Written by: Emily Ornberg
Photos by: Rena Naltsas
Cuddling on a booth bench in the dim, nearly vacant Jerry’s bar in Wicker Park, the Rapper Chicks are getting antsy. Tonight, the local hip-hop crew is getting ready to fulfill their duties as hosts of their bi-monthly rap karaoke contest, but they’re also double-booked to perform across town in an hour.
It’s mid-April, so naturally tonight’s theme is ‘420’. Track booklets strewn around the room feature selections from Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., Nicki Minaj and A Tribe Called Quest, to name a few. Killer cover performances are awarded ‘RAP GOD’ T-shirts, but this contest isn’t meant for your average MC. Instead, the idea is that rap is for everyone, no matter your technical ability (or lack thererof)—and if you completely blank, the Rapper Chicks are here to jump in and help you get back on tempo.
Buzzing in and out of the bar in a lacy white ensemble and flouncy curls is Fluffy, the bubbly, methodical MC who often handles the group’s administrative duties. She’s glued to her phone to make sure the trio has a ride to their impending show—though not once does the chaos faze her.
Half-awake and hunched over the table is the crew’s vet, Hologram Kizzie (aka Psalm One), donning a patched-up denim jacket and unkempt fro as she watches the crowd trickle in. And tugging on her arm is the sprite blonde Angel Davanport in a sparkly miniskirt, mini tank and lacy tights. She’s talking 100 miles a minute, visibly excited to spend the night under the spotlight with her girls.
“We’re performing at CIMMFest tonight—we’re special guests,”Angel says to me, wide-eyed and animated.“Super-secret special guests!” Fluffy adds.“Well, not sooo secret…” Kizzie clarifies. She glares at the two, who just gave away the surprise.
“It’s not a secret?” Fluffy honestly asks. “I thought it was... I guess we are talking about it now though…” Giggles erupt. Whoops.
Though they’ve only been formally a crew for a year, the Rapper Chicks have an unmistakable magnetism when they’re in the same room; the kind of chemistry that translates through a simple glance and instigates them to tease each other incessantly and finish—or interrupt—one another’s sentences. They say their relationship changes with each situation; they each take on the role of best friend, sister, mother, girlfriend, outsider or mentor.
“We’re so different with each other, like day to day, but all of us are hard workers by nature,” Angel proudly smiles. “We have good chemistry, that’s for sure.”
On stage, they complement one another through contrast, juxtaposing their strengths by exaggerating their quirks.
Kizzie, nearly 10 years Fluffy and Angel’s senior, stands tall and tough, harnessing a skillful flow with a cadence that even double-timed sounds coolly aloof, like a wittier, more sarcastic Jay Z. Her lyricism is so dynamic and dense that she can shift an entire room’s mood with a single verse.
Angel, the vibrant 23-year-old vocal powerhouse, is intimidatingly confident and hypnotizingly sexy as she saunters about the stage like a cat, twerking atop the speakers one second then moshing in the crowd the next. She’ll belt a a poetic chorus with a juicy vibrato then drive her raspy, high-pitched voice to menacingly and colorful lines like, “Often I fight bitches/ Launder they thoughts, launder them, leave stitches.” Fluffy is sharp, coming into her own after making her transition from artist manager to artist a few years ago, delivering jarringly honest lines about race, religion, sexuality and gender politics in a coo-y croon.
Ill-esha is the crew’s proficient producer who provides the bombastic future-bass foundation remotely from her native Denver. As a founder of the ‘glitch-hop’ genre, a type of fervid electronic music featuring wobbly bass and glitchy vocals, she’s toured the globe, performed before thousands of people and formed relationships with countless artists—who she says pale in comparison to her Rapper Chicks.
Since forming just last year, the three MCs have moved in together, toured the country, hosted rowdy house shows that got shut down by police and reached a combined 55,000 followers on Twitter—all without releasing an single track.
Part of the reason the Rapper Chicks are propelling to the spotlight is Kizzie’s existing fame, from her time as Psalm One. Fluffy even describes her as “a miracle for the Rapper Chicks.” But getting her into the group wasn’t so easy.
“I was against it from the beginning,” Kizzie says stubbornly with a hint of defeat, “I didn’t want to be in this group because I was just doin’ my own shit. I’ve had issues with young rappers, male and female, showing love and having it backfire."
Today, Kizzie is recounting her career from a couch in a Rogers Park apartment, patiently waiting for our day-long cover shoot to begin as she carefully cradles a blunt between her lanky fingers while the rain hits the pavement outside. Her skin is marked with countless tattoos, which edge her poofy turquoise dress and fishnets. And even though she’s a bit sleepy-eyed from hosting rap karaoke until 3 a.m., her messy fro sits atop a wide, genuine and toothy smile.
The many identities she’s assumed throughout her long career of work have paved more roads than most could in a lifetime, though not all roads led to success.
By her early 20’s, she was a brainy chemist from Englewood whose growing career in the laboratory promised a fruitful future; But by night, she was Psalm One, the witty word whiz who fought the trenches of the underground rap to become The First Lady signed to renowned indie rap label Rhymesayers Entertainment, which led her to tour with artists such as 50 Cent, Slick Rick, Rakim, Atmosphere, MF Doom and De La Soul.
Her incredible debut release The Death of Frequent Flyer, complete with outspoken lyricism and impressive technicality, drew international acclaim. Track after track, she’s political and pointed, sexy and straightforward, captivating and cryptic. With funky, laidback production, she delivers a fresh change of pace and a verbal smackdown of her female rival MCs on the ironically titled track “Rapper Girls,” which she dedicates to “all the ambitious young ladies out there who’ve got an inkling for the spoken word…. yeah you might BLEED but you can’t rhyme PERIOD.”
When asked if she felt she needed to support other female rappers trying to make it in such a male-dominated industry, Kizzie furrowed her brows.
“We’re always going to be looked at as ‘female rappers’ but I think that’s also a way to marginalize us; I know that there are rappers out there that I’ve gotta be on my toes for, but also, I don’t give a FUCK what their gender is.”
That attitude is what drove her away from Rhymesayers. She says she was constantly left in the dark and desocialized from the label’s renowned male artists. Looking to liberate herself from her past, Psalm One traded her established moniker for a new alter ego, Hologram Kizzie—the wife of Hologram 2pac.
As troubling as the situation was, Kizzie is thankful for all the doors Rhmyesayers opened. “I don’t know if they knew exactly what to do with a female artist. But at the end of the day, man, they gave me a really huge platform and I STILL eat off that.”
After estranging herself from her label, Kizzie was lost. That is, until she found an unlikely source of inspiration in an old high school classmate, Fluffy.
Fluffy helped Kizzie bring her mentoring skills into her musical career. Kizzie toured the country to be a part an after-school program to teach underserved youth how to write and record a rap song, and featured each track on her album Child Support. She and Fluffy founded a similar ongoing program for Chicagoan youths called Rhymeschool, where all three Rapper Chicks teach hip-hop songwriting. Kizzie was also featured as a mentor for an aspiring MC on MTV’s “Made.”
Kizzie’s solo work on Free Hugs and Hug Life is notably more adventurous, sexy and introspective. Her production incorporates intoxicating electronic soundscapes, soulful melodies and anthemic hooks as she rhymes deeply emotional bars about love, sex, work and support, using ‘Hug’ as an acronym for Help Us Grow. While touring these albums, Kizzie has included her Rapper Chicks in her solo stage act, bringing the spotlight on her band/roommates.
“You can be very selfish and secluded as a rapper,” Kizzie admits. “I can write my raps alone. The producer can make the beats alone, send me an email, send it back, we don’t even have to meet and we can make music. That’s so impersonal. Music to me is a communal thing. Music, food, life, all those things, I wanna share this stuff with people. COWGIRL!”
The moment is interrupted when Fluffy emerges from the bathroom in her wardrobe—pleather short shorts, thigh-high pleather boots and a small white tank that shows some serious underboob.
Kizzie flashes her trademark smirk and waits a second to take it all in.
“You need a whip!” she concludes.
“Man, I know where to get one!” Angel eagerly peeps from the makeup table.
“Of course you know where to get one,” Kizzie laughs, playfully mocking her. “‘Yeah I know a person, a whip person.’”
“I do know a person, yes!” Angel whispers quietly to herself as everyone explodes in laughter.
Regardless of her hard outer shell, Kizzie is a thoughtful and compassionate friend. Each woman in the group had endless stories of how Kizzie inspired, motivated and mentored them out of hardship. However, Kizzie says she’s the lucky one—and is thankful to have found artists that can support her while challenging her in new ways.
“Right off the bat, Kizzie was like my homie I had known my entire life, my nextdoor neighbor, my sister,” ill-esha says to me over Skype from her sunny Denver living room. “[The women of Rapper Chicks] bring out this loud, unafraid part of me and I think everyone, which is really what grabs me about this project and made me passionate to be committed to it.”
Kizzie thinks the reason people are so drawn to the Rapper Chicks is because of their ability to break the stereotype that women are difficult to work with.
“We fight—we fight over the mirror, we fight over boots, you feel me? But we love each other,” Kizzie says, taking the last drag from the blunt. “I feel like a mentor, I feel like a mom, I’m in love with Fluffy, I’m falling in love with Angel.”