2018 Artist Spotlight: Smoke Screen

By Rachel Hunt

2017 was the come up year for Smoke Screen, a hip-hop duo based out of Cleveland. Tommy Sheridan (a.k.a. Chemist or Broken Keys) and Rodney Mynatt (Mooke) have packed more into twelve months than most groups are able to fit into their lifespans. A brand new album, two music videos and several shows later, 2018 is poised to be another year of success for the pair who are on the brink of national notoriety.

While so many acts use the selling power of nostalgia, the momentum of anniversary tours and benchmark album re-releases to keep fans hooked, Smoke Screen is relying on what they’ve learned since their initial release to earn themselves new listeners. They could throw a party to commemorate Self Educated Learning Process, released December 12, 2007, but Sheridan and Mynatt would rather move towards the future instead of dwell in the past.

“We don’t really perform too much of the older stuff,” says Sheridan.

“You had to be there,” Mynatt laughs, “you had to be at Peabody’s.” He’s referencing the first time they ever took the Pirate’s Cove stage at the now defunct rock club in CSU’s campus district. Baby-faced at twenty years old, they both agree how much they’ve grown up.

“That’s kind of what the album release was this past July,” Sheridan explains of the concert unveiling Return to the Sun, supported by Mourning [A] Blkstar, Archie Green and DJ ESO at Grog Shop. “It was like an acknowledgement instead of a complete trip down memory lane. We’re recognizing we’ve been doing it for ten years and here’s a new project to move forward with.”

The new album found them collaborating with several producers including Uno Wa, Z.Quiz and Connor Mussura, as well as Sheridan’s work as Broken Keys, whose arrangement appears on four of Return to the Sun’s ten tracks. “Whether they’re a new listener of ours or they’ve been following us for a while, the general consensus is that it’s our largest sound to date,” Sheridan sums it up. “It’s not something that you can really plan; it’s up to the people to decide if they like it or not but people have been really receptive.” Return to the Sun received several nods on local “Best Of” lists in 2017.

Their third LP is filled with songs that have an international appeal. Especially in the opening track “Eternal Flame” produced by Uno Wa via Paris, you can hear the echo of grimy house minimalism flavoring the electronic elements of the song, filled out by bars of traditional hip hop. “We kind of have a universal appeal I would say,” Mynatt reflects. “We can play shows where we’re the only hip-hop band and the rest are punk bands. We can play shows where there are soul bands, DJ’s, jam bands […] and kind of float in whatever scene. We have a really diverse following.”

The video for “Breakbeats and Bass” shot by Turnstyle Films, edits together live footage of Sheridan and Mynatt during various performances over the last decade, a visual testament to the passage of time and the progress that they’ve made in their craft. The lyrics pay homage to Cleveland, similar to those found in many of their songs. While their beat and samples can be attributed to a more worldly influence, the content remains inspired by their hometown.

“Ain’t nothing changed ‘cept the picture on the calendar/ Rustbelt Cleveland champs we the manufacturers/ Carnegie and 55th I got Chemist in the passenger/ Still battle any MC and welcome any challenger,” Mooke delivers in the first verse.

“I think we were really trying to help further establish Cleveland’s identity because when we were growing up music, particularly hip-hop, was very regional. You could tell if an artist was from Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles. A lot of those places still do, but we wanted to help give Cleveland a niche sound, which is very, very weird but is also strong and not like anything that’s come before it or is out at the same time.” Building on the influence of Bone Thugs and Kid Cudi to the Cleveland scene, Smoke Screen fuses similar elements with electronic music.

Their song “Ice Cold Water”, led off with turntablist scratching and a deep bass beat throughout, has an urban edge that made that 2012 release attractive to CLE Clothing Co. who used it in a commercial this past year. Set to footage of University Circle, East 4th, and Crocker Park captured by drones via Downie Photo, the video and brand are about as “Cleveland” as you can get. It was a great fit for two of the region’s fiercest advocates. Smoke Screen has taken their music coast to coast over the past few years and represented Cleveland to national artists, opening for Das Racist, RJD2, and Danny Brown at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, House of Blues, and Grog Shop respectively.

“A lot has changed just in the way we approach creating, the way we live our personal lives, in the way that we think,” Mynatt reflects. “Our goals and ambitions have shifted. It’s kind of a particular type of dance you’ve got to do to balance it all. To keep yourself happy and your supporters invested, and I don’t know how we’ve managed to do it for ten years and it hasn’t been easy the whole while, but I feel like we have a really solid friendship outside of Smoke Screen.”

“That’s what I was going to say!” Sheridan smiles. “This is still my best friend in life and also musically. So, a lot has changed but a lot has stayed similar in the same breath.”