As he usually did, Reggie Brown had stayed late at the Berea studio of his fledgling hip-hop label, Rulership Entertainment. Though it often left his young family home alone, the work was paying off. Rulership's army of MCs was slowly building a following among local hip-hop fans. The label was throwing regular parties at Club RP's in Brooklyn, and people were starting to show up in force, dancing their asses off to the bass-driven, punch-line-heavy party music. The guys were moving some mixtapes too, especially in the West Side neighborhoods near Berea, where they had grown up.
Brown, a 25-year-old MC who rapped under the name ThankGod, was the label's kingpin. His boundless energy and ruthless lyrics set him apart from Rulership's other MCs -- brash young rappers who rhymed about lives spent in search of better ones. There are scores of these men in Cleveland. Few make names for themselves, and Rulership still had a way to go. But some of Cleveland's most respected MCs say ThankGod and his friends were on their way.
"They were building a movement and they were gaining a fan base . . .," says Cleveland's MC Siege, a veteran of the popular 12 Monkeys rap crew. "They were doing it themselves, and they were being themselves. They were creating their own identity."
Or, as Jakimah Dye likes to say of her fiancé: "He just blew up."
Dye is 24 and tiny, just a touch over five feet tall, but she has enough style to fill a double issue of Cosmo. Sitting on a bench near the Cleveland Heights pool she helps supervise, she sports short, spiky hair and bright orange earrings, with a matching skirt and ballet shoes. She flashes a bright smile as she recalls the day she met Brown.
It was four years ago. She was waiting in the December cold for a bus home; he cruised past in a teal Pontiac. When he saw her, he quickly pulled a U-turn and drove up next to her, his cocky grin and wild brown eyes begging for attention. "Why don't you let me take you home?"
She said no, but he stayed in the cold for 15 minutes, making her laugh, and eventually she relented. A year later, they moved in together. Not long after, they had a daughter, Janiyah. They planned to marry in 2007.
"We never made it," Dye says.
That Sunday night, May 22, Brown got home sometime after 11:30 p.m. Dye heard his car door slam. She swept up Janiyah and hustled toward the kitchen, where they could hide and wait for him to come in. They loved that, leaping out to surprise Dad when he opened the --
A gunshot. Dye knew exactly what she heard.
She dialed her fiancé's cell phone, but it rang and rang. She scrambled to a balcony and peered into the parking lot. She saw Brown lying on his side. His head was bloody. She was still clutching Janiyah as she ran to him, wailing.
After years of working at the pool, Dye had CPR down cold. She pumped and pumped, but she felt his heartbeat fall from a heavy pound to a slow, weak bu-bump.
"He wasn't dead when I got to him," she says now, her eyes dry, her stare vacant. "But he was gone."
It's 10:30 on a quiet weekday night, and the Hi-Fi Club is slowly transforming. The small Lakewood bar is best known as the place where longhairs go to sing heavy-metal karaoke. Former Warrant frontman Jani Lane used to work in the kitchen. Tattooed rockers man the bar. A Guns N' Roses T-shirt, a Kiss poster, and an acoustic guitar are mounted on the wall. On the jukebox, the closest thing to rap is Sugar Ray.
But tonight is Tuesday, and Tuesdays belong to Suave Goddi. The veteran Cleveland rhymer hosts Spitboxing, a weekly MC showdown where young rappers diss one another into submission. The insults come fast and furious, and no one's ego is spared.
The place is packed with hip-hop heads of every stripe -- fresh-faced b-boys with crooked hats and cocky smiles, dreadlocked dudes in Timberlands, twentysomething girls in half-shirts, jeans gripping their hips. They swarm into the Hi-Fi every Tuesday to catch one of the city's few live, local hip-hop events.
It's hard for some rap fans to understand why Cleveland -- a large, urban city with a rich music history and a black-majority population -- can sustain few regular hip-hop shows. For the longest-running and best-known MC showcase to be held on a Tuesday, in a suburban rock club, is a testament to the disintegration of Cleveland's hip-hop scene.
While venues like Peabody's, the Grog Shop, and House of Blues regularly book national artists, local MCs have few outlets. The Rhythm Room, a Cleveland Heights club that hosted rap shows for years, closed last fall, and no venue has taken its place. On the West Side, Club RP's showcases Rulership's MCs each week. NappyHead Entertainment, a local label and production company, sporadically hosts the "Kings of the Iron Mic" series at the Grog and other clubs. But at most nightspots -- OH 10, Modä, Kaos, and the rest -- "Hip-Hop Night" means a DJ spinning 50 Cent and Jay-Z.
Without a thriving live circuit, Cleveland MCs have to rely on locally produced CDs to build a following. Recording a disc is a cinch -- scores of local rappers sell mixtapes and albums in stores, at clubs, on street corners, and over the internet. But with the city flooded with underground rap, much of it poorly produced, building a loyal fan base is an arduous process. Few artists survive before giving up, moving away, or -- in the case of ThankGod and other local rappers -- getting killed.
But while underground hip-hop struggles to make headway here, other cities have found ways to push their artists onto the pages of The Source and XXL. In the last decade, record executives have scrambled to Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago in search of the next Eminem, the next Nelly, the next Kanye West. Other cities have won the attention of record companies by mixing a unique sound with a fresh culture. Atlanta combined bass-heavy rhythms with a lewd, get-crunk bravado to popularize Ludacris, Lil Jon, and the rest of the Dirty South movement. Houston artists guzzled cough syrup and slowed their rhymes to a "chopped and screwed" crawl. Mike Jones and Lil' Flip went platinum in the process.
To attract big-time record labels, cities "have to have an artist that really comes and shoots the flare and waves the flag that says, 'Hey, we're here,'" says Erik Parker, music editor for Vibe magazine. "Or they have to develop a cultural element that hasn't been explored."
Cleveland has done neither. Though some artists -- rising MC Ray Cash and rugged hip-hop crew 216 among them -- have inked national deals, no local rappers have stolen a large share of the national spotlight since Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in 1994. And the city's only cultural identity has been one of greed, impatience, and attempts to piggyback on what other cities do well.
This is why Suave Goddi is yelling.
At 35, Goddi is the deacon of Cleveland hip-hop, and the Hi-Fi is his pulpit. When he takes the mic, commanding his followers to get the fuck to the stage, they respond like obedient children heeding an angry father.
"Any fake hip-hoppers out there, I'll find you," hollers Goddi, pacing the stage with heavy steps, as his crooked sneer taunts the swelling crowd. "Fake hip-hoppers get their style off the TV. You know where I get my style from? The Cleveland mutha-fuckin' streets."
For years, Goddi has organized Spitboxing with hopes of reviving Cleveland hip-hop. For years, he's pleaded with local fans and artists to band together, collaborate, find a common goal, and get the hell after it.
But all the yelling hasn't worked, and he knows as much. He knows Cleveland needs more than Spitboxing.
"The self-esteem of this city is low," Goddi explains. "We've got talent that's just as good, if not better than other cities'. But too many people have been falsely fed the belief that you just make some music and you'll be signed to a major record label."
There's more: "Clevelanders do not practice the art of helping others out because it eventually helps you," he continues. "They don't understand that. We have people waiting on a lottery."
And when the lottery never comes, he says: "People with low self-esteem choose targets with high self-esteem to kill or whatever. Like ThankGod."
Reggie Brown was already dead when paramedics showed up sometime close to midnight. They had to peel Jakimah Dye off her fiancé's bloodied body. The way she remembers it, it took four of them.
She never set foot in the duplex after that night, and she's heard little from police about their investigation. But there's one thing that she just can't get over: The shooter left Brown's wallet in his pocket. That tells Dye that whoever killed her fiancé didn't want his money. They just wanted him dead.
"It was jealousy over something," she says. "That was extreme hatred."
Police have made no arrests in Brown's death, and they have few leads. What role his music played, if any, may never be known.
It probably wasn't his lyrics. Though Rulership's sound is powered by bravado -- the sort of ballsy braggadocio inspired by battle-rapping -- the label's artists say ThankGod had no enemies, at least none that they knew of.
That's not always the case.
Last year, 21-year-old Marcus Shropshire shot 17-year-old William Shepherd in the head outside an East Side housing development. Shropshire told police that he and Shepherd targeted each other on dueling rap CDs. Shepherd's songs talked about killing him, Shropshire alleged, so he borrowed a gun from a friend, found the boy sitting on a garbage can in the projects, and shot him. Shropshire pleaded guilty to murder charges.
But what pushed Brown's killer is less clear. Brown was convicted on drug-trafficking charges last year; he pleaded guilty to moving a small amount of crack. Some believe that his street life -- not his music -- got him murdered.
"This is bigger than just the music," says Gesuz Zaire, founder of Cleveland's Black Power Radio Network, an online hip-hop radio show. "Hip-hop doesn't start fights. Being poor, being impoverished, starts this behavior."
But others wonder whether ThankGod's position at the center of Rulership's world may have fueled his killing. In Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods, everyone wears a target on his back. And in the boastful and fractured world that is underground hip-hop, word of success, however minor, travels fast. It explodes from an MC's immediate circle of friends and family, through his neighborhood and sometimes beyond. Suddenly, whether he's making money or not, a rapper can become a lightning rod for jealousy.
"Rulership is talented, they're known for being boisterous, and they roll in a big group," says Furious, a Cleveland MC who co-owns I.V. League Entertainment, a local record label. "It probably is jealousy. That does breed some hatred."
"It's like crabs in a barrel," adds Julius Hannah, co-founder of NappyHead Entertainment. "Once they find out one crab's about to get out, they're trying to pull him back in."
If petty jealousy did help lead to the death of their lyrical leader, Rulership's MCs seem unfazed. They're still making music. The Others, the label's baby-faced, quick-spitting duo, just opened at the Grog Shop for popular Asian-American MC Lyrics Born. And they still throw regular parties at Club RP's.
Granted, RP's is no more hip-hop than the Hi-Fi. It's a sweeping space with dark wood paneling, a checkered floor, and Roman swords and helmets mounted on the wall. But on a recent Thursday night, the hypnotic storytelling of Notorious B.I.G. can be heard from every corner of the club's gravelly parking lot.
As a mob of college-age hip-hoppers pours through the club's doors, they're met by Geoff Fogle, an animated 25-year-old with a salesman's inviting smile. Fogle helped start Rulership Entertainment two years ago. He sells phones for Verizon by day and has a keen respect for the dollar; even the prettiest girls with the sexiest pleas can't wiggle around his five-dollar cover.
But Fogle knows that without ThankGod, there might not have been any sexy pleas to begin with.
"It was his dream that brought us here," he says, his ticket-taking grin replaced by a mournful glance. "It was his style. He brought people. It was hard to see how someone could hate him."
James Portis lives on the second floor of a split-level on East 91st Street, in Cleveland's notoriously rough Glenville neighborhood. The space is crammed with furniture and, more noticeably, picture frames. They're everywhere, occupying every empty space. And they're filled with the faces of two handsome young men -- Portis' son, L.J., and his nephew, Raymond Maxwell.
When his son and nephew were just boys, Portis used to let them play with the turntables he used for his DJ business. One weekend, when Maxwell was eight, he came over to make music with his cousin and uncle. "He never left," says the 47-year-old Portis, whose diminutive, 5-foot-4 frame is belied by a wild, booming voice.
From then on, he raised both boys, and they were inseparable -- especially once they discovered rap. When they were just 11 and 9, L.J. and "Ray Smooth" performed for the first time, at the Tower City mall. Soon after, they put out their first single, "Wild n' Wicked." They called themselves 2 tha Hard Way and recorded several discs on their own.
A decade later, the duo's first nationally released album, Patience Determination, is on sale over the internet and will be in Best Buy stores soon, Portis says.
L.J., who is 24, recorded his lyrics at a studio in Los Angeles, where he's working as an actor. After being noticed by a modeling agency, he landed a role in an independent movie and a featured-extra spot in The Gridiron Gang, starring the Rock and Xzibit, which began shooting in May.
Ray Smooth, 23, laid down his rhymes in Cleveland. He stayed with his uncle, doing odd jobs and performing with other rappers while waiting for the album to drop. He started saving money to join L.J. in Los Angeles, where they had already lined up some shows.
"There was a lot of people waiting to see Ray," says James Portis, his eyes puffy and slick with tears. "This is like a lifetime goal for us."
It's difficult to measure 2 tha Hard Way's success. They played the Philadelphia Music Festival in 1997. The following year, they performed at the Ohio State Fair as one of the state's "outstanding multicultural groups." And they opened for Bizzy Bone, of Bone Thugs fame, at the Millennium in 1999.
But six years later, Patience Determination was released by a small, mostly unknown label, Sonic Wave International. Few Cleveland MCs and producers know of the group or of Ray Smooth.
The anonymity of 2 tha Hard Way is not surprising in Cleveland, where hip-hop artists seldom work together. In other cities, rappers are eager to collaborate, because it allows fans of one MC to become familiar with another. It also creates a network. When one artist makes it out, he reaches back for those left behind.
It's happened this way in New York and Los Angeles since the 1980s. And over the last decade, it's been duplicated in St. Louis, Detroit, and elsewhere. Without Nelly, the St. Lunatics might have been confined to Missouri. Without Eminem, D-12 might never have been heard beyond the streets of Detroit.
But there is almost no collaboration in Cleveland, artists say. "Everybody's for themselves, because everybody's so hungry to get that spot," says Drastic, a Cleveland rapper who made his name dominating Suave Goddi's Spitboxing tournaments.
Joey Fingaz, a DJ for hip-hop station WENZ-FM 107.9, says that he's often approached with songs dissing Ray Cash, one of Cleveland's few successful rappers. Cash recently recorded an album, C.O.D. (Cash on Delivery), for Columbia Records.
Cash's lyrics center on money and women. His first single, "Sex Appeal," boasts a refrain of "I'm a pimp in my own fuckin' mind." It's no surprise that artists with politically or socially conscious lyrics might want to attack his success.
But Fingaz, who DJs for Cash, says that others should find common ground with the rising MC -- or at least keep their beefs quiet.
"They want to talk shit about him, when they really should take advantage of the opportunity," Fingaz says. "If people would think shit through and realize the politics behind this shit, [Cleveland hip-hop] would move a lot faster. Why the hell would you put out a Ray Cash diss? Outside of a 30-mile radius, people aren't gonna give two shits. And you might have just ruined your chance."
"You need to collaborate with the hottest cats in your city," adds Tony "X" Franklin, a Cleveland-based hip-hop promoter for New York's Asylum Records and a man credited with helping launch Mike Jones' platinum-selling career. "They do it all day long in Atlanta. They do it all day long in the Bay Area. But they don't do it in Cleveland."
Cleveland MCs are in constant search of shortcuts to stardom, Franklin and others say. They dog radio stations for not playing Cleveland artists, but playing those artists -- instead of the hottest national acts -- would put local stations out of business. They put their CDs on store shelves next to Common's and Jay-Z's, when they should be handing them out for free, begging people to listen. And they charge other MCs to guest on their albums, when they should be getting their names on every CD they can, regardless of whether or not they're being paid.
These are the lessons other cities learned long ago. In Houston, Franklin says, Lil' Flip lent his rhymes to every MC he could find -- for free -- just to get his name out. Collaborating made his career, and it's made careers in cities across the country.
But in Cleveland, it's every MC for himself.
"If they can get over on you, they will," says MC Iyan Anomolie, one of Cleveland hip-hop's top draws. "You could be the poorest person in this city, but if someone feels like they can make a dollar on you, they will."
July 4 -- that was Raymond Maxwell's deadline. That was the date by which he wanted to leave Cleveland and hook up with L.J. in Los Angeles. Before L.J. headed west in 2004, the two hadn't been apart for more than a week. By June, it was going on a year. "I was already missing him off that alone," L.J. says from his apartment in North Hollywood. "That's my partner in crime."
In June, James Portis promised to buy his nephew's plane ticket. They were eyeing flights for July 2, a Saturday.
A week before, on June 25, Maxwell spent Saturday night with a boyhood friend, according to interviews with police and family members. The two men drove to an apartment complex in Collinwood, an East Side neighborhood near where they grew up. Once there, they waited for the two women they had planned to hook up with.
It was supposed to be a double date. Now it looks like a setup.
While Maxwell and his friend waited for their dates to come out, three men rushed the car, police say. Maxwell was in the back seat, unarmed. But during the robbery, one of the men opened fire on him. Maxwell pushed open the car door and ran through the parking lot, but he eventually fell, bleeding to death on the cement.
Police arrested three men and one of the women on aggravated murder charges. Their trial is scheduled for later this year. There was no shit-talking song on a CD, no angry anthem that sparked a beef with his alleged killers. No one thinks Ray Smooth's lyrics led to his death.
But, as they do about ThankGod, family and friends wonder whether Ray Smooth's success -- which was only just beginning to materialize -- drove his murder.
While 2 tha Hard Way's fan base had barely spread beyond Cleveland's East Side, the duo enjoyed mini-celebrity status in and around Glenville. They were featured in The Plain Dealer, The Call and Post, and other local newspapers -- clippings James Portis passes out proudly in his roles as dad, uncle, and manager. The DJ at a now-defunct Glenville club spun their songs, and local record stores always carried their newest albums. "I still have people call, asking about them," says Sanders Henderson, who owns Nikki's Music, an independent music store on Buckeye Avenue.
The man accused of shooting Raymond knew him from childhood, L.J. says. And though 2 tha Hard Way wasn't making money from its music, poverty has a way of making even the smallest successes seem bigger than they are. To the rest of the country, 2 tha Hard Way was just another rap duo, hoping their album might sell some copies. L.J. was just another L.A. actor, working temp jobs to pay his bills. But to Cleveland's East Side, L.J. was doing a big-time movie with the Rock, and Ray Smooth was on his way to California to join them. Finally, 2 tha Hard Way was leaving Glenville behind.
"People talk, people know," L.J. says. "People'd rather see you dead than see you make it."