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Rhyming on Instinct

A Cleveland outfitter hopes to ride a brash young rapper to fame.

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In hip-hop, clothing lines are as part of the culture as plea bargains and probation officers. Puff Daddy has Sean Jean. Jay-Z has Rocawear. Snoop Dogg has K-Nine clothing. Hell, for some unexplained reason -- certainly not popular demand -- even Sisqo has his own Dragon Collection.

But for all the big names and bigger pants, one of hip-hop's fastest-rising clothing lines comes not from rap's celebrity A list, but from the quiet town of Wadsworth. Since getting its start four years ago, Player Instinct apparel has saturated the rap world, with Juvenile, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Snoop, and many others all donning the garb; it's even been featured in several Cash Money films, scores of music videos, and sitcoms like The Jamie Fox Show and Moesha.

Visitors to the company's posh offices (which also house First Instinct Records, Player Instinct's sister company) are greeted by a poster of a grimacing Mac-10, decked out in a Player Instinct button-down baseball shirt, alongside autographed photos of dozens of sports stars, from Dan Marino to Roy Jones Jr. This is only fitting: The idea for Player Instinct sprang from company founder Jon Scott's mid-'90s work as a sports agent.

"I had met Carlos Baerga at the mall. His bodyguard introduced me, we kind of hit it off, and we all went out to dinner that night," says Scott, a burly, boisterous thirtysomething with a smile as wide as the tent-sized Player Instinct jersey he offers. "We put together a campaign with Coca-Cola for Baerga. The same bodyguard also knew Ken Griffey Jr. I met Junior, and I came up with some logos for him for Nike. Player Instinct evolved from the logo I did for Junior."

But the logo didn't evolve for Nike. When the company passed on Scott's idea (a "P" fashioned around a ball), he turned his focus to the urban-apparel market, spawning the Player Instinct line of eye-popping jerseys, hats, and T-shirts. And since most big-name athletes were already tied up in multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, Scott pursued clothes-crazed rappers to get the Player Instinct word out.

"I would literally show up at concerts with clothes in hand, hoping that one of the guys would look at me or at least say hey," Scott says. "I would give them clothes, they would wear them onstage, take pictures in it for me, and once you meet one artist, it goes to another artist, and it just keeps evolving."

While working a Ja Rule concert a couple of years back, Scott happened to catch a talented young Akron rhymer by the name of Tomee Spitshine, who was opening the show. Impressed by Spitshine's raw ability and stage presence, Scott began to entertain the notion of starting a label in conjunction with Player Instinct, and he wanted Spitshine on board for the project.

"What really attracted me to him was the way he carried himself," Scott says. "He carried himself like he was there already." To Scott, running a hip-hop record label alongside an urban clothing company made perfect sense. Soon, First Instinct Records was born, and Spitshine signed on. Since then, he's become one of rap's hottest young properties and a cornerstone of First Instinct's early success.

Last September, Spitshine and First Instinct met with P. Diddy, who earlier had expressed interest in working with Spitshine. Jay-Z and the Rocafella camp have also come calling, in addition to a handful of majors. Spitshine's current single, "Splashed Out," justifies the interest in him. The buoyant club anthem pairs an Al Roker-sized beat with Spitshine's equally svelte and helter-skelter flow, making him sound like a more radio-friendly RZA, with whom Spitshine shares a penchant for the melodramatic. The cover of his forthcoming First Instinct debut features a shot of Spitshine not in Player Instinct gear, but in full gladiator regalia -- leather tunic, sword, and all.

"That's how I see myself -- as a gladiator," he says. "I'm fighting to get to the next level. I feel like I got a sword right now, fighting to make this a good interview for you. It's constantly a battle."

Fortunately for the Instinct empire, Spitshine's wordplay -- and swordplay -- come off better onstage.

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