Welcome to the Home of Super Stars (Past, Present & Future)
5. Kermit Henderson
Doll's Rapid Creations
When rap retailer Kermit Henderson first met the impoverished young rhymers who would later form Bone Thugs N' Harmony, they weren't as concerned with scoring gold records as having a home to hang them in. The aspiring rappers were so poor in the early '90s that some were living on the streets. Henderson put out their first record, Faces of Death; infamous West Coast rap impresario Eazy-E soon took notice, and the group went on to sell over 15 million records, become one of the biggest Cleveland acts ever, and solidify Henderson's long-running status as the kingpin of Cleveland hip-hop.
"He's a pioneer for Cleveland," says urban radio promoter Tony Franklin. "I think he's been very, very instrumental as to where people are right now in the game. He's allowed a lot of saturation for a lot of groups -- Money Loc, Romey Rome, Fade Entertainment. He's helped a lot of people, plain and simple."
Henderson began by selling LPs out of the trunk of his car in 1973; by 1978, he owned four record stores and established himself as a national force in hip-hop, which in turn helped posit Cleveland as one of the top three markets for rap at the time. Most important, though, was Henderson's dedication to breaking underground acts by giving young rappers much-needed mentoring and space in his stores, when no one else would take a chance on them.
"He's one of the biggest supporters of Cleveland artists I've ever seen in this city," says Brad Bell, a sales rep at ATM Distributors. "He pushes their product in his stores, and he's basically a cheerleader. His is one of the few stores that's been around for close to 30 years. That's very rare in this business. I've seen hundreds come and go, and he's one of the few staples here. He knows what people are looking for, he's very attuned to the music, and he's a great promoter."
Henderson does have his detractors: Bone Thugs made a lot of noise when Henderson reissued their debut without their consent, and some have branded the rap magnate Cleveland's version of much-feared hip-hop mogul Suge Knight. Still, he remains an important advocate for up-and-coming urban musicians. In 1994, he founded the 80-store retail coalition SIMMS (Successful Independent Music Merchandising Stores), which is dedicated to breaking young artists. Henderson is also a strong supporter of TOUCH (Talent Outreach for Underprivileged Career Hunters), which sponsors talent shows for financially challenged kids. And he dedicates an evening a week to coaching blossoming artists.
"I basically will do public service: advising guys what to do, giving them options of recording studios to go to, the people to contact with demos, suggesting to them how to increase their skills," Henderson says. "The days of 'Let me shop this demo' are over . . . So now, people have to basically put records out themselves, and they need people like myself to help them push it to even get the attention of labels. But I like the opportunity to be able to showcase people, whether it's singing, whether it's hip-hop, whether it's gospel, jazz, whatever. I really feel good about giving people opportunity."