The Natives Are Restless

With Indian garb and plenty of confidence, Strik9ine strives to get Cleveland on the rap map.

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Cleveland's Strik9ine headdresses for success.
Cleveland's Strik9ine headdresses for success.
Scott Jacobs has a big head. Literally. As MC Chief Body of the injun-obsessed Cleveland rap group Strik9ine, Jacobs is known to sport a woolly mammoth of a headdress that looks as if it's left some unfortunate, sheared baboon shivering in its birthday suit. But while Jacobs may have trouble getting his dome through doorways, he doesn't have the same difficulty making his way to the upper reaches of the dog-eat-dog Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart. For the past three weeks, Strik9ine has held the top position on said chart with its smash hit "Dansin Wit Wolvez," and it has done so in convincing fashion.

"In their third week at No. 1, they led the next competitor by a 10 percent margin, and they had more than a 50 percent lead over the No. 3 single," says Jeff Richmond of Billboard magazine. "The rap chart is important: If you're No. 1 on one of our charts, that is an important accomplishment."

The accomplishment is amplified by the fact that Strik9ine is signed to local indie Fade Entertainment, a small but scrappy enterprise based in Shaker Heights, with a budget less than Jay-Z's annual Cristal bill. All of this seems to have barely registered on the band itself, which has also been featured on MTV News and BET Uncut. Sitting in the front room of the Fade complex on a recent Friday afternoon, the group (sans MC Dakota, who was at his day job) possesses a demeanor as quiet as its stage garb is loud.

"We do appreciate it; it was really kind of amazing, but we just got bigger things in our vision that we want to accomplish," rhymer Old Sage says of Strik9ine's recent chart success.

"We didn't really take it to head," adds Body, "because we all worked for it, everybody around here, for a long time." Six years, to be exact. The outfit, rounded out by MC Wild Wolf, came together in 1995, after seeing each other perform at a talent show at East Tech, which they all attended. They hooked up with Fade a couple of years later and began to build momentum in late 2000.

"Ace Robertson [Fade CEO] and myself were at Interscope Records, sitting down with their president, Steve Stout," Fade promotions director Al Black says of a pivotal meeting last December. "We had a demo CD of all our acts, and we were just playing the different songs. He heard 'Dansin Wit Wolvez,' and he loved it. The next thing you know, they made us an offer for the track. They wanted the track for D12, but we said, 'No. If this track can gain that type of attention from him for a group such as this, let's see what we can do for ourselves.'"

What they've done is put heavy-hitting record companies like MCA, Elektra, and Priority in a frenzy to sign Strik9ine, as well as positioned the band to be the biggest breakout in Cleveland rap since Bone Thugs N' Harmony.

But Strik9ine's rise hasn't come without controversy. Though the group contends that it chose the Indian concept because of the unity implied in the tribal lifestyle and the parallels between the plight of Native Americans and that of African Americans, others have written it off as pure gimmick and dismissed Strik9ine as little more than a novelty act.

What's their least favorite comparison? "The Village People," Body says. "The Village fuckin' People, man."

"They got to say that until they hear the music," Old Sage counters. "Once you hear the music, there's nothing you can say." Which isn't entirely true. While the band's barrel-chested rap does provide a good tickling of the adrenal glands, it's certainly not unprecedented, and there's no doubt that Strik9ine's mic and marketing skills run neck and neck. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps the most glaring deficiency of the Cleveland rap community -- and that of the Midwest in general -- is the recognizable identity that has elevated the rap scenes in towns like New Orleans and Atlanta. The point of Strik9ine's image-consciousness is to try to fill this gap.

"Every region has an identity but the Midwest," Black says. "Eazy-E had it out there with the gangsta rappers on the West Coast. Jay-Z and DMX got that whole East Coast vibe. Down South you've got your Master P and Cash Money. When you get to the Midwest, although a lot of talent has been produced from here, nothing has been grassrooted. That's something that we're looking to do."

Adds Body: "I don't want to sound big-headed or nothing, but we're the best thing that's happened to this game in a long time. There's going to be that day when another group takes our spot, but for now it's our turn. It's our turn."

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