Cleveland hip-hop artist Marcus Smith falls back in love with his craft
An active member of the Northeast Ohio music scene since 2004, rapper and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Smith released his sophomore album this month.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the now 32-year-old artist experienced a low turnout at a performance in Downtown Cleveland, causing him to consider quitting music for good.
“I had practiced for days, for weeks even. Three people showed up. One of them was my mom,” Smith said. “I'll give the same performance for three people that I would for 300, because that's just my work ethic, I guess. But, you know, it's still disheartening.”
A new opportunity came calling in 2021 that changed the trajectory of Smith’s journey as a solo artist.
Asher Roth, noted for his 2009 party-rap song, "I Love College,” put out a call on social media for collaborators to create instrumentals and write verses for his upcoming album, “The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3.”
Smith tuned into Roth’s live stream where he asked for vocalists to write a verse about “being impatient.” Smith started working on lyrics immediately.
“I presented it to him, like, maybe 20 minutes after the stream ended, and he's like, ‘Well, if that's not impatience, I don't know what is.’ I think I was the first one to get a placement on that album,” Smith said.
Roth selected this contribution for his song “Quid Pro Grow,” where Smith’s vocals are also featured.
Shortly after, Smith was chosen as one of three inaugural artists in residence at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He got to spend time with industry experts and musicians to learn more about songwriting, performing and marketing.
This opportunity in 2021 allowed Smith to leave his full-time job and accept a position with the Rock Hall in their membership department.
“It was just weird to go from wanting to step away from music to being fully immersed in it within six months or less,” Smith said.
Blending humor with diverse musical influences
Smith spent summers as a teenager learning new instruments by watching instructors on YouTube.
He first learned the keyboard then picked up guitar, bass, ukulele and drums.
Smith started the hip-hop group, Black & Broke, with some friends in high school.
The teenage musicians performed parody songs in the style of Smith’s idol, Weird Al Yankovic, in Northeast Ohio until 2015.
“I feel like he doesn’t take himself seriously. That’s what I like about my music currently. For the most part, it’s very fun. And I just explore a lot of genres. And I think Weird Al is very good at that,” Smith said.
After graduation, Smith and his bandmates formed a “supergroup” with the Astrovans.
“Everybody loved it so much,” he said. “To this day, a couple of them are still in my solo live band.”
Smith comes from a big family of musicians who introduced each other to different styles of music. His stepfather was a rapper in the Cleveland area in the 1980s.
He grew up listening to artists like Janet Jackson, Prince, Doobie Brothers, LL Cool J and Jamiroquai.
“I loved taking songs on the radio, making our own versions of them. And that's kind of how we got started,” Smith said.
When several of his bandmates moved out of the area, Smith decided to begin his solo music career. His parody song, “Sandwiches,” became a crowd favorite.
Smith wrote the track as a freshman attending college at the University of Cincinnati. He was looking for a bite to eat, and the only dining establishment that accepted his student card was Subway.
“The first whole first verse is literally my experience that evening,” Smith said. “We end the show with it because people love it so much.”
The rapper focused on humor and lighthearted themes for much of his early years of writing and performing music.
Smith now describes his solo music as a blend of hip-hop, funk rock, soul and pop, stemming from the influences of his family and friends.
The journey to releasing a new solo record
In 2019, when he considered stepping away from the mic, Smith faced setbacks as a performer and in his career. He released his first solo debut album, “NILLA” that year.
”NILLA" stands for “Now I’m Living Life Again,” a statement that resonated with Smith after he struggled with a bad bout of depression.
He said a favorite song on the album is “Keswick,” named after the street he grew up on in Shaker Heights.
“There's audio clips at the beginning and end of my grandparents, because I used to have a little tape recorder when I was a kid, and I would just go around recording them,” he said.
“To be in the mindset to do it again is a blessing."Marcus Smith
In 2020, Smith released the “Milky Way Lover” EP, which originally included a song called “Coppertone” reflecting current events of that year, including the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“It started off as a song that I was writing to an unborn child, because we were talking about possibly having kids, me and my wife,” he said. “And when all of that stuff went down, the presidency was up in the air. We're like, ‘This is not a great world to introduce a child to.’”
Smith expanded the song, restructuring it to be a letter to himself, from himself. It appears on his new album, “Unique Mélange,” which dropped this month.
“What I like about my music currently is that it's not emotionally draining all the time,” he said.
Themes on his most recent album center around self-acceptance, experimentation and falling back in love with making music.
“I am so proud of this album,” Smith said. “I just keep thinking back to that point where I really didn't want to do music anymore, and I think about how different my life would be currently and how much I wouldn't want that.”
Smith said he is hopeful about performing again after emerging from a dark place in 2019.
“To be in the mindset to do it again is a blessing,” he said.