Mar 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

Competition is fierce in the Michigan hip-hop arena. The state — or more specifically, the Motor City — is heralded worldwide for its versatile array of lighthearted rappers and lyrically dense emcees, not to mention artists signed to both huge major label and powerhouse independent label deals. It takes a ton to stand out in such an environment. But after years of extensive work behind the scenes, Fluent is ready to stake his claim as one of the best artists the state currently has to offer.

"People in the city look at me as a host, as an emcee, that nice cat that people know," Fluent admits. "I don't think I have that same respect as an artist. But that's my fault because I haven't gotten my music out there. That's what I'm aiming for now — respect. If you put anything in the article, put that."

Well, Fluent isn't exactly totally behind the scenes. He's made his rounds in the Detroit arts scene through hosting gigs and limited performances, establishing a rapport with different artists throughout the area. But there's no time like now to shine as a solo act.

Fluent first got into music in his late junior high and high school days. He credits the integrity of such golden-era emcees as Rakim, CL Smooth and Common for inspiration.

"I always appreciated them, because they rapped about things they were thinking, from their perspective," he explains. "Not catering to anybody, but just being real and being themselves. When I got Common's Resurrection album, that made me really want to rap. I'm like, 'Oh man, this cat's from the Midwest like me. He sounds like me or somebody from down the street from me.' Different slang and a different environment, but at the same time, I could relate to him."

Soon thereafter, Fluent fell in love with the Detroit hip-hop scene. He insists that it wasn't as cliquish as it often is now, despite the loads of talent in the city. He nostalgically recalls walking over to the historic record store-venue Hip Hop Shop when he was in high school, and buying seminal area cassettes such as Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 1 and Eminem's Infinite.

"I remember totally embracing the sound that Detroit has, and then going to St. Andrew's Hall and being proud to be a part of it," he says. "I just wanted to get in there somehow, fit in and be a part of it."

His first shot at getting involved came through Café Mahogany, a now-defunct Detroit venue that had regular poetry nights. He'd pay five bucks to get in, and would then wait to read his poems alongside other local poets. It wasn't long before Zana Smith, proprietor of Detroit store Spectacles and one of the organizers for the café's open mics, offered him the job as the show's host.

"I guess she just saw something in me that I didn't at the time," he says.

During the three years that Fluent hosted, the spoken-word poetry scene expanded considerably in Detroit, with Café Mahogany at the forefront of that movement. The venue would be packed, and Slum Village, Common, Erykah Badu, the Roots and others passed through it. Fluent is proud of how he and his Café Mahogany comrades reached the community, turned people onto good music, and established themselves as a city fixture.

"You go to New York and you have Nuyorican Café, and you have spots in L.A., and spots in Atlanta. Mahogany," he says, "for Detroit, that was the classic poetry venue of all time, period. It was that right mixture of everything that just made it a classic venue."

Café Mahogany helped Fluent get other hosting opportunities, first with Chrysler, and then artists like Redman and Estelle. There was even a shot at a BET gig in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, music's his real passion. That rhythmic understanding, that coy wordplay, that relaxed flow over subdued soundbeds all show his interests in both hip-hop and poetry. His most recent disc, November 2007's Mahogany Gyrl, finds him narrating a tale of meeting an out-of-town hottie at a club, hitting it off with her and giving her a tour of the city. "Funnytawk" simply oozes the stirring soul for which Detroit hip hop is known. And "Close 2 Pt. 2" is reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest's seminal lady-pleaser, "Bonita Applebum." Fluent's 2005 disc, A Man Can Change, is a bit more heavy-hearted — dude was depressed over a breakup with his baby's mother and not getting the aforementioned BET job.

In the next couple of weeks, Fluent says he'll be releasing Moondust..., a comp EP of selections from his previously released projects and new songs, some of which he'll be presenting at Blowout's opening night party. But Heirloom, an album produced by Detroit beatsmith Apollo Brown, is his next real release — a full-length effort and a project he insisted on taking his time with.

"At this point, CDs that are classics to my ears [aren't enough]. I want to put it out there, that I've developed as a rapper," Fluent says. "I have more of a sense of who I am now and how I want to say it. I feel seasoned with it. My style is totally my style, and I feel good about that. Apollo Brown has some really big visibility right now and he reached out to me. Us working together gives us the ability to make a project with a real cohesive feel to it."

Perhaps more importantly, Fluent wants his work — with his hosting duties at the Café, and with his music — to show existing links between poetry and hip hop. The former's been considered literature for centuries, while the latter still battles stigmas that swipe at its cred. Fluent says there are similarities between hip hop and poetry than many don't realize.

"I want people to respect hip hop and then to respect rappers as poets and real artists," he says. "I don't even think we always respect ourselves as artists, like it's some throwaway art form we can pussyfoot with. But we can't. It's actually a very beautiful art form."

Outside of his own music and hosting duties, Fluent is also spearheading "Words and Rhythms of the D." The McDonald's-sponsored project seeks to improve reading and writing skills among high school students by reaching out to them via poetry and hip hop. The students' material was published in a book, titled the same name as the project, that's available for free at McDonald's restaurants in the metro area with the purchase of a cup of coffee. The students also perform twice a month — once at the Jazz Café in the Music Hall Center of the Performing Arts, and once at an area McDonald's — throughout the year. Accordingly, the project will end each year with the kids sharing the stage with a national artist. In fact, they just had 2008's year-end show in early February with Talib Kweli, hometown fave jessica Care moore and, of course, Fluent hosting, performing and organizing the entire event.

Whether he's making his own, presenting someone else's, or teaching it to children, music will follow Fluent through his life, no matter what.

"This is the only thing I can do," he says. "There's absolutely nothing else I can do that would make me this happy."

William E. Ketchum III writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]