Long-regarded as one of the top female lyricists in the country, Psalm One (aka Christalle Bowen) has built a solid reputation with her commanding stage presence and effortless flows. She's helped change the way we perceive female MCs by staying true to herself rather than selling out to a more marketable image. Publications like URB, The Chicago Reader, The Onion, and the Sun-Times have recognized her as a rising star, but since her 2006 Rhymesayers release, The Death of Frequent Flyer, it seems like she’s kept a relatively low-profile. What gives? Centerstage tracked her down before her Dre Day headlining performance (Friday, February 19 at darkroom) to see what she's been up to since we last spoke.
When and how did you first get interested in making music? There was always music playing at home, know what I mean? I had an organ in my dining room; my uncle is an accomplished blues guitarist. I began playing drums at age 10 because I became bored in church. I wanted to find an activity I could do in church so I could feel better about being there. I played the drums through college, and dabbled a bit in piano, guitar and saxophone in my life.
How did you first get interested in rhyming? In high school, I wasn't as unpopular as I thought I was. I wasn't the most popular, but I wasn't a geek. I was, however, pretty weird. I carried these notebooks full of cryptic poetry with me and was constantly writing in them. From there a natural progression to rhyming occurred. Or maybe it was to impress this break-dancer boy I was crushing on. Either way, it stuck...
What was it about hip-hop that spoke to you? To answer this question I would have to make a distinction between hip-hop and more mainstream rap. My mother owned Run-DMC records. I loved Kool Moe Dee and Heavy D, and Salt N Pepa among others as a young girl. However, as gangsta rap started making headway, it coincided with a time in my life that made it very difficult for me to appreciate a lot of it. I liked a few artists, but I sort of banned hip-hop out of my consciousness until 10th grade or so. But by that time I was hooked. Tribe did it. It felt right to me because a lot of the kids in my school were gravitating toward it, at least via fashion. But I really felt it, though. I felt like I had to be a part of it, even if I couldn't afford a lot of the fashion trends. I really had to fight for my first pair of damaged jeans and Jordans. I remember immersing myself in Digable Planets, Camp Lo, Busta, Masta Ace, and all that Native Tongue-ish, classic hip-hop music. I'm still a sucker for a killer pop formula, or a crushing soul groove, but hip-hop has my heart.
Was there anybody in particular that you looked up to? I mean, as far as people I've never met, there have been many artists who inspire me. Snoop influenced my nimble raps, Black Thought [of The Roots] influenced my meaty raps. Of course, Lauryn [Hill] did a lot. I've met Thought, but the people I've come up with have ultimately influenced me more than my rap heroes ever will.
Take me back to your first performance. Wow. I mean, my first rap performance happened when I was a senior in high school. Me and my dude Frame came up with a Kwanzaa rap for History class and performed it during an assembly. I think I was trying to get us to rap over the breaks on that song "Car Wash" by Rose Royce. I also had been diggin' on the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack which, as you'll recall, was like all oldies. So we got real old school on them and had these rapid fire Kwanzaa raps over these older breaks. That was fun. We killed it, and became a lot more popular overnight, I might add. My first performance ever was at five years old and was a talent pageant thing for my private school. That one included acting, singing and dancing. I killed that performance, too.
You grew up on Chicago's South Side. How did it help influence your style of rap? I think it influenced the emphasis on style. No disrespect to the North Side, but theirs is a totally different style up there. It's very in your face and classic. Even the battle rappers on the South Side could flare up and just style you out on sheer technique and finesse. The varied beats I get always challenges me to change up my styles here and there. Even if it's subtle - it's cool to challenge yourself via the music.
What about your time at U of I? What about it? I majored in Chemistry, minored in Rhetoric and was birthing Psalm One. I was coasting easily through my studies until the end of sophomore year. Then it got tough. My best friend went from majoring in aeronautical engineering to English, and I know he's happier for it. But he would like, taunt me every day to quit Chem. and focus on writing. I never wanted to quit Chemistry because by that time I was really trying to keep my grades at an above-average level. I wanted to make the finest perfume on earth and teach organic chemistry in my spare time. So beautiful, that stuff is. I graduated with that Chemistry degree, which was an accomplishment. But a bigger accomplishment to me was making and releasing my first two projects before I graduated, Whippersnapper (EP) and Bio: Chemistry (LP).
How did you link up with Rhymesayers? Regionally, I would always bump into them. By the time I graduated high school I was a hip-hop fiend. I went to quite a few shows down at U of I and the Rhymesayers crew would always represent, as well as in Chicago. I lived a few summers in New York City, too, and I remember bumping into Slug very randomly. I always gave him music. I met Brother Ali at a sound check for one of his shows and just sat with him talking before the show. I performed at the Oliver Hart release party for Eyedea in Minneapolis. Jay Bird and Kevin Beacham are both from Chicago. I guess you could say we knew each other already.
Are you still working with them? Absolutely. I signed on for multiple projects. My next Rhymesayers release is currently being crafted here in Chicago and LA and will be released when it is done.
There's been such a long time between projects, what gives? Following the release of The Death of Frequent Flyer I toured extensively for about 2 years or so. After returning, I moved to the Bay Area of California to work on albums with local producers and artists. I am a nomad of sorts, and the best perspective for me is a global one, so I took the time between albums to travel and grow as a woman. Since returning to Chicago last summer, I've been diligently working on my Rhymesayers follow-up. There will be a lot of music forthcoming, and you will be able to hear exactly what I've been doing with my time away.
Forthcoming projects? Of course. I'm putting out a free record for my fans, the first in a series called Woman at Work. Expect it in March. Pick up the new DJ Rob Wonder Scion Sampler when you see it, because I'm on that project as well. I'm also on the new Canibus album, Melatonin Magik. Lots of goodies. My fans are the most patient people and I want to reward them for that.
What's a perfect Chicago day consist of for Psalm One? Breakfast at Valois in Hyde Park, then over to the Logan Square Farmers Market to get food for the rest of the day, the Gym, the Studio, dinner, drinks at Crocodile with friends, then the after set at my studio in the FlatIron building.