For musicians, having a hot album is difficult. Staying hot is nearly impossible. • This week, rapper Plies, who splits his time between Tampa and Fort Myers, released his third album in 16 months, Da REAList. His June CD, Definition of Real, sold 215,000 in its first week to debut at No. 2, and the suits at Atlantic Records have even higher expectations for this disc. • Plies graces the cover of this month's Vibe magazine, which declares him the future of rap. But securing a future in rap tomorrow means working your tail off today. It means sacrificing sleep for days at a time. It means saying yes to requests from every radio station, autograph seeker and newspaper possible. • On Dec. 16, the day Da REAList dropped, tbt* shadowed Plies (a.k.a. Algernod Lanier Washington, 32) for a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to launch a hit record. Here's the play-by-play.
Tuesday, 8:35 a.m. The elevator door opens to the Wild 98.7-FM lobby in St. Petersburg. Plies, dressed in a dark blue shirt, dark jeans and a custom Cleveland Indians cap (Chief Wahoo's gold grill matches his own), steps out accompanied by two bodyguards dressed in black, a buddy he keeps close by, two label reps and a manager whose job is to keep him on schedule. The security team will grow throughout the day.
8:38 a.m. Orlando, 98.7's programming director and host of Orlando and the Freak Show, announces on air, "Plies is in the building." In a live interview, the rapper discusses his love of his 5-year-old son, his compassion for imprisoned people — including his brother, musician Big Gates — his beef with megastar T-Pain and the death of his grandmother a few days ago. Orlando marvels at Plies' prolific career. "This train is going to stop eventually," Plies says. "And unfortunately in life, it stops when you least need it to stop." Morning news director Navaho reads messages people have texted into the studio's computer: plz tell plies I am his #1 fan and I called in sik for wk just to cop his cd 2day. ... plies baby can i take you out on a date please? ... please tell plies i am so sorry about his grandma. Plies, who's been awake since 5 a.m. Monday, nurses a McDonald's sweet tea. He tells callers, "I love you for loving me," and wishes them an early merry Christmas. Asleep on a corner couch is Plies' buddy, a lanky guy who goes by Chuck D. He's the rapper's longtime friend, whose job is to cut the rapper's hair and keep his spirits up during the grueling schedule. They were in New York City until late last night, Chuck D says, so Plies could film an appearance on BET's 106 and Park. "But you ain't supposed to know that," Chuck says. "It's supposed to be live today."
10:09 a.m. Plies is due at 95.7-FM The Beat on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa at noon, but tour manager Byron Trice announces an impromptu trip to University Mall, 33 miles out of their way. Plies and company need new outfits for the album release party later that night at Studio Inc nightclub in Tampa. "That's me," Plies says. "I'm unorganized to the fullest." Case in point: The date on his iced-out watch reads the 28th. Today is the 16th. "I at least should know that date," Plies says, and winds the numbers. The guys pile into a 15-passenger white Ford van. Plies sits alone in the last row, chatting with more radio stations from his BlackBerry.
10:40 a.m. The van parks in a fire lane at the back of University Mall, and the guys enter the back door of Harold Penner menswear. Still doing phone interviews, Plies points to a pair of $160 Jordans. "I want this," he says. Store manager Amy Wright grabs a Size 9, as well as a tan Coogi jacket and Size 34 Coogi jeans. Plies likes the outfit and asks Wright to take it down from display to prevent future customers from stealing his look. She doesn't.
10:56 a.m. Plies' BlackBerry goes off. "Let me take this call," he says. "This my brother from prison."
11:07 a.m. Deciding to look for more clothes and say "hi" to some shop owners he knows, Plies does something he'd been trying to avoid: He walks through the mall.
11:20 a.m. The shoppers are on to him. Two girls on an escalator call his name. Every 10 feet or so, someone stops Plies for a picture, and he always obliges. Girls hide in clothing racks and leave frantic voice-mail messages for friends: "Bitch, wake up out your bed. Plies is in the mall!"
11:37 a.m. After paying cash for $307.05 worth of shoes at Champs Sports, Plies and his posse return to Harold Penner, where store manager Wright has rung up their selections for a total of $2,445.90. Again, Plies pays cash. Wright, who has been a consummate professional throughout Plies' visit, pulls out a copy of his new album. "Can you make this out to my daughter, Alexis?" she says.
11:50 a.m. Back in the mall parking lot, Plies is due at 95.7-FM The Beat in 10 minutes. But instead of heading for the station, the driver makes a U-turn on Fowler Avenue and pulls into the Jerk Hut. Plies stays in the van while a few of the guys order him brown stew chicken, white rice and fruit punch, plus food for themselves.
12:39 p.m. The van arrives at 95.7-FM The Beat, where Plies films an interview for the station's Web site. He also records separate Q&As with deejays Stu and Coka-Lani, who play up the night's album release party at Studio Inc. "I want everybody to feel special tonight." Plies tells Coka-Lani. "I want to put people in a position where they can really understand how much I appreciate their support."
1:34 p.m. Plies and his entourage depart for a Lee Roy Selmon's parking lot in New Tampa, where a bus is waiting to drive them to appearances in Fort Myers. While the crew loads the bus, Plies manages to slip away on his own. The bodyguards, dressed in black, stand in the parking lot, wiping their brows with white hand towels.
3:07 p.m. Plies drives up in a black Mercury Montego. Everyone piles onto the bus and the driver heads for Fort Myers, 153 miles away. The schedule has him there at 4 p.m.
5:38 p.m. The bus arrives at WXKB-FM, a Top 40 station in Fort Myers. Ten listeners who'd won a "Pies with Plies" promotion have been waiting for him in a conference room since 3:30 p.m., surrounded by boxes of cold CiCi's pizza. Plies records a radio interview and spends 10 minutes snapping photos with the contest winners. They say it was worth the wait.
5:50 p.m. The bus heads a few miles away to FYE music, where about 300 fans have lined up in the store for autographs and pictures with Plies. Four Fort Myers police officers help his bodyguards with crowd control. When Plies enters through an employee break-room door, the girls shriek. "He's so sexy," says 13-year-old Gabby McDonald. "That's going to be my future husband," says her friend, 14-year-old Marissa Monroe. Plies obliges all the requests for hugs, pictures and autographs, while his mother and some hometown friends stand behind him, beaming.
7:44 p.m. The cops shoo everyone from the sidewalk so Plies can exit. Three police cars escort the bus safely to I-75, where Plies and the crew nosh on fresh pizza en route back to Tampa.
Wednesday, 12:13 a.m. Parking at Studio Inc overflows into an adjacent shopping center. Guys in their best hata blockers and women in their shortest shorts and highest heels flash their IDs at the red-carpet VIP entrance. A security guard puts the crowd estimate at 1,000.
12:46 a.m. On stage are more security guards, a trio of scantily clad dancers hired by the club and an ice sculpture that reads "Plies Da REAList." Deejays spin Beyonce and Busta Rhymes while the evening's emcee, Stu from 95.7 The Beat, entertains the crowd with small talk.
12:56 a.m. Atlantic Records promoter Johnny Coscia has "no idea" why Plies hasn't entered the building yet, but he's almost certain people who paid the $20 to $50 admission will be dissatisfied with what happens when the artist finally does show up. "None of the advertising said there was going to be a performance tonight," Coscia says.
1:53 a.m. To the tune of Akon's Hypnotized, Plies walks on stage wearing his new threads from University Mall. Women shriek. "I want to thank 95.7 The Beat," Plies says to the crowd. Then, "I ain't going to talk your head off, but the best muthaf---ing album is in stores right now — Da REAList."
1:56 a.m. Plies exits the stage. The spotlight dims. The fans look around, confused.
2:12 a.m. Plies and his entourage exit the building and re-enter through a side door into the "VIP VIP room," where men pour Hennessy, Moet and Crown Royal for the club's elite guests. As the crowd sings along to the new album, Plies holds up a clear plastic cup of something brown, struggling to look as excited as everyone around him. He hasn't slept in 45 hours, save for naps on the road, and his eyes are vacant.
2:24 a.m. Organizers clear off the drink table, and a model in a black bikini lies down on it. Club staff pass out sliced fruit and cans of whipped cream, and the partiers turn the model into a human buffet. A woman licks whipped cream off her midriff. A man uses a strawberry to swipe some from her cleavage. Everyone nods, egging him on. In the midst of the diversion, Plies and his crew are nowhere to be found. He's slipped out of the club and into a Rolls-Royce Phantom that awaited him in the parking lot. Inside the club, the fans raise their bottles of Moet and Crown Royal, oblivious.
For behind-the-scenes photos of Plies, go to entertainment.tampabay.com