"What hip-hop do you know that has a Kansas country girl singing?"
Mynce, the turntablist for local hip-hop group the Smob, asks me this over beers the day after the band's CD-release party.
The answer is none. I don't know of many female artists in local hip-hop, period. That's what is intriguing about the Smob. But it's not just hip-hop it seems to me that most of the girls I see performing music around here are either singer/songwriters or in punk rock bands (often with other girls, which seems to marginalize them further). There are exceptions, I'm sure, but few that rival Miss J's prominence in the Smob. She's not a backup singer, and she's not just harmonizing or singing the hooks. She writes her own shit, sings it, and in a group with three male MCs she even has her own songs.
It may sound misogynistic, but I don't normally enjoy female musicians a hell of a lot, at least since the riot grrrl movement ended more than a decade ago. But I can't help but be impressed when I see a girl like Miss J (who didn't know shit about hip-hop until she joined the Smob) bust out.
The Smob consists of three MCs (Kreechr, 1IB, and Stoic), one turntablist (Mynce), and a vocalist (Miss J). They grew up together in Durango, Colorado, moved here a couple of years ago, and started the group about eight months ago. They've been trying to make a name for themselves ever since. It's obviously working the Smob's CD-release party a couple of weeks ago featured underground hip-hop giants Zion I and Tajai from Souls of Mischief as guests, with legendary icon Kurtis Blow serving as event MC. It's hard to fuck with that.
On the new record, I Hate Your Face, the production, as well as the rhymes by the MCs, is solid. It should be three members are graduates of audio engineering schools; they know what shit sounds good. Even so, what stands out is the strong presence of Miss J's vocals, especially on the track "Leave," which is all hers except for the beats.
The ties between the members are obviously strong. Actually, Miss J is Kreechr's "step-aunt," because her older sister is married to his father. "Miss J got into the group because she just has an amazing voice, and we wanted to mingle that together and bring her out as a main act," Kreechr tells me.
"Growing up, I kind of led a sheltered life. I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of MTV," Miss J says. "I grew up singing country. I sang a little gospel growing up, so I knew the full-bodied singing. It was a transition, but I'm the kind of person where if you give me the chance, I'll take something on 110 percent. I just started learning and really became absorbed in the scene."
"Miss J had no knowledge about any underground hip-hop," Mynce tells me. "As things progressed, I'd love to look through my iPod and find stuff to show her. She lights right up. It's so good to see people who grew up country to find hip-hop."
We're all laughing when he says that, but it's interesting to me that in a genre that's so male-centric, if not misogynistic, a country girl who grew up in Kansas and small-town Colorado would be the most prominent female hip-hop vocalist around town.
The strangeness is emphasized for her when they're playing out. In Los Angeles, after the bar where they played closed, she helped load out, and a bouncer didn't really get that she was in the band. "I said, 'I'm with the band.' He said, 'No, we're closed,' thinking I was a groupie," she says. "They think I'm one of the guys' girlfriends."
Even the boys realize what an anomaly they've got on their hands. "We knew Miss J would be a hell of an asset," Kreechr says. "She came in and we had pre-written stuff. But she'd be, like, 'Check out what I wrote last night.'"
"Kreechr was, like, 'If you can bring something to the table, bring it,'" Miss J says. "That's when I started writing. From that point on, the lyrics I sing are all mine. It helps me; the one thing I've had my entire life is expressing myself through the music."
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The Smob's dynamic is definitely unusual, and it leads to exactly what you would expect. Miss J is a pretty girl, but she says, "I'm not half as attractive before I get on stage as when I come off. Guys will pass me on the street and say nothing. Then they see me on the stage and they're, like, 'What's your name, sweetheart?'"
"Dudes are tigers," Kreechr says. "They see a good-looking female that can sing, and that's it."
Still, I wonder why there are so few girls rocking hip-hop around the 'Nix. It's obviously not the most female-friendly genre around, but when girls participate, it scrapes that stigma away. So my favorite thing about the Smob and Miss J's involvement is that it may inspire other girls to jump in.
"The biggest compliment to me is when a girl will say, 'Hey, you rocked,'" Miss J says. "That means more when a girl gives you props. You know she's sincere. Guys, you don't know if they're, like, 'Hey, but what's your number?' Honestly, it's a double-edged sword. Sometimes, I get the girls that had the chance but didn't follow through that will criticize me after the show. I take it with a grain of salt. If you have it, step out of the box and do it. It's different to stand on the sidelines and sing in your car to the radio. When a girl tells me I've done a great job, it really rocks my night."
Sun., May 17, 8 p.m., 2009