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Despite Setbacks, Cleveland's Rap Scene Is Full of Promise

Even though it launched artists like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Kid Cudi, Cleveland's rap scene has always had its voids. Some new hubs for music are trying to change that.

From left to right, 100BandXan, Talk Chickens, and Rio the Mechanic / Photo by Litho Freeman of Bohemian Fliques

Cleveland is a stubborn town, and it always has been. We have a long history of losing. We haven’t won a national championship in any sport since 1964. Every Sunday in the fall Browns fans fill the lots and stadiums and cheer and get shitfaced, and we lose. Every single time. No matter what happens, we lose. Browns might win? Art Modell. Cavs might win? The Decision. The Return? Steph Curry. Kid Cudi? Hella loses there.


But still, excited fans rally around their teams, and every year at the beginning of the season we say “this is the year” (this is the year though this time for real—actually probably not; we’re never going to win anything ever). We always lose.

The rap scene is no different. You can have all the talent and hope, but ultimately all the real focus in the Cleveland music scene is in country music, rock bands, and venues that don’t want to host a lot of rap shows. People often ask me about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; I don’t think I know anyone my age who lives here who’s been to it. There’s a real disconnect between all the money and support for music in this city and the rap game. Cleveland is also a micro-isolationist state where everyone worries above all about opinions within the city, while at the same time reinforcing minor subdivisions by pigeonholing each other into groups and refusing to work together.

Look at the history of Cleveland rap and you can see examples of this: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the iconic Cleveland rap group—the only artists in history to work with Tupac, Biggie, and Eazy-E while all were still alive—sadly fell apart for several years due to members’ problems with drugs and prison. And they hadn’t really left anyone in their place: Every artist they had backed was grouped into the Bone Family and all pretty much rapped the same. No one was reaching out to other independant Cleveland rappers. Next there was Kid Cudi, a guy directly tied to one of rap’s biggest artists but who seemed above all interested in getting as far away from the city as he could. There have been a few other movements: such as Lebron’s crew 8081, the cap rap era with Chip the Ripper (now known as King Chip), Al Fatz, and Royalty Camp, and even Machine Gun Kelly, but nothing that captivated the entire city and beyond. There’s no one here like Gucci Mane or Drake who can wield the power of co-sign to recognize and elevate greatness. The only common thread amongst the few Cleveland rappers that ‘made it’ is they had to get far away from the city to succeed. Still, like the faithful Browns fans every Sunday, there are those who attempt to persevere in this environment and do something good for the city.


The city’s facing a number of obstacles that go beyond music, too. Cleveland is a city that’s known for being tough and violent, and our annual homicide statistics have peaked in what has been a particularly tragic year. There was one 30-day stretch this fall in which three children under the age of five were killed in apparent stray bullets from gang violence. And we found ourselves in the media spotlight last fall after police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The same weekend that happened, five people including a pregnant woman were killed execution-style in their family home on the east side. The police department here has been under investigation for a car chase that led to two unarmed suspects dead and 137 shots fired on busy public roads, as well as their involvement in the killing of one of the city’s up and coming rap talents. It’s been a rough year in the city, but it’s always a rough year.

Photo by Erik Drost, via Flickr/Creative Commons

Luckily there are a few good things happening to help cultivate a pretty good scene here despite the setbacks. At the center of things is the boutique Heart&Sole, which acts as a hub for the scene, hosting meet and greets with major artists and sponsoring rap shows at historic venue the Grog Shop up the street (itself deserving of a shout out for being the main venue holding down the Cleveland underground scene). On any given day you can catch any of the artists mentioned here in the shop. It’s where a lot of ideas for projects or relationships for collaborations start. Also notable is management group NVRCH, who have nurtured many of the city’s budding acts. There are things building in Cleveland; you just have to know where to look.


Ski Mask Malley

Jamahl Drake, a.k.a. Mal G, a.k.a. Ski Mask Malley, is Cleveland’s most promising young talent. Unfortunately, he’s currently serving a nine-year sentence for his involvement in a murder outside of a neighborhood bar. After landing a local radio hit in 2008 with “Polo Man,” and building a catalog of fire mixtapes under the name Mal G—as well as outlasting murder charges and an attempt on his life that left him in a coma for over a month—he teamed up with local artist management and development team NVRCH, rebranded himself as Ski Mask Malley, and worked with Elevator to package what looked like an extremely marketable and good rap project. Everything was set to go, with his debut national mixtape being shopped around and all the right people and blogs waiting for it. It felt like a chance for Cleveland rap to finally get national attention for an act who is authentic and whose music is reflective of what life is like here. Everything changed on September 20, 2014 after a dispute outside of a nightclub left one woman dead and Mal as a suspect. Mal received a nine year sentence for manslaughter, and his codefendant got 18 years. The tape eventually came out, and it’s great. But due to lack of touring and press possibilities it didn’t get much attention outside of the city.

Kenn Ball

Kenny Smith a.k.a. Kenn Ball was executed by an off-duty Cleveland Police officer outside of a downtown club on March 10, 2012. That’s not exactly what the County Prosecutor’s office or any investigations made by the Department of Justice would say happened, but it was clear to anyone who knew Kenny, as well as to a jury of eight in a civil suit against the city that awarded his family $5.5 million dollars in a wrongful death ruling.


His song “Dinner Date” has become a staple of Cleveland rap, and its words loom over us every time we hear it. Words like “I’m just tryna live, I’m just tryna live” grow more prophetic everyday. Before his untimely death a lot of us didn’t know Kenn Ball or were just starting to hear of him; now every time we hear that song it’s a bitter reminder to appreciate what you can while you can, because in this city anything can be taken from you in an instant. The beat was put together by Nate Fox and TrapMoneyBenny.

Nate Fox

Formerly known as All Day Recess, Nate Fox was making beats, rapping, and singing hooks for himself, and multiple other acts including Tezo, Purple Monkey Sircus, and Curtis WIlliams. One summer he packed up and moved to LA and got a job engineering in a studio, eventually connecting with Chance the Rapper, who brought him on to executive produce Acid Rap. Now, he’s a key part of Chance’s band The Social Experiment. Although no longer based out of Cleveland, he’s one of the main musicians behind one of the year’s most musical hip-hop albums, Surf.


Adding to the list of producers who were in Cleveland but moved out of state and found much better connections, Benny has been working with a slew of rappers, including Gucci Mane, Quavo, Peewee Longway, Chief Keef, Playboi Carti, Yung Gleesh, Key!, and several other memebers of two9, ever since moving to Atlanta. He recently did a beautiful remix of MADEINTYO’s “Uber Everywhere” that brought a new level of appreciation to the song for me. But while he's based out of Atlanta now, he got his start in the same house that recorded Tezo, Ben West, Ski Mask Malley, Ken Ball, Nate Fox, Lorine Chia and a few others.



Tezo got his start at 16 with his first hit song “My Guy.” This was during the Chip the Ripper, Al Fatz, and Royalty Camp era of “Cappin” rap, the mid-2000s style popularized by Texas rappers such as Dirty South Rydaz that had a good run in Cleveland. He was the headliner of the NVRCH roster, and he has gone on to grow and develop in the industry, releasing a mixtape with DJ Holiday and working with King Chip. He’s been a name in the scene here for a decade now, and he’s still going strong.

Slim Slater

In July 2014 Slim Slater dropped the song of the summer for Cleveland with “Bitch Took A Loss,” catapulting him into the ranks of Cleveland rappers actually getting played in the club and on the radio in the city. Slim’s distinctive voice and almost deadpan monotone delivery over the fluttery cords of the sample complimented each other so well. It was a refreshing new sound to hear from someone locally. Soon anthemic lines like “asking a bitch what she bitchin’ about is like asking a bitch what she bitchin’ about” were being shouted out by crowds at shows and clubs, and pouring out of car speakers up and down the ave.

Rio The Mechanic

A lot of Slim’s success can be attributed to veteran producer Rio the Mechanic. Rio’s production list covers a few of the city’s established artists including Ray Cash and Ducky Smallz, but more recently he’s been developing and executive producing debut mixtapes for emerging artists such as EriQ LaRon, Dre Mickle, Lo Life Lane, Talk Chickens, 100BandXan, and Slim.

When I first met Rio in the mid 2000s he was making beats reminiscent of Dilla and the Detroit beat scene, but even back then he was doing his thing differently than everyone else. He once showed me an SP-1200 hooked up to a VCR: He always had some forward-thinking ideas about sampling and building constructing your beat.


100BandXan and Talk Chickens

Lenny Taylor is the perfect example of what Rio has been building over the last year with a studio formerly located on the city’s south side. Xan has gone on to produce several projects for some of the artists that work under Rio. Talk Chickens and Rio just dropped a joint project called FACTS.

Lo Life Lane

Lo Life Lane is a former intern for Heart&Sole who has recently teamed up with 100BandXan to release the ep FLAGRANT featuring a track with ASAP Ant/YG Addie.


KEYEL is a group consisting of Holy, Twizz, Pablo Amor, and DJ Eso, with Eso manning the turntables and the other three all rapping and producing for themselves and each other. The group has sprouted out into several other projects, ranging from collaborative beat tapes to incredibly soulful neo-R&B type stuff. At their core they are a group influenced by the Detroit/Dilla sound, but each of the four members has so much talent and their own style it’s hard to boil down their extensive catalog into a paragraph. Some of my favorite tracks off their Vol. 1 project include “6_30,” “H.A.Y.B.,” and “Diddy Bop.” DJ Eso is also the owner of Heart&Sole and a kind of a linchpin of the Cleveland scene, DJing in local clubs and breaking new records like “Bitch Took a Loss.”

Alloy X

Alloy X is another collective that’s had success branching out outside of Cleveland but still stays very rooted in the scene here. Started by Urbindex, an incredibly versatile and young producer and rapper, the overall collective features several Boston-area artists picked up during Urbindex’s time at Berklee. The group’s Cleveland roster boasts Ghost Noises, Smoke Screen, their collaborative project Smoke Noises, and A/V. All of these artists are tied in through Heart&Sole, where Urbindex got his start as a 17 year old. Smoke Screen and Ghost Noises have been resident acts at the Heart&Sole basement parties from the beginning, and A/V forms one half of the group Mortar Team with Holy of KEYEL. Few people exhibit as much dedication to working together to better the city as the people involved in the larger circle of the Heart&Sole side of the Cleveland rap scene.


In a city lacking of a unified sound, where everyone fights to be something different, I can honestly say DO$E MONEY is the most out there and different rap act I’ve ever seen. I’ve only seen them perform live once, and I have a feeling that’s because the show was so crazy the venue never wanted to work with them again. DO$E MONEY is Grateful Dead meets O Block. It’s like if Albert Hoffman left the bike at home and pulled up in a candy painted foreign. Imagine Timothy Leary but if he had bars. The stage at their show was mobbed with kids, half of whom looked like they just stepped out of the bando and the other half out of a jam band. Before they even got on stage someone in the crowd had flipped out in some sort of bad acid trip and had to be removed. When they finally did hit the stage neither they nor the crowd could be contained. It was so surreal to see these two cultures not just converging but piercing the depths of each other so deeply. I have no idea what to expect from them in the future, but I’m definitely watching.

Dan Burns is petitioning against Kid Cudi at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter.