Even casual hip-hop fans have heard sounds born in Cleveland. Drake’s impromptu, mid-flow croons harken to the melody-infused gangsta rap of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal. Shaker Heights native Kid Cudi’s iconic mixtape A Kid Named Cudi inspired Kanye West’s tuneful introspection 808s & Heartbreaks.
Today, Cleveland’s hip-hop community is just as innovative, albeit lacking in the infrastructure and cash flow that power rap epicenters such as Atlanta and New York. East Cleveland’s Kipp Stone’s chameleon-esque flow and frank storytelling has netted him coverage in XXL and Fader, with his most recent album, 2017’s Dirty Face Angel, produced at Chicago’s star-making Closed Sessions.
Walker OG has made a name for himself dabbling across genres, fusing rock and hip-hop with his band The Dorian Walker Experience and striking out on his own for tongue-in-cheek, charismatic tracks about everything from kombucha tea to true Cleveland life.
We sat down with two of the scene’s most promising MCs to gauge the pulse of Cleveland hip-hop in 2018, from our St. Clair Avenue forbearers to today’s Soundcloud sirens.
Kipp Stone: I can remember the first time I heard [Al Fatz’s] “Came Down.” I was in middle school. I just heard somebody screaming it, and I’m like, “Whatever that is, that shit’s hard!” I was in the seventh grade. I had no computer. But somehow I heard that song and thought, This is dope, where is he from? He’s from Cleveland?!
Walker OG: You start to kind of understand you can live your dream in your city, until you move out of your city and start living your dream around the world. Seeing that and being able to grasp that and touch it, like, actually know the people. It would just make you want to [rap] more.
Kipp Stone: In any city, not just in Cleveland, there’s always that one artist that shoots the door down for everyone else. As far as the kind of music we make, there has to be an artist like that, that’s a little bit more connected to the underground now. Someone that people can see as a model of success — what it takes to get to a certain level. I think that’s really missing in Cleveland. We need a more unique sound. You can hear something and you just instantly know where it’s from, what region of the country that artist is from just by listening to the production or listening to their voice. We need to hone in on our uniqueness.
Walker OG: People think New York has this super infrastructure that is just honing artists. No, [the artists] are just down the street from the biggest labels. Cleveland’s small. We might not ever be like Atlanta or New York. So, I don’t have an answer on how to change that or what might be able to fix it. It’s just a matter of people networking, going out of the city and bringing things back in.
Kipp Stone: I would say master the internet. I got the same internet Kendrick [Lamar] got. I got the same internet Jay-Z got. The internet is powerful now. People are getting famous on Instagram before you even hear a song from them. They got platinum records off that.
Walker OG: You can build a community just off of the internet from the people that you follow. If every Cleveland artist followed each other on the internet and knew what each other were doing and made it a point to say, “Oh, he has a show this day? I’m not doing nothing. I can be in the area, let me go check him out.” Something going on where you’re kind of just able to show face, you could build a community naturally.
Kipp Stone: I’ve always had a very unpopular opinion on this topic. [I ask artists] “Are you thinking past Cleveland? If you’re not thinking past Cleveland, then you’re going to just kind of chase your tail.” Because a lot of people — and it’s part of me that wants it too, honestly — want to be the hometown hero. You know what I’m saying? A mascot. You got to think past Cleveland. If you think about any act that ever made it to a global scale, or even a national scale, it was always somebody that was thinking past Cleveland — [King] Chip, Cudi, MGK, Bone. But the right artists need money behind them and the resources. Because that’s what it was in Chicago. It was money and resources.
Walker OG: But, you got to make music and not really think about that aspect of it. You create something that you’re comfortable with that you think is great, and that’s when the work comes in — after it. You got to create a budget, create savings, invest in yourself, until somebody sees that you’re doing that and they might have more money than you.
Kipp Stone: And in every major city where artists are broken at, it all came from somebody taking a chance on an artist.
Walker OG: Everybody pretty much knows that if you can make it in Cleveland, you can pretty much make it anywhere. It’s a blue-collar city, like, we just got to work for real.
Kipp Stone: [But] people in other major cities, they’re more in tune to what their artists are doing. The public determines who’s going to be the next big thing, because it’s not about just artists supporting each other. Me and him could talk about how dope we are all day long, but that’s two people. There’s probably maybe the hundred or thousand people that follow me, and the hundred or thousand people that follow him. So if the people of the city embrace an act, that’s what kind of rises [the scene] to the top and I don’t think Cleveland has that. We have a different fan base [than other cities]. And rightfully so — we got a lot more stuff to worry about than other people. We’re not in LA. I don’t go outside and see palm trees. It’s snowing nine months out of the year.
Walker OG: Still, the hip-hop scene alone is thriving and people are understanding more of what they should do to get to wherever they want to get to musically with their careers. When certain artists do shows in Cleveland, in their own town, their fans show up, they support their friends. For the most part, the people who are out here working, when they put on a show, it’s a good show. Our festivals are amazing. We have so much live music that’s incredible at every venue.
Kipp Stone: As far as the hip-hop scene, I would just tell people there’s lot of hidden gems here. The guy I work with, Nuke Franklin, like in short, he’s a star. All it takes is for the right person to hear him.
Walker OG: Make music and network. See who might want to invest in you. It might not be money — it might be time, advice.
Kipp Stone: Build a team and be brutally honest with yourself. Everything I make [I ask], “Can this stand up to a so-and-so record?” You have to view yourself in the same caliber as these people. You can’t think, Oh I’m just starting out. No. Every time I make something I’m thinking, This has to be able to stand up to whatever’s on the radio. Don’t focus on impressing people from Cleveland so much — rather than the whole world.
Walker OG: And impress yourself. If you a true artist, you’re going to give other people impressions automatically. Every single artist that ever left an impression on somebody has been super dope. And they weren’t trying to impress nobody but themselves.