As FreshProduce takes the Brite Winter stage, the Flats are sheet-metal gray, coated in a film of half-rain, half-snow. The hip-hop duo blows into their hands while completing the sound-check. The 4 p.m. crowd seems sleepy.
Then the jazzy horn sample of their signature “We Always Finish” curves out of the speakers. Brittany Benton bobs behind her turntables. Samantha Flowers flicks up her hoodie from under a sharp, black tailcoat. In seconds, the shivering Flowers and Benton have faded into the crackling swagger of rapper Playne Jayne and DJ Red-I. The crowd triples, as Playne Jayne struts, calling “My team is in the C” over Red-I’s sauntering beat.
Just as Cleveland has long bristled at wearing the underdog’s tired collar, FreshProduce, a pair of female MCs from Cleveland’s ShakerBuckeye neighborhood, beg you to underestimate them. In a little over three years, the eclectically influenced duo has become one of the most popular homegrown hip-hop acts in Cleveland, releasing three LPs and a compilation album, headlining local festivals and touring abroad. The group was one of four local acts to win a 2018 Panza Foundation grant to push their music forward.
Just like the city that bore them, they always finish.
Take what happened in France. In 2016, two years after Benton started collaborating with Flowers, a French tour manager offered to book them as headliners for a month’s worth of shows throughout the country. When they arrived at her Paris apartment, the woman informed them she’d be keeping all profits from the tour, save for a food stipend. Benton and Flowers decided to stick it out for a few weeks.
But after a dispute over a gig, the manager threatened to kick them out of the apartment. If they refused, she would call the police. She said they’d never play in France again.
“She thought, When they get over here, I’m going to pull a switcheroo on the money situation, hoping that we wouldn’t have the wherewithal or means to say that’s not going to happen,” says Benton.
Instead, with the help of others on the tour, FreshProduce rented a car, called every remaining venue to tell booking agents what happened and offered social media videos of past packed shows to prove FreshProduce could deliver. They finished the tour, and by the time their former tour manager called to cancel their shows, club owners responded by telling her they’d never work with her again.
The experience inspired their most recent full-length album, 2016’s 4080. The title references a line from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime”: “Industry rule No. 4080/Record company people are shady.” Flowers wrote most of the record’s lyrics while still on the road in France, including “We Always Finish,” a slick ode to perseverance that’s become the group’s credo and most popular song.
“There is no calling off,” says Flowers. “Nobody can replace me.” She recalls doing a 45-minute show on the French tour, even though she couldn’t breathe because of sickness. “It separates you from the average I’m-a-rapper-‘cause-I-made-a-couple-songs,” she says. “Get out on the road. It’s a whole other beast. But I loved it. I’m chasing that opportunity again so I can be more prepared and focused.”
As it stands, 4080 is their most fully realized record to date, an evocative synthesis of Flowers’ warm, chameleonic flow and Benton’s hypnotic beats, as indebted to Grace Jones as Gang Starr. It’s their version of what Benton calls “food for the soul,” why they named themselves FreshProduce to begin with.
If corporate, formulaic rap is what they dub “Mickey D’s music,” FreshProduce strives to be as raw and organic as a farmers market peach. “It feeds the soul,” says Benton. “I wouldn’t say we’re inspirational for inspiration’s sake, but we keep it so real, people feel inspired … It’s true and raw, so you can take any raw resource and listen to it and do with it what you will. A lot of people have decided to take it in a positive way.”
Offstage, FreshProduce continues to offer those resources. The duo regularly mentor youth through the Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local and Equitable Program, writing songs with high school students and Boys & Girls Clubs of America members, giving performance pointers and staging shows.
“If somebody didn’t do that for me, I wouldn’t be where I am,” says Flowers. “You got to bring people up out here, because their talent is crazy. … The scene’s consistency depends on it. People have done that for me, so who am I not to give back?”