Chemist and Mooke, who make up the rap duo Smoke Screen, have spent the past few years spicing up Cleveland's hip-hop landscape by adding fresh new flavors to the hometown mix. You don't have to listen too closely to hear that their love for the city and its people runs deep through their music. "Being from Cleveland and making music for Clevelanders, there's a signature sound that goes along with it," says Tommy Sheridan (Chemist). "It has an underdog vibe, and everyone around here knows that. I think it's the fact that we're coming from the bottom and trying to make something of ourselves that is motivational to us."
Although their ties to the city are apparent, Chemist and Mooke (Rodney Mynatt) want to take their game to the next (read: national) level. They found enlightenment one night before they were set to perform at the Grog Shop, a favorite hangout. "We were drinking Magic Hat before our set, and the bottom of the bottle caps had these little sayings on them," recalls Sheridan. "Right before we hit the stage, I cracked open my last beer and the cap read, 'Don't hog the grog.' We kind of saw it as a sign to branch out a bit."
With a great deal of ambition and lyrical prowess to match, Smoke Screen say they're dedicated to staying ahead of the game — something they realized as long as they've known each other. Close friends since grade school, Sheridan and Mynatt have a natural camaraderie, which comes through on their records. But it's their differences that round them out as a group.
Which is why Smoke Screen is the perfect name to convey both their image and attitude, they say. "Black and white makes gray, smoke is gray," says Sheridan, who's white (Mynatt is black). "Our styles are very day and night, so it's like black and white."
Over the past couple of years they've shared the stage with other alternative-leaning hip-hop artists like Kid Cudi, Wale, and People Under the Stairs. And their live performances are becoming somewhat legendary around here. "We like a lot of crowd interaction," says Mynatt. "Expect to have a great time, no matter what's going on in your life. We try to make each show special."
Their expanding popularity in part can be traced back to the Coventry-based sneaker and clothing boutique Heart & Sole, which has turned into an unofficial headquarters for the local hip-hop scene and where Smoke Screen held a breakout performance a few years back. (Their booming notoriety caught the attention of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which handpicked Smoke Screen to open for hipster faves Das Racist on July 13 as part of the Rock Hall's Summer in the City concert series.)
After self-releasing two albums, including last year's Imagination Beyond Illustration, Sheridan and Mynatt say they're in no hurry to rush a third one. But they're slowly putting the pieces together. Looking ahead, they hope their efforts will help stimulate Cleveland's rap scene. One thing that will remain is the sense of community they've helped cultivate over the past few years. "Cleveland is unique, and I think we're blessed to be involved in this scene," says Mynatt. There's a lot of great talent [around Coventry] alone. It's definitely a close-knit community around here, and we want to give Cleveland a definitive presence."
Through it all, Sheridan and Mynatt remain the humble and hopeful guys they were when they started out. They realize it's going to take patience, hard work, and maybe just a little luck to get where they want to be. "Knowing that my music is helping people is one of the truest forms of success," says Mynatt. "So much has happened in my personal life over the past few years. A lot of my experiences are what drives my accomplishments."
Sheridan shares the feeling. "My own personal idea of true success is being able to see the rest of the country as well as the world," he says. "To see the world and be able to travel around doing what I love and share my music with people is, to me, the pinnacle of success."