Wallace Settles flashes his "I mean business" look.
The city of Cleveland has been a hotbed for hip-hop talent for years, going as far back in the annals of time when MC Brainz and his "Oochie Coochie" reigned supreme. Of course, there's the monstrous success of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and in more recent years, artists like King Chip, Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly have been able to gain widespread recognition and respect. However, for every Bone Thugs and MGK, there are hundreds of Common Aves and Case Barges out there chomping at the bit to make their mark at a local level.
Wallace Settles aka Dirty Jones was one of those artists looking to leave his imprint on the world through music but found that doing so came with a heap of difficulties and with no viable solution in sight. He's the promoter behind the local showcase Cruel Winter Fest, which takes place at the Grog Shop on Dec. 20. The lineup for this year's incarnation features the likes of Tribe Untitled, Young James & Toby, Mondo Slade, Creez Mob, Phrazes, Walker OG, Zell, Don Purp, among others. Tae Miles and Ray Ave share top billing, with music by Elliot Nash and hosting duties handled by Kris Hilton.
"I started in 2007, Moriarty was our group," Settles says. "I rapped for awhile and then I made a mixtape. We had a little buzz behind it, then the group album came out and then I made my solo joint. After I made the solo album, I noticed how hard it was for me to promote everything and I said to myself "Why is this shit so hard? Why is this so hard for me to promote? Why is no one listening to none of this shit?" That's when I realized that there was nobody really promoting and managing acts and putting on events and shows. So I went ahead and made the transition two years ago and actually started throwing events and helping the Grog out with booking artists for bigger shows and shit like that."
Feeling as if the business side of hip-hop in Cleveland was lacking, Settles was willing to sacrifice his own popularity as an artist to do the hard work of getting exposure for artists and putting on what he refers to as "legitimate rap shows." He'll be the first to tell you that he misses primarily being an artist, but he also shares that being behind the scenes has its perks.
"I like behind the scenes better, just because it's like you can control your own destiny," he says. "You can pick the shows you want to do. When you're behind the scenes, you know when artists are coming into town at least three months in advance. So it's way easier to book your shows if you know that [for example] Dom Kennedy is coming in November and it's July. It's way easier to get on since you've known about the show. I've got time to hit up Dom Kennedy's management, hit up the venue and get my press kit out there and all that. So I like the business side because of that, but I miss the music side...because that's the fun. Business ain't always fun. It gets boring. Quickly."
Settles plans to get back to the music side of things and release a compilation album featuring all of the artists he currently manages, including the aforementioned Common Ave and Case Barge.
"It'll be like a compilation with my groups Common Ave, Case Barge, etc," he says. The collective of artists I work with is called Aloof. So I'll have them all on it, but it'll be a solo album. It'll be like what Jay Z did with The Dynasty
. We've got all kinds of artists — R&B groups, deejays...all kinds of artists. So I'm trying to bring everything together and push the product properly so everybody can hear everything we've got on one cohesive project and it won't be as confusing."
There's a notion among some in the city that the hip-hop scene in Cleveland isn't unified and everyone hates each other, but Settles strongly disagrees.
unity in the city, you're just not paying attention," he says. "People who say there's no unity just aren't very good artists and people aren't listening to their music. If you're decent, someone has reached out by now wanting to work with you. It's just the way that it works. I know most of the artists in the city now and everyone pretty much gets along with everybody. If you hear someone saying otherwise, they're not telling the truth. Because the reality is that everyone's working together. But, it's not organized"
In addition to organizational issues, Settles cites faulty management and dismissive artists as reasons that the scene may not appear as unified as it could.
"The issue is that everyone's management team is bad," he says. "Everyone doesn't have the proper team behind them to make the shit work. Another issue a lot of the time, is that the artists don't listen to people. So it's hard to manage a lot of artists because they don't want to listen — they think they know everything."
One of Settles' earlier series of shows bears the title "The New Cleveland" and he says that the point of those shows was to get all of the same people on one accord, organized and discussing what needed to be fixed as the scene moves forward.
"That's why I called it 'The New Cleveland,'" he says. "There needed to be a new focus in the city. It's like now
we're here and these are the artists. There can be a hundred artists and these twenty dudes are handling all of their business. So, they're getting their ASCAP done, they're getting their BMI finshed, they're getting their shows properly booked and they're getting paid for their shows. They're making sure that they're doing the right amount of shows, doing them at the right places and opening up for the right people. Once everybody understands that part of it, things will be a lot easier. That would
be The New Cleveland"
Last year, Settles began the Cruel WInter Fest and while one of the purposes is to bring together some of the best acts of the year, he has a bigger goal in mind as well.
"Part of it is the unity but another part of it is that we need to make our rap events in the city bigger., he excitedly says. "Brite Winter Fest is a giant event. Heights Music Hop is a giant event. Hip-hop really isn't involved in those events a lot. I think that one of the reasons is because the people don't know that the scene is vibrant here, They just don't know. So we have to show them that the scene is evolving. And I think that Cruel Winter Fest is one of the things that's going to help people realize that Cleveland hip-hop is doing well."
Settles believes that over time and with hard work, the Cruel Winter Fest can be just as big as Brite Winter or Heights Hop — if not bigger.
"I know it can be. It's more about me trying to organize it better and it's hard to get sponsors for a hip hop show. They just don't want to do it. And I get it. Brite has a lot of sponsors, lots of sponsorship money and GoFundMe's and such. But yeah, that's definitely the goal. I want to make this thing gigantic. I could even have it in the summer time at Voinovich Park with ten thousand people there going nuts and a national headliner and all that stuff. That's the ultimate goal."
Cruel Winter Fest, 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, grogshop.gs.