Jack Spencer has high self worth.
“There’s so many great rappers in Chicago. Chicago’s always been a creative town and a hotbed for things that are innovative.” Who Is Fluffy is proud of her city. She’s joined over the phone by Angela Davanport and Psalm One who, along with Denver producer and DJ ill-esha, comprise the Rapper Chicks, a Chi-town rap crew poised to make a national impact like so many of their neighbors have of late. Fluffy continues, “I think a lot of the challenges with Chicago is that we don’t get seen on a national scene unless it’s something controversial. You don’t hear about or know about all of the really awesome things that are happening unless it’s news. It’s hard to be news when everyone’s great. It’s hard to stand out when everyone’s great.”
As seasoned solo artists, each member of Rapper Chicks recognizes the struggles of navigating through the music industry, noting that breakthrough female rap groups are especially rare. “I can be a living example, because I definitely survived being the girl on a label,” says Psalm One, whose role as “The First Lady” of independent label Rhymesayers gave her first-hand experience with the ups and downs of the underground rap circuit. “I call it the ‘Lady Of Rage Effect.’ A lot of times on labels, the woman is the afterthought.” She made noise through her Rhymesayers release The Death of Frequent Flyer and the boom-bap-influenced records that preceded it (such as 2002’s Bio-Chemistry, playing off her actual career as a chemist which predated her focus on rapping), but in many ways Psalm One’s career is blossoming now more than ever, thanks in no small way to her relationship with the Rapper Chicks.
Her current work is noticeably more adventurous, incorporating electronic influences, melody-heavy sung vocals and anthemic hooks—and the use of alter-egos. As Hologram Kizzie (the wife of Hologram 2Pac), Psalm One has crafted the electropop-tinged rap records Free Hugs and Hug Life, and began to include her Rapper Chick counterparts more consistently in her solo stage act. “For me it’s a lot more freeing to be part of this collective,” she says. “I’m the vet of the group, I’ve definitely had the most experience in the trenches of indie rap, but everybody brings a unique perspective to the table. It’s about incorporating this collective into what I’m already doing, and Fluffy’s doing the same, Angel’s doing the same, and we’re definitely on the same page, and when we’re not, we get on the same page. I think that’s the beauty of what we’re doing.”
Onstage, the artists’ collective energy seems effortless and natural. Provocative lyrics meet with innovative songwriting and a sexually-charged presentation to produce a uniquely vibrant live show. Their cohesion stems not solely from their ease as long-time friends, but also as each other’s influences. “We sound like who we listen to,”says Who Is Fluffy. “I’m super protective of who I actually listen to,” citing her friend circle as a core component of her creative inspirations. “I listen to a lot of their music, and I’m going to be affected by it. I know that we’re all affected by each other’s music, and everybody loves each other’s music.”
Initially involved in the Chicago music scene as a fan and later an artist manager, Fluffy was encouraged to participate after seeing Psalm One open for her artist Kid Static. “We had a lot of the same friends, I don’t know, we were somehow kind of like [drawn] to each other. I liked the music so much, and we got along so well, and little by little I started doing more music stuff. You hang out with giants, and you want to make sure you’re taking the right footsteps, so I was really critical of what I was doing, so it took me a long time to finally decide to put something out. I’m always working on something. I just gotta part with it.” Her role as Psalm One’s backing vocalists for live shows gradually evolved into full-fledged collaborations and eventually the seeds of a fully realized girl group.
“After I went solo [leaving battle rap crew Nacrobats with Pugslee Atomz and One Davis], I never really thought about being in a crew again,” says Psalm One. “Much less one that’s all female. I didn’t think it was a possibility. But once we started hanging out last summer, Angel started coming around, and she’s awesome.” With a following already established thanks in part to her Strange Music collaborations (including a guest verse on Tech N9ne’s “Priorities” alongside The Game) Angel brought a hybrid mentality as both a singer and rapper, and had long been interested in putting a squad together. Collaborative songs with Fluffy gradually turned into a more intentional working relationship, and their work began growing with one another. “We started building off of what I was already doing and what she was already doing, and we just brought it together and it just ended up working,” says Angel. “I think that comes with being around each other, just growing together. I don’t think we would be on the same wavelength so often if we weren’t always together, moving forward together every day as a group.”
Even as solo artists, the influence of the group can be plainly heard, and the collective seem to be evolving in tandem with each other. Fluffy had already been championing the group notion, but the inclusion of Angel, who says she never really wanted to be a solo artist after working with groups for over six years prior, solidified the idea. “She’s amazing, her voice is amazing and her skill is amazing, and for me personally, I don’t find that in a woman that’s also cool to hang out with,” Psalm One continues. “For me, I was like damn, maybe I should take this a little more serious.”
As of yet there’s no official Rapper Chicks material released. They do, however, have frequent collaborations on each other’s solo efforts (“It’s basically, like, mutations of the Rapper Chicks,” says Psalm One), as well as several podcast episodes where the women are billed as the Rapper Chicks. The initial incarnation, known as the Pretty Petty podcast, brought on guests from the Chicago scene “that we saw talking shit on Twitter,” getting them to vent. “We would make them talk about shit they didn’t wanna talk about, other people, air their bullshit out,” says Angel. “They were like, baptized.”
After riling up a number of people in their musical circles, they “let the petty go” at the end of 2014 and focused on a new podcast more grounded in promoting those that have helped make their scene great. “[The] podcast was called Thirst Trap. It’s kind of like a double entendre, where we always made sure we looked extra sexy and flexy in our photographs, but we’re talking about things that are thought-provoking and we were having conversations that were alternative to what you’re going to hear on the radio or other podcasts. We want to continue having these conversations. We’re just getting it all together, just taking baby steps and having fun with it.”
A short EP is set to be released in the near future, though the specific sound of the record is hard to determine, as the work they’ve done collaboratively thus far sprawls wildly across the map. A number of their performances at this year’s SXSW were essentially rock sets with their band (“It’s fun, you can scream a little bit more,” says Fluffy. “It’s unexpected to the crowd, they’re like, what’s happening?”), who they’ve been collaborating with after connecting through Chicago’s Intonation Music Workshop, a music mentorship program for children from Chicago’s under-served communities. Psalm One has unveiled her new track “Arrogant” on a pair of podcasts, representing her live band version on Audiotree and the pre-recorded trap beat version on her high school friend Open Mike Eagle’s podcast Secret Skin. Angel Davanport’s latest project FREE PU$$Y largely represents her R&B sound, though she’s proven herself as a multi-faceted artist on numerous straight-ahead rap tracks and guest features. “ill-esha has been here as well; she travels so much that a lot of times you might not see her because she’s on the road,” says Psalm One of the fourth Rapper Chick. “She might have more [industry] experience than me within the glitch-hop, drum and bass realm.”
Beyond sonics, the crew is thematically wide-ranging as well, tackling sex and relationship dynamics, race politics, and gassed-up rapper boasts with equal aplomb. For instance, Who Is Fluffy’s self-titled debut EP opens with the breezy “Off & On,” featuring Angel, which segues smoothly into the wobbly, spaced-out R&B of “The Baby Song,” the bluntness of which can catch the ear off-guard. Drawing from the infamous incident on a 2013 Delta flight in which a passenger slapped a 19-month-old boy after yelling “shut that nigger baby up” (a phrase Fluffy uses as the song’s hook), the contrast between the arresting subject matter and the smoothness of the groove is profound. Psalm One recalls mixed reactions to the song in a live setting, recalling when Fluffy’s performance at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was met with anger. “It was mostly black kids, but the black kids were offended. But you gotta think about the climate down there. We play in other markets, and it just gets real quiet.” Elsewhere, the song can initiate conversation from listeners. “My favorite place to play that song was in Lawrence, Kansas, when at the end of it, I had the best political conversation with people,” says Fluffy. “They were like really intellectual about it. I was like, yes, I’m here for you guys. Let’s talk. We gotta dialogue about stuff.”
With all the elements seemingly in place for the Rapper Chicks to truly break out, they’re taking their time with the work and approaching it with the creative element at the forefront. “When I set out to really put my all into this group, I realized the way Rolling Stones did it was a cool thing. They’d been out for years and just played shows before they went to recording,” says Psalm One, who says this summer should see plenty of new music released. “We’re definitely working. People probably want music from us yesterday, but we’re doing it our way and in our time, and when it comes out, I think you’re going to really enjoy what we roll out.”