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Caution: These Kids Are About to Blow Up

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"Ah-ight, shorty. I'll see you tonight." Richie clicks off his cell phone. "We have the dopest girls, the nicest girls, the prettiest girls," he says breezily. "We have more girls than people like Leo and all those other famous people."

Steve laughs. "Listen to you."

"What?" says Richie. "They think I have an ego."

"You have enough for everybody," says Steve.

"What I have is what I deserve, 'cause I work for it," insists Richie.

Richie's maybe a little "gassed" because he and Steve have just come from a meeting with Stevie Wonder, the president and owner of their start-up record label, Stay Gold (named after the song the artist contributed to The Outsiders, the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie about teenage gang life). "He's down with us," Richie says, "and that's something all those other people out there trying to do this can't compete with."

Of all the dreams that go with the dream, starting a record label is the most common. Steve brought Stevie Wonder's son, Keita Morris, into their crew; he and Keita were at Hartford College together until last year. "We used to talk about it every day, like, what are we doing in college, this is bullshit, Connecticut sucks," Steve says. Like other kids from the city now who go away for college, they only yearned to be back here, where everybody's "making moves." So they approached Keita's dad with the idea of starting a production team. "We brought it to him, and at first he was like, right, whatever, label," says Steve. "But then he saw we were serious, trying to get people in the studio."

They're now cultivating acts. Part of their pitch to Keita's dad was their access to a teeming pool of up-and-coming young talent in New York -- "It's all about access," says Richie -- people like Mark Ronson, the D.J., whom they hope to make a head producer of Stay Gold. "We don't know that he's definitely gonna be down with us," Richie says (Mark's also starting his own label), "but he D.J.'s our parties, he's part of our crew, and if you're a crew, you stay together."

"What Puffy did when he started his label," Richie adds, "is he took people who weren't that big yet and let them live."

Keita makes tracks, Richie promotes, Steve's the business end of it. "We're gonna try and compete against Maverick," Madonna's label, says Richie.

Steve sighs. "I try not to lose my head, because we haven't really done anything yet," he says.

"What? We're pretty much the kings of New York," says Richie.

Steve laughs at him again. "See what I mean?"

One afternoon in SoHo, Justin wants to ride in a pedicab, one of those chariots driven by a cyclist in racing gear. It's a hot day, the sky a brilliant blue. Justin settles back in the plastic seat, pleased with being driven around in the open air. "This is dope," he says, smiling. We bump along.

With his hair knotted in a ponytail on top of his head today, there's something vaguely kung fu about him today. He has on a maroon DANÜCHT T-shirt, a choker of three dice around his neck emblazoned with the letters S-K-E. He, Shawn, and Richie all wear them.

Suddenly, a dark-haired woman from Spanish CNN appears puffing along beside us, microphone in hand, asking if her cameraman can quickly shoot Justin for a segment on New York lifestyles, please? Justin seems not the least bit surprised. He waves to the camera.

"Did you see me on House of Style?" he asks casually. Danücht doesn't exist yet, and it was already on MTV.

"Yo, shorty," Justin calls to a girl in strappy sandals he sees walking along in the heat; she flutters her fingers -- he says they know each other from "around the way." Justin's hands goes out, gently slapping the palms of boys gliding by us on foot, on skateboards, bicycles. "Yo, Jus." "Whassup, Jus-ske."

He does seem to know a lot of people. "We do run downtown," Justin says, only half serious.

"Yo, why'd you take us down this craze block, my friend?" he asks the driver. We've strayed down an empty block -- nothing to look at here, no one to be looked at by. We swerve around.

Back on Prince Street, Justin turns House of Stylist (he's also, by the way, the style editor of Stress magazine). He watches a guy in a cowboy hat smoking a cigarette, cross-legged against a wall. "That cowboy-hat shit is kind of all good," Justin says with care. "I dig girls that do it. But guys -- if they're not officially like some rugged, scruffy cowboy type of dude, then it doesn't come off. That whole cowboy shit is down and dirty and unnnnhh." He makes a horse-riding motion. "You can't look all clean with a cowboy hat on."

Justin seems completely confident that in some way, he is style at this moment in New York. "It's all about being yourself," he says with a shrug.

He gives a purring "wassup" to a thirtysomething woman passing by -- taken aback, she laughs, flattered. Justin gives the thumbs-up to her black tank dress. "What's good for a girl now is simplicity -- a top and bottom, and that's it," he says. "Maybe some thin, thin shirtdress, some Prada shit, some Anna Sui shit. Maybe something to finesse their hair. And no makeup. The biggest mistake girls make is too much makeup. It's all about being real."

We see a fading ARGUE tag up on a wall. It's Davide's. Justin stares. "I miss him, every day. We were having mad fun."

"But I guess . . . you can't have too much fun," he says. "When he died, I looked at myself and said, 'What the fuck am I doing?' " Justin stopped doing drugs then, with the help of Francesca Sorrenti, and has been drug-free ever since. "Fran said to me, 'If you love Davide, then you'll stop," says Justin. "I think to do them is a disrespect to him."

We climb out of the pedicab. The driver shakes Justin's hand and pedals away.

Out on the sidewalk, there's a water-pistol fight going on. The clerks from two clothing boutiques -- a guy and girl whom Justin also knows -- are blasting away at each other with neon-colored plastic assault rifles. Justin borrows the guy's gun -- "Lemme hold it?" -- takes cover behind a parked car, and rapid-fires at the girl. She squirts back furiously. Just then, quite inexplicably, Richie and Steve and some other boys in SKE drive past in a sleek white BMW. Seeing Justin, they back down the street through traffic and park in front of us, all with the absurd sweeping ease of an action film.

Richie hops out, grabs the girl's gun, and starts firing at Justin -- "Take that, Pony Boy!"

I ask him why they call him Pony Boy (a character from The Outsiders). Justin wipes his face with his T-shirt. " 'Cause I'll never grow up," he says.

At Moomba late one night, Leo's "kicking it" with a bunch of kids in SKE. And Q-Tip's here.

The table's loud and messy. Justin and Richie are eating steaks. Vanessa and Sherry Cosonic, the Albanian doorgirl ("She's, like, a wild one," says Richie) are munching on French fries. Leo wants some fries, too, but the kitchen's closed and won't open back up, not even for Leo.

"Yo, Rich, lemme get some fries," Leo asks Richie to ask the girls.

"Ask 'em yourself," Richie says, mouth full.

"Lemme get some fries?" Leo asks Sherry.

Sherry's hungry; she winces, passing down the plate. Leo shoves a bunch of fries in his mouth; Q-Tip starts digging in, too.

Sherry gets impatient. "Yo, give us our fries back, don't play yourself!" Everyone laughs.

"You want your fries back?" says Q-Tip, appreciating her style. "You ain't gettin' 'em back." He starts eating the fries faster. Sherry grabs at the plate. Q-Tip yanks it away, gets up and walks around the restaurant, offering it to strangers. "Yo, want some fries?"

Sherry jumps up and follows him. "What the deal?"

"Nah, nah, I'm eating 'em," says Q-Tip, scarfing fries in his mouth, laughing.

Sherry takes a handful and smashes them in his face, his hair. Q-Tip takes the ketchup and mayonnaise cups off the plate and squirts them all over Sherry.

Leo laughs. Everyone claps.

Justin's still eating his steak heartily. "Ill," he says, smiling, shaking his head. "Ill."

Another Monday, the kids at Lot 61 are doing the limbo. Girls with bare shoulders, bare feet, bare cleavage wriggle under the pole, heads back, drinks in hand. The slick boys in khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and fluorescent sneakers are still striding up and down; there are people here to talk to. It's a big night, Justin's 22nd-birthday party.

It looks as if a camera crew from Entertainment Tonight is coming through the crowd for an interview, high beam focused on Justin -- but it's just some of his friends, young filmmakers, making a movie. Justin calmly accepts the spotlight and starts making moves like a rapper. He talks, but it doesn't matter what he's saying. The movie's silent, all about style.

On the wall, by the dance floor, they're projecting photos of one other. Dozens of kids are blown up, larger than life. Laughter erupts at shots of Justin in somebody's kitchen, looking less than lucid. An affectionate moan goes up at a shot of Davide.

James King drifts through the crowd, her filmy white blouse and platinum hair trailing. She wears a burnt expression, like a fallen angel.

"My movie's called The SKEleton Dance," Shawn's telling me, "and it's about an up-and-coming photographer and his adventures out in New York in clubs with certain models and drugs. . . ."

"When we start the empire," Richie's saying, "and we make all the money, then I'll open up my own club, and I'll go to it every night and just chill."

Mark Ronson spins Brandy: "I'm just trying to be me, doing what I got to do. People think that I'm sitting on top of the world. . . . "

Twelve long-stemmed glasses of Cristal clink together, with a "Justin!" "When I blow up," Justin's saying, "I'm gonna buy my mom a house, and buy my dad an old-school car, cause he's into that shit.

"I just want to do good. But at the same time, I want to live. Davide would have lived! Like, ill." Justin smiles. "We're gonna finesse it, the good life," he says. "We're gonna go all out."

He moves toward the limbo pole and gets in line. His friends are clapping, egging him on. Justin starts to go under; the pole's perilously low. But it looks like he's going to make it.


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