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At the Envy Expo, if you've got it, flaunt it

July 11, 2006|Camilo Smith | Special to The Times

Ben Baller is, in many ways, the quintessential hip-hop entrepreneur. A DJ, sneaker aficionado and jewelry maker, the 33-year-old Koreatown native and member of Air Macks Crew DJ collective sported a platinum cross and circular diamond-encrusted pendant with the word "Doenut" as he cruised the Envy Expo hip-hop gathering over the weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

"Doenut," he explained, is the name of one of his customers. And when he explains anything, the glint of diamonds where you would normally see teeth flashes from his custom-made "grille," part of his Icee Fresh line of jewelry.

He also sported a pair of designer Vans he bought in Tokyo, wore humongous canary yellow diamond cluster earrings (3 1/2 carats per ear, he noted) and checked the time on his diamond bezel Jacob & Co watch. The weighty bling cost well north of $400,000, he said.

If Los Angeles and neighboring Hollywood personify excess and glamour, the Envy Expo peeled back the glittery surface to reveal an underground culture that's steadily going mainstream. The crowd of several thousand was a mix of car enthusiasts, hip-hop fashionistas and rugged urban denizens, some of whom displayed gang affiliations on their T-shirts.

"Lowrider culture is gang culture," said Mitchy Slick, an underground rapper from San Diego who says he's sold 30,000 copies of his first album out of the trunk in his car.

The headline performer at Saturday's daylong event, which had a heavy security presence, was Compton rapper the Game, who makes no bones about his ties with the Bloods and often celebrates it in song.

After his short but crowd-moving performance for an event he called "GangBang Fest 2006," the rapper said the largely peaceful confluence of blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos young and old "was cool with me."

Along with the proliferation of mouth jewelry, or grilles, one of the common elements was the amount of disposable income participants spent on outerwear, accessories and automobiles.

Envy Expo (the show's name tells you what it was all about: wealth envy) puts a spin on the old-fashioned car show formula, with a eye toward the explosive success of New York radio DJ FunkMaster Flex's foray into the custom automotive and car show arena. And Envy, according to its creators, plans to hit cities such as Miami and New York in the near future.

His car shows, which have been staged for several years and tour the country, typically feature name performers such as R&B sensation Ne-Yo, reggaeton artists Tego Calderon well as other rappers and singers Flex can tap through his radio industry clout.

The big difference between Envy Expo and its East Coast counterpart was the local focus on most of the musical acts as well as a basketball slam-dunk contest that Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis helped kick off.

Still, the Envy Expo seemed to be more about urban celebrity and the wealth it can bring -- primarily, the jewelry and fancy import cars. More than $3 million in luxury vehicles filled much of the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The showcase wasn't limited to L.A. residents.

Ak-69, a rapper from Nagoya, Japan, who didn't speak much English, admired a modified candy-apple red 2000 Chevy Impala along with three of his friends, many, like him, with arm-length tattoos and similarly flashy jewelry. They also sported T-shirts and denim jeans from their Japanese fashion line called Bagarch.

The Chevy belonged to a contingent from Swift car club in Montebello, which featured modified Hummers and a Chevy Tahoe with a Louis Vuitton interior and a teeth-shaped hood that opened from the middle.

The daylong event was spearheaded by DJ Skee, 22, a former protege of Loud Records owner Steve Rifkind. Skee is a rising mix tape DJ who hosts a Sirius satellite radio rap show and who has produced mix tapes featuring the Game.

As up-and-coming Inglewood rapper Damani noted as he waited to take the stage on Saturday, "This rap [music] is keeping everything together."

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