- Daniel Kramer
- Paul Wall flashes his $25,000 smile.
There's close to 300 people lined up at a strip mall in Elyria -- pregnant ladies, 10-year-olds, burly dudes in skullcaps -- all waiting to meet the Houston rapper whose grin glimmers like a disco ball.
"They want to see the teeth," the 24-year-old rhymer says. "They want to know if they're real."
And so Wall smiles constantly as he greets fans at the Exchange record store, beaming like a man who just bedded a Playmate. Young girls lean in close to Wall, like they're about to tell him some embarrassing secret. They blush as they hand disposable cameras to their friends to snap pictures.
"Can I make a video of you?" a big-shouldered guy in a black sweatshirt asks, as he pulls a camcorder out of his pants. "It's for my kid."
Wall obliges them all, signing shoes, shirts, posters, and CDs. He thanks his fans almost as much as they thank him, and even types his personal e-mail address into a guy's two-way pager.
Already a star, Wall doesn't need to be here, shaking hands like he's running for office in Lorain County. Just a few days earlier, Wall learned that his major-label debut, the aptly titled People's Champ, had debuted atop the Billboard charts, selling over 175,000 copies its first week out.
Besides, few artists come to Cleveland just to promote an album. Sure, bands that have a concert in town may drop by a local record store before the show to sign some autographs, but seldom do they come specifically to hang with their fans. "It's hard to get artists to do in-stores," sighs local Warner Bros. rep Bill Peters, who helped orchestrate Wall's visit.
But Wall's appeal is directly tied to how approachable he is. He's the rare rapper who balances a blinged-out bravado with a disarming, easy disposition. Watching Wall interact with his fans, it becomes evident that the title of his latest album is more than just hyperbole.
If Wall is quick to show Cleveland love, it may be because the city played a big role in his rise.
"I remember the first time we came here, it was like a shock to us how the city embraced us," says Wall, whose real name is Paul Slayton. "Cleveland was one of the first major cities to show us love and really put us on a pedestal. We were never used to that. People showed us love everywhere we went, but here in Cleveland, they treated us the same way they'd treat Jay-Z. So it's our responsibility and obligation to show love back."
After close to an hour and a half of pressing the flesh, Wall, a trio of his handlers, and his girlfriend pile into a champagne-colored SUV and head to Akron's 2 Live Music for another signing session. Sitting in a lounge in the back of the record store before the meet-and-greet begins, Wall does a quick phone interview and checks messages on his cell phone, barely pausing to pick at the cold cuts that serve as his dinner. More business-minded than his grill would suggest, Wall's smile fades into a weary look when he's out of the public eye.
But he rests for only about 20 minutes before he's out in front of another crowd, silver Sharpie in hand, surrounded by Rick James T-shirts, Bruce Lee posters, and a big-screen TV playing Big Trouble in Little China. The crowd ranges from tattooed dudes in tank tops to five-year-olds barely tall enough to see over the table. He signs one young girl's birthday card; then she offers him her autograph, which he gladly accepts.
Wall signs people's casts and accepts demo CDs from aspiring rappers. "I just touched Paul Wall's hand!" a teen gal with long braids gasps after her encounter with the MC. She then gets back in line for another autograph.
Shortly after the session ends, Wall hops into his ride and travels to Detroit for a show at midnight. He's been doing this for days on end and has weeks of touring ahead of him. He hasn't even had a chance to celebrate his No. 1 album.
"Not yet, man," he sighs. "It's been all work and no play. But we'll celebrate later on. Right now, it's time to work."