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Fiery Flow

philly_blunt_coverFiery Flow

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (JUNE 16, 2004)
BY KATE KILPATRICK

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Larry Larr will never forget the first time Shelliano came down to his weekly Industry Tuesday night
at Club Flow.

Shelliano arrived late with a few of his boys. Larry couldn’t fit any more performers on the lineup. But that’s not what Shelliano wanted to hear, so he blew up, screaming and shouting that Larry needed to let somebody good on
the stage to perform.

“You think you that good?” Larry asked him.

“I know I’m that good!” Shelliano shouted back.

Larry brought one of his best battlers to the stage and bet Shelliano $300 he couldn’t beat the boy. Shelliano grabbed the mike.

When Shelliano talks into a microphone he mumbles, barely audible. When he raps, he shouts, blasting speakers and eardrums. His moods change just as dramatically.

He can turn in a snap from serious to carefree, charming to pissed-off, old-head to little kid.

When he’s soft, you want to be near him. When he’s hard, you don’t even want to be in the same room.

When Shelliano battles, he acts hard. He runs up to his opponent and spews his verbal attacks right in their faces. He commands attention. Even if you can’t understand his words, there’s no mistaking his emotion. He’s ready to kill.

You don’t want no parts of me/ I’ll rip open your veins and jump rope with your arteries.”

Shelliano destroyed the boy that night with his brutal rhymes and passionate delivery. And Larry was ready to pay up.

But when he went to hand Shelliano the $300 he owed him, the flat-broke and rowdy 27-year-old from West Philly simply said, “I don’t even want your money. I just want to perform.”

Larry was impressed.

“It was the first time I ever seen someone turn down money like that,” he says.

Shelliano’s performed at Flow almost every week since. “Turn the motherfuckin’ radio up until my eardrums pop,” he
screams to the DJ.

When the beat finally gets loud enough, Shelliano races onto the stage, skipping in circles till he has enough momentum to launch into a lyrical life story of passion and pain delivered with energy so intense you’d think his life were on the line.

Despite the aggression of his performance, Shelliano’s in his glory onstage. He says he’s the happiest man in the world when he beats other MCs.

“They can’t battle me!” he shouts after a recent victory, a smile spreading across his tired face.

“They can’t fight the heart of a broke nigga!”

Industry Tuesdays at Club Flow is a weekly open-mike rap night that tries to do for Philly’s rap talent what Black Lily at the Five Spot did for Philly’s neo-soul artists.

Nearly a year and a half off the ground, Industry Tuesdays now attract crowds a few hundred strong. Label reps and industry folks sometimes swing by to check out the local talent, but the night remains true to its roots: real
’hood and real underground.

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Larry Larr is the mastermind behind Club Flow's Industry Tuesdays.

Larry Larr is the man behind Industry Tuesdays. He’s the little dude with the loud voice who keeps the crowd hyped and under control. He smoothes over situations with a politician’s grace and makes underground rappers feel like stars.

“All right,” he’ll say, “I like that. I like that last joint,” after a decent MC gets no response from the crowd. He builds their confidence. He respects them.

“Larry like family,” says Mr. Banga, a rapper with 6-Three Entertainment. “There wasn’t nothing like this in Philadelphia. He brought this. He’s really making things happen for us.”

Mr. Banga says he’s been coming to Flow since the beginning, and thinks Industry Tuesdays will only get bigger. “Soon as one of us crack a biscuit in the head with a big record, we gonna blow up to the ceiling,” he says. “I’m
banking on this. This is my career. This is my life.”

Artists come to Flow to build a buzz and get the recognition they need before the industry will acknowledge them. “We got a lot of our street fame from Flow,” says Marcus Gram, who manages the Paper Chasas, a crew of five
MCs from North Philly who are Flow veterans.

Club Flow is home to Philly’s very own 8 Mile, where rappers take rhymes worked out on street corners and tracks laid down in basement studios, and test them on the crowd to learn what works and what doesn’t. The open mike provides an authentic taste of Philly’s underground rap talent—their style, their swagger, their flow.

Philly rappers are aggressive. They attack the microphone and get in your face. They’re arrogant and charismatic. Their gestures are dramatic, their wordplay slick and their stories real.

“They call it gangster rap,” says Lavish, one of the Paper Chasas. “It’s not gangster rap. It’s rap about life. We’re not rapping just because it’s something to do. We’re blessed with the gift to do this, to make music.”

When a couple hundred rappers from some of the roughest pockets of the city—Erie Avenue, Southwest, the Bottom—roll into a club, all of them hungry to be the next one to land a record deal and become an overnight
celebrity, little beefs are bound to spark up here and there. And they often do. (Shelliano’s usually at the heart of them.) But more and more each week, the MCs in the house come together and show only love
and support for each other.

Def Jam label rep Mike Washington occasionally comes to Industry Tuesdays at Flow to scope out the local talent. He says Philly’s rap scene is up and coming. But while performing or battling regularly is great experience, Washington says Philly rappers also need to concentrate on promoting themselves.

They need to hook up with the right producers who can give them hot beats. They need to get their demos out and find out what works. “Learn the game,” he says. “It’s called the music business. It’s not called just music. Learn the business.”

Conveniently, local rappers don’t even have to leave the city to do just that. Philly’s been respected as a music town
since the Sound of Philadelphia took root in the ’70s right through artists like Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild. And when Jay-Z added Beanie Sigel to his Roc-A-Fella roster, the South Philly rapper represented for his hometown and came back to carry other local artists like Freeway and the Young Gunz to fame with him. But it’s still a tough town for
struggling underground artists.

Philly doesn’t have the big labels or major studios that other cities have, and you won’t bump into Damon Dash in a club and get to spit some rhymes for him. Making matters worse, says Larry, Philly’s always had the reputation of being like a bucket of crabs: If one rapper’s on his way to making it out, the others try to pull him back down.

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Paper Chasas MCs (from left) Lavish, Skiez and Hollow Man credit their burgeoning fame to Club Flow exposure.

All that’s changing, Larry says. He says rappers at Flow are starting to support each other and to collaborate with artists outside their crew.

Yet it’s still a struggle.

In fact, it’s this struggle that Philly rappers say sets them apart from their peers in other cities. Everyone in Philly hustles, they say. Everything is difficult in Philly. Everyone in Philly’s on the grind—struggling to make money, to feed their kids, to stay out of trouble, to get by legally, to not end up in jail, to not end up dead.

Many see rapping as their ticket out of struggle.

But what if it doesn’t work out for Shelliano, for Banga or for any of them?

“I don’t believe in what ifs,” says Banga.

Larry doesn’t believe in what ifs either. Or if he does, at least he doesn’t let on. He sees these young rappers struggling but believes in their talent. He’s impressed by guys like Shelliano, who wears his heart on his rolled-up sleeve.

“Shelliano is speaking for all the kids that have nothing to lose,” Larry says. “They have no choice but to do this, and he expresses that when he raps. They feel his pain. They feel the struggle.”

For Shelliano, it’s been a struggle since the day he was born.

Orashelby Easley (aka Shelliano) comes from “the Bottom”—a section of West Philly marred by low income, high unemployment, declining population, a strong drug trade and a poverty rate double Philadelphia’s average.

Walking down the neighborhood’s side streets in the middle of the day, prostitutes, drug dealers and dope fiends approach without hesitation. Rows of houses are burnt out or boarded up. Just about everyone seems to be hustling.

Shelliano still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up. His childhood memories read like urban myths: sleeping
in an apartment so cold his dog froze to death one night, watching aunts cook rice on an iron and flip steaks with a bobby pin.

Shelliano’s mother Debbie was addicted to crack most of Shell’s young life, so the Department of Human Services took him and his younger brother into custody. His father was serving a life sentence for murder, which was 25 years then. Even though his father was released years ago, Shelliano has never met him and probably never will. “After 25 years, I guess he done made up his mind,” Shell says.

After stints in the foster system and the prison system, Shelliano found himself homeless and sleeping on drug addicts’ couches, depressed and having nightmares every night. “I used to just sit back and cry constantly—like, ‘Why me? Why me?’” he says. “But then I thought about it like, man, ain’t nothing gonna fall in your lap. All right. This
might be hard. So what you gonna do?”

The options were few. He had a criminal record—for robbery and a drug conviction—and no high school diploma. He could keep robbing, but feared the negativity it drew. He could keep selling drugs, but with his temper, he’d probably get killed. Or he could go after his dream and make what he calls “beautiful ’hood music.”

“I’m about to build West Philly like Nas built Queensbridge, like Jay-Z did Brooklyn, like Big L did Harlem. This is for the ’hood,” says Shelliano on his latest CD.

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LP (foreground) and Shelliano get it together.

In many ways, Shell is the voice of the neighborhood. He translates all the ugliness and death and pain he experiences
living in the community into music. “I try to make my voice express their hurt,” he says of friends and neighbors. “That’s why a lot of times I scream. I be feeling for them.”

“Can you excuse my language?” Shell politely asks. Permission granted, he continues.

“The streets is fucked up,” he says. “Where I come from, these streets is fucked up. Everybody down in this motherfucker crazy. Even the people that sane, dog, they just seem like they sane. They crazy. Everybody crazy.”

Shelliano says the Philly mentality is violent, and death is all too familiar. “There’s so much death and so much violence here. This shit is rampant. In one little community. Fuck, there’s serial killers, rapist motherfuckers, stray bullets killing motherfuckers all the time, man. It’s a lot of death down here. The Mantua murders. All them killings, they made major statements letting you know, man, that motherfuckers really ain’t give a fuck about each other, man, because half these niggas here grew up together, dog.

“It’s wild right here in this little-ass community,” Shell says, “Right here, we walk around corners, there’s dead bodies
all the time.” The killings are so regular that there’s barely time to grieve the latest casualty.

“Down here, dog, niggas talk about you for about a month,” he says. “We immune to death. You hear someone get killed, it’s like, ‘For real? That’s fucked up. Damn, but I gotta get up with this shorty later, though.’”

Though it’s been a year since his best friend’s death, Shelliano still grieves the loss.

He’s hanging at a friend’s house on a Sunday afternoon in early June. The room is dark, but the open front door lets in a soft gray light. An old sheet printed with little pink flowers covers the seat of the worn sofa where he sits.

At first glance, everything in the room seems tired and brown—the wood floors and stairs, the pastoral scene painted on the far walls, the pit bull sitting patiently between his knees. A white-and-gray pigeon rests silently in a cage on a nearby table.

Shelliano is a burst of color and energy against this muted backdrop. He wears a glossy red Sixers jacket with a bright red basketball jersey underneath. A matching red-and-white baseball cap turned slightly to the side sits loosely atop his head. He sips from a shiny gold can of Olde English.

As soon as Darnell’s name is mentioned, Shelliano immediately chokes up. He lowers his face as his eyes turn glassy.

After a pause, Shelliano is ready to talk about Darnell. “He deserves to be talked about,” Shell says, as he turns his hat a little more to the side and his dark eyes water. Darnell was his best friend, his second best friend to be killed.

Darnell was smart, educated, trying to find a job. He was a leader. Shell says Darnell supported his dream. But then he was shot dead, or as Shell puts it, “Someone woke him out of his sleep and brought him to his demise.”

“If I would have caught him that day,” Shell says of his friend, “he wouldn’t have did what he did.”

People wouldn’t have had to come after him. There wouldn’t have been any need for the hospital. Not that there was anyway—Darnell was dead long before he made it there.

Shelliano takes his hat off and drops it on the back of the sofa. He excuses himself and steps outside into the light for a few moments. He returns a minute later, but the wet track that traced a line down his right cheek remains.

Hip-hop is like basketball in that it promises desperate inner-city kids like Shelliano an airlift out of poverty. As
Biggie Smalls raps on “Things Done Changed,” “Either you’re slingin’ crack rock/ Or you got a wicked jump shot.” But
most black NCAA college basketball players end up with neither an NBA contract nor a college degree. They’re often left without even a way out.

Music, on the other hand, offers a much higher success rate. “Music has always been a way to get out the ghetto—going back to Motown,” says Nelson George, author of Hip Hop America. “Music is much more democratic. It’s much more reasonable and accessible. Anybody—I don’t care if you’re short, fat, ugly—you can make a record.”

Most of the platinum stars today started out on the road from rags to riches with their own independent label. Even Jay-Z started Roc-A-Fella selling CDs out of the trunk of a car, while 50 Cent rapped over other artists’ beats on underground mixtapes.

George says success in the rap game all depends on “ass power.” You need to put the time and work in, hustle your music, show the world you’re hungry. “You have to put your ass on the line … And it helps if your music’s good.”

Ass power is what brings Philly’s underground rappers to Club Flow every Tuesday night. They come to hustle their
music, gain exposure, improve their performance, get recognition and build hometown support. As rapper Lavish explains, “You gotta have your own city on lock before you have the world on lock.”

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Shelliano wants to stay out of his trouble for his two daughters, and a third child on the way.

Shelliano’s best friends these days are the guys who share his dream of making music. When Shell met his producer, Ju$tin Ka$e, a year and a half ago, Ka$e was making beats in a friend’s basement. “Yo, stay at your game, dog,” Shell told him. “You gonna be my secret weapon.”

While guys like Ka$e keep Shell focused on making music, it’s his kids that keep him out of trouble. “They’re my conscience—period,” he says.

Shelliano has two daughters, Ja-mya, 3, and Janae, 1. A third daughter will be born in another month, to a different mother.

Shelliano knows what it’s like to struggle without a mom or dad, and he’s vowed to always be there for his children. Janae and Ja-mya adore their father. Shelliano provides everything he can for them, but he’s nervous. Actually, he’s scared.

He’s scared his little girls, like so many other children in the community, will never get to be young. He’s scared his past might catch up with him. The streets might take his life before he gets the chance to feed his family.

If he wants to put food in his babies’ mouths, rap had better work out for Shelliano.

“I don’t know what [else] he can do,” says Ka$e. “He has a limited education. That paper—that diploma—means a lot. He doesn’t have a trade. That’s why he has more passion for this. Because he knows that’s it: ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m assed out. What I’m gonna do?’”For guys like Shell, there’s nothing to fall back on but the hard concrete of the streets.

Shelliano has a lot going on right now, but there’s no telling what will come of it. He’s about to release a double CD with his two producers, Ka$e and Alca, that will feature tracks by a team of other underground artists in Philly. He’s about to see his face on newspaper boxes across the city. And he’s about to bring another baby into the world.

He’s confident he’ll make it, but he’s confident because he has to be. There’s no alternative, no backup plan. And with another child coming, time is running out.

Shelliano and his friends pile into Ka$e’s car after another Tuesday night at Flow. Sitting in the passenger seat, Shelliano’s doing most of the talking. Alca is in the back seat, tipsy from too many apple martinis.

Alca’s calling his girlfriend, trying to get an invitation to come over, but it’s not working, and after several short phone calls he finally gives up.

The conversation in the car is about babies, and the one coming Shell’s way, but Shell doesn’t want to say exactly when. The other guys are laughing.

Shell says Ka$e doesn’t have kids, and neither does Alcatraz.

Alca, who’s been one of his closest friends for years, confesses he has twins.

“You got twins?” Shell asks with surprise.

“Kyle and Kerry,” Alca says.

“Look, see,” Shell says, “he has twins and I ain’t even know!”

Despite the discovery, the conversation quickly returns to music. “I’m for the poor people and the single mothers and the kids,” Shell says. “We all one big family because we all poor.”

“No, we all rich,” Alca jumps in.

“In mind we rich,” Shell says. “But we still all poor.” ■

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