The building was breathing. The crowd throbbed in unison to the heartbeat pumping from gigantic black speakers suspended from the ceiling. The walls perspired as the heavy workout ensued. This was not a place for the claustrophobic. At least 800 people packed into the historic Firefly club, pushing the limits of personal and legal space. Fans, who had seen great underground artists from MC Supreme to Hawk Nasty rise from this local hole in the wall, were lucky to make it into the building. It was standing room only. Tonight, they were witnessing the second coming.
His intense eyes peeked from under the faded black hoodie, while his left hand gripped the mic lightly and his right hand darted in and out, punctuating the staccato of his verbal assault.
I’m so caught in the moment, please pardon my focus/
Your party was hopeless till my squadron just rolled in……
Please excuse the author that wrote this/
He’s a bit biased towards Solomon’s dopeness./
This the kinda vibe that I can ride to on the road/ Your music lackin vital signs, it’s like it died and lost it’s soul. [Click to Listen/Purchase Song]
He was MADE for this. The height of the stage exaggerated his six foot two frame, his dark hood cast a shadow on his olive skin. Thick black eyebrows and sharp cheekbones framed intense dark brown eyes. By all accounts, Sal was quite handsome—almost pretty. But his chiseled jawline and goatee gave his face a rugged balance. He scanned the crowd from his high perch, taking time to make eye contact with individuals below, sensing their emotions, baring his soul, connecting. He remembered when the words he spoke were just thoughts in his head . . . words on a page . . . and finally, the song was born.
He looked out at people chanting his lyrics like prayers and was reassured that he’d chosen the right moniker all those years ago; “King Solomon,” indeed.
As the words flowed from his lips, his energy radiated from his heart, and the fans chanted in one voice. He gave his all, and they gave back.
They like the way I rock it/ Anything less is not an option.
They like the way I do it/ The people fiend and this is more than music. If you like it I love it! If you like it I love it! If you like it I love it! Cuz, nobody do it quite like I does it [Listen/Purchase Song]
Sal stood motionless, staring at the ceiling as the song ended. His mom used to say, “First impressions are important, but it’s final impressions that count.” He’d learned it was important to finish strong. He paused for what seemed to be an eternity, soaking in the praise and adoration. It had taken a long time to get to this point.
Six years ago, he had been an average college student, spittin’ freestyles for friends or recording tracks in his boy Dante’s makeshift dorm room studio on the tenth floor of South Hubbard Hall. Sal and Dante had worked hard at this thing and were finally seeing some fruits of their labor. Hard work, dedication, and a lot of luck had brought them to this moment. Few local artists could oversell the Firefly, and after four months touring overseas, Sal was finally home.
“Thank y’all,” he spoke into the mic as if he was talking to ten people rather than hundreds. “If it wasn’t for you, there would be no me, and I appreciate you for that.” He couldn’t decipher the individual responses, but he felt the love. As he gazed into the crowd, a young lady in the front row stared at him longingly. Their eyes met. He planned to feel her love later that night as well.
The band played lightly in the background as he spoke. “I’d like to specifically thank my manager, Dante Williams, for putting this thing together.” He pointed at Dante, who was inconspicuously seated on a small barstool off to the side.
Dante’s brash braggadocio was the perfect complement to Sal’s quiet cool. During the show, Dante was all business. He scribbled furious notes during Sal’s performance. Though the crowd loved the show, Dante would have to tweak it to make it even better the next go round. On this journey, Dante’s meticulous attention to detail and sheer will to win had been as important as Sal’s lyrical prowess and natural charisma.
People surrounded Sal as he stepped down from the stage. He struggled to maintain his balance as a large woman with long braids threw her arm around him.
“Oh, my gawd!” she said as her friends ran up to take a picture.
Sal choked as the thick odor of her body spray invaded his nostrils. Her hair extensions scratched his cheek as she pulled him close and thrust her ample chest out to proudly pose for the picture. Sal flashed a big smile for the camera and flashed the peace sign. To him, she was a fan, so she was family. She thanked him for the picture and moved excitedly towards the bar. Dante was behind her, waiting.
“Great show, SON!” Dante said, handing Sal a bottle of water. “The crowd was feelin’ that new joint more than they were in Prague, man . . . I think that’s gonna be the banger!” Dante’s high-pitched voice could be easily heard over the loud bass blasting in the background. Dante was born in Detroit but he had adopted a New York style soprano voice ever since he had interned with Rearview Records six years ago. He just couldn’t seem to drop the “Sons” and “Dunns” from his everyday language.
“So, what’s the word on the deal?” Sal asked.
“Still bakin’. We got some time to make ‘em sweat, son! We hot in these streets right now. C’aint nobody touch us . . . Yeah, we gon make ‘em sweat a minute.”
Sal glanced over Dante’s shoulder and saw the girl from the front row staring at him. “Yo, man,” he said, “you know I trust you.”
Over the past few months, several small record labels had contacted Dante about signing Sal to a deal, but none of them felt quite right to Dante. For Solomon, there was no reason not to trust him. Dante and Sal had been best friends since grade school. Dante had stood with Sal like family at his mom’s funeral, and Dante had personally orchestrated their success in the rap game thus far. Sal was confident that Dante would use whatever leverage he could to get the best deal possible. Sal had no interest in getting screwed in a record deal. They were moving decent units without a record company, and Sal didn’t want to ever lose creative control over his music.
It was music that carried him through his life. Those verses in his two-column olive steno notebooks had been a shoulder to cry on, a congratulatory pat on the back and a much needed word of encouragement as he dealt with being Solomon “Sal” Stein, the fatherless, bi-racial kid in his all-Black neighborhood. Rich kids got therapists to help them cope. Sal had his notebooks and an endless supply of blue Pilot pens. The honesty and authenticity of his lyrics were what made him special. He left the stories of cars, hoes, clothes, and drugs to the fake thugs and wannabes.
“Yo, I’m going to talk to Amir and get our door cut,” Dante said as he looked towards the Firefly office. He looked over at “Front Row” standing in the distance, obviously waiting to meet the King. “Ummm . . .” Dante chuckled as a wide grin inched across his face. “We’ll just settle up tomorrow; I think you may be busy tonight!”
“FUHH-SHO!” Sal laughed in agreement as he and Dante clasped hands and hugged. He briefly watched Dante walk away, then rubbed his goatee and turned to make his move. To his surprise, Front Row was gone. Damn! he thought, where in the hell did she—
“WHUDDUP, DOE!” a booming voice called from behind him.
Over Sal’s shoulder, a small ember glowed in the darkness and a dark figure slowly appeared from the shadows. Standing at six foot four, Chuck “Hoss” Holister was an imposing figure and towered over most people he encountered. Hoss was a former standout safety for King High School’s football team. Two years Sal’s senior, Hoss had mentored Sal as a young defensive back.
Hoss had led the King Crusaders to back-to-back state championships and was a weekly mainstay in the Detroit Free Press for his blazing speed, vicious hits, and exceptional playmaking ability. He’d earned a full athletic scholarship at the University of Michigan and several other Division I schools, but Hoss was never one to follow the path of the straight and narrow. Despite being a standout athlete and brilliant high school student, the allure of street life and the money and status it provided excited him more than the prospects of professional sports or life in some corporate boardroom. Besides, Hoss’ family was struggling. He couldn’t wait three years to start providing for them.
“Bra-vo, Kang Sal. Bra-vo.” Hoss clapped as the lit cigarette wagged from his lips. State law prohibited smoking in bars, clubs, and restaurants, but around these parts, Hoss was above the law. Each low-toned word dragged slowly and effortlessly from his chest, but Sal could tell he was excited. Hoss didn’t deal praise often, but he was obviously impressed. “MANE, you KILLED ‘em!” he continued. “You gonna be a huge star, man . . . don’t forget the little people when you BLOW UP.”
“Yo . . .” Sal chuckled. “You da man, Chuck. I just wanna be like you when I grow up! What’s good?”
“Just tryna maintain . . . [TH1] you know how it is.”
Hoss was doing a lot better than maintaining in Sal’s book. Sal didn’t know how Hoss made his money, but he was doing well for himself. It was suspected that he was involved in everything from drug dealing to racketeering, but he lived a relatively modest lifestyle. Hoss wasn’t the typical hustler. He drove a five-year-old black Cadillac CTS, factory rims, no extras, no car note. He forwent the large, lavish house for a Spartan, three-bedroom apartment in the Troy suburbs. It was sparsely furnished, no frills. But if someone wanted a couple tens of thousands of dollars, Hoss was the man to see.
“So, what you getting into tonight?” Sal asked.
Just then, Sal spotted “Front Row” walking towards them. As she approached, he was captivated by her dark, velvet skin, and was hypnotized by her smooth, sexy stride. Her soft features, high cheekbones, and dark eyes revealed her east African ancestry. Her total package turned heads like speeding racecars. She walked up to Hoss and gave him a tight hug.
“Yo, Sal, this is Diamond.” As Hoss introduced her, Diamond continued to focus on Sal with the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. The pulsing club lights reflected brilliantly off of them, so he couldn’t quite make out the color. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn one was light brown and the other was hazel.
This is Hoss’ girl? Sal thought. As he looked down to avert her gaze, he noticed a platinum ring coiled around her finger with a canary yellow diamond at the head. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and by the looks of it, she was certainly attached. The last thing he wanted to do was bump heads with Chuck Hoss. So much for the passionate night Sal had imagined earlier. That was a road he now had absolutely zero interest traveling.
“Good to meet you, Diamond,” Sal said. “How’d you like the show?”
“You were great!” Diamond said. “Hopefully I can catch you again sometime.” Her accent was British, maybe? Sal couldn’t quite place it, but he knew she wasn’t from Detroit.
“Yeah . . . uuuh . . . sure,” Sal replied through a half smile. He tried his best to keep his cool, but this was definitely an uncomfortable situation. The sweet smell of her Chanel perfume beckoned to him.
Diamond stood on her toes, seductively whispering in Hoss’ ear, but her almond eyes remained fixed on Sal. Hoss nodded and draped his arm around her waist, drawing Sal’s attention to her impressive hip to waist ratio. She gave Hoss a long peck on the corner of his mouth and slipped a piece of paper into the pocket of his button-down shirt. Sal swallowed hard as he watched her lips move away from Hoss’ face in slow motion.
“See you fellas later,” Diamond said. “Glad to finally meet you, Solomon.”
Sal and Hoss’ eyes simultaneously followed her as she turned and made her way toward the exit. Her hips swayed effortlessly under her skintight black liquid leggings. Her shirt was virtually backless and her smooth ebony skin connected seamlessly to the pants.
As Sal’s eyes continued past the faint hint of a tattoo in the small of her back, and up her nude spine, they met Diamond’s dark wavy tresses and then the black feather boa-like halter that connected at the nape of her neck. He could hear the click clack of her black high-heeled shoes with scarlet soles. As she opened the door, she donned a jet-black mink jacket, and walked into the crisp winter night. Diamond looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t connect her to a solid memory. Maybe she’d been in a music video. She was fine enough to be a video model; that was for sure!
“Likewise,” Sal whispered to the empty space she’d just left.
Hoss motioned for them to move to his booth in the corner of the bar. Hoss’ table was tucked inconspicuously in the far corner of the club, opposite the entrance. Its position allowed him to see anyone who walked through the front door. The rear exit was twenty yards to the left, providing a quick exit if necessary. There was a man posted outside the rear exit to ensure no unwanted visitors crashed the party.
The duo reached the table and sat on opposite sides of the booth. They leaned back into the plush leather seats, and a waitress immediately appeared.
“Hey, Chuck,” the waitress said. “You want the usual?”
“Of course,” Hoss answered.
The waitress nodded to Sal. “You?”
Sal raised his water bottle “I’m good.” As the waitress left, Sal leaned over. “So, where’d you meet her?”
“Who?” Hoss reached in his crisp charcoal slacks and pulled out a half-empty pack of Kools. He gave it a sharp shake, pulled out a cigarette, and put it to his mouth.
“Ol’ girl,” Sal responded, trying not to sound overly interested. “Diamond.”
“Aww, her?” Hoss lit his cigarette, took a long drag and spoke. “Man, I met her five minutes before I saw you.”
“Really?” Sal was careful to keep his voice down to hide his excitement. He’d seen Hoss and Diamond, and there was definitely chemistry. But Sal knew she was diggin’ him too. A man knows when he gets “that look.” She wasn’t attached to Hoss, so there was a chance . . .
“She was definitely impressed with you,” Hoss said, interrupting Sal’s thought.
Caught off guard, Sal felt his insides jump, but he remained cool on the outside. “Really? Why you say that?” he responded coolly.
“Cuz she invited us to a party at Horace Otto’s crib tomorrow night. She says you might be able to meet some industry heads. You know, make some connections. Oh . . . and she wants to see me again as well,” Hoss said with crooked smile.
“That’s what’s up!” Sal said as the waitress returned with a glass of Stoli and tonic with lime.
She placed it in front of Hoss and turned to Sal. “You sure you don’t want nothin’, honey?” she asked.
“No, really, thanks,” Solomon responded. As he spoke, he caught Dante out of the corner of his eye. Though Sal considered them both mentors, Dante and Hoss were like oil and water. Their hatred of one another was deeply rooted, and its origins traced back to the days when a teenage Chuck Hoss was making a name for himself on street corners. Biggie said it best: "Either you’re slingin’ crack-rock, or you've got a wicked jump shot."
Hoss’ jump shot was lights out, but at age fourteen, jump shots didn’t buy Jordans. He’d shown an affinity for the drug game and had quickly moved up from carrying packages for local drug dealers for “pocket change,” to hitting the corners, making more in a week than a plant worker would make in six months.
Dante’s mother had been one of Hoss’ loyal customers. Though his mother had kicked her habit years ago, the nights that he woke up in the house alone, or worse yet, when a new man was “sleeping over” after a night of getting high, were still etched in Dante’s mind. Any man who would sell crack to a single mother with three kids was a devil in Dante’s eyes. In many ways, however, Hoss had shaped Dante as a man. Deemed an unfit mother, Child Protective Services had removed Dante and his sisters, Maya and Chiloh, from his mother’s home at age eleven. They moved in with their grandmother for six years while their mother was in rehab.
Years of watching his mother hemorrhage money on drugs and men had given Dante a rough edge, a landmine temper, and an unmatched hustle that was one of his best assets. In their fifteen years of friendship, Dante had only failed Sal once when his ambition led him to a bad deal that almost cost him his life. Sal had come to Dante’s rescue and handed over the five thousand dollars that was to be used to finance the first mix tape, and Dante was allowed to keep his legs intact.
Now, five grand short with a pressing deadline, Sal turned to Hoss who happily fronted Sal the money to mix, master, and manufacture the tape. The day Sal asked, Hoss immediately dropped five stacks on the table. Five thousand dollars was a drop in the bucket for him. Plus, Hoss believed in Sal’s talent. At his core, Hoss was a businessman. He considered Sal an investment. He considered Dante a liability. Sal had to balance the Dante-Hoss dynamic from then on.
“Yo, man,” Sal said, finishing the final swallow of his water bottle. “I’ma call it a night. When should I meet you tomorrow?” Sal screwed on the bottle’s cap as he rose.
Hoss took a long drag of his cigarette and placed it in the ashtray. He paused and watched the smoke plumes dance in the pulsating club lights. “Eleven should be cool. Meet me and Matt here at the Firefly. We’ll roll up there together,” Hoss responded.
With a strong handclasp, they agreed on the plan. Sal turned and fought his way through the now crowded dance floor, stopping a couple times to sign autographs for people, trying to catch Dante before he left the club.
“Dante!” Sal yelled over the music pushing past a couple whose grinding was going to start a fire any second. “Wait up!”
Dante turned to see Sal, flashed a smile, and slowed his stride as he approached the exit door.
The winter cold assaulted the friends as they exited the steamy club. The frigid air made it almost impossible to breathe. Sal shivered as he quickly retrieved the grey wool gloves from his pockets and slipped them on. His black hood, which an hour earlier had helped him create his zone, now served as the only means to prevent the heat from escaping his head into the cold Michigan night.
“That hawk ain’t no joke,” Sal choked, continuing his easy stride down East Congress Street.
“Where are you parked?”
Dante cupped his hands to his mouth and blew to keep them warm. “Man, this ain’t got NOTHIN’ on winters in Brooklyn, son! I’m about two blocks up. You?”
“Right around the corner; I’ll take you to your car.”
The newly fallen snow crunched loudly as they walked northeast then banked left towards Jacoby Alley. Dante appeared to be deep in thought, no doubt contemplating the hundreds of calls and emails he would be making on Sal’s behalf when he got home. It was midnight on the West Coast, and A&Rs never slept. If they did, Dante’s email would be the first they read in the morning.
Sal spoke, interrupting Dante’s musings. “Yo, man, remember that girl in the front row who was peepin’ me after my set?”
“Yeah, I’m surprised you didn’t leave with her.”
“Naw, I think Hoss is feelin’ her. You know I’m not trying to piss in his backyard. Here’s the thing, though. You’ll never guess where she invited us.” Sal paused for effect.
He watched Dante’s face sour at the mention of Hoss. Dante had been against Solomon borrowing the initial start up money from Hoss, fearing it came with a price that they ultimately would not be willing to pay. It wasn’t that Dante doubted their ability to make it in the music game, he just didn’t trust the man who, in his opinion, enslaved his mother to the master of drug addiction and who continued to make dishonest money on the backs of the less fortunate. At the time, Dante knew he’d screwed up, so he felt powerless when Solomon secured the loan from his high school football buddy. In his experience, crooked people did crooked things and it was only a matter of time before Hoss came back to them asking for more than they had bargained for.
“So, you going to tell me or are we just going to stand here like two penguins?” Dante asked.
“She invited us to Horace Otto’s crib for a party tomorrow night!”
Dante stared back in amazement. “Wait, you mean Horace Otto of Huxley Music Group? The Horace Otto?” Any true fan of rap music knew about Otto’s ascent from modest beginnings in Warwickshire England to the top of the music industry as the North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for Huxley Music Group. In this role, Otto oversaw One By One Records, the envy of the hip hop world boasting five of the highest selling hip hop artists of all time. But Otto’s influence spanned farther than the music industry. His diversified businesses included real estate, investment banking, and several global hedge funds. Attending a party at Otto’s mansion could be the break Sal and Dante were hoping for.
Dante snapped out of his trance and stared back at Sal. “Man, that’s INCREDIBLE! So give me the details!”
“Well, that’s the catch,” Sal said. “She invited Hoss too.”
“Always a damn catch . . .” Dante retorted. “It’s all good, Sal. I’m down. When do we meet?”
The weight gradually lifted from Sal’s shoulders, but he wasn’t surprised at Dante’s response. He knew his friend well. Though Hoss had done Dante’s family wrong years ago, at the end of the day, Dante was a businessman. He wouldn’t let personal feelings get in the way. Sal considered Hoss and Dante valuable allies, so an opportunity to bury the hatchet was music to his ears.
“We meet tomorrow.” Sal fished for his keys as they reached his snow covered 1969 Mustang.
“Right here. Eleven p.m. sharp.”
“You know me,” Dante responded. “I’ll be early.”
Sal opened his driver side door, and reached over to Dante’s side. He tugged the lock and pulled the handle letting Dante slide into the passenger seat. He sat in the driver’s seat and pumped the gas twice like his mom taught him nine years ago, pushed the key into the ignition, and turned it. The engine roared to life like an awakened dragon as his left hand found the headlights. He pulled and the beast opened its eyes.
“Yo, man, you keep this thing in pristine condition!” Dante admired Sal’s ability to restore cars.
The car was older than both of them, but it ran like new. When Sal had bought the car, Dante thought he was crazy to buy such a dilapidated piece of junk, but Sal was well on his way to restoring the car to its former glory.
“You gotta love the Stang,” Sal said. “She’s a classic. Grab that scraper out the back for me.”
Dante reached behind his seat and retrieved the black ice scraper. Sal grabbed it quickly, hopped out of the car, and went to work on the windshield.
“I should have just walked to my car, man!” Dante yelled through the windshield. “I forgot you don’t have defrost. I could have been halfway home by now!”
“I have to keep you close.” Sal jammed the sharp scraper blade into the thick sheet of ice that blanketed the windshield. “You know there’s no King Sal without his loyal jester!” As he laughed, the thick steam puffed from his mouth. Just then, he noticed something odd on his hood. He walked around to the front of the car so he could get a better look. His brows furled, confused at the letters written clearly in the snow on his hood:
Huh? Sal thought to himself. Which fifty-five? Who would write . . . he stopped mid-thought. They were in downtown Detroit in a public parking lot. Anyone could have written this. It could be a gang sign—who knew? It really was of no concern as long as they didn’t scratch his hood. Honestly, that didn’t matter either because he planned to repaint the car in the next couple of months anyway. At the same time, ever since Sal was a kid, he had a crazy knack for remembering numbers.
A past girlfriend had once said he was OCD, but he’d never been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He habitually counted his steps, he never forgot phone numbers, and he could memorize lock combinations with ease. Sometimes, the obsession came in handy, but it was usually a waste of time. This seemed to be one of those times. He brushed the snow off his hood, pushing the characters into a heap at his front bumper. He finished scraping off the car and jumped back in, blew into his hands and rubbed them vigorously.
Finally warm, Sal looked at Dante. “All set! Let me drop you off.”