Ricky Streetz only seems to smile when he's rhyming. Hardened from nearly a decade in prison, the Cleveland MC wears the no-nonsense scowl of an outlaw drill sergeant, his eyes gleaming like bayonets. And it's not just for show: Shortly after his 2002 release, Streetz was shot nine times and spent seven days in a coma; doctors ruled him dead on three separate occasions.
"I went to hell and came back," he says.
With a vengeance. Earlier this year, Streetz released Back From the Dead!, a ruthless rap knuckle-duster with such song titles as "Mutha Fucka," "I'm Fucked Up," and "Nigga Please." With a swift, steely delivery and brazen rhymes, Streetz is one of Cleveland's most ferocious MCs.
But at the Boarding House bar on a recent afternoon, Streetz's icy facade melts for a second as he lets loose with a sample of his rugged verbal flow. As he rhymes, his eyes brighten and a faint grin tugs at his lips. His profanity-laced raps raise eyebrows, but Streetz impresses nonetheless with his raspy, off-the-cuff wordplay. "I lost some of my lungs, so I had to change my style -- so that I can breathe and still be able to rap," he says, as he lifts up his shirt to expose bullet wounds, a colostomy bag, and a fistula. "I have a hole right here in my heart, the size of a penny -- all the way through."
Streetz's heart has taken a beating over the years. The sinewy, fair-skinned rapper never knew his father, and his mom was stricken with cancer. He dealt drugs to help fund her treatment until she died in the spring of 1992, while Streetz was still a teenager. Within a year, he was busted with three and a half kilos of cocaine, $150,000 in cash, and a stolen fur coat. He spent the next eight and a half years behind bars.
Though he freestyled a bit before being locked up, Streetz (his real name is Derek Lawrence) honed his rap skills in prison, spending hours in his cell writing lyrics and performing at prison talent shows. "People were telling me that I should hear this kid Ricky Streetz," says Paul Williams, a correctional officer at the North Central Correctional Institution in Columbus, where Ricky served part of his sentence. "It didn't matter where you were from or what clique you repped -- everybody was saying he was the coldest around."
When Streetz got out of prison, he cut some material with local producer Phatty Banks, an old friend who was best man at Streetz's wedding. But a dispute over money led to a confrontation at Banks's record store, and Banks shot Streetz nine times. Streetz claims he was set up for an ambush, though he admitted toting a gun of his own; he pled guilty to felony gun possession and got off with probation.
The shooting altered Streetz's body and mind. He became a Muslim while recovering, and he attends services regularly. His conversations now are more about God than guns, and he frequently sings the praises of his wife and daughter. He says he wants to bring a similar humility to hip-hop, speaking out against the girls, gats, and glitz lifestyle espoused by many big-time rappers. "I done changed," he says on "Pit Bull," Dead's scintillating opening cut, which lays Streetz's raps over an entrancing Middle Eastern flute loop and tablas.
"I don't pop bottles of Moët, I don't drink Cristal, and a lot of my friends can't afford that," Streetz says. "A lot of time, they go in places and try to afford things that they can't budget, and that comes from trying to chase after a lifestyle that rappers lie about -- being rich and being millionaires. I don't know anybody that's rich, but a lot of people start selling drugs to try and finance that type of lifestyle and live like a rapper." Streetz just wants enough to take care of his family. If he ever hits it big, he says, he'll refurbish his old neighborhood at East 105th and Wade Park.
"I don't need to be rich. My CD only sells for $5. I don't want all that money. I just want enough to keep on making it and pay some bills. I done been through a lot of stuff. People need to hear that," he says. "I'm back from the dead. For real."