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.
"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.
She nervously returned to her hotel, waiting to see if she was one of the 27 rappers, out of the nearly 3,000 who auditioned, who would return the next day for the single-elimination battle (five others had been chosen by radio stations). At 11:10 p.m., she got the call. She made the cut, the only female from her part of the audition to make it and one of only two performers from west of the Mississippi.
"Am I really giving something that's standing out there so much that they're going to remember me over 3,000 people they've seen rapping today?" she says. "I was just feeling really blessed and feeling very appreciative of it."
The next morning, she found out how tough success can be. First, she discovered she'd be competing against Big Ace, a local rapper hand-selected by New York powerhouse hip-hop station Hot 97. She then found out the "Direct Effect" producers had invited an audience of around 150 people to enjoy the in-studio battles -- and in New York, that means an invitation to be as vocal and as hostile as possible. When it came time for the introductions, co-host Sway announced her as hailing from "Pomora" (she once lived in Peoria and submitted that address). Her opponent cursed during his freestyle, something the judges neglected to disqualify him for, and worse, Pooh stumbled during her own rap. She lost to the hometown favorite.
"I said, all right, I'll stay in love with hip-hop. I'll just do what I got to do," Pooh Baby says. "I'm not going to punk out and be like, Hold up, hold up.' Really, they were only picking six battles to be aired, so I really wanted to make sure my battle was aired more than anything. That was the whole purpose of coming here!"
The segment was aired, and Pooh says she walked away from the experience with a pocket full of phone numbers, from label reps, show co-host DJ Clue and others. Mostly, she says she was thrilled to serve as an ambassador for Phoenix, which she says takes the Los Angeles G-Funk sound and cranks it with a Southern electricity.
"We have a lot more bounce," she says. "We put a lot of dance, a lot of club in it. Our music has a lot of fun in it. We're like from so many different places that we just come together and party."
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Pooh Baby herself is not a native Phoenician. She moved with her mother in 1987 from Los Angeles, where she had attended USC Magnet School for the Arts. While the culture shock of going from the integrated urban halls of L.A. to the overwhelming whiteness of Chandler was a bit much at first, she says she eventually channeled her energy into poetry and, after falling for the music of rappers Queen Latifah and Monie Love, decided she, too, could dabble with music.
First, though, she had to fight her way out of gang life. She ran with a Bloods-affiliated gang, igniting fights regularly after moving to the Maryvale neighborhood. By age 16, her musical ambition took hold, and after winning a local talent contest, decided to pursue hip-hop full throttle. She's never considered another career; while she works full-time as a refinancing processor at a local bank, she says jobs are just a means of funding her musical endeavors, of which she has plenty. Besides the J.L.M.B. label and her gigs in Phoenix, she also travels to Houston for four months every year, where she performs at a more lucrative rate with Peez & Quez.
And like any true hip-hop baller these days, she promises to release a line of J.L.M.B. clothing and accessories.
"A lot of people think this is fun, but this is really work," she says matter-of-factly. "When you work really hard for something, you want to be noticed, just like it's a job. You want that raise, you want that promotion when you know you deserve it."