When the Steelers booted the Browns from the playoffs a few weeks back, we got drunk. David Velo Stewart, on the other hand, got inspired.
"Right after the Browns lost to the Steelers, that was one of those moments where it was like 'Oh man, another time where Cleveland is trying to make it to the next level, and at the last second, everything falls apart,'" sighs the young Cleveland filmmaker. "As soon as the game was over, one of my producers called me and said, 'Okay, so Dave, what's up with the next film?' That was one of those key moments, in that there were people looking toward us to do something special and to do things for Cleveland, and not sit around and wait for the Browns or Indians or Cavs to win a championship. There are other things going on that can make the city stand out in people's eyes."
One of which is Cleveland's bumper crop of up-and-coming MCs, which Stewart has showcased in well-received pictures such as Hip-Hop for Life and Kane and Abel. For his latest feature, Stewart hit upon a novel idea: Recruit six of Cleveland's finest battle rhymers and pit them against six of Detroit's top MCs, film the event documentary-style, then launch a series of meets with other cities, creating a circuit for promoting and exposing underground hip-hop. The first show will take place at the Grog Shop on Saturday.
"It's something that both of our cities can benefit from and grow collectively," says Paulie Rhymes, a hip-hop promoter and performer who helped organize the Cleveland vs. Detroit battle. "The more people you know, the more chances you have to succeed or to benefit from somebody's success. I think that the exposure that these MCs will receive from something like this will be similar to what some MCs like Idea or Eminem received from the battle circuit."
Indeed, the success of the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (which features numerous freestyle face-offs), and the ongoing feuds between Jay-Z and Nas, 50 Cent and Ja Rule, and most recently, Slim Shady and Benzino, have helped turn the spotlight back on battling. Which is good for Cleveland, as a town that's long been strong in that department. And now locals will get to showcase their skills to a wider audience.
"As far as Cleveland goes, we don't get enough respect for doing real hip-hop," says Drastic, one of the MCs who'll represent Cleveland in the competition. "One of the parts of real hip-hop is battling, so I feel like it's just a good way to represent the Midwest. I'm real thirsty to try out some Detroit MCs and see what they're about."
While competition is certainly at the core of this event, the networking opportunities are even more important. There's certainly no dearth of talent in Cleveland hip-hop these days, but what's missing is much of an infrastructure and sense of community. By strengthening the bonds with the Detroit scene, this event can help establish a broader coalition of artists, labels, and producers, who can make up for the lack of local industry presence by pooling talent and resources.
"People tend to stick to their own niche, their own surroundings -- people only branch out when connections are made," says Tyrone Staples, a film producer from Detroit who's coordinating performers from his city. "Cleveland and Detroit are three hours apart, so it's close enough where people can make those contacts. Events like this go further than just staying local."
Which is precisely the point. Stewart and company plan to take the series to Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Buffalo, ideally building up a nationwide co-op of underground hip-hop scenes to help buoy the prospects for all.
"It's good to have talent, and it's good to love Cleveland, but if you really, really want to go to that next level, we as a collective group are going to have to go to other places," Stewart says. "Waiting for people to come to Cleveland -- it's going to take a long time."
Kind of like a Browns playoff victory.