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It's at least fascinating, life's cyclical nature. You grow up in a harsh environment and overcome shitty, life-altering situations over the years. You manage to achieve something. And then, in the midst of success come the sucker punches, trying to knock you down.

Jesse "Crane Novacane" Wilson knows this feeling. By the time this story goes to print, he'll be two weeks into an 18-month prison sentence. A concealed weapons charge became a felony because he had ganja on him at the time of his arrest. Gun, plus weed, equals an upgrade in charge severity. The arrest interrupts the suddenly successful rise of his record label, Hot Lava Records, and the local shooting star that is its first artist, rapper Stretch Money.

Sitting in the living room of his home on East Outer Drive, Crane appears to take it all in stride. With him is his older brother and Hot Lava VP Will "Beno" Wilson, Kenny Woods, the manager for Hot Lava's artist roster and the "family man" of their crew, and J. Mitch, the Wilsons' nephew, who works with their marketing team.

You get the feeling that, in a couple years, this episode will be a footnote. Crane's got a pretty strong constitution, a solid business plan and a team. Heavyset and dark, he has a gruff uncle's exterior and a CEO's mentality. Speaks broken English and slang confidently enough to make it sound like the King's. Plus, he works hard as hell.

"He sold clothes before," Will says. He's pointing out the lengths his brother will go to earn a living. "He went to New York to get 'em."

Crane adds, "Man, I done worked in a jewelry store. Liquor stores. I read meters." He claims he's never broken the law to make a dollar, though he admits his mistake. He believes someone with a grudge against him tipped off the cops while he was out promoting.

Will, the taller brother with the more gentlemanly appearance, takes a humble stance in support of his brother: Prison, Crane can do. Failure's not an option.

"Shit, this his dream," Will says of Crane, "I'll be damned if he put his whole life into something and it go down 'cause he'll be gone for a few months. And I can call it a few months."

"He's right," Crane laughs. "He can." Will has been to prison.

The brothers say they don't mean to downplay prison but, given where they're from, they're not ashamed or afraid to face reality. Will did 10 years on an assault conviction, got out and was reportedly sent back 18 months later for not snitching out a friend suspected of committing another crime.

Crane was a teen when Will went away. Their parents, they say, were neglectful drug addicts. This was west side living, in the days between disco and hip hop. The only relative to give Crane shelter and food when his parents failed was a cousin on the east side, who happens to be J. Mitch's mother. Crane would catch a bus there, help babysit J., eat, stay healthy. He refers to the woman as his sister, because of how she took him in. Still, Crane nearly took up the street's bad influences.

When Will returned home for good in 1991, Crane helped his brother readjust to outside life. And Will had sage advice for his younger sib.

"I knew what I wanted," Crane says. "But when you hang around cats that are just lookin' like, 'I'm a go to work, get a check, I'm straight,' that's how you gon' start thinking.' [Will] told me, 'Man, that ain't you. That ain't nowhere near you."

Crane is music. As a performer, he was rebounding from a sour record deal with Just In Time, a Bloomfield Hills-based boutique label, during the 1990s. He quickly learned that DIY was the way to go. So he started Hot Lava in 1996, and released his own project, Mr. Excellence.

The foundation of Hot Lava's philosophy mirrors the brothers' story, which is to embrace life's grind.

And that grind began to show dividends in 2004 when J. Mitch introduced Crane to Darren "Stretch Money" McCullough. Stretch had great wordplay, but he wasn't serious.

"I wasn't trying to pursue it," Stretch says. "I just knew how to rap. [Crane] said 'You got somethin'.' [He] turned nothin' into somethin'."

Stretch could relate to Crane. His baby face is one thing, but the rough edges tell his story. After graduating, Stretch enrolled at Baker College and got off to an honor roll-level start, but didn't last a semester. Stretch says his addicted dad went "off the deep end." That strained their once strong relationship.

"I was straight-on college, homie," Stretch says. "But I had to get money."

He began cooking at an Applebee's, and dabbled in drug dealing. Hot Lava gave him hope and opportunity, and he took a chance. Next he recorded a mixtape, Heat Rocks, which the HL team used to create a buzz with street giveaways. And then, in September last year, they released Stretch's debut, Take Money to Make Money.

Stretch performed with such stars as Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and Rick Ross. Stretch did a college tour, and they shot five videos (two for Stretch) using their own resources. They'd eschew city permits and use their own vehicles to block off streets for filming.

Take Money was a slow burn upon release, but the crew's a relentless pack of promoters. The title track and single — radio-friendly with a groove that's fit for Detroit hustle ballrooms or Chicago step clubs — has become a power on the radio. Now, Stretch's manager says, "Take" is getting about 150 spins per week on local urban radio. (Stretch and his confident baritone co-headlined Hot 102.7's Summer Jam concert last month.) The album has sold 5,000 copies in Detroit so far, which is pretty amazing for indie hip hop.

Kenny Woods is booking about four Stretch shows a week these days, including one at Wayne State University's MacGregor Auditorium on July 1 for the "Reparations Now!" event, which also features a lecture by Silas Muhammad. Stretch has enjoyed lately the wine-and-dine treatment by a few major labels, none of which they'll name.

"A lotta guys are not working," Crane says. "They say they're workin', but they're not. I be in these streets all day. I'm talkin' about ridin' around on a bullhorn, promotin' my record label."

In a world without sucker punches, Hot Lava would ape Diddy's Bad Boy Records, a brand as famous as any of its talents. Look for upcoming HL releases from the East 94 Boys — a quartet of emcees consisting of Mae, Money Ray, Aitch and Jake MC — Crane's Bossman mixtape, and Stretch Money's second album, Money Talks.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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