Flow in free-form

Special to The Times

The British duo Floetry’s debut, “Floetic,” was nominated for three Grammys this year, on the strength of its drop-dead harmonies, bass-boom hip-hop beats and whispered, spoken-word passages. The DreamWorks release has sold more than 550,000 copies since its release in 2002.

But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of the twosome.

After all, they’re not exactly chart-toppers. “Floetic” has barely scraped the pop Top 20, peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard 200 chart. And then there’s the band’s look, leagues away from the seemingly requisite pseudo-stripper uniforms of in-your-face R&B; stars like Ashanti and Beyonce Knowles. In the (fully clothed) video for Floetry’s current single, the sappy, slow-groove serenade “Say Yes,” the very British gap in Natalie Stewart’s teeth is featured prominently, and her full-figured partner Marsha Ambrosius sports an Afro not unlike the one Knowles wore -- as a joke -- in the last Austin Powers movie.

But Floetry’s not making a statement -- they just don’t care about the quick-success, quick-fade ebb and flow of the music business’ image-making machinery. “There are no belly chains [with us],” says Stewart, 24, on a static-laden conference call from the duo’s base in Philadelphia. “But that’s not because we’re out burning our bras.... “


In a move typical for the twosome, Ambrosius, 25, continues the thought: “All we have control of is what [image] we put out. We’re two girls who grew up playing basketball, for crying out loud.”

Ah, basketball. It’s a common thread through Floetry’s plucky rise from underground poetry-circuit queens to almost-famous performers and songwriters-for-hire. A decade ago, the two were star players from their respective districts in South London, Ambrosius in organized clubs and Stewart in the anything-goes world of street ball. “There was some attempt at a summer league where they would [organize] three-on-three competitions, and everybody would meet at the event,” Ambrosius says. “It just so happens that Nat and myself decided to speak one day, and it didn’t stop.”

They attended an arts-oriented high school and kept in touch through college, where they pursued different paths. Ambrosius (the group’s “songstress”) became entranced with music, securing a publishing deal while still in school; Stewart (the “floacist”) decided she was a poet, and spent time on London’s spoken-word circuit.

One night, Stewart decided to change her set a bit, and called Ambrosius to see if she’d be interested in singing over a poem. They talked through what they’d do at the gig on a short, eight-stop ride on the London Tube, and the collaboration was born. Their duet was a piece called “Fantasize,” which is featured on the live album the duo is releasing later this year and is a staple of their touring show, which hits L.A.’s Wadsworth Theatre with rapper Common Friday.

Stewart’s laid-back delivery and Ambrosius’ from-the-deep voice on “Fantasize” got them noticed in London, but “there’s only so much you can do in London in the underground poetry circuit. So we ventured elsewhere and got invited to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia to do more poetry gigs,” Ambrosius says.

When the duo got to Philadelphia a mutual friend gave their tape to Jeff Townes, formerly known as DJ Jazzy Jeff and currently manager of the production company A Touch of Jazz. “He played me an a cappella song,” Townes says, “that I thought was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard.” Ambrosius and Stewart were invited to Townes’ studio. By the end of the week, Floetry had recorded 11 songs. Seven of them -- including the hit single “Floetic” -- appear on the album. Soon after, they met manager J. Erving, and instantly hit it off. The connection, again, was basketball: Erving’s father is Philadelphia 76ers Hall of Famer Julius Erving.


Successes mounted after Floetry left Philly. They met soul singer Bilal at a club in London. Not long after, he recorded one of their songs. The phone rang at A Touch of Jazz, and the voice on the other end was Michael Jackson’s. The Floetry song he picked to record, “Butterflies,” was the only hit from his disappointing last record, “Invincible.”

Still, DreamWorks kept Floetry’s own album on the shelf until 2002, two years after the duo had recorded it. DreamWorks President Michael Ostin says the delay was partially due to visa issues -- and partially to making sure the record was perfect. “We felt the record was special, we thought it was different,” he says, “and we didn’t want it to live or die on a single release to radio.”

Ostin says he’s ecstatic about the way “Floetic” turned out. “We’ve had a tremendous success with a record that doesn’t fit the conventional norms,” he says.

ECLECTICISM is one of “Floetic’s” strongest features. Some songs, such as “If I Was a Bird,” are driven by Stewart’s understated flow, Ambrosius’ skydiving vocals, and jazzy, modal keyboard chord changes. Others, including the first single, “Floetic,” are more hook-driven, with looped samples. Like a groovier version of Alicia Keys’ silky “Songs in A Minor” or a less-political take on Lauryn Hill’s funky “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” “Floetic” reaches higher than much in the neo-soul category but also fits right into it.

Still, Floetry is far from seeing itself forever relegated to the “urban” genre. In a conversation about the group’s favorite music, after name-checking funk and soul staples like Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book,” Stewart starts singing the bass line to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Don’t Stop.” Ambrosius picks up the tune immediately, imitating Anthony Kiedis’ whiny vocals.

“I would love to work with them,” she says. And if she ever finds herself in the same room as the Chili Peppers, if she makes the right moves, it could happen. After all, they already have something in common: Anthony Kiedis loves basketball too.




Where: Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.

When: Friday, 8 p.m., opening for Common

Cost: $25-$35

Phone: (310) 479-3636