When the RZA, producer and main architect of the Wu-Tang Clan, performed at the Agora last month, Lozell Siler bumrushed the stage and started hollering "Gimme the mic! I want the mic!" After climbing over the railing at the front of the stage, he eventually made his way past security and was able to get a few RZA-endorsed minutes on the microphone to show off his skills as a rapper.
"To tell you the truth, I can't remember nuthin' I said up there," says Siler, who's wearing a black T-shirt and has his hair twisted into tight cornrows. "That's the truth. I did something off the top of my head. I was so pumped, it was like I was in the zone. I had never rapped in front of that many people before. When I looked up and actually realized what was goin' on, I was like 'Oh, shit.'"
But confidence isn't something Siler lacks. He's met the RZA and the others of the Wu-Tang Clan before, and isn't fazed by their multiplatinum credentials.
"It should be a pleasure for them to meet me, know what I'm sayin'?" he says. "They need to be asking me for autographs, even though I ain't got a dollar. I ain't nobody, but I will be."
Siler, who calls himself Zelakhan when he's performing, is an aspiring rapper and one-third of the Painesville group TreVu. The trio, which also includes rappers Lejin (Larry Jeffries) and SL (Jeff Meeks), has released one self-titled EP to date and has been playing regularly at the Rhythm Room in Cleveland Heights.
They say there's a thriving hip-hop scene in Painesville -- a suburb that, despite being located some 25 miles from Cleveland, has all the problems of an inner-city neighborhood. Between its boarded-up crack houses and drug-related drive-by shootings, Painesville has a reputation as the toughest 'burb in Lake County. "There's a lot of crime and stuff out there, so the stuff we talk about is what people are really going through," Siler says. "It's not all fantasy. You go out there, and you can see people on the block rolling dice and getting high. They're holdin' on. That's what's going on there. So I feel like everybody's got a story to tell."
The three grew up together in Painesville and had jobs one summer doing janitorial work in the county employment program. That's when they started rapping.
"We were rappin' while workin'," explains Siler. "Freestylin' mostly. We would go home and write a rhyme that night, and then come back the next day and spit it out at the others."
Siler and Jeffries originally collaborated in Hood Factor, a collection of Painesville rappers and producers who put out a compilation a few years ago. When Meeks, who had moved to Florida in 1995, returned last year, the trio formed TreVu (the name roughly means "three views"). They recorded six songs at Jeffries's home studio and released it as an EP that they've been "trunkin' on the streets," as Jeffries puts it.
"Shit, we might even be on this block right here, selling CDs," he says, motioning to the street outside of the Lyndhurst restaurant where he, Siler, and Meeks met Craig Pearsall, who plays in the local band Critikill. Pearsall has recruited the group to play with his new side project, Shaved.
"I'll rap at the gas station on a Fisher-Price microphone if I have to," Siler says.
Referencing "niggas on the street" in the song "Main Event" and "a Desert Eagle that shoots automatically" in "It's Going Down (Late Night Creep)," the group makes allusions to living the hard-knock life. In "It's Going Down," they brag that they "smoke so much weed," their "piss ain't clean." Like the late Tupac Shakur, who could write a sensitive ballad about his mother and follow it up with a song about grabbing his gun to take down his enemies, they write songs filled with both empathy and anger.
"It's about being able to write words and ease myself . . . through certain times, know what I'm sayin'," Jeffries says, agreeing that Shakur is an influence. "I need to release things on my mind, know what I'm sayin'. That's what got me in the game."
Despite songs like "Gun'n/Com'n Com'n," which is about "putting a bullet in your brain," "packin' heat," and "runnin' and gunnin'," Siler says the group isn't trying to endorse the gangsta lifestyle. Rather, through the music and the band's DIY attitude, he hopes they'll show that you can take the ghetto out of the man -- even if the ghetto is a suburb called Painesville.
"The songs aren't about violence," he says. "They're about doing what you gotta do to survive. If you actually listen to the words and understand what we're sayin', they're actually motivational things that you can take to your head. A lot of people just think about doing things, and they never get around to it. Basically, we just try to get them off their asses."