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Francois Baptiste's ability to multi-task rivals that of an air-traffic controller. It's 6:30 p.m. Thursday, February 17, the first official night of All-Star weekend, and I'm sitting in the passenger seat of his silver Range Rover as we barrel down Speer Boulevard en route to his apartment. Baptiste has one hand on the steering wheel, while the other holds a two-way up to his ear; he's also speaking into a headset dangling from his other ear that leads to a cell phone resting on his lap. And then a commercial comes on KS-107.5 hyping tonight's event -- Jermaine Dupri's Welcome to Denver party, the first in a series of events that Baptiste and his 3 Deep Productions team, along with hometown heroes Big Jon Platt and Chauncey Billups, have put together.
"This is bananas," he says, looking over as he reaches to turn up the radio. "Talking on two phones and driving. I hope I'm not scaring you too bad."
Baptiste has agreed to let me shadow him all weekend so that I can see from a promoter's perspective what it takes to pull off something of this magnitude. It's been 21 years since Denver hosted an NBA All-Star game, and since then, the event has exploded into the world's largest hip-hop party.
We pull up to Baptiste's place, a modest one-bedroom walkup in Lowry Estates, sparsely decorated with a couple of framed Maurice Evans prints and a small love seat positioned in front of a wide-screen TV. Baptiste has only a few minutes to get cleaned up before he has to be at Vinyl. "Want to see some history?" he asks, handing over a small photo flip book to keep me occupied while he's in the shower. "This is where it all started."
Over the years, Baptiste has worked with all of these artists, either through House of Blues, where he holds down a day gig, or on his own with 3 Deep, a company he launched in the early '90s with Alvin LaCabe and Kevin Henderson shortly after he moved from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to attend the University of Colorado. Since his days promoting house parties in Boulder, he's been involved in some of the most high-profile events to hit Denver. Still, one luminary's face is conspicuously missing from the book -- that of a certain Bad Boy who happens to be the guest of honor at the two back-to-back soirées 3 Deep is hosting this weekend at the Church.
The scale of these events is not lost on Baptiste. "This is the defining moment of my career," he confides on his way back downtown. As we pull up to the club, Baptiste hands his keys to the valet and shifts into overdrive. Emile Baptiste, his brother, who heads up the 3 Deep street team, stops Baptiste at the entrance to ask about an emergency addition to the guest list. "Walk and talk," Francois says, heading into Vinyl. "Walk and talk." He rushes through the club, making sure everything is in order, then heads downstairs to quiz the doormen about the correct prices and protocols for interacting with VIPs.
The doors are slated to open in less than an hour. Baptiste assembles the club's security staff in the main arena, so Mitch Bullock, a professional security consultant with Gotchaback Security, can brief them. Bullock's toured with a number of national acts and has imported a trio of East and West Coast-based peacekeepers -- the uni-monikered Mo, Marco and Juice, who look like moonlighting neck-breakers from the NFL. "This will be like nothing you've ever experienced," Bullock says. "You give a little bit, but you take none. And you also have to be polite, because once alcohol gets in the system, everybody's a killer. The main thing is: Have a presence. Any little thing you can think of could possibly happen. You will be tested in every way possible.
"This first night," he continues, "you have to set an example. Once it's over and it's on the radio tomorrow, they'll say, 'Oh, it turned out perfect, no problems; it was great.' That's what you want."
That's certainly what Baptiste and his team, including Brad Roulier and Melissa Kowalski, want. They keep making the rounds of the club, and then, just before the doors open, Regas Christou, who's provided the venues for this weekend's shindigs, makes a couple of last-minute adjustments.
All the effort is worth it, because the night runs smoothly. When Dupri arrives with his entourage around midnight, the security team whisks him to the VIP area. He doesn't stay there for long; instead, Dupri joins Kid Capri in the DJ booth, where he assumes the role of hype man. They're soon joined by Allen Iverson and Fabolous, who turns in a white-hot freestyle performance.
As the house lights come on a little before 2 a.m., Baptiste finally lets up a little. Over the course of the evening, he's slowed down only briefly to buy a few shots of Patrón for his friends. And while he'd warned me of the frenzied pace, I wish I'd brought my inhaler -- or at least put in some time on the StairMaster.
By Friday evening, I've recovered enough to rejoin Baptiste at Vinyl, which is now transformed into a mini-studio for the private TNT/Stuff magazine party, which is being televised. A fifty-foot red carpet has been laid down in front of the club for celebrity VIPs, Charles Barkley among them. Baptiste seems a little more at ease tonight, likely because this party and the East Meets West bash, featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire across the street at Serengeti, belong to other promoters. Even so, Baptiste helped organize them, so he bounces back and forth between the venues.
By the time we make it to Serengeti, the place is jammed. Shortly after Shaq makes his exit around midnight, Iverson, Russell Simmons and Ludacris stroll through the front door, bookended by their bodyguards. Folks lined up three deep outside press against the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse. I lose Baptiste in the crowd and gratefully call it a night.
On Saturday, I head over to the Loews Denver to reconnect. Both here and at the Hotel Monaco -- where Baptiste earlier hashed out some party details with DJ Enuff -- XM stations are set to all hip-hop and R&B, all the time. As I survey the lobby -- what city are we in, anyway? -- Baptiste steps out of the elevator. He's soon followed by Hiriam Hicks, P. Diddy's manager and a legend in his own right. Tonight's event, P. Diddy's Diamonds & Fur party, has been a year in the making, and Baptiste wants to take a dry run to the Church to make sure everything's set for Diddy.
Once again, I'm riding shotgun -- but someone else is driving the Lincoln Town Car, with Hicks and a few others following in a black Cadillac Escalade. Baptiste is sitting in back with members of Diddy's crew, listening to Diddy's interview on KS-107.5. As usual, he's on the phone, coordinating our arrival. After haggling over the best way to make our entrance, he decides we should go in through the back. Unfortunately, the police have other plans; the alley is blocked off. I step out of the car and ask the officers to clear the way.
"I'm with Puffy Combs's party," I say, tripping over the words as I realize the absurdity of what I'm saying, "and we need to get through."
No dice. The boys in blue have been told to keep the alley clear. Baptiste keeps his cool and makes a quick decision: We'll enter through the side, where we encounter minor pandemonium. Now I understand why Baptiste chose to make a dry run: I can't imagine Diddy being subjected to this madness.
Inside the Church, the energy is overwhelming. Bullock and his crew usher us into the VIP area, and we make our way upstairs to the VIP room where Diddy will hold court. As Baptiste and Hicks make a few final adjustments, I look over the assembled throng, which includes Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. At this moment, the Church is not only the best room in Denver, but the finest room in the country.
Out front, Ludacris is being frisked by security. "That's Ludacris," Baptiste vouches, with a nod. "He's cool." A few minutes later, Busta Rhymes rolls up and poses for a quick photo with Baptiste. It's the first time I've seen Baptiste remotely starstruck all weekend.
Back inside, Baptiste and I pause for a photo with boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., and then it's back to the alley: Diddy is T-minus three minutes away. Big Jon Platt rolls up in a double-breasted suit and heads in through the back door. Baptiste advises me to follow him. The hallway has been locked down in anticipation of Diddy's arrival, and Platt is having some difficulty gaining access. "That's Big Jon," I say, taking a cue from Baptiste. "He's cool, man."
Just moments later, Diddy makes his entrance -- and is upstairs with Baptiste and his entourage before anybody really notices. But then, as if on cue, the stairway leading to the VIP area turns into chaos. Each time Baptiste emerges, people start clawing at him. A guy with frosted hair and sunglasses who claims to be one of the Maloofs starts jocking him to gain access; he's with an older man who he says is Tony Bennett, as well as two females. Diddy spends about an hour in the VIP room before he makes his exit. This time, everyone is ready, and flashbulbs go off like crazy. Then, just like that, he's gone, taking with him the party's momentum and leaving behind utter pandemonium outside the Church.
The next time I speak with Baptiste, it's Monday afternoon. Sunday night went pretty much like Saturday, only with more celebrities. Baptiste is exhausted, but pleased with the weekend. "I think everybody needs to be credited equally for their part," he says, singing the praises of everyone from Hicks, Platt and Billups to Regas and Steve Christou, Roulier, Kowalski, La Cabe, Henderson and his brother Emile. "There's no slouching part in this event, you know what I'm saying? You saw how crazy it was. I might as well have just shot myself before I began if I thought I could've done this all by myself. I couldn't. There's no way. And that's one thing I've really learned: You have to really micro-manage, and you have to delegate.
"And Chauncey did his thing, with just being a part of it. As big of a star as he is, he gave his name to the events. And Big Jon is just -- I think everybody knows, he's the man. A lot of people don't know about Denver, promoters, clubs and the scene. Chauncey and Big Jon were kind of like the official stamp of like, 'Yes, go here. Yes, go there.' They're solid people. And in this day and age in the music business, there's not a lot of that."
Although Baptiste finally has Diddy's mug in his flip book, he's far from finished. "Shit," he says. "Put me on The Apprentice. I'm guaranteed to win that bitch. Trust me."