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Bling-blinged to the teeth

His name is Paul Slayton, better known as the

Houston-based rapper Paul Wall. And these days, it's hard for him not to

spontaneously grin, revealing some $25,000 worth of jewelry on his teeth - a

fact he likens to having a disco ball inside his mouth.

After all, his collaboration with rap superstar Nelly on the song "Grillz,"

an ode to platinum- and diamond-encrusted teeth, is the No. 1 song on the

Billboard charts this week as fans nationwide race to their local jewelers for

some dental glitter of their own.

"It's been incredible," says Wall, 24, whose latest album, "The People's

Champ," was released last fall. "It's exciting to see how grills has taken off.

I definitely see more people saying how much they love it."

Wall has unique insight into grills, having outfitted an endless galaxy of

hip-hop stars such as Jermaine Dupri and Lil' Wayne with customized sets

through TV Jewelry, a store he and jeweler Johnny Dang opened in 1998 in

Houston. "We take pride in the unique craftsmanship - it's elegant and it's

flashy," Wall says.

Decades in the making

The grills phenomenon, of course, has a long history. Once crafted solely

for corrective dental procedures such as crowns and fillings, gold-capped teeth

- also called "fronts" - slowly became chic in the late 1970s. By the early

'80s, as hip-hop became mainstream, stars such as the late Jam Master Jay of

Run-DMC and rappers LL Cool J and Roxanne Shant� took gold to new stylistic

heights.

Yet it was the British-born and Bronx-reared rapper Slick Rick, revered for

witty rhymes and eye-dazzling jewelry, who is credited with creating early

demand for grills. "They weren't all pimps, but I'd see guys on the street who

dressed really flashy. I remember seeing one guy who had a ruby in his mouth,"

Slick Rick says. "Growing up, I just tried to blend their style with mine."

A Southern tradition

The popularity of grills would come and go, but it remained a fixture in

SWouthern states. Once southern rap emerged in the late '90s and gave rise to

everyone from Juvenile to Lil' Jon & The East Side Boyz, jewelry-coated teeth

have become as enduring a symbol in hip-hop as rope chains and Kangols.

"Pamela Anderson, Ashton Kutcher and Elton John can wear all the bling they

want, but there's one place they'll never go. They won't get fronts because

it's one of the last things that hip-hop is keeping for itself," says Minya Oh,

the Hot 97 personality also known as Miss Info and author of "Bling Bling: Hip

Hop's Crown Jewels." "People don't want rappers to look like everyone else

walking down the street - they want them to look like royalty."

But these days, merely watching rap stars shine just isn't enough. Richard

Simon, 27, a chef from Trinidad who lives in Flatbush, paid $900 at a jewelry

store in Brooklyn's Fulton Mall for the removable white-gold and diamond fronts

that adorn his top and bottom teeth.

"This is a piece of my urban culture that I choose to hold onto," says

Simon. "When I first met my girlfriend, she said, 'I like everything about you

except one thing.' And I was like, 'Uh. I don't know if we can make this work

because I love my fronts.' Now she understands and sees them as a part of me."

Urban jewelers and such Web sites as gangstagold.com are overwhelmed trying

to keep pace.

"It's been crazy. People are asking for grills with multicolored gold and

diamonds that stretch out to eight teeth," says Rudy "Freeze" Athouriste, owner

of Daed Jewelers in Miami. "A lot of people are trying to incorporate this

into their budget. And with tax time and refunds coming up, just imagine what's

about to happen," says Freeze, who has been designing grills for seven years.

Still a discreet business

Locally, jewelry shops from West 125th Street to Jamaica Avenue sell them

but are generally discreet because the practice has raised health issues.

To produce the fronts, jewelers use a waxy substance to create a dental

impression, which is then coated with additional chemical solutions and left

for 30 minutes to harden. The metal is then designed to the customer's taste.

The New York State Dental Association recommends that any work involving a

dental procedure be done by a licensed professional. Dentists also caution

grill wearers about the health risks.

"If we're just talking about something that fits and isn't worn all the

time, then that's OK," says Dr. Matthew Messina, a spokesman for the American

Dental Association. "But if it's worn for long intervals, there's a serious

risk for tooth decay."

Chris Ehrmann, 25, an associate photo editor at the hip-hop magazine XXL,

has heard the warnings and says he's vigilant about dental hygiene. Yet unlike

most grill wearers, who slip them on for weekend outings, Ehrmann removes his

14-karat yellow gold grill only to eat and sleep. "It's my way of

self-expression," he says. "Even though I work in hip-hop, sometimes it shocks

people because I'm white. But it's becoming commercialized, so everyone is

wearing them."

Conflict over diamonds

Despite its surging popularity, critics say grills are yet another example

of hip-hop's maddening obsession with bling. Rappers such as Chuck D and Talib

Kweli, however, rail against the use of "conflict diamonds" culled from mines

in African war zones. When asked about the controversy over grills, Wall says,

"You can spend $200 or $50 for tennis shoes - it's about what you can afford."

Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, author and veteran hip-hop journalist, says the

industry's fascination with avarice should be viewed in a broader context.

"Most rappers are young men from fairly tough circumstances who dreamed of

matching the materialism they saw in captains of industry like Donald Trump,"

Hinds says. "We need to do a better job at promoting what financial empowerment

really means."

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