She Ain’t No Joke

[11 September 2003]

By Felicia Pride

Even though she calls Brick City (Newark, New Jersey) home, Baltimore, Maryland will always conjure treasured memories for Flo Brown. “I had my first album release party in Baltimore and I always look forward to coming back,” she says. “It is a very special place for me.” The album of which she humbly speaks is her recently and independently self-released 2003 debut, Whateva Comes to Mind, which was about eight years in the making. That’s a long time, considering the surplus of sub par hip-hop CDs that have been released with content embarrassingly inferior to Flo’s lyrical deftness. “Time was a part of it,” she says of her album’s long development. “The time was what composed it, but to me it is more important to accurately express myself.

The result of several years of fine-tuned expression is a fearless, yet poignant testament from the lips of a black woman and the depths of an emcee with a penchant for exposing truths and a passion for verbalizing experiences. “It’s natural, it’s second nature, and habitual for me to say shit my way,” she says. And she says shit her way with an execution as classic and distinct as the orange Air Force Ones on her feet. Her flow, like her sneakers, will never go out of style.

That’s because platelets of hip-hop run through the blood of this poet-turned-rapper who has been called Flo since she can remember. As a child, she was enthralled with wordplay, penning poems motivated by her childhood heroes, Queen Latifah and Rakim. As she grew older, writing took on a therapeutic form, allowing her to acknowledge and accept life experiences.

She became serious about rapping on the campus of Howard University, embracing the art form like a lover. It was also at Howard that the daughter of the dust emerged. Observing the power of hip-hop as a tool for change both within herself and in her environment generated early raps that set a precedent for sharp social commentary. “A lot of the stuff I rapped about at Howard foreshadowed what was to come, the things people eventually used to attack me [with], like being black and being a woman,” she says. “I was seeing it then and a lot of that [discrimination] ultimately happened to me.”

A degree in sociology has helped her analyze the habits and behaviors that pervade hip-hop and the industry, with everyday being a lesson in human nature. “In hip-hop I look at it as tribal,” she says. “There’s this tribe that talks about guns, and this tribe that talks about sex and women, and this tribe talking about the art of rhyming. So everybody got their own agenda, everybody is trying to bring their own noise.”

So she brought hers. She brought it to Lyricist Lounge. She brought it to Black Lilly as an original member of the eclectic music series that started in New York City and has settled at Philadelphia’s Five Spot nightclub. And she brought it on tour with the Roots. Audiences are still shocked when the petite emcee hits the stage and rips with an aggressive focus, candidly reciting a line like, “Ima test y’all niggas and I wish y’all would.” Just like her forefather Rakim, she ain’t no joke.

But the self-proclaimed feminine guerilla is a honey-scented creature that rumbles wearing pink and realizes being a woman doesn’t suppress her talent or ability to paint an unpretty picture if necessary. “Calling myself a feminine guerilla reflects my struggle but also is me acknowledging my femininity and being proud of it,” she says. “It is not limiting, it is limitless.”

She doesn’t want to waste time playing the male vs. female MC game either. “Emceeing isn’t really about being male or female,” she says. “The way I look at it, it is all animalistic. Like I’m a person out here who happens to be a female but in the jungle, nobody cares if you are a female form. If you fall prey, you fall prey. The thing people fail to realize [is] that this [MC-ing] is about wit and intelligence, and men and women equally possess that.”

And chances are you can’t utter something she hasn’t already heard battling in the belly of hip-hop. Her dealings with industry rule #4080 have run the gamut of broken contract promises to pressures to structure her rhymes a certain way.

So with an urgent clarity, Flo knew exactly what she had to do. “Putting out the album on my own label, Ghetto Abnorm, came instantly after I felt like there was so much turmoil over how I was going to get it out,” she says. “I had to look outside of myself and absorb the energy that we all possess to go after what we choose.” The 13-track album, which she admits to listening to daily, gave Flo what most artists never achieve in their entire career—100 percent creative control. As executive producer, she explored a range of autobiographical matters, from the muse of the streets to human growing pains, yielding a collection of mood rings that she has worn throughout her life. She hand-picked producers—-a mix of known (Jazzy Jeff and A Touch of Jazz squad produced four tracks) and up-and-comers that blessed her with tracks that complement, never overshadow, reflecting the fundamental relationship between an MC and her beats.

Flo wrote every word she spits on the album and displays the ability to assemble an entire song creatively, not just lyrical verses. “I learned writing hooks from being in the studio and people saying, ‘She can rhyme and all but she doesn’t have hooks and she doesn’t have songs,’” she says. “So I went home and was like, I’ll show them a hook. Some people start off writing complete songs, but me, I developed. I came from writing poems to writing songs. Now I feel the music, interpret what the beat is saying, construct it, and it develops.”

Yet Flo falls, without a doubt, into the lyricist subcategory. The precision that she has demonstrated on albums such as Jazzy Jeff’s The Magnificent, the Hurriance soundtrack, and most recently on Kindred’s Surrender to Love, were mental appetizers compared to her full length lyrical food for thought. On “Concrete” she effortlessly spits, “I’m non conventional/ but its all intentional/ that’s why I’m sent to you/ an unconvicted criminal/ I lack essential minerals/ a outlandish/ outta hand heathen/ that love to leave em’ grieving/ especially when they creeping/ the real never sinking/ my feeling never weaken/ the phony always peeking/ the concrete never sleeping.”

The release of Whateva Comes to Mindhas propelled Flo into the realm of the businesswoman grinding to get the album its due exposure. “My drive to do music fuels my involvement in the business side of things,” she explains. “I guess it is an example of how one passion can lead to another. You definitely have to have a separation because you’re not an artist when you walk into record stores, setting up interviews, or mailing out CDs.” The album is stocked in some independent record stores and sold on her Web site (www.flobrown.com), but the satisfying struggle continues.

“I follow the music,” she says about her life long pilgrimage of love and sacrifice for an art form that to her, breathes life. “Don’t even question it. When you question it, you fuck it up. You just got to trust.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/brown-flo-030911/