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On the first Saturday in December, the hip-hop capital of Phoenix--if there is such a thing--turned out to be a hall on a side street near Seventh Avenue and Camelback called Rockin' Freddy's. Inside, a deejay spun funk and rap until Shatonya Davis took the stage for a performance that should have gotten the small crowd hyped, screaming and dancing. After all, a lot of people call Davis the best woman rapper in Phoenix. People who don't care about gender call her the best rapper in Phoenix.
But that night, the audience was sparse, the sound annoyingly fuzzy and the Overweight Pooch, as she is called, simply wasn't working the room. While her deejay Katina spun the funk, the Pooch barely moved as she kicked out uncommanding versions of two tunes, "Boogie In" and "Brick House." It was an uninspiring performance--until you discover that Shatonya Davis had given birth to her son Nathan the week before.
"That's why I wasn't really into it," she says later.
On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the stitches are out, and the Pooch has a few thousand potential fans to work with at Wesley Bolin Plaza. Deejay Katina and dancers Little Mo and Ben pump up the masses from the back of the stage while the Overweight Pooch throws her weight around down front. She lets go in a hard-core voice with the street-smart rhymes, verse-twisting syncopation and tongue-twisting alliteration that characterize her raps.
Most of the audience stops milling around and snaps to attention, as if on cue. A large portion of the crowd takes one giant step forward in the finest tradition of stage-rushing.
To be sure, making an impression on large groups of Phoenicians has become something of a routine for Davis, a Harlem native who introduced herself to the city by winning a local rap contest in April 1988. That led to a warm-up slot for Eazy E, E.P.M.D., and 2 Live Crew later that year. And the gig last Monday was her second in as many years at the King birthday festivities.
But even with a handful of strong performances in Phoenix so far, Sh atonya Davis' path toward the top of hip-hop would seem to be straight uphill from here. After all, she's a nineteen-year-old single mother of a two-month-old baby, her stage name implies that she's both fat and ugly, and she lives in a place that's hardly a center for hip-hop culture.
But Davis claims Nathan won't put her career on hold. "My mother says she'll keep my baby for me if I go on tour." (She says Nathan's father visits the baby but she prefers not to talk about him more specifically.) "It's not like I'm by myself," she says. Her mom was the one who nicknamed her "Pooch" as a child. Only after she arrived in Phoenix did people start calling her "the Pooch." "Now people make me sound like some big type of animal," she laughs.
Her manager, local rap wheeler-dealer Ken Perkins, added the "Overweight" prefix--after sizing Davis up before he introduced her at a local hip-hop contest. Davis herself doesn't hesitate to give out statistics: "I lost weight since I had the baby. I went up to 210. Now I weigh 196." Her philosophy of weight goes along with the bumper sticker that says, "I might be fat, but you're ugly and I can diet."
Actually, if you study Billboard, Davis' weight starts to look like an advantage. Heavy D., Chunky A., and the Fat Boys have eaten up the charts--rap and otherwise--in recent weeks. The Pooch holds up that tradition in part of her song, "Queen of Rap":
"When the fellas look at me, they say, `Look at that chubba'/But they don't know that I'm an undercover lover/They like the skinny girls they can take to a show/'Cause after the show, you know they won't say no/
"If you're with a skinny girl and it's twenty below/You'd swear that you was standin' in a pile of snow/Well, a chubby girl like me could keep you warm/In rain, sleet, and even a storm/
"I'm just a hip-hoppin', body-rockin', finger-poppin', nonstoppin'/Money-makin', booty-shakin', never-fakin', can't be taken, M.C. girl/And you know one thing, I could rock your world."
But Davis apparently isn't planning to use her weight either as a gimmick like Chunky A. (who looks suspiciously like Arsenio Hall) or as a recurring theme, a la the Fat Boys. For the "Queen of Rap," fat is a feminist issue, and the Pooch has written, or is in the midst of writing, other songs that include the woman's touch often lacking in hip-hop.
Take "Child Support," for instance, which Davis wrote while she was pregnant: "The lazy father has got to get a job/No more hangin' around the house like a slob."
Or "Who's Pimpin' Who?" which Davis says is about "how a man thinks that he's pimpin' you and he's got a whole bunch of other ladies on the side--but meanwhile, you're doing the same thing to him."
The Pooch gets more serious on "The Vistas," about the violent, drug-infested area in South Phoenix. "The Vistas is the place in this here town/Where you can either hang around or just get beat down/It's just like Brooklyn or rather Bed-Stuy/Where they will look you in your face and say, `Do or die.'"
Davis delivers her rhymes in the hard-core style of women rappers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, and she's looking at branching out into KRS-One-style Jamaican toasting and house music. But she knows that rap-label A&R reps aren't exactly scouring P.A. (as the locals call Phoenix, Arizona) for the next creative force. After all, the only visible hip-hop culture in Phoenix seems to be the "YO" signs on the backs of Toyota trucks and the occasional shows at the Celebrity Theatre. Black radio is limited to four hours a week on Spanish station KVVA-FM.
"It's not the hip-hop capital, it's not the hip-hop town, it's not the hip-hop city limits," Davis says. "It's like there's nothing in Phoenix. There's a lot of people who have talent, but you don't have enough people out here to help you. There's not enough people to give you a push. There's no kind of real studios or record labels that have good distribution."
Still, she says, she wants to stay here. "I'm gonna try. At least I could be the first or second [rapper] to break out of Phoenix."
Davis is trying to juggle her aspirations with her responsibilities. Those include taking care of Nathan, enrolling in computerized accounting classes ("I have to learn how to keep up with my money in case I do get out of Phoenix"), and continuing to forge ahead as the Overweight Pooch. "Of course, it's gonna be hard," Davis says. "But I'm not gonna let it get me down, 'cause I know what I have to do. I want to go to school, and I want to rap."
Next month, Davis expects to finally go into the studio, and she's giving herself one more year--or she moves back to New York. "I've been doing this for two years," she says. "I said I would stick with it for three, and if nothing happens, I'm going back."