Not so magical mystery tour

He bragged about having millions to invest yet drove around in a beat-up Ford Escort. He was so disciplined he didn't drink or smoke. Yet he wasn't organized enough to carry a briefcase or business card. And he made a lot of promises -- a six-month tour of America, an international tour, contracts with FUBU, Wu Tang, Hollywood -- that now appear to be so much hot air.

A lot of things about Tyler Simpson didn't add up -- except the profits he gained from the J.U.I.C.E. Tour 2000. By some estimates, Simpson made more than $60,000 from casting and promoting it. In return, he was supposed to introduce 80 young rappers, dancers and models, most of them Orlando-based, to cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Simpson billed his troupe for insurance, hotel rooms and fines, but the buses on which the tour was to leave March 12 from a Sanford parking lot never arrived.

"He didn't show up; the buses didn't show up," says John Butler, a rapper who paid $300 for "insurance" to go on the tour. "People's parents were out there. People's grandparents were out there. That was the sad part. I'm glad none of my relatives showed up. There were moms looking hurt. Everybody was looking betrayed."

Though no charges have been filed, Sanford police are investigating accusations of fraud and contract misrepresentation. Simpson did not return phone calls placed last week to his home in Winter Park, from which he also apparently ran his company, Everywhere Promotions and Marketing.

Left behind are questions about how so many people could have given so much money to a promoter with so few credentials. But part of the answer lies in the fact that so many hope to become the next Orlando-bred music sensation, and the road to recognition contains deep potholes for artists who don't do their homework. "Nobody was doing any research," says Anthony Brooks, a rapper with the group Quarterpass who says he gave Simpson close to $6,000. "I mean, nobody."

Charisma also explains Simpson's draw. He cast such a spell that some sold their homes and dropped out of school to go on tour. He has some of them convinced that, once the current crisis ends, the J.U.I.C.E. Tour 2000 will rev up again. "There's 20 to 30 people who still think we're going on tour," Brooks says. "They think he's a well-minded businessman."

The story of the J.U.I.C.E. (Join Us In Combining Everything) Tour begins in December, when Simpson decided to run ads seeking performers in several area newspapers (including Orlando Weekly). Brooks says Simpson borrowed the company name and promotional idea from a woman Simpson dated in New York who owned an agency, now defunct, that operated under the same name. The original Everywhere Promotions had a stable of young artists who opened for bigger-named acts in the New York area.

Simpson scheduled his auditions for Jan. 15 at a Longwood dance studio. From the beginning, the artists could tell Simpson was all about the Benjamins. "He told everybody, 'If you don't have the $300 for insurance, you shouldn't even audition,'" Brooks says.

But the money didn't signal alarm bells for most. Rather, they were mesmerized by the salaries Simpson told them they'd make -- $540 a week. If they did well, Simpson said there'd be an international tour, paying much more money, leaving in the fall. Besides, he told them he'd personally invested $4 million in the tour.

As far as credibility, Simpson's dreadlocks and the tattoos he sported that matched the rap group Wu Tang Clan were enough to get him by. "He looked like he was with Wu Tang, and we went for it," Brooks says. Simpson also made the troupe take drug tests, which added to his authenticity. But when artists arrived at CentraCare clinic to take the tests, they -- not Simpson -- had to pay for urinalysis.

Standards at Simpson's audition weren't particularly high. Nearly everybody who auditioned made the cut. When the tryout ended, Simpson gave the performers an hour to find an ATM and retrieve the $300.

William Johnson was one of the few who failed the audition. But several days later he received a call from Simpson, who was supposedly in New York on business. There was a mistake, Simpson told him. Johnson, a rapper known as Billy Baddazz, was good enough to make the cut and should be on the tour. So he met Simpson at a downtown Orlando street corner, signed a contract, then handed over $300, which his roommate had to help him raise.

At the time, the money was well spent. "This was a big break for me," Johnson says. "It was a chance to see if people really liked my music."

Rehearsals were held every Saturday and Sunday at the University Performing Arts Center in Oviedo. Simpson ruled them like a dictator: Show up late, get fined $25. Get caught smoking or drinking, pay $25. No talking and no attitude.

"He fined people left and right," says Jose Gonzalez, of the rap group SOL Team. Simpson held his face in a permanent scowl, as if to say back off. "His attitude was that he didn't want to answer anything."

One of the things that bothered the rappers was that rehearsals were held without music. "When we first started rehearsing, people used their own music, but Tyler said it was taking too long," Johnson says. "He only had the place for so long. So we rehearsed a cappella." How could the dancers coordinate their moves if there was no music? Nobody knew. Yet nobody wanted to approach Simpson with questions.

Not content with insurance money and fines, Simpson also persuaded artists to pay in advance for individual hotel rooms on the road. In mid-February, he called Johnson, saying the rapper would probably want his own room because Simpson would pay his artists in cash each week, and he couldn't guarantee the safety or security of performers sharing space. If you wanted your own room, that would be $500 extra. A couple of weeks later, Johnson, who is unemployed, gave Simpson $500 from money his godparents in Kansas had sent him.

If there was a sign the J.U.I.C.E. Tour was going to flop, it occurred on March 9, three days before the troupe was to leave for New York. Billed as a release party, the event would be the first time some of the artists played live together.

The first disappointment was that the artists were made to sell $12 tickets -- $25 for the V.I.P. room. Another was the lack of an audience at Heroes Night Club. "This place was dead. I mean, dead," says Gonzalez. "We were performing for nobody. It was like a rehearsal."

Later, Simpson announced the buses wouldn't be leaving at 7 a.m. that Sunday, but rather at 5 p.m. Suddenly Brooks began yelling. Simpson, he said, was a phony who had taken their money without any intention of going on tour.

Many artists were confused; they thought Brooks and Simpson were business partners. But Brooks denies he has any connections with Simpson other than being another act on the tour. Brooks, who appeared alongside Simpson in a photo promoting the release party, says it was his idea to host the event at Heroes because he knew the owner. Of the picture, Brooks says, "I regret that I did that." When he discovered earlier that day from a former troupe member that Simpson had made none of the arrangements he'd promised, "I was heartbroken," he says.

Brooks' business partner alerted the Eatonville cops working security at the club that there might be trouble. The officers led the entire troupe out to the parking lot.

But an officer said the department had nothing to arrest Simpson for. He had committed no crime, and the complaints sounded like a civil matter rather than a criminal one.

Simpson was still working the group. He asked everyone to follow him to a nearby Denny's, where the crowd remained hostile. "A couple of guys were ready to take off their chains and beat him down," Gonzalez recalls. "They were like, 'Move out the way.'"

But as Simpson kept talking, everybody calmed down. "He used the issue of trust to see who was on his side," says Gonzalez. And he persuaded the artists that the buses would arrive as scheduled.

Three days later, artists straggled on a Sunday evening to the Wal-Mart Plaza, though not everyone was packed and ready to go. "A couple of people showed up with no bags," Gonzalez says. "A couple of people showed up just to laugh. People showed up out of nowhere." Sanford police eventually arrived and wrote a complaint.

Simpson, meanwhile, seems to have little regard for the people he left standing in that parking lot. When Butler spoke with him several days after the Wal-Mart fiasco, Simpson didn't mention the tour at all. He was jealous that Butler, who goes by the stage name Picasso, had scored the telephone number of one of the dancers on tour -- a dancer Simpson apparently had his eye on. "He was more worried about getting some ass," Butler says.

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