Three cars pulled up right in front of Historic Sweet's Ballroom in downtown Oakland shortly after 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday. The first was a silver Mercedes; about half a dozen white and Latina women with tousled permed hair and Daisy Dukes clambered out. The second was a black suburban filled with Asian chicks. The third was a black truck either a Cadillac Escalade or a Ford Explorer. Out spilled roughly a dozen black women and several burly security guards.
"I wonder how many of them he's peed on," someone quipped.
Somewhere in that thicket of groupies and auxiliaries was the man himself, except that you couldn't really point him out. Witnesses said that, yeah, it was the real R. Kelly. He wore an impeccable white suit, a white bandanna, and a white baseball cap. A rep from Millionaire Boys Club Entertainment the Oakland-based production company that teamed up with Sweet's to bring R. Kelly to this eighty-year-old former big-band venue opened one of the club's side doors and the star sauntered in with his entourage in tow.
Considering all the hype surrounding the R. Kelly after-party, we'd been expecting something more exciting something involving not only a throne, but a chalice of Cristal and a sparkling geyser of urine. Something tantamount to taking all the key-in-the-ignition metaphors in the world and clumping them together. After all, the event had been publicized for days on KMEL and KBLX the Bay Area's dominant hip-hop and R&B radio stations, respectively. Women had called in every day, crying and pleading for a chance to rub up on the second most famous pervert in Top 40 music. All this hoopla didn't exactly befit the attitude of the event's bookers, community arts veterans Steve Snider and Andrew Jones, two board directors of Oakland Box Theater who took over management for Sweet's in January. It also didn't exactly befit the venue proper an Art Deco building that Snider recently furnished with mosaic tables from a Bay Area teen center, and oil paintings by local artist Testa Luigi. But one thing couldn't be mistaken: It was a big fucking deal for a little town like Oakland, which is so small, apparently, that, according to one KMEL listener, R. Kelly shouted out "Oklahoma" from the Paramount stage without noticing his goof.
Explains Snider, "The juxtaposition of a small community arts organization hosting a big high-profile celebrity is an odd thing. This is different from taking a small warehouse in West Oakland and making it funky."
Still, the after-party racket has a bad rep in the hip-hop world, and it's well deserved. The ticket prices are outlandish in this case, $40 to get in and $75 to sit in the VIP section. And just because you pay an arm and a leg to ride R. Kelly's jock doesn't mean you actually get to kick it with him. What people were really paying for, then, was the fantasy of class ascent that goes hand-in-hand with his cult of stardom. Indeed, the whole thing was set up so that you'd feel like an absolute baller if you actually made it through the door. A strict dress code of "Absolutely no Timberlands ... (or) bad attitudes," unsullied tablecloths, and tiny white candles helped transform the upper mezzanine area into a heavily fortressed VIP section where the grownest and sexiest could munch deli meats and gaze imperiously down at the plebeians on the first floor.
Yet, despite all this hoopla, R. Kelly was distinctly anticlimactic. Around 11 p.m. the dancefloor was still empty enough that people cheered for the nerdy white guy who had enough balls to go out there and do that classic I'm-dancing-with-my-eyes-closed-and-trying-to-take-up-as-much-space-as-possible white-guy move. A sorta fine black girl even started dancing with him. Then the sorta fine black girl got displaced by an outlandishly fine black girl, and the crowd cheered even more ("My man is rising up the ranks," said one wag). At 11:30 p.m. the throne was still empty. Rumor had it that a lot of people had confused Sweet's Ballroom for Sweet Jimmie's nightclub, and gone there instead. People were starting to speak fondly of R. Kelly how he's like, you know, hella emotive; how he's the only R&B singer that a thug can listen to without being "hella gay."
By midnight the cops had stationed a paddywagon and a line of police cars outside, and barricaded the whole block of Broadway between 19th and 20th streets. Although the OPD didn't actually get to do shit, they contributed by making the party seem more exciting than it actually was. A little after midnight, Snider even got a call from the Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., who said he'd been thinking of stopping by, except that he and his boys had seen 5-0 there and thought maybe the riots had already started.
There were no riots; there was only moderate rap video-style after-partying. For security reasons, R. Kelly didn't grace the top-shelf mezzanine VIP section at all. Rather, he was horned into a far corner of the club, where an empty throne awaited him. But he never took it. R. Kelly danced a little bit with his groupies. His heavy security mad-dogged everyone, and the self-proclaimed "Mr. Showbiz" beat it at 2 a.m. sharp.
After all, he was contracted to be at Sweet's for only an hour. Dang.
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