The infamous L-train subway-fight footage.
For students of Internet subway-fight videos, the genre entered a new realm of virality a couple of months ago on the L train. This commenced at approximately 2 a.m. on November 8, 2011, when, with the train approaching the Myrtle/Wyckoff station, 25-year-old security guard Daniel Endara admonished a number of teenagers for spitting on the subway-car floor. It was then, as shown in the one-minute-and-27-second recording of the event, that one of the teens, wearing no shirt despite the wintry weather, confronted Endara, who pushed him away. Several of the shirtless man’s confederates converged on the scene. In the ensuing mayhem, Endara was beaten with fists and kicked to the floor. What made this video different from the usual mélange of sucker punches and overlit swish pans was the voice on the soundtrack, the one that shouted, “WorldStar, baby!”
“WorldStar,” for those who don’t know, is WorldStarHipHop.com, which started in 2005 as just one more semi-swag hip-hop blog eventually featuring homemade videos of rappers and “sticky page” pix of buxom ladies. Over the years, however, the site has separated itself from the competition by depicting what founder Lee “Q” O’Denat, a self-confessed “Haitian ghetto nerd” from Hollis, Queens, calls “the whole gamut; A-to-Z; soup-to-nuts; the good, the bad, and the ugly of the urban experience.” From WorldStar’s POV, this includes a daily array of street fights and pushing matches in project hallways and camera scans of shoplifting incidents. The mix has proved exceedingly popular. With 1.1 million people visiting the site’s archaically funky layout per day, WSHH, as of last week, was ranked the 278th-most-visited URL in the U.S., according to Alexa, a web-traffic-tracking service. This was ahead of Slate, CBS, and Merriam-Webster, and right behind Sprint and Travelocity. With new vids constantly on display, a large portion of WSHH viewers, many hailing from the 18-to-34 male-demographic sweet spot, say they check the site at least once a day.
Still, it wasn’t until Daniel Endara’s L‑train stomping that WorldStar went meta. Obviously, you don’t have to be Jean Baudrillard to know a WSHH video in the making when you see one. This is what it has come to: No longer do individuals sit idly by and watch a fellow citizen get attacked, as bystanders allegedly did in 1964, when Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her Kew Gardens apartment house. Instead, you whip out your smartphone, vid the action, and upload it on WorldStar.
Accompanied by the sort of tabloid-headline writing that would make any Australian phone hacker swoon, videos run by WSHH in the past several months include “Foolery: Off-Duty McDonald’s Manager Fired After Punching a Mother With Autistic Kids for Bringing a Guide Dog in Restaurant!” “Police Kill Deaf Cyclist With Stun Gun!” “41 Deep Brawl, Guys Getting Jumped for Talking About There Baby Moms (Granny Came Out With the Shovel and Broom)!” and “Lesbian Street Fight in ATL!” Most WSHH entries elicit hundreds of typically scabrous, grammatically eccentric, N-word-intensive comments. Few if any express sympathy for the humiliated, knocked-out, or stone-cold-dead individuals seen in the videos.
As evidenced by last week’s posting, “These Cops in the Bronx NY Are Out of Control!,” in which four large NYPD officers engage in a Rodney King–style beating of a suspect (resulting in the cops losing their guns and badges), the WSHH meme is having an effect well beyond the Net. It has certainly influenced the news cycle. Soon after the WorldStar posting of the L-train fight, the vid was picked up by more mainstream sites like Gothamist, which, despite some tsk-tsk dissing of WSHH as “an Internet cesspool that’s cashed in big on senseless fight videos,” was happy enough (as was nymag.com) to make Daniel Endara’s pain available to its better-heeled breed of voyeurs. Local TV outlets soon became aware of the now Ebola-like “shocking video.” Identifying the incident as occurring on a “Queens-bound L train” (geez), WABC-TV reporter Joe Torres said the attack was now on view at the station site, 7online. That way, Torres said, people could watch it on their “computer, iPad, or smartphone, which is great if you’re on the subway—you can call it up and show it to the person next to you.”
Clearly there are issues with WorldStarHipHop. When you’re getting 200,000 hits on vids of teenage Pittsburgh rappers laying down their beats while brandishing a veritable arsenal, including M-16s, Tech-9s, mac-10s, and Glocks (as if the cops, who would later arrest the crew, don’t watch WSHH too), there are going to be issues.
P. Diddy’s promo for Ciroc vodka, which premiered on WorldStar.
In an attempt to come to grips with WSHH phenomenology, I spoke to the aforementioned WSHH founder and front man, Q O’Denat. Asked what’s up, the 38-year-old Q, whose single mom “did her best” back in the hip-hop heartland of Hollis (“Salt of Salt-N-Pepa lived down the block”) said things are cool. A ninth-grade dropout from Grover Cleveland High, a “feeder” school for “losers like me,” the formerly homeless Q now lives on a nifty spread in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he describes as “like paradise, with a pool, good weather, and everything totally brand new and shiny like it was made yesterday.”
Building WSHH into a Net juggernaut came in stages, Q recounted. Like others on the scene, he started by selling mixtapes, audio assemblages of commercially unavailable work of rappers distributed by hole-in-the-wall vendors around the city. By the middle aughts, street-merchandised DVDs (the best-known of these appeared under the label Smack DVD) were including “behind-the-scenes” action such as rappers duking it out with other rappers and swatches of near porn. Similar material was inevitably moved to the web, with OnSmash.com the best-known purveyor. WorldStar soon followed, more or less appropriating OnSmash’s setup, engendering some bad feelings. “Yeah,” Q says, “there was some back-and-forth between us and them, some savage street-hacking attacks. It got hairy. Once we went 100 percent video, showing that original hood stuff, we prevailed.”
WorldStar has not made him “Romney rich, not yet,” but with the recent choice by P. Diddy to “premiere” his new promo for Ciroc vodka on WSHH, things are clearly going in the right direction. Ad rates are growing; top banner spots go for $2,500 a day. One of the site’s cash cows remains the seemingly inexhaustible number of unknown rappers desperate to showcase their streetitude in an “unsigned hype” WSHH window. The $600-a-day fee is steep, but as Q contends, “It’s worth it. Everyone in the industry looks at the site every day.” Plans are under way for expansion of “the WorldStar brand,” including a lot of “original programming” such as the recent Q-produced semi-soft-core paean to the Rubenesque starlet Cubana Lust, whose epic azz-jiggling is something to see. WorldStar is on the move, mighty enough to manage a draw in its ongoing beef with megarapper 50 Cent, who (erroneously) claimed to have once personally knocked WSHH offline, a boast Q just snickers at.
When it comes to the oft-heard charges that WSHH is both encouraging and possibly glorifying public bad behavior, Q is unruffled. After all, it isn’t WorldStar shooting the videos. WorldStar isn’t sticking a pistol to those 1.1 million pairs of eyeballs to make them look. “We’re just the messenger,” Q said. Not even counting the vids exposing cop violence like the recent Bronx incident, the site is performing a public service. “You’ve got a lot of people who stay indoors all the time, looking at their computers and whatnot. They don’t know what is going on right outside their house, in their backyards. We’re showing the reality of the situation, giving them a dose.”
While saying he never ceases to be amazed by what people will do for “a couple of minutes of being in the public eye,” Q doesn’t believe WSHH invites “knucklehead behavior.” On the contrary, WSHH is nothing if not a teller of cautionary tales. “How it is now, whatever you do, there’s going to be someone filming. You’re gonna be seen, you’re going to be recorded. The night got a million eyes. It is a surveillance society. Go out and do some dumb crap, there’s a good chance you’re gonna wind up on WorldStar for everyone to see. So maybe you’ll think twice.”
The fact is, Q said, WSHH might actually play a role in decreasing public disorder. “Let me ask you, what would subway crime been like in the seventies and eighties—Bernhard Goetz, and all that—if everyone on the train had a iPhone?”
I asked a friend, an old-school hip-hop guy back to Afrika Bambaataa and Futura 2000 full-subway-car graffiti, how often he checks WorldStar. Pained, my friend said, “You know … every day.” It is “a guilty pleasure … more guilt than the pleasure.” The way the music business works these days, you have to generate your own buzz, and nothing does that like WSHH. Plus, you can’t really beat the site for street theater. Two videos, both seminal to WSHH’s popularity, stand out. One is a smartphone dispatch by notorious groupie Kat Stacks sent from the front lines of rapper Soulja Boy’s hotel suite. “He couldn’t even get hard,” Ms. Stacks stage-whispered, even as Soulja Boy was showering in the background. Another key vid, now removed, was the 2008 “confession” of one Trashman, claiming he’d murdered Dipset Byrdgang rapper Stack Bundles, a.k.a. Rayquon Maurice Elliot, killed several months before in Far Rockaway. “I killed Stack Bundles,” said Trashman, his face partially hidden behind a red cloth mask. “Shot him. Twice. He died instantly.” He was hired, Trashman said. “It wasn’t personal, it was business.”
Starlet Cubana Lust in the video “Grindin’.”
“How are you supposed to not watch that?” my friend asked, adding that he’d feel better “if they just called it ‘WorldStar’ and left off the ‘HipHop,’ because the shit they show on there—old guys getting blow jobs in the backseat of a bus—is not hip-hop.” This is one of the big questions about WSHH: exactly where hip-hop begins and ends. D.J. Vlad, who runs WSHH’s more “upscale” competitor VladTV, said, “Hip-hop is anything of interest to urban people. If Chris Paul gets traded, that’s hip-hop, if Sean Bell gets shot, that’s hip-hop. If people get into fights, it’s too bad, but that’s hip-hop, too.” At the end of the day, however, what bothers most WSHH critics is that the site owes its success to what one observer described as black people “acting the fool.”
Case in point is a December 23, 2011, WorldStar vid headlined “Pure F*ckery: News Report on Air Jordan 11s Turns Ghetto in Texas! What If Yo Baby Get Ammonia.” The last bit refers to a quote from a young black woman trying to purchase a pair of limited-edition $189 Michael Jordan sneakers at a pre-Christmas midnight sale. “It cold, they wrapped up in blankets,” the woman told Fox 26 News. “What if yo’ child get ammonia for a pair of shoes? It is not worth it.” This was followed by an interview with two young men identifying themselves as “the Get Money Boys” out of Lakewood, Texas. They were the Get Money Boys, one said to the white Fox News reporter, “because we get a lot of money, so it nothing for us to get shoes—you know, we get money—we come up to have fun, and you got people tramping each other over a pair of tennis shoes … What we need is to have Michael Jordan have the shoes at his house and we go to his house to buy the shoes. We see if you like that, Michael Jordan.”
This video instantly went viral, with the subjects’ idiosyncratic interface with the English language inspiring an animated parody, containing much verbatim dialogue, which also played on WorldStar. The original video attracted a large number of unusually pointed comments. Many commentators were angry with Fox News, which, as commenter Ryan maintained, always looked “to interview the most ignorant black folks they can find.” But mostly the attitude was one of rueful despair.
“Well, this set us back about 50 years,” wrote one commenter, Hollywood Cole. Another, ON A MISSION, noted, “OMG, can u say Embarrassed!” S added, “Who are we? You must be speaking of an alien race, not native to earth.”
I asked Q why, if it is true (as he says) that young white kids make up a significant portion of the WHSS audience, if white teens with backward hats are sending in a lot of those N-word screeds that fill the WSHH comments section, African-Americans are almost invariably cast in the role of the fall guys. Is it simply that black people, by virtue of inventing the music, will always be the protagonists of the hip-hop narrative? Or is it more in line with the grumpy punditry of people like Stanley Crouch, who seems to believe the majesty of African-American art has been on the downslide since Louis Armstrong’s solo on “Potato Head Blues” (or maybe Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige symphony) and often refers to hip-hop—WorldStar no doubt included—as a latter-day, gold-toothed “minstrel show” staged primarily for the benefit of a white audience?
This is a serious question, Q allowed, something he thinks about a lot. WSHH is gonzo, but it isn’t like they’d post just anything. He refuses to show sex with animals, bans all videos where a child is hurt. As for the discomfiture caused by stuff like the “ammonia” video, Q said it bothers him that many people are “not able to talk.” It is a deep problem tied up with massive issues of race and education. WSHH is a running commentary on all that. But it isn’t as if he can do anything about it—what is real is real.
“What can I say?” Q said. “The truth hurts.”
So I am scanning WSHH’s offerings on Friday the 13th, which happens to be today. It is a pretty slow day. “Nineteen-year-old From D.C. Shot and Killed for His $200 Nike Zoom Rookie Sneakers!” is lumbering along with a mere 85,000 hits. Only yesterday, “Big Girl Nearly Squashed Skinny Chick to Death in a Fight” picked up a quick 297,591 views, causing Black&Mild to comment: “I bet the site of that big silly azz stomach caused her to pass the fuck out.” Still, that’s nothing compared to the recent “Fight at Gas Station in Alabama: Man Gets a Woopin & Kicked to the Dome,” which now has well over 800,000 hits.
“Fight at Gas Station” is a budding WSHH classic. In short: At a desolate-looking filling station, a tall and skinny dude wants to fight a shorter guy in a white tee. Arrogant, talking shit, the tall guy prepares to rumble by slowly pulling his sweater and T-shirt over the top of his head. As the T-shirt obscures the tall guy’s view, the short guy attacks. This doesn’t stop the tall guy from talking trash. In fact, the more he gets his ass beat, the more the tall guy keeps talking, and by the time he stumbles over a trash can, knocking it over, it just gets funny in that cruel, Jackass slapstick way. I know it was wrong, like laughing at a particularly repellent joke. Who knows how much (more) brain damage and loose teeth will result from this particular beat-down? Still, it was hard not to agree with commenter Leon Byrd, who chortled, “n—— kick and punching you and you wanna get up and talk dumb ass protect ya self at all times.”
It is probably one more sign that those apocalyptic Mayan calendar-makers are right, but the more WSHH puts up videos, the more people watch them. Titles from the past few days include “Caught on Cell Phone: LA Cop Punches Special Needs Girl in the Face on a Bus!” and “Smack of the Week: Woman Clocks Man on Head With Wooden Stick!” I’ve looked at them all, at least in parts. Like a wreck on the highway, it’s hard to look away.