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All Keyed Up

This is the comedy-club rule: Sit up front, and you can expect to get fucked with, at least a little bit. Plus, when you roll on any club with the bisexual Ashanti of P-town lookin' fine in a low-cut, form-fitting, red satin top, it's like wearing a raw T-bone as a loincloth and running nekkid through a kennel of pit bulls. You literally have to beat the dawgs off with a stick.

So when the J-girl and I park ourselves up front at HYB Entertainment's latest contribution to PHX nightlife, Showcase Sundays at Jackson's on Third in downtown Phoenix, I should've figured we were in for some attention from the host of the weekly event, actor/comedian Pierre (www.happycomic.com), star of such films as B*A*P*S, How to Be a Player and The Wash, as well as HBO's Def Comedy Jam and BET's Comic View. First up, Pierre kindly points out that New Times is in the house, which earns us a round of applause. But when I tippy-toe back to the bar to snag a couple more cups of liquid refreshment, playa Pierre makes his move. He asks the J-licious One about her ethnicity, then wonders if she's with boyfriend -- the idea that she might have a girl-friend never occurring to him.

"Not just one," replies Jett, coolly, "but several."

"Several?!" exclaims the Sinbad of Sunday nights. "Well, damn, where do I get in line?"

Pierre plays at standing in a queue, ticket in hand, a line many in the audience -- both male and female -- would no doubt like to join. The crowd, including the Jettster, chuckles, but ol' Pierre turns somewhat more respectful as I return with our drinks.

"Is this your boyfriend?" he inquires, indicating yours truly -- Ali G-meets-Ruben Studdard.

"We're work partners," I respond.

"Mmm-hmm, that's how those things start," he says, wagging his finger.

Oh, don't I wish, P-unit! To steal a line from Reverend Jesse, I keep hope alive, as well as a jimmie-hat in my wallet, in case Jett takes pity on this fat boy one day. (Sigh.) But realistically, I'd be better off playin' Lotto . . .

Pierre's soon back into his hi-larious opening monologue for what is essentially the closest thing there is in town to "Showtime at the Apollo." It's an old-school talent competition, open to everything from juggling to rapping, with the audience determining the winners. Up to eight contestants are accepted each week, and you're given about three to five minutes to do your thing, whatever that might be. But beware: If the crowd's not feelin' your performance, you get "keyed" off right quick. See, at Showcase Sundays, folks jingle their car keys instead of booing your sorry ass like they do at the Apollo. There's no Sandman Sims here with a broom to dance you into oblivion. The DJ just plays "Hit the Road, Jack," and that's it. At the end, the audience picks two acts from the survivors to return at a later date for the semifinals, and a chance at winning more than $2,500 in cash and prizes. (Those interested can peep the official rules and even sign up at www.hybentertainment.com.)

"I have a good relationship with HYB, and I was looking to buy some property in Phoenix," Pierre explained to us after the show. "Once I was here, a lot of people were asking me, ÔWhere are you performing?' So I thought about getting a night together like this, so I can tell people where I'll be at. There's also a lot of talent out here, and this gives them an opportunity for exposure."

All the contestants this night are either rappers or soul and R&B singers, and the first to step to the mic up on a low stage in one corner of the club is an MC by the name of Judge Jones. Dressed in a yellow jersey and baseball cap, Jones announces to the crowd, "Get ready to get crunk!" then launches into a Dirty South-style, Petey Pablo-esque delivery. The key chains stay in pockets, and the Judge makes it to the end of his performance. Same goes for Soul Ghetto, a four-man troupe, stylin' in flashy zoot suits, who sing a cappella about "Every day feelin' new/Ridin' down 27th Avenue."

Next comes soul diva Natasha, who's decked out in a sheer, see-through black shawl, with a black brassiere underneath. She belts out a sultry tune about food and sex that asks, "Do you want gravy on your collards and greens . . . on your black-eyed peas?" before ordering her lover to "feed it to me." Sounds better than a bottle of Viagra and a plate of shucked oysters. Natasha gets a big hand, then Pierre jumps onstage and jokes around with the crowd, telling them, as he's light-skinned, that he's "white from the wallet up and black from the waist down." He then states he prefers black ladies, cheezin' that, "You won't catch me with a white girl. . . . Doesn't mean I won't get with her, you just won't catch me."

 

A rap duo follows: a male-female combo of one white cat named, appropriately enough, "Apollo," and his partner, a booful black chick named Sherie. Apollo's ghetto'd out in a white jumpsuit and Green Bay Packers lid, while Sherie's dressed more conventionally in jeans and a sexy negligee-like blouse. Unfortunately for the couple, the audience is not feelin' them, and there's soon a battle between folks jingling keys and those clapping to give the pair a chance. Finally, the keys win out, and "Hit the Road, Jack" flows from the speakers. "Someone needs to go solo," joshes Pierre.

Another rap twosome called Scorcher takes the stage, but they're even weaker than Apollo and Sherie, and the keys are soon shakin' like Polaroid pictures in an OutKast video. But the hip-hop duo YBM is better: two guys dressed very street, one in a yellow jersey and dreads, and the other in a plain red pullover and a white cap, each belting out a song "for the ladies." The crowd lets them live. Pierre then hands out a few tee shirts to those he's messed with, including Jett, and then the last performer, Stacy, is up. In jeans and a black top, she sings her heart out, but the audience doesn't like what it hears, and she gets the key treatment.

Those who didn't feel the wrath of the keys are brought back onstage, and Pierre's assistant, the gorgeous Shani, plays Kiki Shepard (ˆ la "Showtime at the Apollo"), holding her hand over each performer's head to let the crowd show its love. Soul Ghetto and Judge Jones emerge victorious.

Afterward, the J-girl and I scramble to conversate with as many folks as possible. (The contest lasts from 8 to 10 p.m., and from 10 p.m. to midnight Jackson's reverts back to a regular club.) Most people either head to the dance floor, or mingle off to the sides. We catch up with Soul Ghetto's lovely manager Kanei, tr's chichi in a white cocktail dress and fur.

"Soul Ghetto's only been together for three months," Kanei tells us. "They're two people from L.A. and two from Phoenix that I put together. The four songs they have right now are all a cappella, as we're trying to do something fresh."

We wish Kanei luck, which I don't think Soul Ghetto will need because they're so talented, and because their act offers such a unique, Cotton Club-like experience. Near the bar, we run into Stacy, who I think was unfairly keyed this evening, but she's taking it like a pro.

"Stacy, I loved your voice, and you're easy on the eyes, so what happened up there tonight?" I ask.

"You know, Kreme, I can't call it," shrugs the married mother of two, who by day works as a counselor for mental-health patients. "The audience made its decision, and it's all good, but I'll be back. When they stopped the music, that even made my spirit larger."

Stacy has to wait two weeks, according to the rules, then she can return to the showcase and give it another go. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Jett's off to one side, partying with this fella named Fly, who has a little harem going on. Fly has short dreads and says he's down here visiting from Seattle, where he works in the music industry.

"It's cool," Fly says of the event. "I'm going to bring some of my artists down here. I'm all over -- the Bay Area; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Anchorage, Alaska. I just had some of my artists in Phoenix, but I didn't know about this night. So I'm going to bring 'em back for the talent show."

"Looks like you're having your own talent competition right here," Jett says of Fly's women.

"What can I say, it must be my aura," he says, laughing heartily.

The Jettster's ready to sign up for Fly's seraglio, but this bee-atch has got to drive me home, so she ain't going nowhere. I pull her toward the door, where we run into Pierre and chat for a minute. He tells us about playing Halle Berry's boyfriend in B*A*P*S, and getting to put the lip-lock on her, as well as working with Dave Chappelle back in the day. Pierre splits his time between Phoenix and the entertainment industry in L.A., and he has some advice for aspiring celebrities here in the PHX.

 

"What I like about what we do is that we're not here patting them on the back for just performing," he says. "Because in the industry, you better be good, or you won't move to the next level. But you also have to remember, it's just this night that the audience is judging you on. This is a place where you get an idea of how people respond to you. If you just go to a regular showcase, you walk offstage and you don't know. But here, they will definitely let you know how they feel about you."


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