In mid-December, Judge Genece Brinkley ruled that a North Philly man violated his probation, and said he couldn’t leave the city at least until his next hearing in February.
In ruling on the case of Robert Rihmeek Williams, Brinkley more or less immediately stranded an A-list celebrity entourage in Philadelphia these past two months. It’s an especially big boost to a city where celebrity sightings have recently dipped because missing state tax credits means film shoots have been cancelled (no Pa. budget, no credits).
That’s because Williams is better known by his stage name, Meek Mill. And it helps a little that his girlfriend — the reason he’d blown probation — is one of the biggest stars on the planet: Nicki Minaj.
The recent curb on Mill’s mobility hasn’t been great for his surging music career — “How is it legal for a judge to say someone can’t work, can’t make an honest dollar?” asked his uncle Ronald Parker, rhetorically — nor will jail time be, which is the expected outcome of next week’s sentencing. But it has been great for raising the profile of Philly establishments — from the Sixers to Winterfest to South Bowl.
Birth of a hometown star
Right now he’s arguably the city’s biggest rap star, but when Mill was growing up in North Philadelphia, he was known as the quiet kid.
“I never heard him say much of anything,” said Parker, one of 14 aunts and uncles who collectively raised the lyricist after his father was killed when he was five years old. “When I listened to his CD, it blew my mind. I was like, whoa, could that really be Meek?”
That was back in 2011, when Mill signed with Rick Ross’ MMG record label. Over the next few years, his hits continued with several popular mixtapes and two Billboard-topping studio albums, despite several brief interludes in jail (all stemming from violations of his probation after a 2008 stint for gun possession). In early 2015, he hooked up with rap goddess Nicki Minaj, and the two became an item, lofting Mill into the international spotlight.
Of course, after spending last year jetting around the globe as opening act on Minaj’s world tour, Mill has been stuck in Philadelphia since Dec. 17, when Brinkley declared he couldn’t leave the five-county region until the Feb. 5 sentencing for violating his probation…again.
But the upside, at least for Philly celeb seekers, is that Minaj is so enamored with her beau she’s essentially moved here to be with him while he waits for his court date.
Basketball, ice skating, bowling and more
“Nicki has been staying at a Center City hotel — I’m not going to say which one, but you can tell if you look at the background of some of her selfies,” said HughE Dillion, aka Philly Chit Chat, the prolific society photographer who’s been called Philly’s lone paparazzo. “At the hotel she’s been very low-key. She walks through the lobby and nobody recognizes her, because she doesn’t have her makeup or clothes done.”
Things are different on Instagram, of course, where a simple mirror shot (what hotel is it?) with a shout out “Philly nights” pulls in 669,000 hearts.
And elsewhere in Philly, Minaj has definitely been recognized. She and Mill treated some nieces and nephews to a night of ice skating at the Blue Cross RiverRink on the Delaware waterfront:
And hit up South Bowl for some family time on the lanes — now at least 450,000 people know what the inside of the South Philly bowling alley slash bar looks like:
The couple has become pretty much all anyone talks about at Sixers games:
Finally, a reason to visit the Wells Fargo Center:
Where Mill’s been making kids happy by attending practice:
He also surprised legendary hip-hop artist Montell Jordan (of “This Is How We Do It” fame) by joining him for a song at a Sixers charity reception.
A welcome boost
All of it has been a welcome boost for the local celeb scene, which had been dragging of late.
“My celebrity business dried up lately because the budget hasn’t passed,” Philly Chit Chat’s Dillon said. Yes, another casualty of the 2015 budget impasse was the loss of tax incentives that help draw Hollywood productions to the state. So blame Gov. Wolf if you were hoping to catch Luke Evans, James Brolin or Maggie Gyllenhaal around town — they were slated to shoot a film called Three Seconds here, but production was scrapped due to budgetary issues, just two days before the scheduled start of principal photography.
“No one comes without the tax credits,” said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. However, Pinkenson was upbeat. “I just got back from L.A. and Sundance, and I think we’re going to have a really busy spring, summer and fall this year.”
“There are bills in the legislature to expand the tax credits, too,” she continued. “And we did just have Creed, which brought a ton of celebrities to town.”
Creed, the Rocky sequel centered around Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, also relied on Meek Mill for some of its Philly cred. Street riding on dirt bikes — famously a Meek Mill hobby — was prominently featured, and Mill rapped on three of the soundtrack’s 18 songs. Still, it was just one movie.
“Creed was a big deal but we used to get more productions,” said Molly Eichel, former Daily News gossip columnist. “I thought Comcast acquiring NBC/Universal would change things but so far it has not,” she said. “Plus, we’ll always be a two hour drive away from New York, so that doesn’t help [with the city’s celeb density].”
On the other hand, Philly’s proximity to NYC can be a plus. For Minaj, it’s made it easy for her to alternate boyfriend time with trips to Brooklyn, where she’s filming “Nicki,” a scripted ABC Family TV series based on her life.
“As far as cities that aren’t LA or New York to be stuck in for a few months with your significant other, Philly’s not a bad choice,” said Dan Gross, who was Daily News gossip columnist before Eichel and now runs his own strategic and crisis consulting firm, Gross Communications.
“Nicki staying in town with Meek reminds me of when Miley Cyrus lived here for a couple of months,” he said, referring to 2012, when Smiley Miley was dating Liam Hemsworth during shooting for Paranoia. “She did a lot of recording at [now-closed] Sigma Sound Studios.”
No matter what happens with the budget, Philadelphia can expect an influx of Hollywood stars this July when the 2016 Democratic National Convention comes to town. During the 2012 convention, Charlotte, N.C., hosted Scarlett Johansson, Mary J. Blige, James Taylor and will.i.am, among a ton of other stars. In 2008, Denver brought out George Clooney, Matt Damon, Zooey Deschanel and Sheryl Crow, along with plenty of their fellow headliners.
‘A dark day for Meek’
As exciting as it’s been for fans to have Mill and Minaj around — and as nice as it’s been for Meek’s family to have him in town — the underlying reason he’s here is still a downer.
“To be honest, he’s been doing all this community service and everything, but he really hasn’t been eating well,” said his uncle Parker. Indeed, an scheduled appearance last week at the Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School was cancelled because the rhymer was feeling “under the weather.”
Parker noted that the violated probation was not for a violent act, but “mostly for clerical stuff — it’s not like he was in gun battles,” and that prevailing feeling around North Philly was the only reason Mill was about to be sentenced was his fame.
“If he was just plain old Robert Williams, they would never be putting him through this,” Parker said, adding that “Feb. 5 will be a dark day for him.” He relayed a thought the rap star had recently imparted to him:
“I don’t even know if I like being Meek Mill no more.”