Tino Cruze was nervous the first time he stepped on stage.
He was 18, just out of high school, and he had never been to a live concert before, let alone performed in one.
But he had rhymes to share, and plenty of heart. So he gave it a shot.
“I was so stiff,” the rapper recalled with a laugh. “Everyone said I was good, but I didn’t feel like I did good. I felt like I had a lot to learn.”
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He has put in plenty of study time since.
Cruze, 23, who was born Avery Pledge, now has a long list of tracks to his name — and a growing following.
The Iowa native relocated to the Tri-Cities earlier this year and quickly made a splash at the MUX Battle of the Bands in May.
I think he’s little bit deeper than the average young adult trying to make music. His thinking is a little bit deeper.
Cedric Moss, Cruze’s older brother
He also recently finished a music video for the song School Daze, directed by local wunderkind Justin Frick.
It’s sleek, engaging and shows off Cruze’s fresh and thoughtful lyrical style.
“He took his time (on that song) and it shows,” said singer and composer Cedric Moss, Cruze’s older brother.
“I think he’s little bit deeper than the average young adult trying to make music. His thinking is a little bit deeper,” Moss said.
Cruze grew up in Cedar Rapids. Music was always around.
“I used to stay at my grandma’s house, and my uncles had CDs and tapes,” he said.
One of the first songs he remembers hearing was Kris Kross’ Jump.
These days, his musical taste runs more toward lyric-driven rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.
He also named Snoop Dogg as an influence. “That’s what I grew up on,” he said. “Every time (one of his) songs comes on, everybody knows the lyrics.”
Cruze’s own flow is unique.
On School Daze, he waxes about high school — friends, girls, football games, getting into trouble.
“I skipped school, never needed hall passes. Security coming to get us so we haul ass,” he raps.
The song is light-hearted at times.
But Cruze also gets real.
“Afraid of rejection, we from a broken home. Taught to be tough, no tears for the broken bones,” the song goes.
Later, a sense of nostalgia comes through. “Stay down with my brothers, we in it forever. We fell out a couple of times just to get it together. What I wouldn’t do to walk in them halls one last time,” he raps. “High school was good to me, we had a helluva time.”
On another standout track, Yours & Mine, Cruze raps about a girl who has “more class than a teacher.”
“Can I be yours? Can you be mine? You so cool, you so fine. Say my name, just one time. Pour your glass, sip this wine,” he raps.
In person, Cruze has a natural, effortless charisma. On stage, it shines through.
Frick, the videographer, saw Cruze perform at Battle of the Bands.
“Instantly, I was like, ‘This is new and fresh, and I want to work with this guy,’ ” Frick said.
School Daze was released earlier this week. Cruze said he’s proud of it — it’s his best video yet.
He loves making music. In rap, he’s found a way to express himself, he said.
Fame isn’t his ultimate goal. “I just want to be heard. That’s it,” he said. “To be heard by as many people as I can.”
Moss sees his younger brother’s music success as inevitable.
In recent years, the young rapper has made great strides. He’s grown.
“Really give (his music) a good listen and hear how much work he’s put into it,” Moss said.
“It’s one of those special things where you don’t see talent like that in the Tri-Cities every day. You’ve got a lot of people who say, ‘I rap’ or ‘I sing.’ Yeah, they can dabble a little bit,” Moss said. “But he’s one of those guys — you need to get to know him now. He’s definitely going to be somebody.”