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Wednesday, June 25, 2008 01:31 pm

The Rico Act

Springfield’s teenagers say there was nothing to do here — until he came along.

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Just past midnight on a chilly February night, Club Chrome is heating up. The nightclub on Springfield’s south side is packed to the gills with teenagers clad in myriad shades of red, yellow, and green; the spacious dance floor has been transformed into an ersatz exercise studio as young women and girls — and a handful of boys — wiggle, twist, pop, shake, and bounce to the beats of DJ Rico P. Rico has asked that single-and-ready-to-mingle guests of his Stoplight Party, held days before Valentine’s Day, wear green. Those only interested in friendship are to don yellow. Couples and partygoers involved in committed relationships should be in red and therefore in theory off limits to romantic advances. Instead of turntables, Rico uses his Dell laptop, loaded with software that allows him to mix, scratch, and fade just as the original practitioners of the Bronx-born art form did. Periodically he leaves the DJ booth for pictures and to mingle with his hundreds of guests. Some of them have traveled from Decatur, Bloomington, Peoria, and the Metro East, rolling three or four cars deep, just for the chance to attend one of Rico’s now-legendary Springfield parties. Many of them spend as much as $200 on this single event in their efforts to dress to impress. To the uninitiated, the frenzied crowd of 15- to 20-year-olds seems to teeter on the brink of chaos, capable of blowing the roof off at any moment. They are, in fact, simply letting off steam. With all the trappings of modern teenage life — schoolwork, college entrance exams, extracurricular activities, nagging parents, and the delicate matter of arranging one’s Top Friends list — young people want and need to unwind just as much as adults do.
But in Springfield, and surrounding cities, teens have few safe options for those times when they need to cut loose and get crunk. House parties, replete with alcohol, dope, and sex, are an unfortunate but common alternative. Some young people chill out on vacant lots or cruise in traffic — long trains of vehicles meandering through the streets of Springfield late at night — until the cops shoo them away or the scene devolves into fistfights or worse. Rico Perkins saw the need. A few years ago the self-described former nerd cut his hair, danced his way to hippest-kid-in-school status, and threw a party for his friends. Since that first success Rico has become one of the most popular promoters for Springfield’s under-21 crowd in memory.
Rico’s army of admirers includes members of both sexes and spans central Illinois. Through meticulous planning, intensive marketing efforts, and the kind of personal attention to customer service that many American businesses lost years ago, the 19-year-old is slowly establishing himself as a brand. Be it eschewing invitations to lend his name to other promoters’ events or agonizing over the perfect digital image for use on a custom airbrushed backdrop, Rico takes the management of his brand very seriously. “I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure now — but, like, today I was going back and forth trying to decide: ‘Should I get dressed up just to go to the barber shop?’ ” Rico says. He is sporting a smoothly pressed lemon-yellow polo shirt, and a diamond stud adorns his left earlobe. It soon becomes clear that he’s not being conceited, either. As he sits next to his mother, Peggy Perkins, in a booth at Cheddar’s, where the family eats supper once a week, a passing waitress asks Rico when his next party will be, then offers to place a stack of fliers in the restaurant. Similar scenes play out wherever he goes, Rico explains, almost blushing. Later a girl of about 15, dining with friends, spots Rico from across the restaurant and whispers in disbelief: “Oh my God — look, there goes Rico!”

Rico’s parties, which he began hosting in 2006, when he was still in high school, are so widely praised simply because they provide something to do. That may not sound like much of a compliment — after all, watching grass grow is something to do — but in a city that has seen entertainment options for teenagers come and go faster than tour groups at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, having something to do is a big deal. There have been several attempts over the years. Total Eclipse, located on Toronto Road, stood as the area’s only teen dance club for three years until local, state, and federal law enforcement officials initiated a drug sting in 2001. Several years later Club 10, a popular teen haunt on North Bradfordton Road, was shut down because the owners had not obtained zoning approval for use as a live-music venue [see Todd Spivak, “Unplugged,” July 29, 2004]. Today the Black Sheep Café, in Springfield’s old South Town neighborhood, is a beacon for teenaged adherents to the so-called straightedge lifestyle, characterized by abstention from drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol and a love of punk rock. Kevin Bradford, who owns the Black Sheep, has fought several minor battles in the three years the venue has been in business. In 2005, building-code violations threatened to keep the Black Sheep from opening. Recently a resident complained about Black Sheep patrons’ parking and “partying” in neighbors’ alleys. Bradford, 25, says those issues have been resolved. He’s just focused on giving kids an outlet through which they can express themselves, he says. “The city pretty much leaves us alone. I think because they realize we’re trying to do something positive for the kids. It’s easy to pick on kids — they’re easy targets. I think people are afraid of kids just having fun and expressing themselves. Anything that isn’t mainstream is looked at with suspicion,” Bradford says. Activities are even more limited for the members of the demographic who are likely to attend a Rico party — young fans of rap music and hip-hop dances. Springfield’s MC R-Two the Second, né Ryne Goodrich, also understands the challenges of trying to introduce something unfamiliar to Springfield. Five years ago, he says, when he first started rhyming, there was no hip-hop scene in Springfield. By persuading club owners to allow him to spit a few verses once a month and opening for heavy metal bands, R-Two and his peers helped establish a now solid hip-hop community. R-Two, who works at Grant Middle School, says he sees the same the same kind of determination in Rico and has overheard excited youngsters discussing Rico’s parties. Such success and notoriety have brought problems, however. As Rico’s events have increased in popularity and sheer numbers, he’s struggled to find places that can accommodate the hordes of close to 1,000 kids that he normally attracts. Bigger venues call for larger deposits, more security, additional promotion, and more work for Rico. A city ordinance proposed this spring, limiting the number of under-21 events a particular venue may hold to three per year, was prompted in part by concerns over kids’ cruising the streets of Springfield on the same nights as Rico parties. The plan, put forth by Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who said at the time that she wanted to improve the image of her ward, would have affected just one establishment, Chrome. It failed by an overwhelming majority. Springfield Police Chief Ralph Caldwell reported to the City Council that “normally the problems aren’t inside” but crop up, rather, when partygoers spill out of the venue. Caldwell went on to acknowledge that “the double edge of the sword is, you don’t have a lot of places where kids can go.”
Rico P. presents: Pre-New Years Eve Extravaganza

The club’s owner, Neil Patel, invited aldermen to tour his club, which he makes available to several all-ages promoters. Patel says he’s overcome several barriers since he’s owned the business, including a seven-year-long fight to obtain a 3 a.m. liquor permit, which he says he would never put in jeopardy. He notes that his bar is cordoned off during all-ages events and that, as a result, he’s never received a citation for underage liquor sales. So far this year, he’s held 15 all-ages events; last year there were 31 such events at Chrome.
Patel says the controversy his club sometimes attracts is worth the hassle if it means making things easier for the next generation of young promoters and club owners. “I grew up here, and I grew up saying, ‘Damn there’s nothing to do,’ ” Patel says. “I started DJing at 15 and said after college I’d come back and open a club. That’s why I don’t mind doing all-ages shows.”

His fans all say the same thing, more or less: Ain’t no party like a Rico party. Rico holds his events once every couple of months, on average. He spaces them out so they don’t conflict with his coursework at the University of Illinois at Springfield where he’s majoring in business and minoring in communications. The long intervals also build anticipation and ensure a large turnout. Rico’s marketing strategy is basic but effective: A Miami company designs and prints 5,000 brightly colored 4-by-6-inch glossy fliers and 20 posters, then ships them to Springfield, where they are distributed at the salons, barbershops, nail studios, and clothing stores where people who attend his parties are likely to see them. The flier also serves as the background of his MySpace page, through which Rico sends out two or three reminders per day, as well as personal page comments. People appreciate that Rico begins promoting at least one month in advance, making it possible for them to save or budget accordingly. Tickets to the parties average $10 if you buy them at the door. Girls can pay $20 for one of the prized high-visibility spots up onstage. Advance tickets are sold at a discount. Rico is willing to personally deliver them or make himself available for a short period at a particular location for anyone who wants to come to him and buy tickets. He declines to disclose how the money is split between himself and the venue or what he pays in upfront, out-of-pocket expenses, such as security. In addition to 12 to 15 private security guards, one or two off-duty Springfield police officers are always present, and sometimes an SPD traffic detail is parked outside the party. Most Springfield high schools and Illinois prisons don’t offer as much security, relatively speaking. Darren Severado, whose firm FKZ, or Fat Kidz, provides security services for several Springfield bars and private parties, such as those hosted by Rico, says that when tempers do flare his guys defuse the situation quickly, escorting the rowdies from party one at a time. Hair picks, straight combs, pepper spray, and all outside drinks, no matter how innocuous, are verboten. Bouncers keep an eye on the dance floor, where most problems occur, often when young ladies bump into one another as they gyrate. Severado takes other precautions to keep things from getting too heated. “If you come in there almost naked, I’m going to tell you to go home,” he says. He also requests that Rico not play certain songs that contain violent lyrics. As for other songs that are popular with kids but to adult ears are the musical equivalent of sitting in the passenger seat while teaching a teenager to drive, Severado, a former MP in the Army, says he simply can’t tolerate it. “More times than not I have earplugs in,” he says. Clearly part of the party’s appeal is that the vibe is so unappealing to anybody over, say, the age of 23 — or anybody born before Krush Groove hit the theaters — and for fans of the Rico party, if you’re not there you’re square. Larry Hinds, who recently moved to Springfield from Illiopolis, has attended several Rico events. “The day of a Rico party, everybody I call says, ‘I’m going to that Rico party.’ Sometimes I’ll tell myself I’m not going and I’ll call my friends to go see a new movie or something. They’re all going to Rico’s party, and they’ll convince me I need to come out,” Hinds says. On the night of a Rico party, 17-year-old Katana Wilder meets up with about 15 friends at a Decatur filling station around 10 p.m., after which their caravan of three or four vehicles proceeds to Springfield. Wilder, who works at a Decatur hospital and spends approximately $150 for each party she attends, says she appreciates that Rico gets the word out early enough to plan the perfect outfit. As excessive as the amount seems, what Wilder shells out is average for female attendees: new clothes, shoes, a fresh hairstyle, nails, and, of course, a ticket. Fellas, who prefer to wear high-priced sneakers and top off their ensembles with matching ball caps, often spend more than the ladies — as much as $200. Boys and girls both guffaw at the idea of arriving in anything less than all-brand-new clothes. Some do their shopping in St. Louis to avoid the horror of arriving at the party in the same outfit as someone else. However, the main attraction is, without a doubt, the music. Rico previously paid someone to spin, but after guests complained that one DJ played too many old songs, such as Lil John’s “Snap Ya Fingers,” from 2006, Rico invested in a software program and learned to do it himself. People just respond better to him, he discovered. Right when the crowd gets amped up, he’ll slip in a twangy country & western tune or the Barney theme song — and the crowd loves it. Gary Wilson, 16, a friend of Rico’s younger brother, Emilio, puts it succinctly: “The parties be crackin’ because everybody be there, the music is right, the DJ is on point, and the atmosphere is on point.”
Wilson is typical of the young men in that he prefers to “get his sway on,” as opposed to dancing, unless he’s being juked, when a girl performs a series of frenetic dance moves, often bumping or grinding against her male partner. The juking is sometimes so intense that a couple of the young man’s friends must provide physical support to keep him from falling down. Twenty-one-year-old Letoyia Snow, who attends Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and is on the older end of the spectrum for fans of the parties, says she prefers them to the stuffed-shirt environs of 21-and-over clubs. Songs focused on the female posterior, such as “Donk” by 17-year-old Souljah Boy, seem to really get the crowd moving. Rico’s playlist includes both hot new rap songs — the Pop It Off Boyz’s “Crank Dat Batman,” Webbie’s “Independent,” Lil Wayne’s remix to “Lollipop” — and never-before-heard cuts. He also plays what he characterizes as old-school jams, such as “Back That Thing Up,” released by Juvenile in 1999. For couples who want to slow dance, he also throws a little R&B (e.g., Usher’s “Love in This Club” remix) into the mix. Rico’s personal tastes tend to be more refined. When he’s alone he likes to listen to music from the New Jack Swing era of the early 1990s, he says. For younger crowds — Rico was hired to last year DJ a dance at his alma mater, Southeast High School — he plays clean versions of songs. “Sometimes I don’t want to hear all that ‘girls shaking their butts’ stuff,” he says, then shrugs, “but at parties I play what the kids want to hear.”

Six-foot-two, lean, and handsome, Rico exudes quiet confidence. Part of it stems from the love, support, and watchful eye of his mother, Peggy. She thoroughly vetted each of her sons’ prospective playmates and isn’t ashamed to say that Rico’s childhood, spent growing up on the northeast side near Clearlake Avenue, was sheltered. Rico wasn’t a jock — he was into books, she says proudly, just as her eldest son reaches over to wipe away a dollop of salad dressing that has dripped onto her cell phone, as she rattles off Rico’s academic accomplishments. “I was a kid that wasn’t popular at all. I got bullied. I would come home crying, saying, ‘These guys are picking on me,’ ” Rico recounts. Something happened around the time that he shaved his mop top. Under all that hair was a pretty boy, and girls started liking him. Rico had another ace up his sleeve to solidify his burgeoning popularity: He was known around school, he says, as “the white boy that can dance” (though, Peggy interjects, he’s actually multiracial.) Rico put his popularity to the test during his senior year at Southeast High School, hosting a homecoming-dance afterparty. Even after months of planning, he was a nervous wreck. He’d distributed thousands of fliers, which he designed himself using his school’s computers, hired a DJ and security detail, and put down a $250 deposit to rent Skateland North for the evening Even longtime friends such as Erica Hill say that Rico’s foray into the world of hip-hop party promoting came as a surprise: “When we first saw the first flier, we were like, ‘Rico? Really?’ ”
Aside from the fact that Rico would lose his deposit unless 50 people showed up and rented skates, the embarrassment of facing his schoolmates on Monday should the party be poorly attended would have crushed the 18-year-old’s fragile ego. The high-school dance ended at 11 o’clock. Rico’s skating party was scheduled to commence at midnight. Within the first half-hour Rico ensured that he would get the full deposit returned. Hill says the line outside was so long that she feared that she might not get inside. Rico estimates that close to 700 teenagers from all corners of Springfield, so many that the rink ran out of skates to rent, attended the first party.
Peggy has remained, at Rico’s insistence, a constant presence at the parties, usually standing at the door to take tickets. So many partygoers’ parents and relatives are friends of Peggy’s that the parties have the feel of a middle-school birthday party. Rico’s dad, Frank Perkins, takes pictures and Emilio, his kid brother, also helps out. Extroverted though Rico may be at his parties, in real life he still shows flashes of the quiet, shy kid he used to be. For example, he has more than 2,200 MySpace friends but fewer than 200 contacts stored in his iPhone. When one of his parties ends, usually around 1 a.m., Rico prefers hanging out with his family to cruising around in traffic with people from the party. “The parties have given me a lot of confidence. The respect I get — all of that created this confident person,” Rico says. Rico’s supporters credit him with everything from bolstering the local economy to saving lives. Carleston Acres, 19, says that if it weren’t for Rico’s parties there might be more violence in Springfield. “Me and my friends, if we’re not at a Rico party we meet up at [Southeast High School’s] parking lot and play our music real loud. We make our own party and it’s free. At least at his parties it’s in a building, there’s security, everyone is safe,” Acres says. Acres, like most people who attend the parties, has been to nearly all of them. Erica Hill has missed just one, when she had the flu, and even then she tried to go before her mom put the kibosh on her plans. It just goes to show, Hill says, that “his parties are such a big deal because there’s nothing to do except for City Tournament or the [Illinois State] fair. You get to see people you don’t see often, people who go to different schools. There’ve been times when people have talked about taking limos.”
Down the road, Rico says he might like to work as an event planner or even open a nightclub. His dream job, he says, would be to host the BET show 106th and Park — but that would mean he could no longer do the Springfield party thing. His fans question the idea of life in Springfield without Rico parties. Major Clay, a former track standout at Lanphier High School who attends college in Indiana, says that if Rico stops what he’s doing, life for local teenagers would be “miserable.”
Jessica Ollie, who attends UIS, sums up how important Rico’s trademark events have become for members of her generation in Springfield: “They’re really fun. There’s always a lot of people there; there’s good music; it’s just a good place to be,” she says. “Even the parents know Rico. Everybody knows he’s the one that throws the parties. It’s a major event. It’s become a tradition.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.


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