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Straight Outta Cleveland

Is a skinny tattooed white kid the future of local hip-hop?

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Machine Gun Kelly is a loser. He says so himself. "People just think I'm cool," the Cleveland rapper says with a smile.

That statement may a be a little off-base at this point, since the skinny 20-year-old tattooed white kid is a popular guy in the streets, thanks to a hit mixtape and a distinct style. Having his music played at the Q during Cavs games helps too.

Growing up, he lived in more places than Carmen Sandiego (he was born Colson Baker in Houston, and stayed in Egypt, Germany, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver), before settling in Cleveland with his dad when he was 14. "Cleveland is exactly what I am," he says. "Cleveland is a giant underdog. And I was just a complete underdog."

Machine Gun Kelly's childhood was full of cross-country moves, a missionary excursion in Senegal, and a split between his parents. He found comfort, and his niche, in our city. He also found inspiration here. In songs like "Cleveland State of Mind" and "Still Get It in Ohio," he continually references how much he loves the area.

"I was just proud that Cleveland was proud to represent me," he says. "I wanted the respect of Cleveland so much that when I finally got it, it was such a good relationship."

He got his moniker in Cleveland too. Machine Gun Kelly spits rapid-fire lyrics, using the rhythm of whatever beat is playing under his vocals as a roller coaster for his flow. His words fire out at you, clear and crisp, as he pauses at the end of every four bars to let you catch your breath before he unloads another round.

It's a style he picked up when he reached the 216, but he admits that the mile-a-minute flow took a while to take shape. It didn't quite sound like this when he was 14. "I started the fast thing when everybody told me I couldn't do the fast thing," he says. "I rapped like that, and everybody was like, 'Man, this is fucking terrible, you should probably never rap fast again.' So I came back with it, got named Machine Gun Kelly, and now everybody wants to hear the fast shit."

His singular style has local hip-hop fans jumping on for the ride. His most recent and most successful mixtape, 100 Words and Running, was hosted by popular DJ Peter Parker. And he's out performing at clubs at least a couple times a week. Over the past three months, Machine Gun Kelly has headlined shows at Peabody's, House of Blues, and Geneva on the Lake. (His next headlining gig is at Peabody's on August 28.)

As his popularity swells, so too are the venues he's playing. Last month he earned an opening spot at Nautica Pavilion for Big Sean, a Detroit rapper signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music.

He also played Z107.9's Summer Jam at the Time Warner Cable Amphitheater at Tower City, which featured hip-hop giants Rick Ross and Plies. Thanks to fan voting, Machine Gun Kelly won an opening slot at the concert. Too nervous to peek out at the mass of people in the audience, he waited backstage until he heard his music booming from the speakers. When he took the stage, more than 5,000 fans awaited him — the largest crowd he's ever performed for.

Machine Gun Kelly knows that many white rappers are dismissed as gimmicks in the game. There are more Vanilla Ices than Eminems. It sometimes makes it tough for him to be taken seriously, he says, but he's full of confidence, and a loyal and expanding fan base is there to cheer him on. "I have the dopest fans probably that any independent artist at my level has," he says. "The other day, this kid randomly hit me and was like, 'Yo, man, I just egged this girl's car because she said she didn't like you!'"

He's also ready to take over the throne here in Cleveland, especially now that a former monarch has moved to South Beach. Machine Gun Kelly says he's baffled by LeBron's move out of the city, but he's OK with it. "You can leave," he says. "But once you leave, I'm taking that crown." With another mixtape on the way, an album in the works, and the ability to rap at a pace few artists even come close to, Machine Gun Kelly is ready to lace up and carry the city along for his wild ride. "MGK," he says, "the King of Cleveland."

Send feedback to music@clevescene.com.

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