The Tao of Pooh

The brash Phoenix rapper Pooh Baby fights for her slice of the hip-hop pie, and MTV listens

The atmosphere at O'Mallys on a late spring Tuesday night is pumped. The west Phoenix nightspot, an odd mix of sports bar, swank lounge and dance club, is an urban hip-hop magnet. Especially this night, when an amateur freestyle rap battle has drawn a triple-digit audience.

Up-and-coming rhyming hopefuls throw down two-song sets, and most of the performances are pedestrian, with lots of "yo, yo, yo" posturing and gratuitous swearing. One of the performers, Trump Tight, raps to a backing track featuring his own voice, so as not to lose his cadence.

Out of this makeshift block party erupts Pooh Baby, a five-foot-tall lightning bug.

"This is really work": Phoenix rapper Pooh Baby strives for hip-hop success.
Kevin Scanlon
"This is really work": Phoenix rapper Pooh Baby strives for hip-hop success.

"Yo, where all my weed smokers up in this motherfucker?" she yells in her rich, bass-inflected voice. A white visor with the initials "J.L.M.B." emblazoned in navy blue obscures her short-cropped hair, and a silver eyebrow ring gives her an added veneer of toughness.

Like the others, Pooh and hype man Half Naked also perform just two songs, but they've choreographed a routine. They stand facing each other on the raised platforms brought to the floor for the freestyle battles. Then Pooh, never losing her speed-rapping cadence to the clubbed-out single "Work" ("I step to the bar like that poet/Searching for bottles of Moët"), ducks into a pronounced crouch, steps off the platform and begins to slither in the round formed by the crowd. She joins Half Naked on his platform several times, jumps in audience members' faces and, in an old-school touch, coordinates her rhymes effortlessly with the hype man, singing her choruses with surprising professionalism.

"Me and Pooh got shit to offer people," says the loyal Half Naked as he sips from a bottle of Cristal afterward, deferring glory to his boss. "Everyone is intimidated."

"I'm like in grad school while these other cats are still in college," Pooh Baby, 26, says brashly.

Pooh Baby, born Tanika Cox, has in fact been in the Phoenix rap game for as long as some grad students spend pursuing a doctorate, having performed here for 10 years. She was rapping long before a night like the one at O'Mallys existed, slumming at traditional rock venues like the Big Fish Sports Pub in Tempe. She calls herself an "O.G.," an old-timer, among the folks who've worked to put Phoenix, and in her case her beloved Maryvale neighborhood, on the national hip-hop map since the early '90s. She's also lived and worked in Houston as part of a duo known as Peez & Quez, performed shows with Coolio and Busta Rhymes and, just recently, formed an independent label -- the J.L.M.B. stands for Just Let Me Be, her imprint. She plans to release a kinetic five-song EP called They Never Saw Me Comin'.

For an unsigned artist who still leans on her performances at a glorified sports bar and freestyle battles on local hip-hop radio for exposure, Pooh Baby sounds awfully confident. These days, though, she has a right to be, thanks to a $255 bus ticket and May odyssey through the studios of MTV.

Pooh Baby's sister, the rapper says, spotted an ad on MTV's Web site for a "battle of the MCs" competition to be hosted by the network's "Direct Effect" program. She put together an application, and within days had a Next-Day Air letter inviting her to audition for the May 12-13 event in hand.

"Of course, they weren't paying for airfare or your room or anything," Pooh Baby says. "I said, I need to get to this.'"

Cash-strapped, her initial arrangements for financial support from family members fell through, meaning she had only days to hustle friends, contacts and old neighbors for the proceeds, and even then she'd have to ride cross-country on a Greyhound. At midnight the Friday before, she managed to scrape together enough for the fare, and rolled out for the two-and-a-half-day trip at 7:30 that morning. Bus rides from Phoenix to Tucson can be excruciating; imagine a trek 3,000 miles across the country with constant stops at bus stations.

"I rolled with some of the most freaky people I've ever met in my life," she remembers. "It's all in the struggle, man. I was like, What am I going to do?'"

She arrived at New York's Port Authority terminal only to find her ride had stiffed her. She found her way to Times Square from there, and in another hustle, had to call around for help paying for her hotel room. The first big surprise, though, came when she arrived at the MTV studios. I got there at 8:05 [p.m.]. There were a hundred people there already. By 9 p.m., I couldn't see anything but people on the street. People are freestyling. People are fighting at the end of line, literally duking it out."

Once inside, Pooh Baby says she was led to one of 10 sound stages, where she was asked to introduce herself to a camera (saying she was "throwing it down for Maryvale") and spit a 60-second a cappella freestyle rap with no curse words. From there, she met with three A&R representatives from Island Def Jam, the event's sponsors (the prize was a $25,000 contract with the label for a 12-inch vinyl single), where they prodded her into freestyling an insult toward one of the judges.

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