“The new kid” of Detroit hip hop: FowL

August 10, 2010

We’re sitting in the spire of a castle—spiral staircases and all— at Grand River Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard., and every bit of the 6’3”, 290-pound Saffal Tall, clad in cargo shorts, Jordans and a black polo, is dancing as he sings a show tune.

“I used to tap dance,” he said, laughing. “I was in plays with singing, dancing, choreography and all that. I love to entertain.”

Photo by Pierre Blake

Nowadays, the Michigan State sophomore is entertaining in a different way. The young emcee—he goes by the stage name FowL—traded in his tap shoes for a microphone, and is now “the new kid” in the Detroit rap scene. His first two mixtapes continue to make noise in the underground hip hop community, videos of his freestyles are the stuff from which Youtube legends are born and he’s performed with the likes of Chip Tha Ripper and Wiz Khalifa.

He looks–and flows—like Biggie Smalls, but has the booming laugh and infectious smile of a fun-loving college kid. His roots are humble: He was raised by his mother at Clairmount and Woodward. But his dreams are nothing of the sort.

“A lot of people’s music that’s out right now is taking people’s minds off of reality,” FowL said. “My whole thing is I want to bring people back to reality and show them how to appreciate their lives.”

The 2009 MLK High School graduate dropped his first serious mixtape, The Commencement, during his senior year in high school. The project catapulted FowL from a freestyle master at MLK to a rising star in the underground community.

“This right here is what’s going to put me on the map,” he said. “I sat down and I wrote that shit with a purpose.”

FowL is all about filling verses with personal experiences, and even as a highschooler he was able to paint vivid pictures with his lyrics. He was at his best in “Something You Forgot,” in which he talks about having an absentee father: “Dad, how you gonna leave us?/ Laid your baby boy out, like I didn’t need ya/Had me growing up, months at a time, no speaking/ You can’t make an excuse. Na, don’t even.”

“It’s painful growing up without your father,” FowL told me. “I look just like him. I couldn’t picture how he could be so many miles away and not think about somebody that looks just like him.”

The emcee admitted that living in the inner city was an eye-opening experience, and going to MLK was no different. He saw frequent fights and a stabbing while at school, and his freshman mixtape reflected that. FowL preaches that there is more to life than the women about which Trey Songz constantly raps. And that, believe it or not Wiz Khalifa fans, there are better breakfasts out there than kush and orange juice.

“When you see me, don’t just look at me like what I have on,” FowL said. “Look at me in my eyes and see where I’ve been, what I’ve been through.”

FowL is able to do this because his vocabulary, delivery and storytelling abilities—honed in a creative writing class in high school– are all extraordinary for someone so young.

“I love words,” he said. “They’re so powerful. I listen to some rappers and am like, ‘What the hell are you talking about man?’ The content—and even the way it’s put together—isn’t all that.”

Photo by Pierre Blake

Last year the emcee enrolled at Michigan State, taking a step into higher education that fewer and fewer Detroit students are able to take. And despite the increased coursework in college, FowL found a balance between school and music that allowed him to drop his second mixtape, For the Love, in the spring.

Although the tape didn’t tackle nearly as many serious issues as his previous project—For the Love deals mostly with girls, parties and the rest of the college life —it did attract even more buzz for FowL.

“I got all that [serious] shit out the way,” he said. “Let me have a little fun with this shit now. I’m in college!”

Its fun, upbeat feel appealed to the college audience in East Lansing, which set the foundation for the emcee’s growing fan base. He opened for Chip Tha Ripper in Ann Arbor—freestyling his entire set—and for Wiz Khalifa in South Bend. As the Youtube hits and mixtape downloads began to pile up—several thousand each—FowL’s skill set caught another set of eyes in the hip hop community.

Brandon Washington, still in college himself, is the CEO of Finally Famous Entertainment. You know, that Finally Famous. The one after which Detroit’s Big Sean named his freshman mixtape and debut album. Washington was quickly impressed by FowL, and decided to promote his music and manage his fledgling career.

“There’s just a feeling you get when you meet some people,” Washington said. “Just sitting here and listening to [FowL’s] energy, you can’t help but smile. And his music speaks for itself.”

The emcee performed Friday at the Shelter at St. Andrew’s Hall, and is set to release a song each Friday for around two months. But “FowL Fridays” isn’t his only project. He added that he should complete his third mixtape this fall.

Before I took off from the castle—where Washington lives when he’s not at school—I prodded FowL to freestyle. He responded by finding a beat on his cell phone and spitting fire for two minutes on the spot.

It was a testament to the type of talent FowL has. And he said he understands he has the opportunity to continue being “the new kid” in the Detroit hip hop scene. He’s charismatic, he has a conscience, and, like most people his age, he’s a dreamer.

“I don’t want to chase myself,” he said. “I just want to keep moving.”

Check below for the music video of FowL’s single, “Hello, Howya Doin”:

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