Almost as bizarre as a rapper dressed as a leprechaun is where said rapper found his pot of gold. Lil' Flip, a Houston-born freestyle phenomenon who clothes himself in green imp garb on the cover of his self-titled debut, inexplicably became one of the most heavily played artists on Cleveland urban radio last year. Thanks to the efforts of local hip-hop promoter Tony Franklin, who worked the record, Cleveland was one of the first towns outside the South to break Flip's debut, which went on to sell over 225,000 copies as an independent release. Thanks in large part to Flip's success, his label, Sucka Free Records, recently signed a four-year, $12 million deal with Sony/Loud Records. With that windfall, Sucka Free is looking to reward the town that put it over the top.
"Cleveland has shown Sucka Free, Lil' Flip, Humpty Hump, and my whole label so much love that I feel like it's time for us to give it back," says Duane "Humpty Hump" Hobbs, CEO of Houston-based Sucka Free. "The way that I can give back is to give Cleveland a new record label with nationwide distribution."
Consequently, Hobbs is launching Sucka Free North, which will be run out of Cleveland with Franklin as its VP. Currently looking for office space, Sucka Free North will seek out local and regional artists to back with some serious major-label muscle.
"I'm not looking for anybody to make somebody else feel good; I'm looking for talent, so that I can solidify Cleveland's position in the hip-hop game," Franklin says. "I'm going to be fair. I'm going to take a collaboration of every CD of every person that wants to try and be down, I'm going to listen to it, Flip's going to listen to it, and the Sony exec's going to listen to it. We're gonna pick an artist, and it's coming right out of Cleveland."
Breaking acts in Cleveland is nothing new. Decades ago, this city launched the careers of the O'Jays, Meatloaf, and later, Bone Thugs N' Harmony. But by the mid-'90s, record companies began to close their offices in town, with Warner Bros. being the last to jump ship in '98. Since then, Cleveland has often been viewed as a secondary, even tertiary market for developing artists.
"I think the major markets were just stronger, like New York, Miami, L.A., and Chicago -- places like that. They were pumping out more artists, especially in the rap scene," says Paulie Rhymes, founder of local hip-hop entertainment company Headrush Entertainment, on why labels abandoned Cleveland. "We started doing shows in '98, '99, and there weren't any outlets or anybody promoting acts to the point where they were given at least a regional presence. A lot of the acts just stayed local."
This wasn't due to a dearth of talent. Cleveland has always had a strong hip-hop underground and continues to boast a solid coterie of artists in Jahi, the G.I. Joez, the Chop Shop Renegades, and dozens of others. But what the town has lacked in recent years is the infrastructure needed to build a thriving scene, namely record companies with major-label backing and the deep pockets necessary to really break acts these days.
"Y'all need a strong record label that can say, 'Okay, if we're not getting played in Cleveland, we're not getting played in Indiana, we're going to get played in Arkansas, Nebraska, Mississippi,'" Hobbs says. "Y'all need a workhorse label that can't be stopped as far as breaking records. We specialize in that. That's what we do."
How? Mainly by hot collaborations that cross-pollinate various regional artists with more established acts to draw attention to the locals. With access to Loud's broad roster of rappers in addition to Sucka Free's stable, Hobbs says that the young rhymer from Cleveland that Sucka Free chooses could find such heavyweights as Lil' Flip and Xzibit guesting on his debut. But will it be enough to push Cleveland hip-hop into the national spotlight after years of being overlooked?
"The quality of the music still has to get to that national level. We have to be able to make songs that are radio-friendly," Rhymes says. "The scene is very strong. We have two shows a week, and you see how many national shows are coming through here now. Locals are now opening up for the national acts. We haven't seen that in a long time. I think we're at a point where we're being recognized." Then he adds with a laugh, "We can't do nothing but go up."