Chance meetup spawns a rap duo, a trio of albums and a record store

Coming up, rapper Samantha Flowers, who performs under the name Playne Jayne, was more likely to adopt a widescreen persona in her songs, filling her verses with outlandish tales and colorful, chest-out boasts.

“Now I'm using my songs to tell my life story rather than [relay] something fictional or brag,” said the Cleveland-based rapper, who joins with producer DJ Red-I (Brittany Benton) in FreshProduce, which visits Ace of Cups for a concert on Thursday, June 15. “Songs are trying to capture a moment or feeling, so you need to be really aware in the moment.”

This occasionally proves a challenge during our conversation, which takes place as Flowers works the register at Young Kings, a record store that she and Benton opened in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood in November 2016. Between directing customers to selections and instructing one patron on the store's canine policy (service animals only, if you were curious), the MC detailed the low-key 2014 introduction that has already spawned a trio of albums, a short European tour, a record label and one burgeoning record business.

When Flowers and Benton first met at a Christmas-themed concert in 2014, the two exchanged information and planned a loose recording session just to feel out a potential collaboration. Inspired by Benton's gritty, soul-kissed beats, Flowers started digging through notebooks, pulling more personal verses from her amassed collection of songs.

“I have years of journals, the way an artist has years of sketch books or a producer has years of beats they fumbled around with,” said Flowers, 29, who admitted to having five notebooks at arm's length when reached for the interview. “I've had ups and downs [in my music career], but the thing that's never stopped is me writing. I've been writing little daily journal entries since I was 10, and then those journal entries turned into verses.

“If you're a natural gardener, you do it every day. You Google ‘seeds' and research how to better grow your tomatoes. I just apply those principles to writing. It's my passion. It's my love.”

With Benton nurturing a similar affair with beat-making, the collaboration proved an easy fit. “When you have that much practice … and you meet other creative people, it's like swimming in water,” Flowers said. In early 2015, the duo introduced itself to the public with the nine-track We Are FreshProduce, a richly composed love letter to hip-hop's golden era, built on lush, crackling soul beats and Flowers' agile vocals, which move through the tracks like a five-star Uber driver navigating traffic. The album closes with “Where Do We Go?,” where Flowers raps about “the darkness of the times” atop a beat that sounds at least partially constructed of sunlight.

At the time, the pair considered shopping the record to a label, ultimately deciding to create their own imprint and self-release the project because, as Flowers explained, “We're entrepreneurs and tastemakers.”

“Don't just be an artist,” she said. “Own your art and own yourself.”

It's a mindset the two developed coming up in Cleveland's diverse DIY scene, where Flowers, who started performing live at age 15 (she opened for Sean Paul at her first show), regularly played alongside punk and noise acts. (The pair's Ace of Cups gig, which also features sets from garage-punk acts Raw Pony and Bloody Show, as well as the shape-shifting Jacoti Sommes, should replicate some of this feel.)

“Doing shows with and punk acts and being really embroiled in the DIY community … showed me that if you're really dedicated there aren't too many barriers,” Flowers said. “The way people sold CDs out of their trunks, we sold CDs out of our backpacks in high school. It's something I've just never stopped doing.”