A Mercedes E-Class, the kind you see in all the hip-hop videos, pulls up to the Ponderosa at Southgate and bystanders stare. What else would you expect M.C. Brains to be driving?
After all, Brains' gold-certified single "Oochie Coochie" made him the first major-label rapper out of Cleveland. Made him a fat knot as well. But before we can hop in, we notice the driver. It's not Brains. It's a portly, brown, salt-and-pepper Shaker retiree.
We catch ourselves just as Brains pulls around the Benz in a '96 Sable wagon. Clean, but with no hydraulics, no 15-inch speakers -- only the luxuries it left the factory with and a female passenger in tow.
Aside from the white do-rag and the Browns jersey, he looks just as you remember him. "Follow me," he says. "I gotta make a run." We don't ask the whereabouts of his Bentley or his iced-up, gunned-down posse: We just follow.
We end up tooling through the Middle-American lawns of Maple Heights, where Brains resides nowadays. He travels light, with a woman who's not at all hard on the eyes. She could pass for a hip-hop paramour, but lately she's passing as Delores, Brains' mother. We're dropping her and her lot of lucky charms off at the Holy Trinity hall, where she plays bingo religiously. "Don't put that in the article," she warns with a smirk, balancing bags of pictures, stuffed animals, and other talismans. No, of course we won't.
Rappers always rap about their drug-addicted, welfare-dependent mothers on the struggle. Maybe Brains should do a bingo-in-the-'hood rap and dedicate it to Mom. "Yeah, man . . . maybe," he chuckles, as we find seats in the near-empty bar at Southgate Lanes.
He removes a Black & Mild from his breast pocket, displaces its contents, then re-rolls his dimestore Habana into a street-legal blunt. "I guess she just loves to play the game. She puts her heart into it."
As we talk, the bartendress and her friend are eavesdropping. Finally, having worked up some courage, she interjects from across the room, "Excuse me. Ek-SKUSE me! Are you a famous rapper or something?"
Brains take a swig of beer, cocks his head slightly. "Sumthin' like that," he says.
He returns to the story he's telling, a humbling saga about his introduction to groupies. One night, a "homegirl came over and I asked her what she was doing after the set, and she said, 'Goin' with you.'" Later, back at the hotel, they did the nasty. Tired, he took a nap. "I woke up, she was gone, and I found myself robbed -- $500, Rolex, jewelry, all that. My first groupie robbed me blind."
The bartendress queries again.
"EXCUSE me!" she shouts. "What's yo', like, rapper name?"
"MC Brains," he responds.
The bartender furrows her brow. Her girlfriend scratches behind her ear and shrugs. "MC WHO?" the women ask in unison, choking back a chuckle.
Brains shrugs it away, but he's injured. After all the records, all the love, and all the sweat he's given his city, no one knows his name. He shrugs off the query, sitting back in his seat, silent for a moment. There's a way a man with a broken heart carries himself.
Back in the Day
A cheap new freebase cocaine infiltrated the 115th and Union area in the mid-'80s. Though drug-running was the after-school job of choice, music distracted James Deshannon Davis. He started making music with his mouth for the B-Boy Emcees, young ghetto celebs who rocked the playground, the lunchroom, and every rhyme cipher in the neighborhood.
Davis played the dozens with his crew, "And that's how I got my name," he says. "We'd call each other 'MC Head' or 'MC Nose' -- just whatever. Somehow, someone called me 'MC Brains,' and it just stuck."
Davis was content to be the backbeat, until he discovered that puffin' stuff wasn't too popular with the ladies. So he wrote rhymes, and word traveled that he was an MC of note. "There was a whole underground community that used to hang out at EQ's studio, and I became part of that clique."
Gerald "EQ" Robinson of Masterwerks Studios, an underground recording studio in Buckeye, was among the first to take notice of Brains. "I took Brains in after I heard about him," says Robinson. "Way before that 'Oochie Coochie' shit." Brains' way with lyrics, combined with his youth and pinup appeal, made him a candidate for stardom, Robinson says. "He had a street edge, but with charisma and a certain polish."
Brains played talent shows and worked his mojo on the local festival circuit. Robinson made the instrumental rap-over tapes for him and others, including a scraggly group creeping on a come-up: BONE Enterprises -- a.k.a. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
"Silver" Bill Richards, tireless agitator and purveyor of local hip-hop, booked Brains and others on the local circuit, using his clout to get gigs anywhere there was a stage.
"The stage is a funny thing," Brains says. "I think I was born with the stage thing."
A family friend who managed the group encouraged Brains to go solo. While performing as an opening act at Metropolis in the Flats, Brains got the attention of rapper Ice Cube, one of the few hip-hop artists to secure an independent-label deal in the early '90s. Cubey came a-courtin', but there was never a deal of substance on the table, though Cube was genuinely excited about Brains' talent.
"Cube really wanted Brains," says Silver B. "He was sending people from L.A. to check out all of his shows and the whole nine. But the business was never right." (Ice Cube, working on his next film, could not be reached for comment.)
Richards was glad that Brains didn't sign. After all, Brains was a "positive rapper" who often performed black-history raps. He had mainstream marketability that the self-described "Nigga You Love to Hate" could tarnish.
At that point, Brains' dreams of rap stardom could've shriveled -- if not for breakfast at Denny's.
The Denny's Incident
It's 3 a.m., a mean Cleveland winter storm is blowing, and the phone rings. A friend working at Denny's on Northfield Road calls to tell Brains that Michael Bivins and his entourage have stopped in for breakfast.
It's 1992, and Bivins is the hot artist/producer, the precursor to Puff Daddy. Not only did he maintain dual membership in New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe, but as CEO of his own label on Motown Records called BivTen, he produced and signed kiddie-whistle Another Bad Creation and late-model doo-wops Boys II Men. With his groups rocking the charts across the radio dial, Bivins was becoming a pop-music monster. Word was that he recruited from the Midwest and the East Coast almost exclusively. And he was always looking for new talent.
"It was a school night, but I woke my Moms up and told her we had to get up to Denny's to meet him," says Brains. "She put on a nightgown, a long trench coat, and jumped in the ride." When they arrived, Bivins and company were leaving.
"I kinda choked up," he says, eyes welling even as he retells it. "But my Moms wasn't having that. So, fuzzy slippers and all, she maneuvered in between Mike's security to meet him face to face. She said, 'My baby got me up out of bed to come rap for you, and I need you to hear him.' Mike motioned for me to get out of the car, and by this time, people had followed him out and packed the parking lot. So I just rapped about what was going on around me. Two days later, I had a plane ticket and a letter. Mike wanted me to come out [to L.A.] and start recording."
Bivins set him up in an expensive hotel room and gave him a Range Rover, a cell phone, and a female to show him around. MC Brains was 15 years old. Welcome to Los Angeles.
Brains fell into Bivins's stable, known as the East Coast Family, naturally. There was a lot of party and bullshit for about three weeks. Then they got down to business.
Bivins brought Brains a tape of an instrumental track and asked him to write lyrics consistent with the title Bivins had already given it: "Oochie Coochie." Brains didn't like the music -- hated the title -- but wrote the rap in two hours, recording it the following day in one take.
Like any good posse member, Brains hung out with the East Coast Family and tagged along to television appearances, including Showtime at the Apollo, filmed at Harlem's storied Apollo Theater. Bivins asked Brains if he was interested in debuting his song in front of one of the toughest crowds in the world, known for being brutal and unforgiving. Brains got a standing ovation. He signed a $300,000 contract in the dressing room afterward, mother by his side.
Motown got hot for an album straightaway. Three weeks later, Lover's Lane was complete. "Oochie Coochie" led as the single and met a red-hot reception, with multiple black- and pop-radio spins and a video in regular rotation. Brains was on top of the world.
And that's when Cleveland shit on him.
Home Is Where the Haterz Are
MC Chill -- a.k.a. Kevin Heard -- was the first big rapper out of Cleveland. His "Bust This Rhyme," released in 1986, stayed on the Billboard charts for nine weeks, peaking at No. 70. It was one of the first radio-friendly rap records and an instant classic. Chill remembers Brains from their talent-show days. "Brains was dope, no doubt about that. His flow -- the whole way he attacked the microphone -- had a flavor that unfortunately never ended up on wax."
Though versatile, Brains was known in Cleveland for his lyrical venom. But to some, the hook for his single, Oochie coochie la la la/I am the Brains and I'm up to par, sounded a lot like the mating call of a sellout. Brains was the prototypical "hip-pop" rapper before rap was mainlined into white culture. He was the dapper rapper with a sexy, nonthreatening message, just rapping for the honeys. No harm could come of that.
BivTen broke ground by cross-marketing his look and sound for mass appeal, fostering a new movement in the process. "Brains had an incredible influence on the 'hip-hop pop' phenomenon," says EQ. "The fact is, that business model wasn't really there before Brains did his thing."
To many hardcore rap fans, however, any rap with crossover potential was, by definition, lame and inauthentic. Brains' new look and sound did well with the fat-bottomed white girls in the farmlands, but not with his boys in the 'hood.
"Most people from [his neighborhood] are all loc'd out and embrace that lifestyle," EQ says with a heavy sigh. "When people think you ain't representing like you should, people start to act funny."
Brains had been doing promotional tours around the country. But when he came home, he was greeted with hostility.
"I never flaunted my success. I could have easily leased a Benz, but instead I bought myself a classic: an '83 Bonneville. Candy-painted it, dropped some 14-inch rims on it, with 'Brainstorming' painted on the 'hood. Well, I'd come into town, and the first thing I would do is go clubbin'. One night, I went to the Cotton Club, just parked my car in the lot. When I had come back out, the car was totaled. People had thrown bricks and bottles at it, stripped it down, pissed all in the interior."
"By the time Brains came out," Chill says, "there were other acts springing up, and their whole vibe was like 'I'm from HERE.' They were representing a kind of counterculture, an underground scene in their city."
Brains' management didn't get the memo.
Every trip home turned into a nightclub brawl, as every trip to a club fostered resentment and jealousy -- all because managerial and technical fouls enraged the city.
"Oochie Coochie" reached No. 21 on the Billboard pop chart, spent 16 weeks on the hip-hop/R&B charts, and stayed No. 1 for two weeks during its 15-week residence on the rap chart. It was propelled by the standard music video and promotional posters, with Brains gazing pensively into the camera, reppin' for his 'hood.
One problem: In the video as well as all the promotional swag, Brains can clearly be seen wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey -- representing, to be sure, but for Svengali Michael Bivins's hometown.
It's a Rap, the local hip-hop tip sheet of the day, ran a piece about the slight. That one misstep birthed a beef that lasts to this day. MC Brains -- the first rap act ever signed to Motown, the first Cleveland rapper on a major label -- didn't rep for his city.
"I've always wondered why he didn't have any Cleveland gear on in that video," says Saunders Henderson, proprietor of Nikki's Tapes and CDs on Buckeye. "Back then it wasn't like it is now . . . He kinda had an obligation to put Cleveland on the map. He wore the wrong jersey, and people hated him for that shit."
Unfortunately for Brains, there was no manual for young hip-hop celebrity.
"I was just 16 years old," he says, souring at the inquiry. "I didn't pick my clothes out. Mike wanted to represent where he came from, and when you got someone that gives you clean underwear, money, and makes you famous, whatever they tell you to do, you do. It was Mike's mistake, marketing me like an R/B act. He just didn't understand hip-hop."
What his detractors didn't know is that Brains hired Clevelanders as his dancers and stage handlers. Todd Samms, who now dances with Usher, started out as a dancer for Brains. Call Brains naive, accuse him of a fashion faux pas, but allegations of hip-hop treason seem overboard. When he was able, he gave back as best he could.
"Fuck a jersey," says Brains. "I wuz reppin' for my city, man. I put people to work in the industry that got jobs till this day!" He stands up and leans across the table into the tape recorder. "So you mean to say, jus' because I'm a rapper and on TV, I can't jus' be wearing a jersey because it might go nice with my outfit?"
Could this be the burden that comes with being The First? "I think that's a matter of fuckin' opinion," he says, smacking his words hard on the table, disrupting a blunt in mid-freak, scattering tobacco.
The jersey brouhaha was aggravated by garbled lyrics in "Oochie Coochie" that got mangled in the mix-down. "There was this one line where the background rapper says something like 'Ohio HOLDS --Brains da chief rocka'," EQ recalls. "But even now, it sounds an awful lot like she's saying 'Ohio HOEZ.'" Hip-hop wars start over less than bad enunciation buried in a poor mix. It doesn't take much to piss off a city hungry for a hero, and the perceived dis was all it took to alienate them.
"He never got a fair shake in Cleveland," says Henderson.
New and Improved
According to SoundScan, the music industry accountant, Lover's Lane and all subsequent singles sold a total of 825,000 units domestically -- in addition to untold numbers abroad, which the service doesn't track. It was with these numbers and respectable chart success that MC Brains, by this time 18, prepared for a second album. He was older and wiser and -- tired of being mismarketed as a hip-hop/R&B hybrid -- anxious to have more control over his career.
Though Bivins was doing well with Brains, the same could not be said of BivTen's other artists, resulting in strained relations with parent company Motown. Kiddie cash cow Another Bad Creation outgrew its playground appeal, and Boys II Men signed directly with Motown. Brains was the big dog on a roster that consisted of Bivins's faltering Bell Biv Devoe, a group called the Whytegize, and a troupe of zeroes with corny names. The fact that Brains was Bivins's only viable talent should have made them closer. Instead, it became the wedge that forced them apart.
"I'd actually done four or five songs, and creatively, I got a bit more control," Brains says. "I wanted to see my sound and vision grow. I feel like Mike intentionally stunted my growth as an artist out of jealousy, intentionally sabotaging projects and relationships that could have made me a star."
Brains says that Bivins, acting as his manager, turned down two movie deals and lucrative soundtrack appearances. One deal, he says, was for a film written and directed by John Singleton, who cherry-picked Brains for a lead role, only to be rebuffed by Bivins. Poetic Justice would eventually star Janet Jackson and martyred rapper Tupac Shakur as the male lead. (Neither Bivins nor Singleton responded to interview requests.)
"He kept some things from me that he shouldn't have," says Brains. "He gave me an audience and the No. 1 rap song in the country, so I ain't mad. As a person he was cool, but he wasn't fair to me on the business side."
Brains never had a lawyer look at his contract, and now he was catching hell on the back side. The contract was for one album with a three-year option, but Brains refused to record, preferring to wait out the remainder of his contract, effectively falling out of the consumer's mind.
"If Mike would have let me go as soon as things started getting bad," he says, "I was so hot at the time, I could have went to go sign with anyone. I didn't have that option. I didn't really know what to do to get out of my contract."
After sitting out his contract, Brains replaced the "s" with a "z" in the belief that it denoted maturity, cornrowed his hair, and released Brainwash in '96 on Ichiban Records, a bare-bones but moderately successful rap label out of Detroit. Brains claims it sold "a good 50,000" units globally, but according to SoundScan, it went wood in the 'hood, selling only 1,200 domestically.
It's possible that he may have sold 49,800 units abroad, but "hip-hop generally doesn't export very well," says Jeff Mayfield of Billboard magazine. "I'd be really surprised that a release did those kinds of numbers internationally and didn't sell anywhere near as well here in the States."
EQ, who watches the industry trends from the underground, offers another perspective: "Foreign markets are hungry for hip-hop, and they don't hold it to the same criteria for quality that we do. I know for a fact that Brains had a helluva fan base overseas. So it's possible that Brainwash could have done bigger, better numbers elsewhere."
Then he adds, "It's possible, but not likely."
With the new release, Brainz changed his whole image -- and may have alienated his fan base.
"When all the hype died down, I took it in stride, man," says Brains. "I never really was one to go out on the set talkin' about 'Look at ME! I'm MC BRAINS!'"
He invested his money and got involved in real estate. "I'm not materialistic. So as long as I can eat good, I'm cool. Remember: Even though there were rocky places in my career, it was successful. I was on the road for two years nonstop, making money. I was ignorant about the way the music industry worked, but I knew how to count money."
Although he claims he didn't need the money, he took a job in 1998 at a small bottled water company "delivering water to white folks" because it was fun. "Jus' outta boredom, man," he says. "Making $12 an hour, and it was the most content money I'd ever earned in my life. It was nice earning money as James Davis."
The company closed a few years back. "I'd take the job back, if I could," he says.
These days, he's rapping, writing, and planning his comeback between frames.
That's right: James Davis is an avid bowler, 11 years strong. He's even joined a league. "Yeah," he snarls through blunt smoke, "I'm dangerous."
Brains has fallen in with a new crew called Hard Copy. They've done some shows and released cuts to college radio. Hip-hop headz are talking: The shit is hot.
"I know how to make hit records," Brains asserts modestly. "From '96 to now, I could have come back out. The reason I'm coming out now is, I know my material is ready. I'm at the peak of my skills. I don't care about the fame. I care about the love of this music. I love the stage. The people are really why I'm on the way back. I'm not the rapper to walk the stage holding my nuts."
Brains loves Cleveland -- anyone with Chief Wahoo tattooed on his neck would have to -- but he sings the familiar refrain of home-grown talent: The rock 'n' roll capital eats its musicians alive, even -- maybe especially -- if they are successful.
"No one supports anyone else here, and I know, because I go to all the shows," he says. "People shake their asses to your song on the radio and in the club, but won't buy your record or come out to see you perform it live. I love my city, but y'all has jus' broke my heart so bad."
Brains is angered, nearly to tears, as he takes a long drag from his blunt. "I hate the way Cleveland treat they artists."
He has slated his comeback effort for an early 2003 release on a major label he refuses to reveal. He's braced himself, knowing there will still be haters, eager to jeer him, reluctant to support a comeback kid who couldn't stand the first time.
"Success is a relative thing," says MC Chill. "You can't say that Brains wasn't successful. He's sold more records than a lot of people we think of as successful recording artists. He certainly has the skills to make a comeback. Really, he can pretty much start from scratch."
Brains is realistic about his chances in the new marketplace. "If I come back out now and flop, it won't be because I didn't bring the talent," says Brains. "It'll be because I didn't have the correct management and marketing team . . . or maybe forgot to wear my Indians jersey."