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Psalm One Pursues Her Hip-Hop Dream

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

By day, Chrystalle Bowen was a university chemistry student. But at night, the Chicago native hung up her lab coat, picked up a microphone and transformed into rapper Psalm One. She put out her first disc in 2002 during her college junior year and raced from finals to photo shoots.

Psalm One finished school and soon graduated from being a small-time emcee to sharing stages with De La Soul, Slick Rick and 50 Cent.

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE (Rapper): (Singing) She wakes up around 4 a.m. and then rolls with the snooze so she can snore again. See, she's sleepy from the night before, was on the ward since 10 with the gorgeous (unintelligible) you know…

CHIDEYA: Psalm One has a new album out now. It's called The Death of Frequent Flyer. NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: This is Chrystalle Bowen's confession: She used to hate hip-hop.

Ms. PSALM ONE: I would just hear this gangster rap and I just didn't want to hear it, because I felt like I was living it and like I didn't need anybody glorifying it for me. And I was sort of too young to have anything but this, you know, sort of like stubborn rebellion to what I was hearing in every car beating up the block.

JOHNSON: Bowen was a little girl when he family moved to what she calls one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods. The church choirgirl studied saxophone and other instruments and tried hard to ignore the hip-hop booming outside her windows. But the sound was everywhere, and as her friends got more into rap music, Bowen found it was getting harder to resist.

Ms. PSALM ONE: And when it called me, it called me hard. And that's like all I listened to for a really long time.

JOHNSON: In high school, she took her first timid steps from spectator to rapper, writing rhymes she performed only for her closest friends. She carried her passion for this rap thing into college, where she cracked her Bible in search of a hip-hop alias.

Ms. PSALM ONE: My first name was Psalm Sixty-Five and Eleven, that verse. And it says, I will crown as the year with thy goodness and thy paths drop fatness. And as a 16-year-old hip-hop lover, I loved the fact that the Bible said fatness. So I was totally into using that verse.

JOHNSON: The name Psalm Sixty-Five Eleven was tough for her fans to remember. The chapter and verse were always getting jumbled. She redid the numbers and settled on Psalm One. With a new name and pages of lyrics, it seemed Psalm One was ready for the recording studio.

The rap career would have to wait, though, as the young college student devoted most of her time to studying chemistry.

Ms. PSALM ONE: I love just getting down to something on a molecular level. And I'm a big nerd. I'm a hands-on type of person so I like being in the lab. And I, you know, had these five, six-hour labs, and I loved every minute of it.

JOHNSON: Psalm One spent her rare free hours collaborating with local producers, writing and recording songs and putting on an occasional performance. During an academically intense junior year in 2001, she still managed to put out an EP called Whippersnapper.

Ms. PSALM ONE: You know, I really started itching for shows and itching to have people hear my music. And people were really encouraging me still to keep on with it. And it was like something that was really just kind of like calling me. I didn't want to put that to bed. I couldn't, like, in my heart really do it.

(Soundbite of song from album “the Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE: (Rapping) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute…

JOHNSON: She put out her first full album, Biochemistry, right before finishing school. It generated just enough popular buzz, and gave Psalm One and her young producers just enough of a rush, to make it hard to focus during her senior year.

Ms. PSALM ONE: We were like, well, let's do an album, like a real album with the barcode on it and shrink wrapping. So, like, we started that process. That's a full-time job, putting out an album. And chemistry was getting really, really tough for me. I mean I graduated, I won't say by the skin of my teeth, but, you know, something like that.

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE: (Rapping) I'm going to bring it on home. When I was just about 10 years old, I walked up to the park, picked up a cleaner soul and I clung tight to the preacher's robe, brought it down to the pulpit with my (unintelligible) exposed. He was my uncle and it was like the first day of the month, I really had a thirst to pray, what a stunt…

JOHNSON: After graduation, Psalm One took a job at a food safety lab. By then, rap was pumping with full force through her veins and she continued to write and record. Psalm One built a strong rep that helped her put down the 9 to 5 and raise her music from passion to a successful profession.

Now she gets to travel all over the U.S. performing with some of hip-hop heavyweights. And her latest album, The Death of Frequent Flyer, is on a major underground rap label. The new disc punctuates Psalm One's talent. Her lyrical intelligence and bold mic flow make her a bright young star in what many rap fans see as an otherwise dim constellation of modern hip-hop acts.

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE: (Rapping) So I'm here again, back to a little place much like a mix of caffeine and Ritalin. Bad girl cinnamon, dirty prayers got about 40, Jesus stopped for me, hush. That's low, I'm giving adrenaline rushes, eyes closed, (unintelligible) with a mob figure. I kill it with chemistry but your (unintelligible) be in it to win it. Sorry, Ma, but I'm flipping these lyrics infinite.

JOHNSON: Psalm One says she really enjoys touring and performing on international stages for people who show her love. But she's got one major beef with the music reviewers who have a hard time seeing past the obvious.

Ms. PSALM ONE: I hate the word femcee.

JOHNSON: As a female rapper, Psalm One recognizes she's part of a small minority in the hip-hop world. And while she's proud to represent for that group, ultimately it's about who rocks the mic, period.

Ms. PSALM ONE: That's not really what I'm trying to be like. You know what I'm saying? I don't want to be that chick, that dope - it's like, nah, I want to be a dope emcee. I want to be better than everybody just like every other cocky emcee, you know? And like you just want to be dope. How are you going to be like, I want to be dope, but I just want to be the dopest girl?

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. BOWEN: (Rapping) Go get your hair done, miss, go get a pedicure. Go watch Lifetime, get inspired by strong women. You ain't fly, you ain't soaring, you the wrong pigeon. So put the mic down, you really got no chance. Hang the rapping up, go home and practice your pole dance. And this is for the rapper girls, the rapper girls, (unintelligible)…

JOHNSON: For someone who started out hating hip-hop, today Psalm One is a strong artist standing on a firm and promising rap career. Maybe she sketched out her big plan in the margins of one of those big, thick college chemistry books. But that passion for rap took roots years earlier when rapper Psalm One was just young Chrystalle Bowen growing up on a rough Chicago block. Today it's a love affair that shows no signs of fading.

Ms. PSALM ONE: It's always been something that I just lived, you know? I want to experiment with other types of music and just make good music. But, like, hip-hop and rap music is always going to be my heart, you know?

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE: (Rapping) Yo, I'm gonna let the little people sing on this one…

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song from album “The Death of Frequent Flyer”)

Ms. PSALM ONE: (Unintelligible) It's time to tip the taco. Break that (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Johnson