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I Want to Be a Millionaire

Not so long ago, it seemed possible to believe that anyone (say, a magazine writer) with an idea (say, Internet karaoke) could get rich in a matter of months. Was this lunacy?

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My desire to earn a million dollars probably kicked in a year and a half ago. That's when I overheard a stray comment from my brother, who'd recently sold his computer company. "It's a gold rush out there," he said, and stirred his martini with a finger. You often ran into such fervor back then. Business pages read like sports pages. You could almost hear the cheering. People were starting companies, shaping the future. (And the future was very much in fashion.) Suddenly, it seemed to me as if people, other people, were having the times of their lives.

And me? Why, I was a journalist taking notes on colorful characters, sticking to the periphery. The world, it seemed, was passing me by. I wanted something else. Everybody wants something else. But what? Perhaps my aptitude for wanting had never been high.

Then I knew. The roughhouse of commerce. Yes. Why not? I wanted everything gold rush suggested. I wanted to throw some elbows. I made a motion with my elbows like a washing machine. I did this at a party one night, drink in hand, as I explained to a guy I barely knew how things would go if -- where did this inspiration come from? -- he were to pitch in. I believed, I think, it would be more fun. Yes, fun was the word in mind. The thing about business was, I always figured I could do it. Finding the time, that was the trick. "How long could it take to make a million dollars?" I wondered aloud. "We'll give it a year. If it takes ten months, we'll take two off."

As far as I knew, this guy was a writer. He had a full head of thick, dark hair, a new novel to sell, and an interesting collection of slight tics. His head seemed to adjust to an ever-more-precise angle. "I'm tic-y," he said and seemed mildly amused.

"Come on," I said. I may have been shouting. Who could blame me? I saw my future, a bunch of them. "Let's make a million dollars." I liked the precision of the goal. It felt robust, vital, full of possibilities, as if -- I can still hardly believe this -- it were something original.

He offered to lend a hand. Though he didn't reveal it at the time -- he wasn't the revealing type -- he'd once been an entrepreneur himself. Steve Reynolds would be my business consigliere. So I didn't have experience? Experience, you got the feeling, would just slow you down. Business -- this much was clear -- was the new aspirational culture; it was how people became the creative beings they always believed they were.

All I needed was an idea.

"Ideas come from everywhere," Consigliere reassured me. He'd always be reassuring.

One night, a friend recently back from Japan steered a group of us to a karaoke bar on St. Marks Place. I refused to sing. I never sing. I have an embarrassed boyhood memory of my mother pounding on a bathroom door. Inside, I showered and sang. "Are you all right?" she called. Apparently my voice suggested distress. Still, we stayed at karaoke until four in the morning; everyone had a great time.

"Why not," my wife suggested, "open a hip-hop karaoke bar?" (She's good with ideas.) None of the karaoke around New York featured much hip-hop. How weird. After all, hip-hop fans naturally sing along with the music. I have little knowledge of hip-hop, but suddenly it hit me. The Internet is a perfect hip-hop-karaoke-delivery device. I could have smacked myself. I e-mailed Consigliere.

"If you don't do it, someone else will," he said, which I took as encouragement.

"Doesn't karaoke, though, seem a bit, well, goofy?" I asked.

"Oh, let's just go balls out," he counseled.

"Fucking thieves," yells Russell Simmons as he stalks into his office, where I have been waiting with my team for an hour. Russell, co-founder of Def Jam Records, is probably the person most responsible for bringing hip-hop to the mainstream. Less well known is that these days, Russell is into r-e-l-a-x-a-t-i-o-n. He pursues vegetarianism, yoga, the Hamptons -- there's a chest-high waterfall in his office -- none of which seem to be doing the job just now. He screams into the phone -- actually, into the wire dangling from his ear. He's apparently talking about a store that carries his fashion line, Phat Farm. "I don't want that guy in there," Russell yells angrily, though because he has a gentle lisp, the phrase sounds just a bit comic.

Russell tears open a brown bag of Chinese food he's been carrying and spreads it on his large desk, creating a kind of rustic place mat.

Noticing my team, he says, "I hope you don't find it too insulting."

"No no no," we chorus.

Consigliere hustles over. The third team member, Peter Clemente, is already seated. He once worked with Consigliere and has since become a leading consultant in the Internet-entertainment field.

Unfortunately, Russell, tawny-skinned, shaved-headed, doesn't immediately focus on us. "My whole day is meetings," he announces to no one in particular. "I've got record, film, television, clothing businesses, a magazine, a TV show. I have this whole Internet staff that grows every single day. I'm trying to get my round of financing."

His latest venture, and the cause of much of his anxiety, is a hip-hop Internet company, 360hiphop.com. Russell, I think, would like to suggest that he's the online leader. "You know, we're doing a very, very elaborate kind of special, focused hip-hop effort. It's expansive. It's mind-boggling. And I mean that. There's something called IZone. Fun like a roller coaster. IZone has all kinds of meters to use technology to make battles better and more engaging and all kinds of creative stuff."

I momentarily wonder if Russell has ever seen his site, since his IZone seems to have little more than a crossword puzzle and a phone-in rhyming game.

"Do you think," I interrupt, "the hip-hop community will go for karaoke?"

Russell is carefully placing bones in a pile -- oddly, vegetarian Russell eats Chinese chicken. "What did you say?" he says.

"Hip-hop karaoke," I repeat, three words I am certain Russell has never heard in an unbroken string.

Clemente jumps in. "We have an exciting, compelling, community-related application utilizing karaoke," he says. A presentation is loaded on my computer, which sits on Russell's desk -- the only computer on Russell's desk. (Russell isn't really a computer person.)

"You got to tell me what I can do for you," he says dismissively.

He's finished lunch, packed it away in the trash. He seems about to bolt.

"We'd like you to invest $100,000," I say impolitely.

Russell leans forward. His bald head looks glossy as a piece of wax. "Can't," he says, without batting an eye.

"Okay, then we'd like to build a hip-hop-karaoke lounge on your site," I say.

"That's what I wanted to get to," Russell says, as if, incredibly, he'd all along been herding the conversation this way. "I think it might be a great idea."

"You do?" I say.

"Sounds like a lot of fun. Sounds like there are a bunch of ways to leverage it."


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