NEW YORK - The rapper DMX is a self-described "hood and a fiend." Put him in front of an interviewer, and things can go awry. Sarcastic responses, foul language or, worse, details about the stabbings and shootings he's been connected with over the years. Sometimes, even the hardest man in hip-hop needs a little polishing around the edges. That's where Angelo Ellerbee comes in.
Ellerbee runs a charm school, though he's not too fond of the term. But it's a fairly accurate description of what he provides for some of the rap and R&B; world's elite, including DMX, Mary J. Blige and Fabolous.
His New York-based company, Double XXposure, promises to teach everything from media management to image development to the finer points of social etiquette, elocution and poise. Musicians learn how to work their way through formal dinners with record label executives, negotiate an interview and hold a conversation with strangers. Good manners and etiquette, in Ellerbee's opinion, help the musicians "stay in the race" of the music business.
In an industry where "street cred" is key and musicians often trade on their images as "thugs" and "gangstas," Ellerbee might seem like a throwback to a more genteel era. But considering the rough environment from which many of his clients come, Ellerbee says, he's simply providing them with the tools they need to get ahead.
"They're entering the business with absolutely no guidance," Ellerbee says, in a tone that's a cross between a trusted older brother and a stern high school teacher. "Once they make it big, their life is not their own any more. Most executives aren't interested in the artists or their careers. They're just looking for the next hit."
He claims to offer an antidote to the cutthroat nature of the music industry. "I want to be a part of their progress," both through the business and whatever follows their music careers.
When he came up with the idea to teach basic manners to rap musicians 15 years ago, "I was laughed at to my face," he says. Now he charges up to $250 per hour and has plans for a London office.
Ellerbee begins a typical relationship by giving his clients books to gauge their reading skills and motivation. It also teaches them the importance of careful study in their own business - reading a recording contract, for instance. "It's like going back to high school for them," he says with a laugh.
In the one-on-one sessions that follow, Ellerbee focuses on the details, ordering his clients to rise when a woman enters the room, or to keep their arms off the table during a meal. To prepare them for their first major interviews, Ellerbee will play the role of the aggressive interviewer, coaching the musicians through gracious, charming responses. He doesn't tolerate incorrect diction or rudeness. It's a lesson of tough love that his street-wise clients don't always want to hear, and he often encounters resistance, especially from what he calls "the changing of the guard" in hip-hop.
Ellerbee's lessons can also help a musician recover from bad publicity or a run-in with the law. Ray Copeland, DMX's manager, has worked with Ellerbee for four years, planning the next move after the rapper's latest legal battle.
"These musicians are under a microscope," Copeland says. With Ellerbee's guidance, they can "put a human face on their career."