The Splice Cream Truck is an ice cream truck painted in pastel and bright colors. You can get ice cream there – for free – but that is not the vehicle’s primary purpose.
The truck is a recording studio on wheels. Tell owner Ben Smith your story. Deliver him a freestyle rap. Sing him an operatic aria. You’ll leave with a free vinyl record of your performance. And even ice cream, if that is to your liking.
“It is meant for giving them the opportunity to get off whatever they want to get off their chest,” Smith said of the truck’s mission. “Some people read poetry. Some people just want to talk, etc. The Splice Cream Truck is meant to let you know that you have a voice to get out.”
The truck is a nonprofit venture the Slavic Village resident funds through grants and his own money. He’s often invited to bring his truck to festivals and other events. (Smith sometimes “just rolls up to them” in a self-invited fashion and begins recording people.) Signal Cleveland met him at the recent Hip-hop Trivia Brunch at Zanzibar Soul Fusion restaurant on Shaker Square, which was held as part of the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival. Often, Smith drives to various city neighborhoods, sets up the Splice Cream Truck, and invites passersby to express themselves.
Smith intentionally seeks to record a cross section of Greater Cleveland voices. He wants people to see the diversity in views and expression, but also the commonality that can potentially bind residents as a city and a region. This is key to why he named the vehicle the Splice Cream Truck. In audio editing, splicing involves both cutting and uniting. The truck’s mission, in a metaphorical sense, only involves the latter.
“Splicing us together” is written on the side of the truck. Ask him about the truck, and he’ll expound upon the theme.
“The goal that I have is to drive neighborhood to neighborhood and community to community, recording community members in the name of splicing us together,” he said.
Nearly a decade ago, Smith started recording people’s stories and their artistic and other forms of self-expression. At first, there was no truck. He would walk around city neighborhoods , asking people questions and recording their responses. He focused on getting the stories of those society had often sought to make voiceless. These included young people in inner-city neighborhoods.
Then in 2015, the Splice Cream Truck idea came to him when he ”got a download from God.”
“I literally drew a sketch of the truck,” he said, based on what he considered to be divine intervention. “A couple of weeks later, I was able to secure a grant for it. I found the truck in Montana. I went and got it and drove it back 2,100 miles.”
Smith said the Splice Cream Truck has been therapeutic for him.
“I used to have severe social anxiety, and I still have it [to a lesser degree,]” he said. “This was a method for me to be able to get out and to talk to people. Years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Smith recalls how during an event downtown on Mall C, a man told him that he needed help coaxing his wife to record. She had pursued a career as an opera singer. Very disappointed things hadn’t worked out, she hadn’t sung publicly in 20 years.
Then she began to sing for the Splice Cream Truck.
“She sang so beautifully,” Smith said. “It was coming from her soul. It was like a release. Everybody turned around and listened to her.”
How did Smith feel about his role in her breakthrough?
“Amazing,” he said. “Absolutely Amazing.”
Always conscious of his goal of wanting to record a cross section of voices, Smith surveyed the hip-hop brunch crowd and was pleased. Most were younger or middle-aged Black professionals. This demographic had been included among others he had recorded, but this was perhaps the first time he had recorded them in a group setting.
“This is probably more upscale than what I use to,” he chuckled.
At the hip-hop brunch, many who came to the truck wanted Smith to record them rapping. Lana Whitmore was among them. She recorded “U.N.I.T.Y.”, a hip-hop song from the early 1990s by Queen Latifah that focuses on respecting women, and calls out using derogatory names to describe women.
With mic in hand and a subtle sway, Whitmore began reciting:
“Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho
Tryna make a sister feel low
You know all of that gots to go.”
Whitmore said she chose the song for a reason.
“I like the unity it speaks about when it comes to women, when it comes to the culture, when it comes to what we represent,” she said. “It is about having unity as women as well as being respected by our men.”
Whitmore smiled as Smith handed her a recording of her performance.
“The Splice Cream Truck is fun and very unique,” Whitmore said. “There is not anything around here that is going to give you a track of your voice.”
The goal was to create economic spin off, no matter how modest, by linking GCUFF attendees and other supporters with Black businesses during the nine-day festival.