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Back at school, he spent his senior year laboring through a series of freshman-level classes — in addition to honors physics, of all things.
"I think he's always had a chip on his shoulder, being a white kid. He feels he has to doubly prove himself every single time — not just that he can be a rapper, but that he can be a white kid that raps," says physics teacher James Schmidt, whose first encounter with Kelly almost led to blows: When Kelly was a sophomore, Schmidt confiscated his iPod, and the irate student tried to follow him out into the hallway to retrieve it.
Kelly forgot about the altercation until Schmidt jogged his memory two years later.
"I retold him the story, and he was like 'Oh my God, I totally remember that. I am so sorry, I feel so terrible that I was such a punk,'" Schmidt remembers hearing.
Kelly, too, remembers holding Schmidt in high regard.
"I was only a hard worker for him because he was the only teacher that was down and would encourage me, and didn't judge me because of my tattoos or my lifestyle," he says. "He was a father figure to me when I went to high school."
By spring, Kelly earned a diploma few thought he would ever grasp.
"It was really exciting for me, because me and my dad didn't think I was going to make it to graduate high school. If you see my high school picture, you will see how happy I was — it's the goofiest picture ever."
But within days of graduation, Kelly got into a brawl with his drunken father, who at one point tried to choke him. Eighteen and directionless, Kelly took to the streets.
After a week on his own, he turned to Brandon "Slim" Allen, a producer he'd met a few weeks earlier in a house on East 120th and Union that he'd been using as a recording studio.
"He calls me and is like 'Yo, are you trying to move in with me?'" Allen remembers hearing. He answered yes, figuring the two would find a place when the time was right.
"Next morning he showed up at my mom's house with a U-Haul truck," Allen says.
Soon after, Kelly had found an apartment on East 128th, in a decent part of East Cleveland, and he got a job making burritos at Chipotle — a job he promptly lost shortly after moving in. Kelly and Allen found themselves starving for food and money, their only meal the 20 chicken wings Allen would bring home from his job at Speedy's corner store each night at 12:30.
From there, the dominoes began to fall swiftly: Kelly and Allen were evicted, and Kelly's girlfriend got pregnant. Panicked and desperate, he tried his hand at selling weed in East Cleveland, but got out after being robbed a month later.
But if Kelly's day-to-day existence was in shambles, his music was finding fuel amid the misery.
"This cat is probably one of the most loyal people I've ever met," Cev says without looking up, his focus on the blood-red ink he is burrowing into Kelly's stomach. He has become the rapper's go-to guy for body art, although Kelly could have his pick of many others.
"He's got famous people offering him free tattoos, flying him out. He'll still call me and run it by me and ask me how I feel about it. I'm like, if it's not this guy or that guy, I'm not really into it. And he was like 'OK, I respect that' and won't do it. For a young guy to hold loyalty in such a high regard, to me, it said a lot about his character and let me know I could go above and beyond for him as an individual."
Cev has finished the word "Locals" in red ink, with part of each letter dripping down Kelly's stomach as if a psychopath had carved it into his own skin. For a moment, Kelly stands up to admire it in the mirror.
As Cev goes to work on "Only," Kelly doesn't so much as flinch. His body lay motionless, his face solemn, as he wanders off into talk about the women who rescued him.
Machine Gun Kelly was standing on a chair when he first encountered Ashleigh VeVerka in 2008. She worked for the Ohio Hip-Hop Awards, and Kelly was trying his damnedest to get noticed by somebody — anybody — at the group's new-music seminar in Cleveland.
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