The members of the platinum-selling New York City hip-hop ensemble the Wu-Tang Clan are known by an assortment of mysterious, somewhat ominous handles. There’s Ghostface Killah and Masta Killa, for example, and there’s U-God, Method Man and Inspectah Deck. There’s Cappadonna and Raekwon, too, and there’s RZA(pronounced “Rizza”) and GZA (“Jizza”). And, of course, there’s also Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who once, it must be noted, briefly changed his name to Big Baby Jesus.
Then there’s Peter M. Frankel. Mr. Frankel isn’t actually a performing member of the Wu-Tang Clan–he won’t be found dropping rhymes or spinning turntables–but in his own quiet, unassuming way, the soft-spoken 38-year-old has helped the Staten Island group during its impressive journey to musical fame. Mr. Frankel is the Wu-Tang Clan’s criminal defense attorney.
That makes Mr. Frankel, well, busy. Over the past half decade or so, Mr. Frankel has represented Wu-Tang members on numerous occasions, on charges ranging from the trifling (drug possession) to the grim (attempted murder). For the most part, he has been successful at keeping his clients out of jail and on the streets, where they have become one of the biggest-selling and most influential hip-hop groups of their time.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Frankel thinks his clients get a bad rap. “One of the big misconceptions is that these [Wu-Tang] guys are gun-running violent hoods,” Mr. Frankel said in an interview on a recent afternoon at his office near the World Trade Center. “They are just not. On a personal level, I think they are great guys.”
Mr. Frankel, who has close-cropped black hair and a neatly trimmed beard, said he first hooked up with the Wu-Tang Clan in 1994, when he defended GZA on an assault charge. By then, the former Bronx prosecutor–who also represents plenty of clients outside of hip-hop–had developed a reputation as a counselor capable of navigating the city’s rap circles, having already defended individuals including an associate of the group Run-D.M.C.
It helped that Mr. Frankel understood hip-hop music. Born and raised in the Bronx, Mr. Frankel said he has been a dedicated hip-hop fan since the early days of Kurtis Blow. He owns many hip-hop records, he said, attends live shows, and even treks to his home in Westchester with the Wu’s music bumping inside the tinted windows of his Lexus S.U.V.
This hip-hop fluency has given Mr. Frankel credibility within a community that, as a general rule, is deeply suspicious of authority, not to mention lawyers. “He treats them [hip-hop artists] with a certain level of respect that I don’t necessarily see [with] a lot of criminal attorneys or attorneys in general,” said Yaneley Arty, the senior director of A.&R. administration at Elektra records, who has worked with Mr. Frankel on several occasions.
Mr. Frankel was more succinct: “I’m a straight shooter,” he said. “I tell it like it is, I don’t bullshit, and I think they appreciate and respect that.”
But defending rap artists isn’t an easy job. Much of Mr. Frankel’s time is consumed by trying to cut through negative stereotypes to convince people that his clients are not such a bad group of guys. That’s often a burdensome task. Some hip-hop performers will cultivate an outlaw image to help sell records and, to the outsider, the line between that image and reality can appear blurred. Explained Mr. Frankel: “When you have an individual who is arrested for a crime and has a reputation, for example, for singing about guns and violence and things of that nature–which really doesn’t have anything to do with who they are and what they believe in–it just makes it very difficult.”
Then again, he said, hip-hop performers do have their fans in law enforcement. “I can’t tell you how many times I have gone down to a precinct and found my client being photographed with members of the department and signing autographs,” Mr. Frankel said.
Mr. Frankel is far from starstruck himself; his small, uncluttered office is devoid of autographed photos or other flashy memorabilia from his famous clients. But he acknowledged that his rap clients have, from time to time, put him in some memorable lawyering situations. He recalled one particular meeting inside a limousine with a client who had other things on his mind besides his legal woes. “The limo was stopping every half a block so that the individual could either roll down the window to call out to a female walking down the street, or get out of the limo and approach the female,” Mr. Frankel said, shaking his head. “It was basically two hours of wasted time.”
But Mr. Frankel stressed that his relationship with the Wu-Tang Clan–his most prominent clients–is a good one. Most of the group–which is known for its substantial size and the intentional shroud of mystery surrounding its members, many of whom have been friends since childhood–has never been in trouble, he said. He pointed out that the attempted murder charge (against Ol’ Dirty Bastard) was dismissed by a grand jury and said that an old allegation that the group was involved in a gun-running network remains unsubstantiated.
In truth, Mr. Frankel insisted, most of the Wu-Tang is fairly mellow. “You don’t see them out all the time partying, they are not in the news all the time, they pretty much keep to themselves,” he said. “They are family people–they have wives and kids and families that they are very attentive to.”
The one Wu-Tang member who does have trouble staying out of trouble, however, is Mr. Bastard. Ol’ Dirty, whose real name is Russell Jones, is kind of the Robert Downey Jr. of rap. A frenetic, wild-haired performer–one of hip-hop’s true originals–Mr. Jones is no stranger to police, from the dismissed attempted-murder charge (police alleged that he shot at them in Brooklyn) to drug busts, to ticky-tack driving violations to an arrest in California for wearing a bulletproof vest, which is illegal for people with prior felony convictions.
In fact, Mr. Jones was due in a Queens courtroom on Jan. 2, to be arraigned on crack cocaine possession charges. “Russell Jones, for some reason, seems to get in trouble a lot, for a lot of silly reasons,” Mr. Frankel said.
The root of the rapper’s problems has been an unfortunate struggle with drugs, Mr. Frankel said, for which Mr. Jones has been treated several times. “The perception of him as a gun-toting thug–look, I don’t want to ruin his image, but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “He does some silly things sometimes, and he opens his mouth sometimes when he shouldn’t–but as far as being a violent person, it’s not him.”
Alas, not every New York lawyer has a client with a moniker like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Mr. Frankel was asked how he refers to Mr. Jones and his Wu-Tang clients when he does business.
“I call them all sorts of different things,” Mr. Frankel said. “The last of which is probably their real name.”
When the members of Swoon.com, Condé Nast’s “dating, mating and relating” Web site, recently opened their e-mailboxes, hoping for billets-doux from secret admirers, they were blindsided by a terse Dear John letter instead.
“As of January 1, 2001, the Personals will be gone from Swoon, permanently,” read an e-mail from the Web site’s editors. “That means you have less than a week to use the service, after which point all communication through Swoon will be completely cut off. Make whatever arrangements you feel necessary with online flames, both old and new.”
Swoon’s e-lonelyhearts, curiously legion here in New York, were crestfallen. “At first I actually thought [the e-mail] might be part of a clever ruse by my mother,” Karen Lewis, a 31-year-old architect from Park Slope, said a short while after the Web site broke the bad news. “I’m sad. I like Swoon. I like the anonymity.”
Ms. Lewis, who had been on several dates with men she had met on Swoon, said that part of the Web site’s appeal was its charmingly retro style. “It’s a real bitch to add photos,” she explained. “You need to know HTML, so almost no one has photos, which levels the playing field and forces you to be more literate.”
Others turned to the lovelorn surfers on the Condé Nast site to provide a cheap, albeit empty, ego boost–like a quick fling at a college friend’s wedding. “I used it most when I was feeling really depressed, like when I was unemployed,” said a 29-year-old MTV writer, who asked that his name not be used. “I’d update my profile like six times a day, trying to see what would get the most responses.” For example, when he wrote that he kept Tom Waits and OutKast on his CD player, hardly anyone responded, he said. But when he wrote that he liked Britney Spears, he was flooded.
“I didn’t so much want to meet the people who wrote me,” the MTV writer admitted. “It was more about making myself feel better or worse.”
For those looking for actual dates, Swoon had its drawbacks. “Eric,” a D.J. from Brooklyn, said he once received a flirty “Let’s have a drink” e-mail from a surfer named “badideajeans” on a Friday afternoon. “But I had already gone home for the weekend and didn’t get to read her letter until Monday,” he said. “By then, it was too late–she had already disappeared into the ether.”
Eric had scurried online to send e-mails to 10 different women before the New Year’s Day deadline, but he was pessimistic. “When I come back from work after the holiday, my mailbox will probably be full of letters from women whose e-mail addresses are no longer valid,” he grumbled. “And at least seven of those girls were the girl of my dreams!”
Elsewhere Swoonophiles made alternative plans. Ms. Lewis, the architect, has turned to Jdate.com, a Jewish personals site recommended by (surprise!) her mother. “The last time I was single, I checked it out, and the men’s profiles could not have been more boring–you know, like ‘I like walks on the beach’ and stuff,” Ms. Lewis said. “But I went back again not long ago, after breaking up with my boyfriend, and the quality had vastly improved.” Breaking up, at least on the Web, doesn’t seem as hard to do.