By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Two months ago, she verbally manhandled 14 male MCs before a tough, demanding crowd at the Nile. Last month at O'Mally's, one male MC who'd dissed her at the mike was so infuriated by her freestyle response that he had to be carried out of the club by security. And local clubheads are still talking about the night, more than a year ago, when a female rapper challenged her at the Mason Jar and was routinely dismantled by a series of megaton missives.
"With her persona on the microphone, before she even says a word, you're already open to what she's going to do," says William Walker, 27, a nighttime radio DJ at KKFR-FM (Power 92), better known to his listeners as Big Willie. "It's the way she carries herself, how confident she is.
"It's the same thing on the basketball court. When I've played basketball with her, with her confidence, you believe in her, that she's going to make the right pass, she's going to hit the shot."
These are stressful but exciting days for Kitchen. She's busy writing and recording her debut album, for which she's getting beats from a variety of high-powered hip-hop producers. Meanwhile, she's poring over history books and cranking out research papers for her final three classes at ASU.
Much as school is a grind for her these days, she makes it her first priority, because she considers her college education the "X-factor" that separates her from most other MCs.
"The average rapper, they're off the streets," says Kitchen, an interdisciplinary studies major, specializing in history and women's studies. "Not to take anything away from them, but they can't put out what I can verbally. Where another rapper might get stuck, I can flow fluidly.
"That's why I'm so determined to finish school, because I know that's been the backbone for me to make hip-hop like I do," she adds. "'Cause when I left the East Coast, my vocabulary was not that big."
After graduation, music will be her primary focus, but she still hasn't ruled out the possibility of playing professional hoops.
A year ago, she tried out with the WNBA's Seattle and Portland franchises and was encouraged to come back after honing her skills for a year in Europe.
If, as Shaquille O'Neal has claimed, every basketball player wants to be a rapper, and every rapper wants to be a basketball player, Kitchen is uniquely equipped to take a credible shot at both.
Most of Kitchen's old friends from New Jersey don't even know she's making music.
The Kitch they knew was certainly a hip-hop fan, a streetwise kid who loved imitating her favorite old-school MCs, particularly Roxanne Shanté. But they never saw her perform publicly.
Growing up in Newark, basketball -- not music -- was her abiding passion. A self-described tomboy from an early age, she developed her game by competing against her male cousins.
"I played outside on the playground a lot," Kitchen says from the living room of the east Tempe apartment she shares with her girlfriend, Candida Coulson, a thin, leggy hurdler/runner with the ASU track team. "I could beat them when we were younger, until they grew to be 6-4 and started blocking my shots. But I still gave them something to work with."
Offstage, Kitchen is a slightly more laid-back version of her mike persona: warm, outgoing, brash, and possessed of a seemingly nonchalant sense of cool that makes clubgoers -- male and female -- want to be in her presence.
Her unwavering self-assurance is particularly impressive considering the traumatic details of her childhood. The third of four children born to Arbey Cox and Lorraine Kitchen, she and her siblings were abandoned when she was only 2 years old. After a period of uncertainty, they ended up moving in with her paternal grandmother, Helen Cox.
"My parents got into some kind of disagreement, and they left us in the house," she recalls, with steely detachment. "I guess people called CPS or something, and they took us to a foster home. But my father asked my grandmother, his mother, to take us to live with her, because he didn't want us to live in a foster home. She agreed to do it for a week or two, because she already had a lot of kids to take care of. But we ended up staying with her."
Cox had so many nephews, nieces and grandchildren to care for that for years she couldn't manage a full-time job. Kitch says she got used to wearing cardboard shoes and hand-me-down pants from her sisters and cousins. "As long as you went out with pants and shoes on, it didn't matter whose they were," she says.
She recalls that her neighborhood was a cruel battleground, where elderly people were abused by the young, and where the sound of gunfire was as commonplace as that of a crying baby.
Charli Turner Thorne, ASU's women's basketball coach, has visited Kitchen's childhood home and says it's astonishing that Kitchen managed to pull herself out of such a bleak situation.
"Ten feet away from her home, people were dealing drugs, there were 13-year-olds with their babies, drinking beer at 11 in the morning," Turner Thorne says. "This is a tough environment, and this is a kid who came out of it wanting more for herself."