me. If really ain’t that clever if eight out ten people do the same shit.
Now Ride killed this one with a one-word prompt.
Ride’s head ticked. “‘Bigly’? Or ‘big league?’”
I wasn’t mad at her for asking but still. “You tell me.” Who was I to give her a definitive answer when it remains in dispute on a world stage?
Ridin’ Hood didn’t say anything else. She put her head down and got to work, furiously thumbing away at her cell phone until I called time. Not only did Ride use both bigly and big league, she clowned rappers who ever likened themselves to Donald Trump, interpolated Kool Moe Dee with the hook How you like ‘im now? And shouted out the Central Park Five. Then she spit some lines that had me rolling so hard on the floor behind the boards, I didn’t hear her last few lyrics.
Thin skin, big wig, rich white boy rage
Still ain’t refudiate that Times’ full page
Ride stopped rhyming. “You OK?”
“Bitch…” I pulled myself to my knees. “Did you just say refudiate? You didn’t just sub Sarah Palin.”
She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. “You see, Bri? That’s why I have to be on your label. You caught that shit! You get me.” Another belly laugh knocked me onto my side for another round. “Yo, I spit that for — nah, let me be professional and not call him out – but don’t you know I spit that for some big-time label dude, and he tried to rag me. Ridin’ Hood did a dead-on impression that revealed to me exactly who it was. “Oh, that’s not a word. The word is repudiate. And that’s not really how you should use it.”
That made me stop. “Mansplaining muthafucker.” And what if Ride had made up a word or used a word the wrong way or whatever? This is hip-hop. We fuck with language all the time. Stiplificate. Wanksta. Magmatize. When a dude does it, he’s a genius, but let a chick do it, and now a producer needs to see a bitch’s SAT scores. “The goal post always fucking shifting.” Then I caught something. “Wait a minute… So you spit that before. You didn’t make that up on the spot?”
Ride’s cheeks flushed red. “I’ve been playing with that word for a minute.” She was speaking a mile a minute. “I got some verses in progress for a song about females who get ahead by sidlin’ up to men, and Palin came to mind… Like I been wantin’ to use refudiate for a minute so it’s, like, at the top of my head… And like with all the shit that’s been goin’ down since the election of 45, I wanted to remind people, you know, that this shit has been in the offing for a minute and…”
I picked myself off the floor. “So I’ll call you about next steps.”
“So are you signing me? Not tryin’ to press. I just want to understand where I’m at.”
I didn’t want to hold using “canned” material against her because Ride’s explanation made sense. But on the heels of that, she referred to women as females which is a pet peeve of mine. Why isn’t the wrongness of that shit basic in 2017? When I told Leila about my hesitation to sign Ride behind that, she had rolled her eyes, called me Petty Kruger and asked me if I really thought everything other artists create on the spot didn’t subconsciously draw from things they’d already been toying with. “Sign her, Bri,” she had insisted. “Sign her, and mentor her. Whether she takes off or not, it’ll be a good experience for both of you.”
Quite frankly, Ride has Leila to thank for the fact that I did call to meet with her at Tin Marin in Riverdale. I have the contract in my bag, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to offer it to her. It also helps that Malik wasn’t with it. He said that she doesn’t have enough edge. “Not in her music, not in her steelo, not in her mental,” he said. “She not built for this shit.” People thought the same about me – still fuckin’ do I’m sure – so I’ll be the judge of that after this lunch.
After Ride and I exchange compliments on each other’s outfits, order appetizers and banter about the weather and transportation, I say, “I just got one more question for you.”
“Shoot. I’m an open book. Nothing to hide.”
I believe her, and if Malik were here, he’d tell me that exactly is her problem. “Name the person who doesn’t want you to win.”
Ride wasn’t expecting that. “Personally? Professionally?”
She shifts in her seat. Ride thought of someone immediately and is debating whether to tell me. “I can’t tell you why, but Sugar Shane fucking hates me.”
Her answer throws me. The most promising artist at Roc-A-Fella had a beef with her? This could be a goldmine or a volcano. “How do y’all know each other?”
“We don’t. I can’t even tell you how she knows about me never mind why she be comin’ for me. All I know is that Sugar takes a few shots at me on the mixtape that caught Jay’s ear.”
“Here’s your chance to tell me the truth, Ride.”
She kisses two fingers up to God, and that part of me that still belongs to Malik cringes at the childish gesture. “I’ve been trying to figure it out. Only thing I can think of, Bri, is that Shane thinks I’m an easy target.” Ride shrugs. “Real talk. She ain’t got the chops to try and make a name for herself by challenging someone like Nicki or Azealia. Me, I got some respect underground so I’m big enough prey to bother, but since I’m not really a battle MC…”
“Let’s not confuse someone who likes to pop shit for clicks with a battle MC,” I say, and my current situation with Malik hits me as if the ceiling just caved in on me. “Excuse me for a second.” I get up from the table and stride to the restroom with Leila’s taunt Punchanella, Punchanella pounding in my head. I push my way into an empty stall and lean against the door. Who was I going to be in the fight of my life where I’m sleeping with the enemy? Malik was no longer an entertainer popping shit for clicks, and I was never a battle MC. The memories of Leila chanting Punchanella, Punchanella at that Explicit Content party all those years ago flood my head, and it takes a moment for me to recall my doctor’s advice. I push the breath stuck in my chest to my belly and narrate a counter script to the scenes playing in my head. I’m not that girl anymore. That experience brought out the strength I always had. I not only prevailed, I survived.
The scene of Leila humiliating at my first big industry party starts to fade, and my deep breaths wash over my body. I exit the stall, splash water on my face and clean my smudged mascara. I still have the slightest tremble in my walk that I hope Ride doesn’t notice as I head back to our table. Even though the server is heading back to the kitchen after just having brought our orders, I signal for him to bring us the check. I need to wrap up this meeting, get back home and determine how I’m going to navigate my marriage now that it’s become a high-stakes chess match.
“Are you OK?” Ride asks as I retake my seat.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry about that.” I think of a quick lie to put her at ease. “For a moment there I thought my period took me by surprise.” Ride gives me a sympathetic smile while I retrace our conversation. When I pick up my fork, she does the same, and I realize why I have a soft spot for her. While they have completely different temperaments and upbringings, Ride resembles Leila. “So here’s what I need to know? Let’s say Sugar Shane drops a diss track on you. Are you taking the high road or clapping back?”
Ride flips the script. “Regardless of what I do, are you going to have my back?”
“You asking me questions?”
She puts down her fork. “I don’t get to do that?”
“I’m not saying that.”
Ride puts both hands on the table as if preparing herself to push away from it. “I didn’t mean any disrespect and not to dodge your question. I don’t think there’s a better place for me than the Coven. I’ve dreamt about being signed to your label and working with you ever since I decided to really go for this.” The tension in her hands relaxes as I intently listen. “But if you’re not going have my back regardless of what I decide to do, Bri, then I might as well take my chances with a bigger label. They’re gonna try to manipulate my every move, too, but they’ll probably do more for me in exchange.”
“And what would you do that I’m just supposed to co-sign?”
Ride sighs. “I have to clap back, Bri. Studio beefs ain’t my thing, but if anyone never mind Sugar Shane comes what am I supposed to do? Just eat it?” The mere hypothetical has her anxious and resigned. Ride throws up her hands and says, “There’s no high road in hip-hop.”
“You’d step up.” She starts to remind me of myself. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.
I burst out laughing. As I reached for my credit card to place it in the billfold, it occurs to me that I was asking Ridin’ Hood if she could become the artist I never was. Now that she gave me the answer I wanted, she reminded me that if she could step up, I could, too. That I had done it before and can do it again. The fact that I never feel that I have the choice to do otherwise is irrelevant.
“I’m taking care of this now because I have to jet out of here when we’re done, but take your time eating,” I say as I open the billfold. Sitting on top of the check is a business card. I pick it up. On one side there are two silver capital Ms against a black background and on the other there’s a number with an odd area code. No name, no address, no email.
I didn’t hide the card quick enough. Ride sees the card and immediately recognizes it. “Holy shit.”
I try to play it cool by dropping the card into my pocketbook then digging out the contract. I slide it across the table toward Ride, and her giddiness and gratitude becomes the necessary deflection. She jumps up, runs around the table and throws her arms around me. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Bri. You won’t be sorry. I’ma bust my ass for you, you gonna see.”
“Now don’t sign this right now. Have a lawyer look at it and explain it to you.” At this point, I feel circumstances require me to sign Ridin’ Hood just because of the confidentiality clause in the contract. I can’t risk her telling anyone about what she just saw. Still she’s young and impressionable, and I pride myself on always keeping business above board. “If you don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, you better hustle, borrow or whatever to get it. Let that be the first thing you do for me.”
We finish our meal, chit-chatting about anything and everything except the business card burning a hole in my purse. When Ride leaves, the server returns with my card and receipt to sign. As I do, I ask him if he slipped the business card into the billfold. He has no idea what I’m talking about and that makes the whole thing real.
When I get into my car, my first impulse is to call Leila. I reach for my phone to find that Leila had text me almost two hours ago wanting to know how it went with Ride and pushing me to sign her. I start to respond when I hesitate. Leila just might be behind this. After all, she was the one who connected me to Dania so maybe Leila led them to me via some prison connections. I sit there debating whether I should respond to Leila. Then I spend even more time chastising myself for not trusting her. Leila didn’t lead them to me. I had to be Dania who contacted them. Leila wouldn’t recommend Dania to me knowing the urban legend was true and landing me on their radar, would she?
I wasn’t going to find out by playing dumb. Doing that with Malik took up enough bandwidth. I text Leila to let her know that I was pretty sure Ridin’ was going to sign with the Coven. Then I take a deep breath and type my next text.
(©) Sofia Quintero