Hamtramck's Café 1923 is filled with its usual cast of writers, readers, and coffee whisperers. The T-shirt-and-shorts-wearing emcee known as Microphone Phelps fits right in. The former performance poet (who used to go by the name Phenom) talks about his early days as a spoken-word artist.
"I used to be a waiter at Hoop City Grill back in the day," he says. "It was hosted by this dude named Jamal Gibson. He called me Phenom one day and it stuck." Poetry came naturally to the Pontiac-born Phelps. He'd been penning verses since fifth grade, and by 2006, he was one of the city's best slam poets. "I wrote every day, man; I was focused on being the best."
Even as Phelps was competing in poetry slams all over the country, he was always writing lyrics. By 2009, his fix for hip-hop had taken over. He began working on his cadence, upping his lyrical game, and acquired a new name. "I had this line in a rap that said All I do is smoke weed and win. I'm Microphone Phelps," he says. The name stuck as he started recording mixtapes and was one the founding members of the hip-hop group Cold Men Young. "It was only supposed to be a Cold Men Young project. We ended up getting a whole bunch of shows and we just ran with it," he says. The group also consists of Mic Write, Blaksmith, and Kopeli. Aside from coming up with the best name ever for a Detroit hip-hop group, the four emcees proved to be an ideal mesh of separate but equal styles (just think of a Four Horsemen version of Outkast). "Chase is more nerdy, Kopeli is more classic hip-hop, and Blacksmith is all about Hamtramck. I'm the street edge of it," he says. The group's 2009 debut, Champagne Nights/Red Stripe Budget was a local hit for backpackers and boom-bap heads alike.
By 2010 Phelps began firing off a litany of albums and mixtapes. Every release was better and more creative than the last (check out 2013's Stay Real, where he raps over five different Rage Against the Machine beats). "I decided the best way to be heard was to continuously be in the studio and put out music. I used Lil' Wayne's formula," he says with a laugh. Over the last five years, Phelps has released no fewer than 19 projects (all available on his Bandcamp page). His desire to record was so relentless that he stooped to unprofessional means. "It was a situation where I went to the studio, got done with the session, the dude downloaded it, and I dipped. It took me a few months to pay him, but I was just that hungry to record," he says.
In between recording in studios in the evening and hitting open mics at night, Phelps was able to earn money contracting himself as a poetry instructor for Detroit Public Schools and community centers. Along with money from performances, the income was enough to get by, but it still left him in the starving artist zone. At one point he was crashing with fellow group member Mic Write, and sleeping on the couch at poet extraordinaire T. Miller's crib. "I did whatever I had to do to keep going," he says. By 2012 he and his girlfriend were staying at the Untitled Bottega, an art gallery in between Midtown and New Center. "We had been evicted from our apartment. A dude we knew living at the Bottega helped us out. It was a little living space: a futon, and all we had was our clothes and our cat," he says. Phelps hustled his CDs to make sure they ate every night while his girlfriend would sell hemp brownies and pancakes at his shows. Once he became a father, the couple moved into a home in Hamtramck. "She's been a help and she's always supported me," he says through a smile. "At one point she was my manager."
2012 provided Phelps with a potentially big break. He applied online to audition for Simon Cowell's show The X-Factor. "I knew those shows featured mostly singers, but I figured I didn't have nothing to lose," he says. His application was accepted, and he killed his audition. But after reviewing the contract the show's producers placed in front of him, he decided to pass on being featured on the show. "They basically own you for two and a half years. I wouldn't have been able to perform at any open mics or release any music for that time period. The only thing I would have been allowed to do is perform on The X-Factor," he says. The decision not to sign tugged at his heart. If he would have penned his name to that contract, Cold Men Young would have had to pull all of his lyrical contributions from their second album, You Should Be a Fan, which they had just completed. Also, if he would have gotten knocked out in the early rounds of the show, he still would have been under the two-and-a-half year contract. "After it was over, I thought about my decision a lot. I still think I made the best move," he says.
On August 15, Phelps released his newest EP, The Attic. His spitfire flow and clever wordplay are still intact, but as Phelps has developed as a man, so have his lyrics. He no longer strictly raps about blunts or murdering beats. He now mixes in rhymes about fatherhood and struggling to make his mark on the world of hip-hop. "Lyrically, I've grown leaps and bounds; I started when I was 18 and people told me I was good, so it took me longer to grow because I thought I was already good," he says. Phelps talks about the future, his new baby on the way, a new Cold Men Young album, how he's back to writing poems, about eventually going to Europe, his love for Detroit hip-hop, and his desire to expand his client base. "I gotta find those fans out there in the world that would like my stuff," he says. "At first I just wanted people to realize I was a god rapper; now I want people to know I'm a good artist overall."