Cleveland has been reborn. Don’t tell that to the citizens on the near East side, where violence has claimed far too many young lives. And don’t mention all of this economic rebirth when the crime rate on the near West side is at historic highs either. But overall, especially Downtown where sports teams and casinos dictate the landscape- Cleveland is back.
I never realized how important sports were until Lebron left us. Everyone says “Athletes are overpaid- they shouldn’t make more than Doctors, Teachers and Soldiers.” And in sentiment I stand in solidarity with that notion.
But when a teacher gets fired I don’t see an economic collapse like we saw in Cleveland when Lebron took his talents to South Beach. Downtown was dead. Kyrie couldn’t save it. The casino couldn’t save it. Downtown in the winter was a ghost town once again.
Then Lebron came back, swept us off our feet, won us a ‘ship and it seems like all is right with the world! One man, as Big Sean would say, could change the world!
But around that same time, this kid named Machine Gun Kelly emerged. He defiantly said “F-Lebron” and instilled a sonic toughness and belief that whether the King came back or not, we were going to make it. Lebron’s first run here, including his NBA Finals run with the worst supporting cast in league history, lit a match; Kells supplied the powder and took the civic love and pride to the next level.
Bone Thugs and Harmony made the powder blue Zubaz Cavs jersey cool- or at least as cool as it could be. But Kells represented that “New Cleveland.” DJ EV had the hottest mixtape series out with “B*tch I’m From Cleveland”, and that became the mantra. We had legit Hood stars like Ray Cash, Young Ray (now Ray Jr), Al Fatz and Corey Bapes. But MGK was transcendent.
You can’t take away from his talents, but let’s face it- Cleveland has always rallied around white guys. Bernie Kosar is the most popular Brown in the city, despite the fact that Jim Brown might be the best player EVER. Jim Thome is the face of the Indians alumni. Prior to LBJ, Mark Price was the face of the Cavs. Michael Stanley has had a 40 year musical career in which he still headlines the Cleveland Rib Fest despite the fact that no one outside of Cuyahoga County has ever heard of him! I DO NOT THINK KELLS IS ONLY POPULAR BECAUSE HE’S WHITE- that kid is super talented and possibly the best live performer out right now! BUT- let’s just say Cleveland needed a face- and he was it.
So with that in mind, I thought about what songs remind me of Cleveland. What songs can I hear anywhere in the world and be transported to The Flats, The Q, Down The Way, West 6th, Tremont- all in one. What songs conjure memories for me? Your list might be way different- I’d love to hear your thoughts. But for me, these are 5 songs that AUTOMATICALLY take me to The Land. Where we win Championships.
In no particular order, although the first one is my favorite!
Young Ray feat. Al Fatz -“It’s Like”
Over the years, this song has become my Ultimate Cleveland record. I can host a show, anywhere in the world and if I say “It’s Like AYAYAYAYAYA” and there is someone from Cleveland in the crowd, I will hear an “AYAYAYAYAYA” right back. Did it last year in West Virginia and I got it right back. The hook is infectious and the best is certified Cleveland. There are many other great tracks. For Ray, “I’m From E.C.” is another classic for me. But this one is so Cleveland it’s a shame. Probably my all time favorite Cleveland song.
“B*tch I’m From Cleveland” really changed a lot of things in the Cleveland music scene. Look at that track list. It defined a transition from Mo Thug’s Cleveland to “New Cleveland”, for better or worse. Ray Cash was the lynchpin in that movement. Chip was the breakout star, Ray was the one no one saw coming who is now the leader, and Al was the guy who had the first true hit of the era (we’ll get to that next). Like it or not- this CD changed Cleveland, and this song was the anthem!
Al Fatz- “Came Down”
Z107.9, in my opinion, does a very good job at this point with it’s support of local artists. Steph, Ryan Wolf, Corey Grand and the rest of the DJ’s play a lot of local music in their mixes and they have taken it to the next level. Eddie Bauer and Scratchmaster L wanted to do it back in the day, but the machine wouldn’t allow it to happen. Because of that, there were very few Cleveland artists with hit records on the radio. 71 North (more on them later) broke through with a line dance- “Booty Bounce”, which was REALLY unprecedented, and D.S.U. came out with “U-Ride” which was an unexpected smash hit that narrowly missed my list. But Al Fatz was different.
Way before “Came Down” hit the radio, you heard it at every club. In fact the first time I heard it, I heard it 5 times in a row. It was EVERYWHERE! It was on EVERY mixtape out. EVERY car that drove by was playing it. It was at EVERY barbeque. And people knew EVERY word. It wasn’t a great sounding record. The beat was simple. The famous piano riff is nothing more than a take on the bassline from Club Noveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad”, made famous by the Luniz’ “I Got Five On It”. The mix wasn’t great. Al had this weird cadence that was kind of a more ghetto Nelly, but it worked. It remains one of the catchy hooks I’ve ever heard. This was the first truly organic hits of the “New Cleveland” era. It was so big in the streets that the Big Station HAD to break it. Any true Cleveland Hip Hop Head knows it’s “Goin’ Down” as soon as they hear that deep piano drop!
71 North- “Cleveland Shuffle”
When the Cavs win a game, it seems a little odd to have Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” pound out of the giant Jumbotron Speakers at the Q. The reason it’s out of place is because that’s not The “King of Pop” at all. It’s the “King of the Linedance” Big Mucci and the 71 North Crew.
Cleveland and Chicago are the capitals of the Line Dance/Step movement. It’s a niche that is a staple in the inner city, but thanks to the aforementioned “Booty Bounce” and “Cleveland Shuffle”, it’s not a staple at suburban weddings, cookouts, bar mitzvahs- you name it.
Mucci has said many times that he doesn’t get why more people don’t do line dance music like him. He know does his “Biker’s Shuffle” all over the country- headlining State Fairs, Cruises, Bike Weeks- you name it. He’s made a 20 year career out of one type of music, and he has no issue with street cred (his affiliation with the Omen’s Motorcycle Club confirms that), so why wouldn’t more artists follow in his footsteps?
We might never know. But what we do know is that any true Clevelander knows just what to do when they hear “AWWWWWWWWWWWW… DO THE SHUFFLE!”
Bone Thugs N’ Harmony- “Thuggish Ruggish Bone”
As a teenage kid who loved hip hop more than life in the mid 90’s, seeing Bone’s video was life changing. I grew up loving New York Hip Hop. I grew up loving LA Hip Hop. I didn’t necessarily grow up loving Cleveland hip hop.
We had MC Chill, who to this day doesn’t get enough credit for what he meant to hip hop. We had Brothers for the Struggle, who were the most popular group out of Cleveland for years. Robie Man was a beast, and I used to listen to him like crazy. Brainz had a run that was historic, but the music he released- no fault of his own- didn’t sound like Cleveland as much as it did Philly.
But here came Bone. No glitz. 4 kids who really looked like people on the Clair. A song that sounded like Cleveland. Menacing, Dark- and yet soulful. The video showed so many places that you could say “Hey I’ve been there” or “My cousin stays right over there”. FOR GOD’S SAKE THAT’S THE JAKE!!! Remember the Tribe was building a run at that time so that was awesome! and again, the aforementioned powder blue Cav’s Zumba jersey made a cameo! It was the most Cleveland thing we’d ever seen!
Those four scraggly looking kids went on to become the highest selling rap group ever. EVER. Let that sink in! The only knock on Bone’s legacy is that they couldn’t be replicated. They had a ton of artists on the Mo Thug’s roster that were trying to capitalize on that Cleveland style- but no one could do it. It’s like trying to recreate a Michelangelo painting with a toothpick and food coloring. You simply don’t have the tools to do it. So between this video and the time that Ray Cash came out, about 75% of the new artists in the city were trying to mimic a masterpiece and it wasn’t always pretty.
Their music took them so many places. They didn’t always sound like Cleveland because quite frankly they were so much bigger. They were INTERNATIONAL stars. Much in the same way the Jay Z doesn’t always sound like New York City anymore- Bone transcended the Cuyahoga County Line and took us with them.
But there is possibly no song that is more closely identified with Cleveland than “Thuggish Ruggish”. Except, possibly, maybe, possibly this one track….
Machine Gun Kelly- “Till I Die”
This one here. In many ways, “Till I Die” combines the different eras of Cleveland’s hip hop “Circle of Life” better than any other record. His delivery is rapid fire, and you have to believe that Bone had a lot to do with it. The beat is the sparse, haunting type of track that made Cleveland’s “BIFC” era unique. Even when he says “B*tch I’m From The Land.. Till I Die”, it harkens back to that DJ EV mixtape. It was an anthem that everyone from Bone fans to Lost Tribe fans could rock with. It was defiant. It came just in time for the Cavs to make us Champs. We needed a new theme song, and this became it.
I hear the argument already: “He’s not even from Cleveland”. Neither am I. I’m from Painesville, which is 29 miles East of The Q. I went to college in Toledo. That’s an hour away from the Q. Akron is 25 minutes South. But that’s the beauty of Cleveland. It is this sprawling metropolis that people from literally an hour in any direction claim. I know people in my little city that are just as Cleveland as anybody. And that’s what makes this song a signature. People from Cleveland are allowed to question each other’s “Clevelandness”. But don’t be from that weak city by the Bay and question us. We’re here till we die. Wherever that here might be!
And in two weeks- we’ll be throwing a parade all the way from Painesville to Lorain.