Caution: These Kids Are About to Blow Up

Hitting it big before the age of 25 -- the way Puffy did -- is the new club-kid dream. And for these three guys, promoting New York's hottest parties is just a stepping-stone. "We're starting an empire," one of them says.

By Nancy Jo Sales

Puffy swings into the VIP room of Life around 2 A.M., looking very Fantasy Island. He and Andre Harrell and their bodyguards are decked out in glowing white suits; the girl they've brought along to dance at their table wears white leather.

Puffy looks around for a table, but there aren't any available. The VIP room's crammed with kids, all moving to his music: "What you wanna do?" Puffy's asking them. "Wanna be brawlers, shot-callers, ballers -- ?"

Just then, out of the crowd comes a short, wiry young man with glasses. His name's Richie Akiva; he's just 21, but he's the host of this party, along with his partners, Justin Salguero and Shawn Regruto. They're the hosts every Friday at Life. This summer, people in nightlife started buzzing about "Justin-Shawn-and-Richie." Their parties are the ones winding up in the gossip columns ("they never say our names," they complain), always full of people like Puffy and Mariah and Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Lopez and Wesley and Leo.

Richie -- a.k.a. "Little Richie" (Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are all rather diminutive) -- places a hand up on Puffy's broad back, shouting, "It's all good, we can move those people -- " He's suggesting they toss three kids out of a nearby banquette.

But Puffy says he'd rather take that table over there -- that's Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's table, which just now has the look of a mini-New Year's Eve: At least 30 kids are thronged around, talking and gesticulating rapper-style and rapping along with Puffy; they're dancing, screaming. There are girls, models -- the platinum beauty James King -- and wannabe models, undulating on top of the banquette. It's like this every night of the week, out with Justin-Shawn-and-Richie.

"Yo, Puff -- " Richie says, twitching a little. "I'm not gonna move all those people . . . !"

The three unlucky kids get moved out; Puffy and his entourage move in.

"Skee-yoooo!" Minutes later, Richie's calling across the club for Justin and Shawn, with the secret call of their crew, SKE (pronounced like "ski" -- it stands for Some Kids Envy). "What was I gonna do? He was like, 'Move your table,' but I couldn't move all our people -- "

They all look over at Puffy, a little nervous, but Puffy looks fine. He's perched on top of the emptied banquette, smiling slightly behind mirrored sunglasses; the room's full of kids unable to stand still to his music. Andre's dancing with one of Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's "girls."

"Fuck Puffy," says Steve Ocevedo, a Dominican kid who's also part of the crew.

"Yo," Justin says, "we gotta show him respect." Their parties wouldn't be what they are without him; just six years their senior, he's also the epicenter of their dreams."It's all about the Benjamins, baby," Puffy's rapping now. Kids like Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are yearning to make his kind of "cream."

It's not only famous people who come to Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's parties; it's famous kids, or kids with famous parents, or kids who are hell-bent on becoming famous. Their D.J. tonight at Lot 61 (the new club on West 21st Street that's become hot since Justin-Shawn-and-Richie started doing Monday nights there) is Mark Ronson, the 22-year-old rising hip-hop star and Tommy Hilfiger model. (His mom and stepdad are Ann Jones, the writer and socialite, and Mick Jones, the guitarist for Foreigner.) "It's total cult-of-celebrity time," says the laid-back Mark, looking down over the crowd from high up in the D.J. booth. "You don't have to really be anything to be a celebrity anymore -- there are just so many famous people."

Downstairs, there's Lola Schnabel (Julian's daughter), Evin Cosby (Bill's daughter), and Max LeRoy (Warner's son); Fiona and Liv aren't here tonight, although everybody knows them -- but oh, Puffy's here again, and Andre and Russell and Leo, swarmed by gorgeous girls in outfits that could be described as revealing. The rapper Jay-Z, author of a song called "Can't Knock the Hustle," eyes the room.

"I told Puffy about my screenplay," a plump young man in a Yankees cap says excitedly. "He was thirst! He gave me his cell-phone number! But yo, this screenplay," he adds, "it's just the beginning. Eventually I'm gonna have my own production company."

All over the club, there are kids talking business. "That's all we talk about," says Vanessa Ferlito, 21, a lovely dark-haired former Wilhelmina model and aspiring singer. "Blowing up, making moves, getting paid." She laughs. "It's like a job, going out -- every night we're trying to get people to introduce us to people. It's all about who you know and what you do with it."

Slick boys in Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts, and fluorescent sneakers stride by, as if on their way to meetings. Vanessa rushes back: "Oh, did I tell you I got the part?" She met "Russell" in a club one night and landed a job as a correspondent on his fall TV show, Oneworld Music Beat. Everyone seems to be looking for that kind of connection, that conversation leading to a way to "blow up" -- or become powerful, rich, and famous.

"Money power and respect, money power and respect," screams the music.

In the midst of an economic boom, in a culture obsessed by youth, almost anything seems possible, and the town square of New York nightlife has become the place where kids hunt for opportunities. "These are not club kids," says the British-rock-starrish Mark Baker, New York's premier party promoter and P.R. maven. "It's not the wanton party madness I'm seeing. Kids are saying, 'I can have my fun and live to fight tomorrow.' They're realizing they can have a good career just by going out and meeting the right people. They're doing really well; they feed off each other."

"We're starting an empire," says Richie, dead serious, leaning back against a banquette. He, Shawn, and Justin are in the process of putting together a multimedia company, for which they have some serious backing. "We're gonna hit all the markets -- fashion, music, entertainment," says Richie.

"Party promotion's just a stepping-stone," Justin says. "Clubs are good for networking," says Shawn. "Stuff happens there."

But blowing up isn't just about becoming famous; even president of the United States won't do -- "Not enough cream in it," one boy says. It's about becoming famous for the right careers -- as D.J.'s, V.J.'s, rappers, music producers, filmmakers, actors, or the ultimate, as everything at once, with all the glamour and power for which Puff Daddy is such a touchstone. Sean "Puffy" Combs modeled himself after Russell Simmons -- the original hip-hop mogul -- who modeled himself after David Geffen and Quincy Jones. Starting out as a party promoter, he amassed a close-to-$100 million fortune by the time he was 25, and that looks pretty good. The dream is infused with hip-hop -- capitalism set to a rap beat.

"Even when it was graffiti on the street, we wanted to make a name for ourselves," says Semu Namakajo, 18, "and now that we're older, we're searching for the right formula to do it again." Semu's a D.J. (known as DJ Reach), and he's been holding down internships at record labels, "like Puffy did." He says he plans to start his own label one day. "I know I'm gonna blow up -- it's just a question of when."

If their self-confidence sometimes sounds like loopy bravado, it's based on a shrewd insight: As young, cutting-edge New Yorkers, they know they have something to sell -- their taste. "I know exactly what people want when it comes to style," says Justin. So "why should we buy somebody else's shit when we can make our own shit and sell it ourselves?" says Richie.

"We're the new shit, we're it," crows Ryan Jacklone, one of Justin-Shawn-and-Richie's crew -- and, by the way, one of the world's most famous in-line skaters. "The old shit is over. We have the talent, and we have the ideas. We'll be like, 'This dude is better than that dude,' and that's the truth, and you'll believe it -- we'll basically change everybody's opinion for the rest of life."

"Exactly," says Justin solemnly. "That's it."

"Little Justin" -- quirky, jaunty, with his gold corn braids shooting like funk antennae through his blue bandanna -- moves through the crowd, grinning. "Whassup?" "I'm chillin' " -- everybody seems to know him. ("He's got charisma," says Steven Lewis, the director of Life, who just a couple of years ago had to throw him out of the club for fighting and "being a pain in the ass." But then "I saw he was a good kid," Lewis says. Now he's one of the people trying to help Justin "blow up.")

"When I blow up," Justin's saying, throwing a hand out like a rapper, "I'll shit on everyone who didn't have faith in me, on jealous people who hated me, but, like, these niggas" -- he means Shawn and Richie and the rest of his "boys" -- "and people who stood by me, just naturally, for the way I am, they'll live. Everyone will live. . . . "

To "live" is to have fun -- especially the kind of fun they look like they're having in rap videos; it's also to survive. "If you had 24 hours to live, what would you do?" the thumping music's asking the crowd. They burst into cheers and dance.

"Subliminally, in people's heads, it's 1999," Justin's saying, "and it's omigod, it's a new fuckin' millennium, I've got to make moves -- I've got to live -- excuse me a minute." Justin's cell phone's ringing.

"Yo -- "

On a sunny afternoon, Justin's strolling up Sixth Avenue on his way to a meeting for Danücht -- "The New Shit," his start-up clothing company with Shawn and Richie. And he's talking about how people "front." "A lot of people front like they're making moves when they're really not, 'cause it's the thing to do," says Justin. "But with us, we've already proved ourselves, and we're gonna continue to prove ourselves till we're completely successful. But you know," he adds, "it's like the Rolling Stones song, 'I -- ' " He can't remember the words for a second. " 'I can't get no satisfaction'? We're never satisfied."

For Justin-Shawn-and-Richie, the dream is already more than a pipe dream. Danücht is being bankrolled by Richie's uncle Simon Akiva, a pioneer financier of hip-hop fashion (he has a controlling interest in Maurice Malone). When Akiva saw the heat generated by the boys' MODELS SUCK T-shirts in the past two years, he decided to give them a chance to go wide. With no publicity machine behind them -- the boys were selling them on the street, in clubs, out of their backpacks -- they were featured in Vogue, in The Face, on MTV; Naomi Campbell, happily ironic, wore one in Spike Lee's Girl 6. Graffiti-style, SKE members were putting up MODELS SUCK: DANÜCHT stickers all over New York. "We bombed the city with them, the whole shit," Justin says.

"They're streetwise," says Akiva. "They're out at the parties every night; they know what the kids want to wear." Next spring, the Danücht line's anticipated to arrive in stores like Macy's, Barneys, and "better boutiques," says Akiva.

"We have the financial backing. But we still have to work off our asses," Richie says conscientiously. Unlike Richie, Justin and Shawn come from middle-class backgrounds. But these days, Justin says, "we're all in the mix."

The coolness of street style has hardly gone unnoticed by the major fashion houses, which now fight for the consulting services of young people just like Justin-Shawn-and-Richie. Meanwhile, ventures started by Gen-Xers who balk at the idea of being bought out (such as Fresh Jive and Urban Decay, multi-million-dollar hip-hop clothing and cosmetics companies) risk being copied by the bigger outfits, which typically glom onto their styles as fast as they can make them. But Justin-Shawn-and-Richie have what they call a "next level" plan in mind to outsmart the players by diversifying their company from the get-go (surprisingly, the word synergy never comes up in their conversations).

Justin's meeting today is at Right to Execute, a graphic-design company in Chelsea. The office -- in the apartment of the owner, Heather Sommerfield, 26 -- is decorated in purples, throw-pillowy, with a room full of blue-lit Macs. Justin walks in. "Yo, it smells slamming in here." He inhales for effect, nostrils flaring. "Incense burning, music playing, working-at-home-stees," or styles. "This is dope. It feels like the year 2000."

Shawn sits beside Heather at a Mac 8100; they're designing Danücht's line sheets, or specifications for production. Shawn is Danücht's main designer, although he's a film student at SVA and says what he'd really like to do is direct. "I just do the designing 'cause it comes easy to me." With his thick black hair, goatee, and flashing white teeth, he's the crew's more adult-looking member; 21, he could pass for 27 (and once dated the girl they all know as Liv -- Tyler, of course). He's making an independent film now that, he says, "is very much about the lifestyle" -- meaning their lives growing up in New York. He's highly aware of the film potential in the abundance of stories they've amassed in their years as city kids. They hope Danücht will eventually have a film division. "People are writing screenplays right and left."

A pair of sweatpants appears on the screen. Heather types as Shawn reads the line for the catalogue: "For the active, on-the-go pimp in us all," he says.

"Pimping is just chillin' out in the utmost style," explains Justin, bopping around the office, eating deli salad. "And Danücht's what the well-dressed pimp should be relaxing in."

Shawn flips through a book of their fashion plates -- polo shirts, hats, T-shirts. I LOVE LUCCI -- meaning money -- one T-shirt says. Others say RIKER'S ISLAND, ATTICA, SING SING, and DANÜCHT: DOWN BY LAW. One just says YOBRO.

"We're trying to sum up all aspects of youth," Justin says. "Like hip-hop, grunge, street, thug . . . "

"We need some more girl shit," says Shawn.

Justin thinks. "Hmmmm. I tell you, right now, the shit for girls, it's gotta be hard, 'cause girls are coming out hard. Like, 'Yo, what the deal, bitch, what?' "

Heather tells him he has a phone call: "It's Sergeant O'Reilly?" she says.

Justin laughs. "Omigod, the cops!" It's just Richie.

Justin puts on a Tricky CD, Angels With Dirty Faces. "Ha, that's me," he says.

Only a couple of years ago, plenty of kids like Justin-Sean-and-Richie were what this magazine called prep-school gangsters: private-school students living a wannabe gangster's life. Credit-card scams, shoplifting, and drug dealing were important ways of getting money and status in the scene. It didn't seem any worse to them than what some of their own parents or people in the news were doing with great success. One boy, whose father was a well-known real-estate developer in the eighties, once told me, "My dad's a gangster. He sits at the dinner table laughing about all the people he's screwing over." "Ivan Boesky made $200 million in a year off a scam," says Kim Bailey -- who at 18 has left crew life behind and is also working with friends as a party promoter -- with measured admiration. "Anybody who can make that kind of money off of a scam -- what can you say? But then he got caught."

No one seems more surprised by the way he's turned things around than Justin. "Omigod, I was a hoodlum, a little piece of shit," he says. "Doing graffiti, robbing stores, terrorizing people -- I don't care if you say it, whatever, it's true. I was such a little crazer." He was kicked out of Xavier High School and St. Peter's Prep, a school in New Jersey, before landing at the High School for the Humanities. And that was Davide Sorrenti's school.

When Davide (pronounced "David") Sorrenti died in February 1997, it was an A1 story in the New York Times. The 20-year-old photographer -- son and brother of two other prominent fashion photographers, Francesca and Mario -- had come to symbolize the dangers of "heroin chic." (Davide's death was actually the result of a painful blood condition, Cooley's anemia, complicated by heroin use. His mother is now leading a celebrated campaign against the use of underage fashion models, who are arguably more vulnerable to the lure of drugs.)

"Basically, Dave dying taught us that you can't fuck around in life," says Justin. "You can't do something for so long and think you're gonna get away with it. Like with this new thing, kids on some positive shit . . . for me, I think it's Davide looking over us."

"He was my brother," says Justin. "From ninth grade on, every day, it was me and him."

"The four of them were like peas in a pod," says Francesca Sorrenti. It used to be Justin-Shawn-Richie-and-Davide. Sorrenti's East Village loft was unofficial SKE headquarters; Davide started the crew. "I'd say to Davide, 'Oh, are they here again?' And he'd just say, 'Mom, I have to take care of my boys.' They had this brotherhood. City kids do that -- they put their energy into each other."

SKE, a "famous" crew, was never simply for ruffians. It always had an artistic edge. Driven and creative, Davide insisted his friends develop their talents and gave an aura of real-fame-waiting-to-happen to their togetherness. "Every day for them was a photo shoot, he documented everything," says Francesca Sorrenti. Davide himself began to "blow up" around age 19, his darkly glamorous photos appearing in Interview, Detour, Raygun. "He was into fashion, but he would try to play" -- subvert -- "fashion," says Justin.

And for that, he was revered by kids. "He was bringing everything that we were to the pages of magazines," says Shawn; " -- the realness of everything, graffiti, hip-hop," says Justin. "He was a trendsetter," says Richie. "People copied everything he did," Justin says, offering, "slitting the sides of your pants legs . . . cutting your own hair."

The boys ran around town together. "We went out every night of the week," says Richie, whose mother died when he was 3, and so, he says with a soft laugh, "you know, I never had a curfew. Late-night, people would come to my crib." They tried to be rappers together (if the Beastie Boys could do it . . . ), in a group called the Mosaics -- because, Richie says, "we were all different ethnics." (Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are Puerto Rican and Italian, Italian, and Jewish, respectively.)

When they were "rushed" after a show at the old club the Muse, they started to think that maybe they had something that people with money and power saw as promising -- and marketable. "We were immediately gassed," says Justin. "It was overwhelming -- this lady from Paisley Park records offered to sign us, and Def Jam . . . " But the deals, for various reasons, never happened. "They wanted us to rap in, like, Spanish," says Richie. "We were mad young," says Justin, "like 17, and we just kind of got scared off."

They were also busy being kicked out of high school and dealing with a "crazed" scene. Richie was kicked out of Columbia Prep before winding up at Dwight. Shawn went to Xavier after St. Anthony's -- and Xavier had the best dances. "It was an all-boys school, but when it came to the dances, they would have massive amounts of girls from all the other Catholic schools," says Richie. "Shawn made us fake I.D.'s" so they could get in. Justin and Richie met on a dance floor.

When Shawn had to do a senior business project -- à la Risky Business -- he came up with the idea of making T-shirts, which evolved into an underground industry. They can't agree on who thought up the slogan "Models suck," which they don't actually believe ("Models are all good," says Justin. "It's modeling that sucks"), but at the time, it seemed just the thing to counter a culture gone model-mad. It was Davide who came up with "Danücht," originally conceived as the name of a rolling-paper company the boys were planning. "It wasn't just about pot. We were gonna have all different flavors," says Richie. And then, spurred by Davide, they started to think bigger.

Then he died. Grief-stricken, Justin was incapacitated for months and broke his wrist punching a wall in anger. He'd been living with Davide and his girlfriend, James King, in their apartment on West 12th Street before it happened. "I'd been kicked out of my house for being a derel" -- derelict -- "not finishing high school," Justin says (he later got his GED).

And then, he says, Danücht "saved" him. "A couple of months after Davide died, they came to me and said, 'We're gonna do this for him,' " says Francesca Sorrenti. And for themselves: They were getting older, and it was time to move on. It's interesting that one of their clothing designs takes the rainbow symbol of The North Face, practically the prep-school-gangster uniform, and jokingly turns it upside down.

But their crew mentality hasn't left them. Justin says it never will; it just has a different purpose now: "We're still a crew. And it's perfect for being in business together, because there's complete trust -- we've been through so much together. In some office situation, you never really know who you're dealing with -- like, somebody can come out with some next weird personality. But we know each other completely. Like when we're arguing, we can go all out, because no matter what, we're friends. We'll be like, 'Fuck you! No!' Or sometimes we're just like, 'Yes!,' 'cause we understand each other. It's all about arguing -- that was Dave's tag, ARGUE."

"It's more than kids saying, 'Lets make pants,' " says Francesca Sorrenti. "It's a movement."

"What the dealie? You coming to Life tonight? Yeah, come and chill out, shit's gonna be the banger, VIP-status-styles, Mark's D.J.'ing, me and Justin and Shawn and Richie are gonna be there. . . ."

We're in a cab, and Steve -- Ocevedo; they call him Dough Boy -- is on a cell phone getting the models to come down and make the party happen (a bit of wisdom their promoting mentor Mark Baker imparted to them: "Model plus celebrity equals party"). Steve sometimes helps out promoting Text

And for that, he was revered by kids. "He was bringing everything that we were to the pages of magazines," says Shawn; " -- the realness of everything, graffiti, hip-hop," says Justin. "He was a trendsetter," says Richie. "People copied everything he did," Justin says, offering, "slitting the sides of your pants legs . . . cutting your own hair."

The boys ran around town together. "We went out every night of the week," says Richie, whose mother died when he was 3, and so, he says with a soft laugh, "you know, I never had a curfew. Late-night, people would come to my crib." They tried to be rappers together (if the Beastie Boys could do it . . . ), in a group called the Mosaics -- because, Richie says, "we were all different ethnics." (Justin-Shawn-and-Richie are Puerto Rican and Italian, Italian, and Jewish, respectively.)

When they were "rushed" after a show at the old club the Muse, they started to think that maybe they had something that people with money and power saw as promising -- and marketable. "We were immediately gassed," says Justin. "It was overwhelming -- this lady from Paisley Park records offered to sign us, and Def Jam . . . " But the deals, for various reasons, never happened. "They wanted us to rap in, like, Spanish," says Richie. "We were mad young," says Justin, "like 17, and we just kind of got scared off."

They were also busy being kicked out of high school and dealing with a "crazed" scene. Richie was kicked out of Columbia Prep before winding up at Dwight. Shawn went to Xavier after St. Anthony's -- and Xavier had the best dances. "It was an all-boys school, but when it came to the dances, they would have massive amounts of girls from all the other Catholic schools," says Richie. "Shawn made us fake I.D.'s" so they could get in. Justin and Richie met on a dance floor.

When Shawn had to do a senior business project -- à la Risky Business -- he came up with the idea of making T-shirts, which evolved into an underground industry. They can't agree on who thought up the slogan "Models suck," which they don't actually believe ("Models are all good," says Justin. "It's modeling that sucks"), but at the time, it seemed just the thing to counter a culture gone model-mad. It was Davide who came up with "Danücht," originally conceived as the name of a rolling-paper company the boys were planning. "It wasn't just about pot. We were gonna have all different flavors," says Richie. And then, spurred by Davide, they started to think bigger.

Then he died. Grief-stricken, Justin was incapacitated for months and broke his wrist punching a wall in anger. He'd been living with Davide and his girlfriend, James King, in their apartment on West 12th Street before it happened. "I'd been kicked out of my house for being a derel" -- derelict -- "not finishing high school," Justin says (he later got his GED).

And then, he says, Danücht "saved" him. "A couple of months after Davide died, they came to me and said, 'We're gonna do this for him,' " says Francesca Sorrenti. And for themselves: They were getting older, and it was time to move on. It's interesting that one of their clothing designs takes the rainbow symbol of The North Face, practically the prep-school-gangster uniform, and jokingly turns it upside down.

But their crew mentality hasn't left them. Justin says it never will; it just has a different purpose now: "We're still a crew. And it's perfect for being in business together, because there's complete trust -- we've been through so much together. In some office situation, you never really know who you're dealing with -- like, somebody can come out with some next weird personality. But we know each other completely. Like when we're arguing, we can go all out, because no matter what, we're friends. We'll be like, 'Fuck you! No!' Or sometimes we're just like, 'Yes!,' 'cause we understand each other. It's all about arguing -- that was Dave's tag, ARGUE."

"It's more than kids saying, 'Lets make pants,' " says Francesca Sorrenti. "It's a movement."

"What the dealie? You coming to Life tonight? Yeah, come and chill out, shit's gonna be the banger, VIP-status-styles, Mark's D.J.'ing, me and Justin and Shawn and Richie are gonna be there. . . ."

We're in a cab, and Steve -- Ocevedo; they call him Dough Boy -- is on a cell phone getting the models to come down and make the party happen (a bit of wisdom their promoting mentor Mark Baker imparted to them: "Model plus celebrity equals party"). Steve sometimes helps out promoting with Justin-Shawn-and Richie.

"Ah-ight, shorty. I'll see you tonight." Richie clicks off his cell phone. "We have the dopest girls, the nicest girls, the prettiest girls," he says breezily. "We have more girls than people like Leo and all those other famous people."

Steve laughs. "Listen to you."

"What?" says Richie. "They think I have an ego."

"You have enough for everybody," says Steve.

"What I have is what I deserve, 'cause I work for it," insists Richie.

Richie's maybe a little "gassed" because he and Steve have just come from a meeting with Stevie Wonder, the president and owner of their start-up record label, Stay Gold (named after the song the artist contributed to The Outsiders, the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie about teenage gang life). "He's down with us," Richie says, "and that's something all those other people out there trying to do this can't compete with."

Of all the dreams that go with the dream, starting a record label is the most common. Steve brought Stevie Wonder's son, Keita Morris, into their crew; he and Keita were at Hartford College together until last year. "We used to talk about it every day, like, what are we doing in college, this is bullshit, Connecticut sucks," Steve says. Like other kids from the city now who go away for college, they only yearned to be back here, where everybody's "making moves." So they approached Keita's dad with the idea of starting a production team. "We brought it to him, and at first he was like, right, whatever, label," says Steve. "But then he saw we were serious, trying to get people in the studio."

They're now cultivating acts. Part of their pitch to Keita's dad was their access to a teeming pool of up-and-coming young talent in New York -- "It's all about access," says Richie -- people like Mark Ronson, the D.J., whom they hope to make a head producer of Stay Gold. "We don't know that he's definitely gonna be down with us," Richie says (Mark's also starting his own label), "but he D.J.'s our parties, he's part of our crew, and if you're a crew, you stay together."

"What Puffy did when he started his label," Richie adds, "is he took people who weren't that big yet and let them live."

Keita makes tracks, Richie promotes, Steve's the business end of it. "We're gonna try and compete against Maverick," Madonna's label, says Richie.

Steve sighs. "I try not to lose my head, because we haven't really done anything yet," he says.

"What? We're pretty much the kings of New York," says Richie.

Steve laughs at him again. "See what I mean?"

One afternoon in SoHo, Justin wants to ride in a pedicab, one of those chariots driven by a cyclist in racing gear. It's a hot day, the sky a brilliant blue. Justin settles back in the plastic seat, pleased with being driven around in the open air. "This is dope," he says, smiling. We bump along.

With his hair knotted in a ponytail on top of his head today, there's something vaguely kung fu about him today. He has on a maroon DANÜCHT T-shirt, a choker of three dice around his neck emblazoned with the letters S-K-E. He, Shawn, and Richie all wear them.

Suddenly, a dark-haired woman from Spanish CNN appears puffing along beside us, microphone in hand, asking if her cameraman can quickly shoot Justin for a segment on New York lifestyles, please? Justin seems not the least bit surprised. He waves to the camera.

"Did you see me on House of Style?" he asks casually. Danücht doesn't exist yet, and it was already on MTV.

"Yo, shorty," Justin calls to a girl in strappy sandals he sees walking along in the heat; she flutters her fingers -- he says they know each other from "around the way." Justin's hands goes out, gently slapping the palms of boys gliding by us on foot, on skateboards, bicycles. "Yo, Jus." "Whassup, Jus-ske."

He does seem to know a lot of people. "We do run downtown," Justin says, only half serious.

"Yo, why'd you take us down this craze block, my friend?" he asks the driver. We've strayed down an empty block -- nothing to look at here, no one to be looked at by. We swerve around.

Back on Prince Street, Justin turns House of Stylist (he's also, by the way, the style editor of Stress magazine). He watches a guy in a cowboy hat smoking a cigarette, cross-legged against a wall. "That cowboy-hat shit is kind of all good," Justin says with care. "I dig girls that do it. But guys -- if they're not officially like some rugged, scruffy cowboy type of dude, then it doesn't come off. That whole cowboy shit is down and dirty and unnnnhh." He makes a horse-riding motion. "You can't look all clean with a cowboy hat on."

Justin seems completely confident that in some way, he is style at this moment in New York. "It's all about being yourself," he says with a shrug.

He gives a purring "wassup" to a thirtysomething woman passing by -- taken aback, she laughs, flattered. Justin gives the thumbs-up to her black tank dress. "What's good for a girl now is simplicity -- a top and bottom, and that's it," he says. "Maybe some thin, thin shirtdress, some Prada shit, some Anna Sui shit. Maybe something to finesse their hair. And no makeup. The biggest mistake girls make is too much makeup. It's all about being real."

We see a fading ARGUE tag up on a wall. It's Davide's. Justin stares. "I miss him, every day. We were having mad fun."

"But I guess . . . you can't have too much fun," he says. "When he died, I looked at myself and said, 'What the fuck am I doing?' " Justin stopped doing drugs then, with the help of Francesca Sorrenti, and has been drug-free ever since. "Fran said to me, 'If you love Davide, then you'll stop," says Justin. "I think to do them is a disrespect to him."

We climb out of the pedicab. The driver shakes Justin's hand and pedals away.

Out on the sidewalk, there's a water-pistol fight going on. The clerks from two clothing boutiques -- a guy and girl whom Justin also knows -- are blasting away at each other with neon-colored plastic assault rifles. Justin borrows the guy's gun -- "Lemme hold it?" -- takes cover behind a parked car, and rapid-fires at the girl. She squirts back furiously. Just then, quite inexplicably, Richie and Steve and some other boys in SKE drive past in a sleek white BMW. Seeing Justin, they back down the street through traffic and park in front of us, all with the absurd sweeping ease of an action film.

Richie hops out, grabs the girl's gun, and starts firing at Justin -- "Take that, Pony Boy!"

I ask him why they call him Pony Boy (a character from The Outsiders). Justin wipes his face with his T-shirt. " 'Cause I'll never grow up," he says.

At Moomba late one night, Leo's "kicking it" with a bunch of kids in SKE. And Q-Tip's here.

The table's loud and messy. Justin and Richie are eating steaks. Vanessa and Sherry Cosonic, the Albanian doorgirl ("She's, like, a wild one," says Richie) are munching on French fries. Leo wants some fries, too, but the kitchen's closed and won't open back up, not even for Leo.

"Yo, Rich, lemme get some fries," Leo asks Richie to ask the girls.

"Ask 'em yourself," Richie says, mouth full.

"Lemme get some fries?" Leo asks Sherry.

Sherry's hungry; she winces, passing down the plate. Leo shoves a bunch of fries in his mouth; Q-Tip starts digging in, too.

Sherry gets impatient. "Yo, give us our fries back, don't play yourself!" Everyone laughs.

"You want your fries back?" says Q-Tip, appreciating her style. "You ain't gettin' 'em back." He starts eating the fries faster. Sherry grabs at the plate. Q-Tip yanks it away, gets up and walks around the restaurant, offering it to strangers. "Yo, want some fries?"

Sherry jumps up and follows him. "What the deal?"

"Nah, nah, I'm eating 'em," says Q-Tip, scarfing fries in his mouth, laughing.

Sherry takes a handful and smashes them in his face, his hair. Q-Tip takes the ketchup and mayonnaise cups off the plate and squirts them all over Sherry.

Leo laughs. Everyone claps.

Justin's still eating his steak heartily. "Ill," he says, smiling, shaking his head. "Ill."

Another Monday, the kids at Lot 61 are doing the limbo. Girls with bare shoulders, bare feet, bare cleavage wriggle under the pole, heads back, drinks in hand. The slick boys in khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and fluorescent sneakers are still striding up and down; there are people here to talk to. It's a big night, Justin's 22nd-birthday party.

It looks as if a camera crew from Entertainment Tonight is coming through the crowd for an interview, high beam focused on Justin -- but it's just some of his friends, young filmmakers, making a movie. Justin calmly accepts the spotlight and starts making moves like a rapper. He talks, but it doesn't matter what he's saying. The movie's silent, all about style.

On the wall, by the dance floor, they're projecting photos of one other. Dozens of kids are blown up, larger than life. Laughter erupts at shots of Justin in somebody's kitchen, looking less than lucid. An affectionate moan goes up at a shot of Davide.

James King drifts through the crowd, her filmy white blouse and platinum hair trailing. She wears a burnt expression, like a fallen angel.

"My movie's called The SKEleton Dance," Shawn's telling me, "and it's about an up-and-coming photographer and his adventures out in New York in clubs with certain models and drugs. . . ."

"When we start the empire," Richie's saying, "and we make all the money, then I'll open up my own club, and I'll go to it every night and just chill."

Mark Ronson spins Brandy: "I'm just trying to be me, doing what I got to do. People think that I'm sitting on top of the world. . . . "

Twelve long-stemmed glasses of Cristal clink together, with a "Justin!" "When I blow up," Justin's saying, "I'm gonna buy my mom a house, and buy my dad an old-school car, cause he's into that shit.

"I just want to do good. But at the same time, I want to live. Davide would have lived! Like, ill." Justin smiles. "We're gonna finesse it, the good life," he says. "We're gonna go all out."

He moves toward the limbo pole and gets in line. His friends are clapping, egging him on. Justin starts to go under; the pole's perilously low. But it looks like he's going to make it.