In January 2008, Frankie Flowers could either put the little money he had toward rent or studio time. He had moved down to Los Angeles from his hometown Milwaukee a few months before to pursue his hip-hop career. He lived with his uncle, who worked at Universal Records and was pushing to get Flowers a record deal. But Flowers thought that his uncle didn't have his best interests at heart -- the deal he was offered would have given all his rights over to the uncle. So he turned down the contract and his uncle kicked him out. He had a job as a caregiver for mentally disabled and physically impaired people. The money wasn't much, but it was enough for either rent or studio time.
He picked studio time.
For the next seven months he spent his days working and writing verses and recording songs and hawking his CDs on street corners. He spent his nights sleeping on park benches or bus stops or empty curbs or a 5x5 storage unit he rented out for a while. This is a man who pays dues.
Flowers, whose real name is Maurkes Swarn, is 25 years old and trying make it big. He's established himself on the underground Midwest hip-hop circuit with a smooth demeanor, socially conscious rhymes, and pure grit. His hustle mirrors that of an underdog candidate on the campaign trail. Flowers hops in his green-blue sedan and bounces around the Midwest, hitting music festivals and talent shows in Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis. He was at S.L.U.M. Fest last month, roaming around Atomic Cafe with a backpack full of CDs and an iPod for free samples, networking with artists and hustling his album.
"Like the old school cats selling it out of the trunk of their cars," he says, "except I'm doing it out of my backpack."
He's still an unknown name to most hip-hop heads and that's why he makes the road trips. He has a story to tell and he's wants you to hear it, even if he has to drive 400 miles and hand it to you himself.
The story, for the most part, begins in 2005, when Flowers was a 19-year-old business major at Texas Southern University. One day he got a phone call from home: his mother, who had been suffering from lupus, fell gravely ill. And his older brother wasn't able to take care of her. Flowers packed his things, dropped out of school and returned to Milwaukee to take care of her. He worked various jobs here and there to pay the bills and hung out with his old friends, many of whom had stayed in town since high school. After a few months, he found himself in a rut, living life on a treadmill, moving forward each day but not going anywhere.
Then in May 2006, one of his friends told him he should try rapping. He wasn't really interested. He had tried it before, in sixth grade after he first heard Keith Murray's Enigma album, but he quit after 45 minutes because he didn't think he could ever match Murray's wit and complex rhyme scheme.
"What would it take to get you in the studio?" asked the friend.
"If you could get me an instrumental of Jay-Z's Dear Summer," replied Flowers, half-joking. He had been trying to find that instrumental for months and was convinced that it could never be done (this was clearly in the era just before YouTube became a household name).