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It's Saturday night in a really creepy, industrial-looking part of Burbank. Outside Empire Studios, a crowd of hip-hop and alterna-rock fashioned youths are fluttering around, waiting to go in for a taping of MTV's latest, "hottest" new show, The Cut (it's only hot because MTV says it is, even though the show's Sept. 28 premiere was still two days away at the time). Basically an MTV take on Star Search, with brief, Real World-like vignettes thrown in, each half-hour episode of The Cut features four unsigned, largely unknown artists performing a song, after which they're judged on points by a three-person panel of alleged "experts." The winner of each episode moves on to the next round and so on, until, out of 160 acts, only one is left standing among the carnage. The grand prize after all this is an MTV-financed video, which will air on the network. Probably once. On a Tuesday. At 3 a.m.
I meet up with Kurt Hoffman, manager of Ruby Diver, and the Long Beach band's drummer, Greg Jamison. Both look a bit nervous, since Ruby Diver is competing on the show this night. Well, sorta: weeks earlier, Hoffman saw an ad for the show in one of the trades. He sent in a copy of Ruby Diver's Super RemoteCD, and he got a call back from MTV and an invite to appear. Cool!
Except they didn't want the band, just singer Paula Duke. And they insisted on picking the song she'd do. And on the show, she'd have to sing to a tape with the vocal track removed.
Hmmm. . . . Still, this was MTV, which means exposure. So Hoffman and the band reluctantly agreed to be molded into MTV's image. After passing through a metal detector, Hoffman, Jamison and I grab seats in the studio audience. I make sure my ugly puss avoids any audience-reaction shots, but I've been practicing my middle-finger quick draw just in case. The mostly teenage crowd-many obtained through a casting agency-fills in the stands. A tech armed with rolls of tape eyeballs everybody, covering any unauthorized product endorsements that might errantly appear on camera (a standard, stupid MTV policy), including, oddly, one guy's Oakland Raiders hat. An annoying, unfunny comedian, whose job is to get everybody all excited and hepped up so that it'll look like they actually give a shit, starts offering everybody free T-shirts and CDs. Suckers that these kids are, they screamingly comply.
Here come de judges: R&B crooner Brian McKnight and two label execs, Thornell Jones from Epic and Dominica Johnson of Immortal Records. Then the show's host arrives: Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC (apparently still in need of dough since her group declared bankruptcy a few years ago), looking very trippy with weird glitter around her eyes. The taping begins. Lopes looks straight into the camera and blurts her greeting: "YO, EVERYBODY, WASSUP?! [The "YO" is actually written on her cue card.] I'm Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, and this is MTV's . . . The Cut!" On cue-and because the MTV people say we must-we all leap up, holler, applaud and act like we're having a bitchen time. I clap jadedly but refuse to yell, opting to stand there with my mouth open so it looks like I'm into it. If there wasn't such a thing as scream-synching, there is now.
Hip-hop beats fill the room, and Lopes dances a forced jiggy jig. She then introduces the first act, a Puerto Rican rapper named T-Bone who throws down mile-a-minute rhymes like a mutha-pretty impressive. The judges think so, too, and give him a great score.
Next up: two brothers who call themselves Hillside. Yawn. All I hear are unimpressive vocal gymnastics of the kind you hear on every deathly dull "urban contemporary" station in the land. The judges give them an okay score-but not as good as T-Bone. Hillside will not be making . . . The Cut!
Now it's Duke's turn. First, there's a seconds-long, black-and-white clip of her walking around the grounds of the Long Beach Museum of Art, followed by a few soundbite sentences from Duke on what music means to her.
Um . . . uh-oh . . . the MTV people aren't calling Duke "Paula"; they're calling her Ruby Diver. Hoffman whispers that the switch was his decision, based on future name-recognition potential. This disturbs me: Ruby Diver as a band name is fine, but Ruby Diver as a solo female singer's name makes Duke sound like a porn star or stripper. Still, I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing.
Duke steps to her stage mic, ready for her closeup. "Broken String," a track from Super Remote, starts playing, minus Duke's vocals. Despite the odd setting-no band working behind her-she still nails it. But the jazzy, mellow song is about the farthest thing from what the heavily funk-and-R&B-influenced band is all about, a ditty that they usually only whip out when someone breaks a string. Duke winds it up and then goes off to an alcove to await her fate.
While the scores are tallied, I notice Jamison looks really, really nervous. Duke seems very calm, though. Judgment time: an insipid comment from one judge about how Duke should "work on her look." Can you tell this is MTV? Another judge says she should go "more organic" with her jazz sound, which would be great if Duke was a jazz person. Duke/Ruby Diver gets a final score of 23 out of 30 possible points.
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