“I came out of a dying city/Brought back life.” A fellow Ohioan explains how the 22-year-old rapper made it happen.
Written by Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm)
Life and death exist simultaneously on a stretch of Euclid Avenue that runs through downtown Cleveland.
On a sunny day around noon, you might notice the life. Through the windows of Potbelly, a recently-opened sandwich shop, a line stretches almost out the door. Across the street on East 4th, which intersects Euclid, executives lounge on the plethora of patios that extend off the entrances of the high-end restaurants that call the alley home. There are local gems like Noodle Cat and Cleveland Pickle and there are national chains like Jimmy John's and House of Blues. There are people. There is energy. There is life.
Take a stroll to the east, to the block of Euclid between East 9th and East 12th, on a rainy day, and you might be more inclined to notice the death.
Vacant storefronts rest beneath signs whose font and color could only have survived in the early '90s, their windows sprinkled with dust. The block is quiet, save for a few smokers who would like to enjoy their cigarette in silence. There are calls to revive this area, to open retail shops in the countless available spaces, but no progress has been made.
Euclid Avenue is almost too perfect a metaphor for a city that once boasted the sixth largest population in the country. Cleveland is constantly rebuilding itself, rebranding its image as it attempts to pull itself out of an era that has pulled at its population and its pride. It is both living and dying at the same time.
Cleveland is constantly rebuilding itself, rebranding its image as it attempts to pull itself out of an era that has pulled at its population and its pride. It is both living and dying at the same time.
At the center of where life meets death in Cleveland, there is Machine Gun Kelly.
Peer closely enough into the dust of one of those vacant storefront windows, and it isn't hard to make out the words “lace up,” MGK's mantra and title of his debut album, that have been hurriedly scribbled with someone's finger.
Kelly's presence is strong in the city he settled into at the age of 14 and immediately called his home. In an era where hip-hop artists bemoan the lack of airtime their songs are given on local radio, MGK's records are in regular rotation on Cleveland radio stations thanks to his strong connections with tastemakers like DJ Stephfloss and DJ EV. It is a relationship that Cleveland's last hip-hop star, Kid Cudi, never really cultivated here, and MGK’s connection to this Rust Belt city is something that hasn't existed since the days of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in the early '90s.
If it’s hard to believe that someone could love a forgotten city so passionately, just take a minute to listen to MGK’s music. To count Kelly's mentions of Cleveland in the music he has put out over the years would number in the hundreds. The 22-year-old goes out of his way to make sure you know where he and his EST boys reside, and that it is a source of pride, not embarrassment.
But haters gonna hate, and Machine Gun Kelly, like Cleveland, makes himself an easy target.
With his tattooed frame, punk-rock inspired wardrobe and sometimes outlandish behavior, MGK has made it easy for hip-hop purists to dismiss him before truly taking the time to divulge his musical catalog.
It is much the same for the city of Cleveland. Many outsiders see a town whose football team has been a joke for over a decade, a place where the best basketball player on the planet decided to leave on national television. They hear stories of foreclosures and images of abandoned buildings and they dismiss it as a lost place. Even Detroit, which has seemingly fallen on harder times than Cleveland, doesn’t receive the scorn that this city does.
The party that is MGK’s life is one that is grounded in pain, the pain of a mother running out on him, the pain of a father who wouldn’t accept him. It is MGK’s ability to transfer that pain onto wax that has earned him a cult-like following with his fans.
But for those who know Machine Gun Kelly and have given his music a chance, his image becomes a different one. The party that is MGK’s life is one that is grounded in pain, the pain of a mother running out on him, the pain of a father who wouldn’t accept him. It is MGK’s ability to transfer that pain onto wax that has earned him a cult-like following with his fans. And while a track like “Wild Boy” certainly represents one side of MGK, he is at his best when he is solemn and speaking on the hardships that have shaped his life. Those who call Cleveland home know it for its diverse dining scene, its vibrant arts culture, and its overly passionate fan base. We see the progress being made within the city and the energy it creates.
Lace Up is a huge accomplishment for Machine Gun Kelly, and it is even bigger for the city of Cleveland. Its presence is a middle finger to the outsiders who think that the only path to success is miles away from Northeast Ohio.
Lace Up is, in essence, a sunny day on Euclid Avenue. It makes us feel like the Browns will record a winning season before the world ends. It gives us hope that Kyrie Irving will fill the massive void that LeBron James left. It lets us imagine what that vacant block of Euclid would look like when the dust is cleaned off of the windows.
At his album release party Tuesday night at the House of Blues, MGK kept it 100 percent Cleveland. Stephfloss and EV were there. Extended family of Kels’ hypeman, Slim, and fellow Cleveland artist Dub-O, hung out on the balcony. A few members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony joined MGK on stage, bridging the gap of Cleveland hip-hop from then to now. Before he even took the stage to perform, MGK’s entire EST team graced the stage to explain what a big moment it was for them, and the emotion in the room was palpable.
When he finally did hit the stage, MGK passionately ran through tracks from his new album, his old mixtapes, and when he wasn’t rapping, he was reminiscing on the days when he was just a “broke motherfucker” with a dream living in Cleveland.
As the frenzied crowd shrieked every lyric right along with him, there was happiness in the room that was almost tangible. Explaining to the crowd that he fought to be in Cleveland, not New York or L.A., on the night of his album release, MGK proclaimed that this was “the best night” of his life.
And it happened right here, in Cleveland, Ohio.