In the basement, the air is thick, smoky, and humid -- like the early stages of a party that will grow unbearably hot, once people start showing up.
It's not a party, but a rehearsal for one: a show by two of Northeast Ohio's biggest hip-hop crews. One of them, Akron's Beatmakers Local 913, proved its might at a packed January gig in Akron's Highland Theater. The other, Cleveland's 12 Monkeys, is a collective of rhymers on the verge of busting out as well.
More than a dozen crews are crammed into the Beatmakers' practice space, yet there's an unlikely absence of tension between the home and visiting teams. They are black and white, street-smart and college-educated, swilling 40s and sipping bottled water. One wears a Kenny Rogers T-shirt, another sports Bob Marleywear. And they trade rhymes like brothers.
Beatmaker foreman Joe Minadeo knows the practices could have been a train wreck, just as many national posse tours are. But the rehearsal goes smoothly, the vibe is positive. One crew cheers the next. Every call meets a response. One group finishes a song, then passes the mic. Along flows the show.
Near the end of the practice, Cap C is on the mic, navy Kangol bell hat pulled low over his eyes. The rapper from the 12 Monkeys outfit Random X holds a Heineken in one hand, a mic in the other -- but the beer's a forgotten prop for now. At song's end, C pauses for an extra moment, offering a few last words before relinquishing the mic: "That shit was nice."
Like an army of worker ants, the Monkeys comprise half a dozen Cleveland groups, with extended family stretching from Lorain to Buffalo. Theirs isn't the hip-hop that blings on MTV, bumps on the radio, or gets in The Source. It's underground, but within reach of the surface.
The fast-rising Buffalo label DeepThinka has taken on several Monkey artists; recent releases include the Cleveland old-school duo Rime Royal's sold-out Royalties and the dark new album Obsidian, from the complex, futuristic locals Edotkom.
The hip-hop website urbansmarts.com praises the DeepThinka releases as reliably "just a little off to the regular." For the 12 Monkeys, style and originality are more important than working the words "club" and "thug" into their rhymes. And while humor is a key component of their work, their credibility goes without serious challenges. Hiphopinfinity.com called Obsidian "hip-hop as raw as it comes."
The basement rehearsal between the Beatmakers and Monkeys culminated in "Natural Selection," a three-hour concert at the Agora in late August that drew more than 200 people. The crowd was moved by the tandem crews, who knew the show would go off well. In hip-hop, teamwork always works.
The lesson isn't lost on MC Krossword of the white-boy hip-hop troupe Spittin' Image. The son of jazz vocalist Angel Rossi and her bass player, Jack Hanan, Krossword grew up watching Cleveland's rap cycles. The city had been home to dozens of basement labels, but Krossword saw no signs of the key element that made the Atlanta and Houston scenes shine: cooperation. By 2001, his own feet were immersed in the Cleveland scene, and he developed an idea he knew could help the underground get better: a confederation of rappers who would pool their resources to make bigger things happen.
Krossword wasn't the only one with a 12 Monkeys vision. MC Siege left Cleveland to attend Ohio State in 1994. In Columbus, he formed Mentally Unrested, a popular underground group. When he finished school, he returned home, where a once-vibrant scene was languishing.
"When I got back, the city was a bunch of followers, no leaders," says Siege. "That bothered me. When I left, people like Suave Gotti and Bone Thugs were doing their thing. Now you have people speaking in southern accents, because that's what people on TV do. That's not hip-hop. Hip-hop is being original."
Siege worked his way back into the Cleveland rap circuit, taking note of such rappers as hypemen Rime Royal, who earned a rep for their off-the-wall rhymes. After seeing Siege open a Beatnuts show, Krossword invited him to be Monkey No. 1. Siege jumped aboard, and others soon followed: complicated-rhyme writers Edotkom, freestyle fanatics Random X, punch-line rappers the Others, Buffalo's smoother-than-smooth Ajent O, street-savvy wordsmith Gator, and Spittin' Image, whose in-your-face performances brought mosh pits to the local hip-hop scene.
"Twelve Monkeys isn't actually a group, per se," explains Krossword. "We support each other. We work together on music. We're all good friends. When somebody's album comes out, everybody's there to support it. When somebody does a show, everybody's there to support it."
Booming underground or no, every bit of support helps. Krossword loves Cleveland, but he knows it's a harsh mother for rappers. The Agora opened its ballroom to "Natural Selection," and clubs such as Peabody's, the Grog Shop, and Symposium host occasional rap nights. Those are exceptions in a city short on stages for hip-hop.
But resentment doesn't drive 12 Monkeys. Quality does. Each member feels a keen sense of competition with his peers, a friendly desire to outperform the others.
"Some of the best people in Cleveland are in our organization," says Iyan Anomolie, a 12 Monkeys solo rhymer who's the group's resident Rastafarian and master storyteller. "We all have a hand out in a different direction, grabbing at something. And when one breaks, it all will."
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