It’s part of the ritual: if you’re a rapper with a new disc to hype, you must pay a visit to Funkmaster Flex, the popular evening DJ on New York’s leading urban-music radio station, Hot 97. On this drizzly September evening, Flex, a gregarious bear in an orange T-shirt, welcomes the latest hip-hop hope: a sullen, heavy-lidded young man with a thin poker face, shaved head, and incoming facial hair around his lips and chin.
He was born 21 years ago as Jamal Barrow, but in the rap community he’s known as Shyne. On air, Flex greets his guest, who, slouched in a chair until this point, sits up, leans into his microphone, and intones, ”Album in stores to-morrow.” Flex plays Shyne’s single, the reggae-rap club hit ”Bad Boyz,” then mentions attending a party the previous night where Shyne performed. ”It was crazy!” Flex says, flashing a grin.
Shyne nods. ”We got to give it up,” he replies proudly but quietly, with no hint of humor or irony. ”Nobody got shot.”
Rap acts and promoters generally breathe a sigh of relief when their concerts are incident-free, but Shyne’s words carry even more significance. In January, his mentor, Sean ”Puff Daddy” Combs, was indicted for gun possession and bribery in connection with a Dec. 27, 1999, shooting at a Times Square nightclub that left three people wounded. (Jennifer Lopez, Combs’ companion, was not charged with any crime.) Combs’ situation, though, seems trivial compared with that of his protégé. Prosecutors contend it was Shyne (signed to Combs’ Bad Boy label) who fired those shots, from a 9 mm semiautomatic, and the rapper has been indicted on 11 counts, from attempted murder and assault in the first and second degrees to criminal use of a firearm, to which he has pleaded not guilty (as has Combs to his charges). All told, he faces up to 25 years in prison. Even when a different musical bad boy seems to be arraigned every month, the timing is surreal: a new performer making his entrance shortly before going on trial for attempted murder. If that’s not enough, according to a $6 million lawsuit filed last May, Shyne allegedly threw a basketball in the face of a New York concierge in July 1999 during a pickup game at a Reebok gym and was arrested. Again, Shyne has pleaded not guilty, and the case is set to go to trial Oct. 23.
Back on Flex’s radio show, Shyne announces for the fourth time that his debut album, a collection of gangsta story-songs called Shyne, will be ”out tomorrow.” It is, and two days later, he and Combs, in matching denim jackets, find themselves in a downtown Manhattan courtroom. They listen as the judge announces that jury selection for their joint case is scheduled to begin Jan. 8, with a five- to six-week trial to begin thereafter.
Former Bad Boy executive Ron Gillyard recalls his first impressions of Shyne two years ago: ”young, hungry, definitely a sponge. He wanted to be in every situation so he could absorb as much as he could.” The hunger derived from Shyne’s desire to escape a hard-knock-life childhood. Born in Belize, his mother a teacher and his father a former deputy prime minister, he lived with an uncle while his mother (who broke up with Shyne’s father soon after his birth) relocated to Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood and worked as a housekeeper. Jamal followed her there when he was 4. After what he describes as a misspent youth of petty crimes, culminating in an argument in which he claims he was shot, he became a bike messenger, writing rhymes on the back of his clipboard, and met rap impresario Don Pooh, who escorted the 18-year-old to labels. Before long, several — including Def Jam and Interscope — were eager to sign the kid renamed Shyne. The moniker, he says, came from a cousin who, while in jail, heard ”shine” meant ”jewelry” and began calling Barrow by that name.