Little Gangster

Who's the white kid hanging with the Wu-Tang Clan? It's Joey Fingaz, Cleveland's next great DJ.

Two Brothers
Joey Fingaz has a handshake for everybody, even the panhandler shuffling toward him with eyes as lonely as the empty street. It's good to have friends on Prospect Avenue after sunset, especially when you're a white guy who gets compared to Emmanuel Lewis. Joey is the one classmates used to hold in their arms sideways in high school yearbook pictures -- the guy all the girls want to squeeze and all the boys want to protect.

So he never misses a chance to make a new pal, pressing flesh like a mobster in Little Italy, even as he hurriedly stuffs records into the trunk of his silver Passat behind the Agora Theater late on a Saturday night. The homeless man asks for change. Joey does him one better, handing him a stack of Joey Fingaz CDs. "You can get $5 each for those," the DJ says of his latest mixtape, which is hosted by G-Unit's Lloyd Banks, among the hottest rappers in the game. It's one of the most in-demand albums of its kind these days, from here to New York City. Joey saw that firsthand, on a recent trip there.

"It was on every bootlegger's little carpet -- whatever they had out there. There were thousands," he says, smiling the smile of the happiest man ever to get ripped off. "If you're bootlegged in New York, you've basically made it."

Joey watches as the panhandler bounds off, waving the discs in the air as if he's warding off mosquitoes. It's his first pause of the evening, since he just finished manning the decks at a packed show headlined by Chicago speedball-rapper Twista. Minutes earlier, Joey was onstage, bathed in red light, clad in a white T-shirt that reads "I Love Cleveland," spinning Jay-Z. The capacity crowd was mostly white teens -- cubic-zirconium homeboys with ball caps akimbo and scantily clad Lil' Kim cutouts who flashed the performers. "It's like Girls Gone Wild in here!" one rapper exclaimed.

Standing on the side of the stage, surrounded by guys twice his size, 5-foot-nothing Joey looks less like a big hitter than a batboy. He waited two hours to perform for two minutes.

"It's good exposure, but I wish I had more time," he sighs.

Now he's off to the Flats, where he's the resident DJ every Saturday night at Kaos, a chic, two-tiered nightspot, where the air is heavy with perfume and the only thing not made of velvet is the beer.

As Joey steps through the door, he greets everybody by name, even stopping for a couple of minutes to talk with the lady who checks IDs. He catches up with a pretty blond bartender, who shows him pictures of her kid.

"He's a little cutie, a sweetheart," she says of Joey. "The other DJs think they own the club; they walk around like they're the shit, like they're the best DJ. Joey's not like that. He's not like other DJs."

"I let it help me," Joey says of his size. "When I walk into a club, I get laughed at; I see people going, 'Who's that little kid?' But they'll know by the end of the night."

His résumé proves as much. At 21, he's already achieved more than most DJs twice his age. He landed a Saturday-night slot at WENZ-FM 107.9 when he was 19, becoming the youngest DJ in the station's history. He's the only Cleveland DJ other than DJ Ice of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to appear on BET's Rap City -- as big an honor as it gets for a turntablist. He's been in the studio with 50 Cent, hung out at parties in New York with the likes of Usher and N.E.R.D., and had his mixtapes reviewed in The Source. He's on a first-name basis with members of the Clipse, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Obie Trice, who called Joey's mother on her birthday. ("Your son is a special kid," Mom remembers Trice saying.)

"Anyone in the industry knows him, especially labels. He's one of the up-and-coming kids," says Jesus Trivino, an editor at Scratch, a DJ trade magazine affiliated with the leading hip-hop monthly XXL. "Compared to a 30-year-old DJ that's been doing this for 10 years, he's way advanced."

"I see Joey having a very bright future," adds Joy Bounds, head of the New York hip-hop promotions company Know Joy Entertainment, which also manages the heavily hyped neo-soul artist Lyfe, for whom Joey was asked to DJ. "He gets exclusives from big-name artists. That's a big deal. I could see him do so many things. Whatever he wants to do, I believe he can do it."

Even two of Joey Fingaz's dogs are small. The first thing you see when you pull up to his home in rural Chesterland, across the street from the Alpine Valley ski resort, is a pair of excitable Jack Russell terriers and a moppish sheepdog inside a fenced backyard. Joey, born Joseph Kelly, lives with his parents and older brother in a modest gray two-story house with white trim. Inside, flowered wallpaper gives way to portraits of horses -- Joey's dad is a former jockey who now trains thoroughbreds. His mom sells carpet.

Upstairs, in a little room not much bigger than a closet, Joey makes his mixtapes -- the ones with exclusive cuts and big-name hosts like 50 Cent, Twista, and Big Pun. He's produced 11 so far, most of them with a gangster theme. Framed movie stills from The Godfather and Scarface line the walls, along with a picture of The Sopranos cast.

"It's 'cause I'm Italian," Joey explains. "Everyone's always like, 'You're a little gangster.'"

Joey's always been on the small side. He looks only about 16, with close-cropped black hair speckled with a few bald patches and a wardrobe consisting mostly of jeans and T-shirts that always seem to be several sizes too big. He doesn't wear any jewelry; his only bling comes from a bright, impish smile, which he flashes often.

Most DJs have egos as outsized as their record collections, but Joey Fingaz is polite and self-deprecating, almost to a fault. In interviews, he avoids eye contact. He'll busy himself when talking, typing on his two-way pager or looking off into the distance or down at his feet, as if he's just been scolded. He has no swagger to speak of -- his gait is quick, efficient; he seems perpetually late for some unspoken appointment. It's hardly a walk befitting a hip-hopper.

"I'm not the most confident person in the world," he says. "I kind of have a low self-esteem about myself. It's weird how it is; I'm kind of shy, but still I'm outgoing. I don't know, I'm still trying to find my personality.

"A lot of people, if you ask them what a DJ's like, they'll be like, 'A DJ is a loudmouth, has a big ego.' So I'm just like, 'I'm gonna be the opposite of that.' I'm soft-spoken, I'm nice, I'm easy to get along with. I have a negative ego."

Joey is decidedly more self-assured when it comes to making people laugh. He was the class clown at Chardon High, and his mixtapes always leaven the hardcore rhymes with a couple of skits. A recent boxing-themed disc dedicated to Cleveland MCs, dubbed The Heavyweights, features a Burgess Meredith impersonator barking orders in the gruff voice of Mickey from Rocky. "All right, you fuckin' Cleveland bums, you gotta get in shape," he growls like a chain smoker with strep throat, overenunciating as if he's attempting to speak a foreign tongue. On Joey's latest, he captures crazed local crackheads spouting off on tape, like real-life versions of Chapelle's Show's Tyrone Biggums.

(The sense of humor runs in the family: Joey's grandfather was a comedian who entertained troops with Bob Hope during World War II. His mother leaves riotous greetings on his voice mail. "Hey, what up, this is Joey's mom, my peeps call me Momma Fingaz," goes a recent message. "Joey can't come to the phone, 'cause he's kicking it with some groupies, or he's just probably busy being gangsta. I'm out, holla. Hey, don't mess with my Joey, or I'll have to kill ya.")

Joey discovered hip-hop in high school, through the Wu-Tang Clan's seminal debut Enter the 36 Chambers. He got a cheap pair of turntables and started teaching himself how to DJ in his bedroom. With a couple of friends, he started a teen night at the Phantasm club in Chesterland during his sophomore year, playing mostly Top 40 hits to suburban Backstreet Boys fans.

"It was real corny," Joey says of the Phantasm gigs, which led to late sessions on school nights at Wish. "If people realized that's where I started, they might be like, 'That's kind of whack,' but it taught me how to work a crowd, taught me a lot of stuff. Just by learning off that, I can DJ a thugged-out party and I can DJ a 13-year-old white girl's birthday party. I'd DJ that club on the weekend, where it was mostly white kids and I'd get requests for Britney Spears, but then I'd go to Wish on Thursdays, and that shit would be like a 23-year-old urban crowd."

Joey's first break came when he befriended renowned Cleveland DJ Mick Boogie, whom he met when Boogie was DJing a charity event at a grade school in Alliance.

"I thought he was like 11 years old. Seriously, I thought he might have been a fifth-grader at the school, until they started dancing," Boogie says of his first encounter with Joey. Boogie quickly took him under his wing, co-producing mixtapes and helping him land DJ gigs at Wish and WENZ, where Boogie also works. "He was earnest. He listened. He didn't just ask for hand-me-downs. He seemed like he genuinely wanted to work for his stripes."

Joey enrolled at Kent State after high school, majoring in marketing, but left last fall, during the first semester of his sophomore year. "I didn't like it; I like learning on my own," he explains. "I had a marketing class, I'd be taking a test, and I'd be like, 'That's not how that shit works in the real world. I've done that. It doesn't work like that.' I plan on going back, but each semester I don't. I just see myself getting further and further away from going back. I'm kind of nervous, but I've opened a lot of doors."

In the clubs by night, he can be found by day at Randall Park Mall, a monstrous, half-shuttered shopping center, where jewelry kiosks specialize in pot-leaf pendants and young men rap to themselves as they walk by. He sells his own CDs and others at a record shop inside 3-D Studios, a four-suite recording center that's sandwiched between Sears and Five Star Electronics, a flea market of a store where a man in a turban sells toy robots, pictures of waterfalls, and car amps.

Between his multiple gigs, Joey boasts a work ethic that borders on obsessive-compulsive. He travels to New York and Detroit once a month, driving for hours to get a minute's worth of drops from an artist or to land a picture of a rapper for one of his CDs. To secure Lloyd Banks's participation on his most recent disc, he went to Detroit and waited for six hours, finally getting some time with the MC in his hotel room. At 5 a.m.

"He's really into what he's doing, because there's been times when he comes up here just to meet with artists to get drops from them," says Adam Favors, the Detroit-based national director of rap and street promotions for Aftermath/Shady Records, home to Eminem, 50 Cent, and G-Unit. "If you see somebody going out of their way, busting their ass, you're going to try and help them any way that you can. If he can drive up here for two hours to take pictures of an artist to put on his mixtapes, why wouldn't I reach out and help him?"

Joey spends four or five hours a day on his cell phone, which rings with the rapidity of Uzi fire. He's always trying to meet new people, make more connections. He doesn't drink or smoke. He says his only vice is sleep, though he doesn't get enough. Whatever money he earns, he puts right back into his mixtapes.

"I made about $2,000 profit on this latest mix CD, and I spent that in New York, printing more and handing them out everywhere I went. I'm Joey Kelly, but I invest Joey Kelly's money into Joey Fingaz. With mixtapes, a lot of DJs just try to flip their money. They spend a thousand and try to make two thousand. I don't make a dollar on my mixtapes. The ones I sell are just paying me back for what I've put into them. Some people buy clothes; I try to buy myself a bigger name. My name is like a business."

Business is booming on this Saturday. Joey Fingaz drives to WENZ to drop off a pre-taped disc of his weekly two-hour mix show before heading out to spin at a pair of clubs. It's a bit past seven, and he won't get home until close to daybreak. "Do you know that show Saved by the Bell?" he asks as he enters WENZ's St. Clair offices. "This place looks kind of like the Maxx," he grins, comparing the station's decor to that of the gaudily appointed restaurant where the sitcom teens hung out.

And he is pretty close: The studio is flush with garish pastels last seen in Don Johnson's closet. The walls are purple, office doors are bright yellow, red, and green; the place looks like a box of melted crayons.

Joey is greeted with handshakes and hollas. "What up, nigga!" beams gregarious DJ the Latin Assassin, a tough-looking Latino with large spiderweb tattoos running up and down beefy arms that bulge menacingly out of a basketball jersey. The N-word is generally not applied to kids the shade of Miracle Whip, but Joey fits in so well that no one seems to notice. That's probably because he doesn't try to identify with a culture he clearly can't relate to; he doesn't speak in slang, he doesn't force urban patois, unlike so many wannabe thugs. He's always the same wisecracking white guy, whether he's in the 'hood or the homestead.

"The race card always comes up with me," Joey sighs, clearly not comfortable broaching the issue. "I've never even seen a color line, but a lot of people bring it up. I've had to deal with it a lot, but I just brush it off. It's just music."

Besides, though hip-hop originated in African American culture, its fans today look more like Joey than Jay-Z. "This is the demographic of hip-hop now," Aftermath's Favors says. "The suburbs are buying hip-hop more than the inner city and the 'hood. Shit, he's the perfect demo. Think about it."

Joey gets more grief for his success than for his skin color anyway. He's been performing professionally for only the last two or three years, and his quick rise has rubbed some scene vets the wrong way. Not that we could find anyone who'll diss him on the record.

"You have no idea the hate I get," Joey says. "I try to go to local events just to see what's going on, just to support my friends and stuff, but I get DJs talking shit. I get people telling me to my face, 'You don't deserve what you got.'"

It's hard to make that argument about a guy who puts in 50-hour workweeks. No one busts LeBron James's chops about heading straight to the pros, so why dismiss Joey for his prodigious leap?

"The reason other DJs hate on him is because of how easily he came into the game," says G-Spot, one of Cleveland's top-drawing DJs. "Mick really gave him a foot in the door, and he ran with it. He did what it took to get put on, and a lot of the DJ world hates that. Everyone has to realize that's how we all got in the game, though. We all had someone that helped us out. There aren't that many DJs in the city that can touch him. I think he belongs in the elite DJ lineup of Scratchmaster L, Mick Boogie, DJ Chicago, and myself."

His own mentor, Boogie, says Joey's not all the way there yet. He has to work on his scratching: He's no master technician, able to cut wax the way a guitar player burns through a solo. And he needs an identity of his own.

"The one thing he needs to do is develop his sound," Boogie says. "He hasn't done that yet, which is OK -- it takes years. When you walk into a club, you know if a Scratchmaster L or a Mick Boogie is spinning by the records we play and how we play them. Joey isn't quite there yet."

But he is on his way, always moving, always on the go. Out of the radio station, Joey Fingaz heads toward a downtown Italian joint where he's ordered a pizza. There's no time to sit down and eat -- he's due at his next gig in less than half an hour. So he picks it up, pulls over, and wolfs it down on the side of the road, talking on his cell phone in between bites, never even turning off the car.

"I'm lactose intolerant, so I take off a lot of the cheese," he says as he strips his pie of almost everything but the sauce. In five minutes flat, the pizza's gone, and so is Joey.

Things are moving faster than Joey Fingaz had anticipated. He's quit the job at 3-D -- it took too much of his time -- and he's had talks with several major labels about becoming a DJ for various artists (none he's at liberty to name for now).

Strolling through Randall Park Mall one afternoon, Joey is recognized repeatedly. A worker at Foot Action runs out to greet him, a young black girl with a small child in tow smiles at him broadly. "No, this isn't my baby," she quickly points out to Joey, who's single and dating. He takes it all in with a grin, enjoying the moment.

"When people read this article, they might be like, 'Well, he ain't shit, how come he's talking all this game? He's not a good businessman, he's not making that much money, blah, blah, blah,'" Joey says. "But they don't realize what I'm building. Each day I step my game up. It's all just smiles and handshakes."

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