On one tune, rapper Mr. 44 calls himself a "legendary rapper." On another, he boasts, "My flow like a sugar cane/Rhymes so sweet." Judging by his lyrics and delivery, you'd think the guy would have a huge ego. But meet him in person and you get a different impression. Soft-spoken and courteous, Mr. 44, who's affiliated with the local hip-hop and spoken-word crew Prhymal Rage, carries himself with none of the braggadocio often associated with gangsta rap. His music might have attitude to spare, but he's only quietly confident as he talks about himself and the 10-plus years he's spent rapping and recording.
"I'm not a gospel rapper, but I ain't a gangsta rapper," he says on a recent visit to the Scene offices to hand off a copy of his new CD, Birth of an MC, which he'll promote this weekend with a show at Rock Star, the club located inside Peabody's. "There's no cursing on the entire album." Wearing a black T-shirt that reads "I Am Hip-Hop" in big, bold, white letters, the bulky MC, who explains his moniker means "Moving Righteously 4GOD and 4My Family," says his positive attitude is something he attributes to his upbringing. Raised "all over East Cleveland," Mr. 44 turned to hip-hop while at West Tech High School, releasing mixtapes and eventually signing to the U.K.-based Black Eye Records in 1995.
"They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere," he says. "But Cleveland was no. 1 in poverty. You could say if you can make it in Cleveland, you can make it anywhere."
In 2001, he had a hit single with "Make It Vibrate," a tune issued on Darkside Entertainment that cracked the Billboard Rap Singles chart's Top 10.
"That single just took off," he says. "I think SoundScan reported 30,000 copies of it sold. I was on Billboard for several weeks."
But after things didn't work out with his label, Mr. 44 left town for a bit, relocating to New York and then New Jersey.
"I was still recording, but I just took a step back," he says. "I didn't want to keep doing mixtapes. I wanted to start doing original projects." Then, shortly after the birth of his son, he moved back to Cleveland in 2004.
"I started getting back into the scene again, checking out tournaments and contests," he says, adding that this past year he participated in local events such as the Wheels of Steel showcase that took place in June and, more recently, the New Music Seminar's talent search, where he placed second in a competition for a record-label deal (he lost out to a Pennsylvania-based rock band he hopes to collaborate). "Before I knew it, I was back to putting out mixtapes again."
For his latest album, Mr. 44 doesn't just rap over other rappers' songs. Rather, he recruited noted DJs such as Phatty Banks, Kalam, D-Nass and Ry to provide the beats. For the radio-friendly "Chemistry," he teams up with a female singer called Cha-Cha and raps about East Coast and West Coast rivalries in the funky, horn-driven "Ask About Me." On "My First Love (Hip-hop)," a spoken-word piece, he emphasizes that hip-hop is as vibrant as ever and goes through a short history of groundbreaking MCs. The fact that Mr. 44 never settles for one style, embracing gangsta beats as well as pop harmonies, works to his advantage.
"We tried to branch out with this album," he says. "Since '06, I've been putting out an album a year. Whether they sell or not, I want to stay consistent and stay at it."
After the Rock Star show, Mr. 44 will head to New York for an old-school concert put on by True School University. And he's already talking to local motorsport enthusiast David Mallie about doing another Wheels of Steel showcase next year that will promote the positive aspects of hip-hop and feature a bill of both local and national rappers who use hip-hop as a form of education.
While Mr. 44 is committed to Cleveland ("rep to the fullest, oh to the io," he raps in "Ask About Me"), he also wants to promote himself outside of Northeast Ohio as much as he can and heads to New York every year to participate in the annual "50 Mic" battle.
"It's not a bad scene here; it's just dwindling," says Mr. 44 of Cleveland. "More and more artists are changing toward what they see in videos and what the radio is playing. I just stick with real hip-hop. I don't want to rap about crap. If you have a platform to say something, you might as well say something positive."
<i> Mr. 44, Cha-Cha, Nicotine, Jus Mic, Gel, Proph the Problem, D Roof, Chevy Blue, Tut, Niggod, Tiana Marie, the Sixth Man, Cool Matt -- 9 p.m. Saturday, December 13, Rock Star at Peabody's, 2083 E. 21st St., 216.776.9999, Tickets $5</i>