There's a reason the centerpiece of George Goins's living room is a pair of turntables, rather than a TV. As one of the founders of the hip-hop promotions company Nappyhead Inc., Goins (better known as Poohmanchew) seeks no distractions from his muse. He's lined his walls with hip-hop handbills, which outnumber the lone personal memento -- a picture of his child as an infant -- by a margin of about 15 to 1. He whips out a photo album filled with every flier from every show he's done. As the pages are turned, Goins grins on like a proud papa, as if we're looking at snapshots of his baby.
And in a way, we are. The fliers are mostly for Kings of the Iron Mic, Goins's stellar hip-hop series that's celebrating its third anniversary Sunday, May 26, at the Grog Shop. Since its inception, Kings (held four times a year) has breathed new life into the Cleveland hip-hop underground by providing a positive, steady outlet for some of the town's most progressive rhymers.
"Hip-hop in Cleveland was homeless," Goins says of the scene prior to the launch of Kings. "We gave MCs a home to come and do their thing. There was nothing like this going on when we started doing this, and it got other promoters to start doing more of the same."
Paulie Rhymes, founder of the local hip-hop promotions company Headrush Entertainment, agrees: "It shed light on the whole scene. It's one of the first shows that was consistent. Anybody who's anybody as far as local hip-hop goes has performed there. A lot of groups wouldn't be groups if it wasn't for Kings of the Iron Mic. It's the reason I throw shows."
Even more important than putting a roof over the head of local hip-hop, though, is how Kings has helped foster a stronger sense of community within the scene.
This teamwork is essential.
Anybody who's ever been subjected to the kind of weak, playa pabulum that New Orleans's Cash Money clique specializes in knows that it definitely wasn't talent that made those dudes millionaires several hundred times over. Instead, it was the strength of the bonds between crew members. These bonds have fostered lots of cross-pollination among the Cash Money roster, with everyone guesting on everyone else's records. Consequently, when one rapper gets hot, everybody gets hot, and their hometown sees its profile rise as well. It's this same sense of togetherness that Kings has begun to develop in Cleveland.
"You're starting to get less finger-pointing," explains Arrogant, a member of underground sensation the Chop Shop Renegades, detailing the impact Kings has had. "More artists are starting to realize that without the push to do it together and without us supporting one another, it's just not going to happen. The camaraderie is definitely amongst the artists a little bit more now. More artists are building relationships and doing stuff together."
Clearly, these artists are taking their cue from Kings, which is built upon interaction and participation. An open mic kicks off each show, and MCs constantly duel with one another in friendly verbal crossfire. The audience is often more amped than the P.A., pressed in tight, thrusting fists in the air, generating enough energy to power a small town. It's a wild, exhilarating time driven by spit boxing of the highest order. Moreover, performers are limited to 15 minutes, ensuring a breakneck pace.
"There's not a dead moment. There's always something going on. At any given time, there could be a battle," Goins says. "That's what hip-hop is about. It started off with battling. You see someone rapping, you think, 'I'm better than him,' and you'd join that cipher, that little circle, and the next thing you know, you got people all around. That's the kind of vibe we have."
And it's a positive one. One of the most striking things about a Kings show is its diversity. Pimps and poets rub elbows, hardcore roughneck MCs drop barrel-chested street rhymes next to conscious cats with elevating words. It's an invigorating mix that's buoyed Cleveland hip-hop like little else in recent years.
"We give everybody a fair chance; there's no one better than anybody else," Goins says. "That keeps everybody on an equal level. There's a lot of love in the room and a lot of respect. That's really all you can ask for."