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The harried look on Belinda Simmons face is a more telling sign of her husbands success than the Mercedes with the vanity plates reading "Landry" parked in the drive. She wears a mask of strained patience as she hefts groceries unaided while her preoccupied spouse sits at the kitchen table beneath a framed map of the United States dotted with push pins. The most unlikely towns are skewered. Red Bluff, Iowa. Junction City, Kansas. To most, these hamlets are little more than rest stops, places to empty bladders and fill tanks, maybe cop a Big Gulp. To Landry Simmons, however, they're rap-craving cash cows ready to be rendered filets.

"My brother went to college in Winona, Minnesota, St. Marys College," Simmons says. "We're driving through [the Midwest] this is about a year-and-a-half ago I stop and get some gas, and kids are playing hip-hop. Everywhere I go, I'm hearing hip-hop, even in Iowa, and Im hearing old stuff. So I ask one of the kids, Wheres the new stuff at? Whats going on with the new stuff? All these people there dont even know whats going on. They're playing old stuff because none of these big labels are out there pushing anything. They don't care about that."

But Simmons does. As head of the fledgling Simmons Time Records, his plan is to serve what he labels "dry areas," broad swathes of the Midwest and Upper Plains from Iowa to Idaho that fall outside major-label marketing zones. Due to the spread-out populace of these regions, it's difficult for majors to market these locales, and ultimately not very cost-effective; thus, they largely get ignored. To Simmons, these regions are his bread and butter. He hits all the towns that no one else does.

"I don't care if theyre in the mountains of Utah, I'd like to be the first one there, like Christopher Columbus. I'm putting my mark right here and here and here," Simmons says, poking at the map. "It's going everywhere. I'm trying to find out whats hip-hop in South Dakota and North Dakota, because it's going there."

Three years ago, Simmons, a lifelong hip-hop fan, invested $300 to record an album by a trio of rappers the Hellish Made Clique that he heard rhyming in a friends living room. A deputy at the 1st District sheriffs office, Simmons initiated the project as little more than a hobby. Disappointed by the production of the album, he decided to put it on the Internet, hoping that would mask some of the sound flaws. A year after the debut from HMC was finished, Simmons unexpectedly got a check in the mail for $4,700. Then a pile more. The next thing he knew, the band was getting over 1,500 downloads a week, mostly from people in towns as unheard of as a correctly pronounced multi-syllable word from George Ws maw, places where the Internet was the kids only access to rap.

The fan mail mounted as did Belindas sighs as Landry would spend between five and eight hours a night sifting through letters, after putting in a full shift at the squadron. Soon, HMC was garnering enough hits to land at No. 6 on Rolling Stones MP3 charts earlier this year, above Eminem. All of a sudden, Simmons had sold 8,000 copies of a record at $10 apiece, and become more famous than Slim Shady in places like Clinton, South Carolina.

"The regular corporate structure is so impersonal, they don't get to know the artist. You can come to me, call me anytime. I'm more like a homey than an executive. I want to meet their mothers, their family, their kids it's going to be a family bond."
Last week, Simmons shipped 45,000 units of his second project, the debut from rapper Canis, with a firm belief that the album will sell over 100,000 copies based on initial feedback and demand, a potential $1 million windfall from a $3,000 investment. Returns like that would surely remove the slack from Charles Schwabs britches.

Two hundred blocks removed, in the Glanton kitchen, fat burgers and fatter rappers are whats cooking. As she chars artery-impeding patties, Margaret Glanton recalls whetting a different appetite: the hunger for hip-hop that has burned in her son Marlons belly since she first put Fat Boys wax in his hands a decade-and-a-half ago. A precocious Marlon would start rhyming soon thereafter; it was only a matter of time before the labels came knocking.

"Remember that time he called the house? We couldn't believe it was Eazy-E. We were all sitting around the phone like they did a long time ago," his mother recalls with a laugh. The late rap icon was looking to add her son to his Ruthless Records roster in the early 90s. But Eazy's HIV-induced illness and eventual death would shelve Marlons signing. He would later negotiate with Arista and MCA, only to find himself taken advantage of in notoriously bad deals that would make the land-swiping Dutch blush at least they threw in some plastic beads.

"I done been burnt so many times by this industry, man, I'm real jaded. That John Hancock can get you in a lot of trouble," Marlon says from a plush maroon recliner in his crowded living room, as Jay-Z struts across the television screen.

Frustrated by chasing cheese in the major-label maze, Marlon Glanton launched his own label, Execution Entertainment, in 1994, setting out to instill in his business what he found to be lacking in the majors: Trust. Support. Kinship.

"Everybody on my label is related to me, just about, so I could never mistreat my family. I couldn't sleep at night doing that," Glanton says. "But even if I do choose to sign from somebody outside my camp, I just really want to establish a personal relationship. The regular corporate structure is so impersonal, they don't get to know the artist. You can come to me, call me anytime. I'm more like a homey than an executive. I want to meet their mothers, their family, their kids it's going to be a family bond."

And this bond has paid dividends. Glanton's latest album, with the thugged-out Thieveland, moved over 20,000 units. He's sold close to 40,000 copies of his three releases combined, contributing significantly to the current groundswell in Cleveland hip-hop.

With a trio of artists charting in the top 10 of the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B singles charts this year, selling well over 100,000 records between them, in addition to a handful of other acts shifting units by the tens of thousands, eyes are on Cleveland as the next potential epicenter of hip-hop. The first tremors have already been made by men like Glanton and Simmons. These diamond-studded Davids blinding the major-label Goliaths, not with any stone but from the bling of their rings, are working to elevate Cleveland to a seat of national prominence in hip-hop, as well as recast traditional power structures within the music industry along the way.

It all started in the trunk of Percy Millers ride. With a $10,000 inheritance from his grandfather, this New Orleans native opened his own record store, No Limit Records, in 1989. Gaining firsthand knowledge of the tastes of the streets working as a retailer, Miller decided to try his hand as an artist, releasing his debut, The Ghettos Trying to Kill Me, under the Master P moniker in 1991. He quickly gained infamy by moving 100,000 copies without any major distribution, selling records from the trunk of his car. After following his first effort with an EP that sold another 200,000 records, the major labels predictably came calling.

But unlike the hip-hop impresarios that preceded him, such as Russell Simmons and Sean "Puffy" Combs, Miller somewhat surprisingly eschewed the majors. Instead, he inked a lucrative, and largely unprecedented, straight press-and-distribution deal with indie Priority Records, which gave him a hefty 85 percent of gross revenue. By 1998, No Limit had exploded with a slew of hit albums from Master P and his brothers, rappers Silkk The Shocker and C-Murder, among others, all similarly packaged in the labels trademark gaudy, retina-watering covers. No Limit sold over 26 million albums, paving the way for home-state doppelgngers Cash Money to become fellow millionaires. In 1998 alone, Miller himself reportedly earned over $400 million.

But much more significant than the financial gains that these two labels and their crews have accrued is the unfiltered expression that they secured. Of course, the gangsta lifestyle that the No Limit camp espoused had long been represented in rap, ever since N.W.A. dropped its incendiary sophomore effort in 1988 but it was usually under the watchful eye of label higher-ups and corporate CEOs of an often different color. They traditionally had the final say about how the art of another culture would be marketed and presented to the public, if at all.

No Limit and Cash Money, however, won unfettered freedom over how they chose to portray themselves and their people, bringing unencumbered African-American expression into the mainstream. These labels created their own representations of the African American, instead of accepting others. While many debate whether or not these representations are positive, the fact that these labels have earned a degree of self-determination is a victory in and of itself.

But for all the battles No Limit and Cash Money have won, the gold-plated "big baller" sounds the two have popularized are beginning to lose their luster. No Limit has already begun to fade from the limelight, charting but one album in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 this year, while one of its biggest stars, Mystikal, jumped ship to release his latest wildly successful release on a straight major, Jive Records. Cash Money is still sizzling, but it too is showing signs of slowing down, and one of the most likely reasons is how virtually impossible it is for individuals to truly connect with their output. On a personal level, audiences have a tough time relating to the unfathomable wealth and incessant boasting of these artists; their lives bear no resemblance to the champagne-guzzling revelry of Cash Money, and they're obviously going to tire sooner or later of being reminded of this fact.

"I think it's going to turn back to the real essence of hip-hop, where it was more meaningful rap," says Cleveland rapper Jahari, whose latest album boasts collaborations with such luminaries as Too $hort and Eightball. "I know it's going to turn back, but it's going to take strong artists to cut the string. The bling-bling era came along so strong, that it came on and knocked out all the other artists that was talking about important issues."

"You cant keep talking about what you got and how rich you are and the expensive cars you have when you got my brothers out here starving for a hamburger," says Cleveland writer Tony Franklin, a contributor to Rap Sheet, one of the nations most renowned hip-hop publications. "Thats gonna play out. Its just like on a professional level with the sports: Each little label gets its chance to run, then your run is over and you gotta rebuild, re-create. There's definitely going to be another sound and its definitely going to come out of the Midwest."

Stop. Hammer time. Surrounded by the 20,000 nails that hold together the studio of his label Fade Entertainment, one of the city's biggest-selling independent record companies helping to spearhead the Midwest rap charge, Mike Berry (better known as Big Gank) relishes his handiwork.

"On a personal level, audiences have a tough time relating to the unfathomable wealth and incessant boasting of these artists; their lives bear no resemblance to the champagne-guzzling revelry of Cash Money, and they're obviously going to tire sooner or later of being reminded of this fact."
"If you could see the schematics of this, you'd trip," Berry says, gesturing to his gadget-lined studio. "I never took a carpentry class, and I built this, me and my partner. We had an acoustics engineer and he gave us a plan, he would build a piece and say, Build 30 of these. Then he'd build another piece: Twenty of these. It took us six months. Two people."

Berrys hands used to get him in trouble. He did a seven-year stint in prison beginning in 1991. But now he's using those hands to lay a foundation for Cleveland hip-hop to become a cloud-nudging beacon to the Midwest. He's content to be the laborer upon whose back the structure is built, and this callused-hand ethic is paramount in Big Ganks music.

"I make music for real people, you know what I'm sayin', the everyday Joe," Berry says. "A lot of these rappers, they got the ice and they got this and that, and that's not even real. They don't really have it. I'm the blue-collar rapper. Gank will probably come around the corner any minute and sit on the porch and chop it up with you, drink a brew. You're not going to catch me in a video with 75 girls and cars, because thats not even real."

And there's little that's artificial about Gank; there's especially no sweetener. Sitting across from him is akin' to being a poodle pupil-to-pupil with a pitbull, all sinew and snarl. A proletariat wordsmith, Gank is a nine-to-five rapper who trades in elbow grease rather than Cristal, shouldering his way to the forefront of the Midwestern rap crop by what else? Skinning his nose on the grindstone.

"I remember being on the road a month, every day eatin' a Wendys french fry and a fuckin' 99-cent cheeseburger," Gank recalls of the promotional tours he did as Fade Entertainment was just getting off the ground in 1998. He made $150 a week. "Six dollars a day, I used to eat that twice a day."

Now he can afford steak. After selling an impressive 40,000 units of his debut EP, Weight of the World, two years ago, Gank moved 10,000 copies of his recently released sophomore effort, 8mm Film, in its first two weeks. This may be a show of the strength of his latest single, "Me Without a Rhyme," which has been lodged in the Billboard R&B Top 20.

And Gank isnt without brothers in arms among Cleveland independents manning the front lines in the battle to aggrandize the Rust Belt, as Cash Money and No Limit did the South. "You listen to a tape, and Busta Rhymes may start to give shout-outs. He'll say the East, hell say the West, hell say the South and then that's it," says Lifeline, a member of the nine-man hip-hop ensemble the G.I. Joes. "Like that whole chunk of land thats east of the Mississippi and north of Kentucky, that's nothing. It's just about making that become acknowledged by everybody."

"Its a war right now, between the real and the underground," comrade Billy Bravo adds.

And what better group to have manning the trenches in this skirmish than the Joes, a group whose members take their names from the combat-lusting action figures. As their pseudonyms indicate, everything about the bunch is elaborate, right down to their handshakes. As stray members file into a downtown bar, their fingers Macarena in one anothers palms. This same complexity is abundant in the band's sound. Boasting more personalities than Sybil, the collective is composed of eight disparate MCs that vary from the stoned-to-the-bone Visine rhymes of Destro to the fleet-tongued vowel movements of Dr. Mindbender. It all congeals into a Rubiks cube of rhymes puzzling, ever changing, and peerless in trend-prone Midwestern hip-hop. In a time when hip-hop jumps from one fad to the next, the G.I. Joes are all about staying one hoof ahead of the herd.

"The world would not work if everybody was a leader, that's impossible," Lifeline says. "You're always going to have one or two shepherds and the rest are going to be sheep."

The collective is featured this month in The Source magazines "Unsigned Hype," a celebrated column that profiles an up-and-coming artist each month, and which has launched the career of Biggie Smalls, among others. With thousands of submissions a year, gaining recognition in the piece is one of the more prestigious honors in underground hip-hop, and a lightning rod for attracting more attention to this city's hip-hop scene, where the thunderclaps are mounting. With boombastic Ohio playas Midwest Mafia having sold 50,000 copies of its single "So Flossy," Jahari ensconced in the R&B/Rap top 10 with his latest single and D.S.U. having a solid radio hit this past summer as well, Cleveland appears to be bubbling over with talent. So why hasn't this city broken out since twisted-tongue favorite sons Bone Thugs-N-Harmony first hit six years ago?

The answer lies largely in the conflicting aesthetics of Cleveland hip-hop. While the aforementioned acts may have a fair degree of success in common, that's about all they share, as their sounds are wildly divergent. If there's one thing this town lacks, it's an identifiable sound. Sandwiched between the coasts and the South, Cleveland is a conglomeration of all those regions sounds. Some cliques in the city embrace the New York strings-and-streets style, like the G.I. Joes, while others assimilate Southern bounce (the Midwest Mafia) or approximate West Coast g-funk (Thieveland). Such an abundance of opposing approaches in one city with a limited rap audience has created an atmosphere of antagonism among local artists. They wrangle tirelessly with one another, instead of fostering the sort of communal environment that has nurtured strong hip-hop scenes in places like New Orleans, Houston and Atlanta.

"There's too much isolation in this city; theres too much ego, to the point where I won't help you or let you know what I know because I don't want you to outdo me," says Joe Bell Sr., head of Legacy Entertainment, an artist development and management company. "In order for this city to happen, it has to have a collective consciousness. If people aren't doing anything, they double-up on ego. You ever look at some of these hip-hop records and you see where one guy brought along nine or 10 guys that were his friends and he put them all out? Thats happening everywhere. You don't make it by yourself, you really don't, and that seems to be a hard concept for people to realize in this city."

This absence of cooperation between the prominent players in Cleveland hip-hop is reflected on the airwaves, where artists and radio programmers similarly fail to see eye-to-eye, another roadblock to the further development of the local rap scene.

"The difference that sets New York apart from Cleveland or someplace else thats blowing up like the South, is the radio stations support their independents," says Crazy Dee, owner of Crazy Dees Muzik Palace and his own CDR label. "It's not just a specialty show that comes on for a couple of hours where the DJ is being pressured by the general manager to still play the hot records and only squeak in an independent every now and then. This is the situation that were in now. [93.1 FM WZAK] was just acquired by Radio One, which has [107.9 FM] so now were running in a monopoly again. [WZAK] cut out all the hip-hop situations. We will never be able to break out of this without having to go someplace else until we get the radio station to support the independent acts, and how are we going to get them to support independent acts when Radio One is stationed in D.C.? How do they know what types of problems we have had as a group of people trying to come out with music? All they know is their area.

"The music director is from Chicago, the program director is from Georgia, the mix coordinator is from Chicago, they got one mixer on there from Cleveland," continues Franklin. "They're not from Cleveland, they have no loyalty to Cleveland."

"If you want to talk about Cleveland rap artists, who've been here 15 years, 20 years, then why the fuck aren't theyre being played on WZAK?" Public Enemy frontman Chuck D asks. "Why is ZAK playing Jay-Z 10 to 15 times a day, and a Cleveland artist thats been here for 20 years, probably recording for eight years, you tell me why they're not being played? If the Cleveland scene just said you know, Fifty percent Cleveland, and 50 percent everything else, you'll see a change in the environment right here. But no, its 98 percent big business and two percent local."

But radio is in the business of making money, others are quick to point out, and if locals can create a demand for their music and in turn lure listeners, radio will play them. If not, it won't.

"The radio stations around the world pick what does well for their stations, and the audience has a big part in deciding what happens," says Sam Silk, music director for 107.9 FM. "It has to be a hit, and it's not to say that your record is not a good record. If we play everybody from Cleveland and don't play any nationals, there would not be a Z 107.9, and that's in any city. You have to keep working hard and not just say, Because I'm from Cleveland my radio station is obligated to play me."

Maybe this missing unity will come through events like the one recently held at the Euclid Tavern a mike battle where mums take more abuse than Ted Kennedys liver during happy hour. Onstage, a Potsy-esque white boy who claims he likes to "take out my balls 'cause I'm from Chagrin Falls" duels with a dread-headed rapper thinner than O.J. Simpson's alibi on a June night six years ago. Each is given two minutes to freestyle, and they quickly resort to assaulting various aspects of each others mother's anatomy, in an excoriating verbal exchange that would surely lead to dusted knuckles in any other setting. But after the contest ends and the crowd anoints Potsy the victor with their clamorous hoots, the two lock arms in a sign of mutual respect.

"I pretty much open my doors for all the forms," says Tyler Lombardo, head of TydeDown, a hip-hop promotions company that puts together such diverse bills to cultivate the missing sense of Cleveland hip-hop. "As far as fostering the unity, the only way is to get the community out. We charged five dollars for this show; if we would have charged 10 dollars we could have made money. We charge five dollars just to get people in to see, so they can walk out like, Yeah, that was cool, and they can tell their people how much of a good time they had. We have to be one army all fighting for the same cause. These people are starting to see each other at their shows a little more. You definitely have to break the ice, and I've tried to break it as much as possible with the attitudes. Cleveland is so small and people have beef so much already, where its like I pretty much wipe the slate clean and tried to start fresh with everything."

And Lombardos efforts appear to be slowly paying off.

"I see more unity than there was four years ago. What I'm doing now, I dont think I could do it four years ago," says George Goins, head of NappyHead, a production company much in the same vein as TydeDown, which puts on the Kings and Queens of the Iron Mic series. "I think some people are saying, I'm tired of doing it my way, let's try it our way. It's more we than me. I think its becoming more like that now, but it's still growing."

As are the furrows in Belinda Simmons brow. As Landrys pockets grow deeper from the rising tide of Cleveland rap, she has to share him more and more with excitable fans like Eli, a guy who calls Landry out of the blue to tell him how much they love the Hellish Made Clique in South Bend, Oregon. Before Simmons came to town, rap was pretty scarce there.

"A lot of people think when youre talking about hip-hop, you're talking about the ghetto, projects, New York, Chicago," Simmons says. "That's not hip-hop. Hip-hop is worldwide. It should be given to the world, and I'm gonna give it to them."

This article originally appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

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