Brandon Smith seldom occupied the passenger's seat. The 25-year-old rhymer, known onstage as Dirty, loved the feel of the wheel, loved to roll.
"He was always the driver. You would never see Dirty in anybody's backseat, ever; you would never see Dirty in anybody's passenger seat, ever," recalls MC Brainz, Dirty's bandmate in the rising Cleveland rap troupe Hardcopé. "Dirty was always with it. Ninety-five percent of the time you saw him, he had his seat about this far back," Brainz says, slouching deep into a sofa in the living room of his Mayfield pad.
Not on the morning of February 15. Dirty went to visit friends on the East Side; when he got there, they were headed to the store. Dirty tagged along to pick up some Black & Mild cigars, his favorite. This time, he hopped into the backseat.
"The guy who drove to the store had been drinking a little bit; the other family members had woke him up to go to the store, and Dirty missed that whole episode," Brainz says. "There were four of them in the car, with Dirty in the backseat. Somehow, the guy kind of dozed back off, his foot got heavy, he started flying down the street, and he hit three parked cars. All of the impact was on Dirty's side. Of the four people in the car, he was the only one who passed."
His death hit the members of Hardcopé especially hard. Since forming early last year, the group had begun to make serious headway in the Cleveland rap underground. They'd played crowded gigs from Peabody's to Spitboxers, heard from a handful of major labels, and contributed the theme song to the WB series Bling TV. Dirty was an integral part of the quartet. Dubbed "Be-Bop" by his mother because he moved his head to music before he learned to walk, he was an affable, easy-going barber by day, with a smile as wide as his vocabulary. He was fond of witty, off-the-wall wordplay delivered in a smooth flow, and he brought a sense of humor and a strong work ethic that helped push the group forward.
"If there's one word that comes to me every time I think of Dirty, it's dedication," Hardcopé cohort Courtney Wattes says. "That dude was dedicated to the music. I'm not talking about just going to the studio and writing, I'm talking everything you have to do to be an MC: working to improve his stage show, working out every day, running in the winter when there was three feet of snow on the track."
Hardcopé had a show scheduled at Spitboxers three days after Dirty's death. Rather than cancel the gig, they turned it into a tribute: The stage was filled with flowers and memorials, and during the show, they spun a disc of Dirty's rhymes in sync with the music.
"I didn't really want to do the show -- nobody did. But we talked about it and decided that's the way my man would have wanted us to rock out like that," says Hardcopé's Yello Wata. "We've put too much time, love, blood, sweat, and tears into this. It would be wrong if we just hung it up. Dirty's definitely gonna live through the music."
Another Hardcopé tribute is set for this Thursday at the Rhythm Room, a performance with fellow Cleveland hip-hop luminaries Midnight Oil that coincides with the annual Black College All-Stars Tour. The follow-up to Hardcopé's promising debut, Tha Four Elements, was already in the can when Dirty died, but the group is removing most of his vocals from the album, now due in September -- the better to sprinkle them over their next three or four discs.
"To us, he ain't gone -- just the physical body that we fell in love with. Now we gotta learn how to love him in spirit, and I think we're gradually getting better with that," Brainz says. "He's gonna be in our pictures, on our records. He ain't goin' nowhere. His presence was so powerful, because he wasn't your average guy. He was a funny dude, and he was a different dude. His mother said, 'My baby was from outer space.' She had that right, because if everybody was going right, Dirty was going left. That was his mentality with everything he did. A person like that, you can't forget."