By day, O'Mally's is a nondescript sports bar, nestled in a strip mall on the west side of Phoenix.
By night, O'Mally's transforms itself into a dance club, changing musical identities from evening to evening the way Cher trades Bob Mackie outfits in concert. Depending on which night you wander in, you'll be confronted with salsa, funk, or a Spring Break-inspired wet tee shirt contest and a raffle for a "Boob Job Giveaway."
But for the past eight months, every Tuesday night, O'Mally's has also been the unlikely command central for the Valley hip-hop scene. O'Mally's is the place where aspiring local MCs converge to compete in a weekly freestyling contest that's a cross between The Gong Show and Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater.
The undisputed ruler of Tuesday night at O'Mally's is Arbatisha "Kitch" Kitchen, a 24-year-old Arizona State University senior, a refugee from the war-zone, ghetto streets of Newark, New Jersey, abandoned by both parents at the age of 2.
Hip-hop is only one of Kitchen's many preoccupations. She's also a gifted basketball player, who set scoring records at San Jose City College and starred for two years as a shooting guard with the ASU Sun Devils. She's a committed social worker, who devotes 30 hours a week to counseling disadvantaged children for Prehab of Arizona. And she's so conscientious about her studies, she takes her homework with her to the recording studio, to take advantage of any down time she can find.
But her numerous fans at O'Mally's simply know her as the reigning monarch of the mike. Although she's a skilled, clever hip-hop lyricist, her true brilliance rests in freestyling, the tricky art of improvising rhymes.
In the same way that you can only measure jazz instrumentalists by hearing them improvise, the best way to separate rap contenders from pretenders is by hearing them freestyle. At O'Mally's, most wanna-be MCs begin to stumble over their words after about 20 seconds of freestyling, so bereft of ideas that they inevitably begin and end every line with the word "motherfucker."
Kitchen likes to boast that she can freestyle nonstop for as long as she chooses to, and she may not be exaggerating by much. For months, she dominated O'Mally's' Tuesday night contests so relentlessly that the club decided to remove her from the competition, and simply make her a "resident MC."
As resident MC, she usually gets a few minutes at the end of the night to showcase her freestyling abilities over beats provided by the club's DJ, a short, goateed hipster who goes by the name of Casanova.
But on a cool Tuesday night in late March, Casanova decides to try something new, just to keep Kitch on her toes. He fires a series of words at her, forcing her to build a rap around each one. He starts simply enough, with his hometown ("Detroit") and his nickname ("Casanova"). Halfway through this exercise, however, the DJ -- at the suggestion of a sadistic contestant in the crowd -- tosses her a word not often bandied about in hip-hop rhymes: "onomatopoeia." The audience lets out a collective hoot, anticipating that, for once, Kitchen will be tripped up.
A commanding, charismatic figure in the center of a circle formed by the crowd, Kitchen is that rare performer who transcends all considerations of gender and sexuality. A woman in a musical genre notorious for its misogyny, and a very public lesbian in a musical genre notorious for its homophobia, she conveys such an overwhelming sense of assurance, even the most narrow-minded guys in the audience accept her without question.
In a loose, blue, button-up shirt over a white tee, long, baggy denim shorts draped over unshaven legs, brown hiking boots, and a baby-blue New York Yankees baseball cap that she wears backward -- covering her nearly shoulder-length dreads -- Kitchen is stubbornly androgynous.
Her husky, booming voice -- equal parts Public Enemy's Chuck D and a young Pearl Bailey -- and aggressive attitude are masculine enough to make most men respond to her as though she's a male rapper. For instance, when she boasts of being a "Casanova with a lot of chicks," they nod in solidarity. But her butterscotch skin and facial features are soft and pretty, and her eyes hint at a wounded vulnerability that friends say she's reluctant to expose.
Miko Wady, her manager, says one record-label rep who recently saw Kitchen at O'Mally's proclaimed her "the first rapper I've seen who bridges the gap between men and women."
Kitchen is too proud of her college-bolstered vocabulary to let a word like "onomatopoeia" stymie her. So she constructs a feisty rap about how Casanova needs to come up with something tougher if he wants to contend with her. The spiel climaxes with her deftly timed assertion: "I'm educated/I'm graduating May 6." The crowd roars its approval, and when Casanova asks if he should continue this game, he's met with a ringing chorus of affirmatives.
Kitchen's reign at O'Mally's matches the impact she's had at various Valley clubs over the past two years. During that time, she's been a fixture of hip-hop battles at Big Fish Pub, the Nile Theater, and Mason Jar, and has yet to be beaten in a single MC contest.
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."
Kitchen credits her grandmother for her determination to escape the neighborhood's pitfalls. To this day, Cox is the only person whose advice Kitchen values, the only person who is able to change her opinion about something.
"She's strong, a very stern disciplinarian. It was either her rules, or you get out. And I made it all the way through. A few of us did, many of us didn't," Kitchen says, before breaking into her patented raspy, baritone laugh.
"My grandmother wanted us to have a basic understanding: 'All right, you live this kind of way now, but you don't have to stay here.' Through basketball, I went a lot of places, out of state. I traveled a lot, and saw a lot, and I knew that if anybody out of our family could go somewhere, to another coast or something, I could do it."
But Kitchen firmly believed that the only way she could break free of her neighborhood's smothering grip was to attend a college far from the East Coast. Otherwise, she would be too tempted to return home at the slightest hint of adversity.
So, in the summer of 1996, after three straight years as an all-state basketball player at Newark Central High School, Kitchen packed her bags for California, to attend San Jose City College.
If there is one anecdote that defines Kitch Kitchen's two years in San Jose, it's the one that her SJCC basketball coach, Terri Oberg, tells about a male English professor at the school.
"When Kitch first got here, he met her, and he told me, 'I don't know if she'll ever make it. She's got an attitude,'" Oberg recalls. "But by the time she left here two years later, he wanted her to tutor his class, and he loved her."
Friends from Newark had told Kitchen that she wouldn't be able to hack it at SJCC, that she'd grow fed up with people telling her what to do. She admits that it was an awkward adjustment, but says she refused to allow her doubters to be proved right.
Oberg remembers that Kitchen hit San Jose with a street-tough sensibility that was a bit jolting for mellow Californians. At Kitchen's first meeting with Oberg, she greeted her new coach with the warning, "Don't think I'm gonna kiss your ass." Oberg firmly, but calmly, responded that no posterior smooching was required, as long as Kitchen got the job done on the court. They never had a problem after that.
In fact, Kitchen swiftly emerged as the Michael Jordan of the Lady Jags program. A 5-7 guard with slick ball-handling skills and a deadly three-point shot, Kitchen shattered the school's scoring records, averaging 19.5 points in her 68 games. She was a two-time Coast Conference MVP, and in her second year (1997-98) she carried the chronically dismal Lady Jags to a 34-2 record and the first state championship in their history.
She also made her first, tentative steps as a hip-hop performer in San Jose. Oberg remembers Kitchen going on the school's radio station for an interview, and freestyling a lengthy rap about the team. Oberg, an admitted hip-hop neophyte, was amazed at Kitchen's ability to put together a coherent story that rhymed, with no preparation.
"She's very bright," says Oberg. "When she came here, her thing was, 'I want to play ball,' and she did the other things, like classes, so she could play ball. But, along the way, she got into the idea of getting an education."
In 1998, Charli Turner Thorne was in the second year of her rebuilding effort with the ASU Sun Devils, and anxious to find talent that could step in immediately and help her team. A good friend of Oberg's, Turner Thorne had monitored Kitchen's blistering scoring rampages in San Jose, and knew she could be a big asset to the Sun Devils.
"You could tell she just knew the game," Turner Thorne says. "This kid's been playing on the playground probably since she could walk. She was a great scorer. And it helped that the program I recruited her from was also a very good defensive team and a pressing team, and that's something that we stress."
When Kitchen came to visit ASU, she and Turner Thorne struck up an immediate rapport, and Kitchen was so impressed with the young coach that she nixed all other recruiting stops.
Kitchen's charisma, so evident onstage, also translated to the basketball court. Although she led the Sun Devils in no major statistical categories in either of her two seasons with ASU, she ultimately generated the biggest, most avid fan base. During the 1999-2000 season, Kitchen's boosters created a section in Wells Fargo Arena called "Kitch's Korner," the only example of such fan devotion for an individual player during Turner Thorne's five-year tenure with the team.
Turner Thorne recalls that Kitchen also participated in the team's off-season camps for kids, and was invariably the favorite of the attendees. "She just has the kind of personality that breaks down walls," the coach says.
Kitchen also impressed the coach by adjusting her game, which had always been based on scoring and individual creativity, to accommodate the team. At ASU, Kitchen focused on defense and playmaking, relegating her shooting to the back burner.
In her first season with the Sun Devils, Kitchen made a solid contribution, starting all but one of the team's 27 games, and averaging 6.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. But she was still adjusting to the quicker pace and higher talent level of Pac-10 ball after two years of juco play.
By 1999-2000, her senior year, she was ready to assert herself. Early in the season, she scorched the nets for 15 first-half points in a road game against the University of Texas. In early January 2000, she averaged 13 points in back-to-back upset wins over Stanford and California. The victory over Stanford was the Sun Devils' first against the Cardinal since 1992, and suggested that ASU's women's program was beginning to turn a corner.
For her play in the two wins, Kitchen was named Pac-10 Player of the Week. At midseason, ASU's record stood at a surprising 10-4, with solid prospects for a postseason berth.
During this same period, however, Kitchen received shattering news. Her mother, Lorraine Kitchen, had died from what Kitchen describes as a mysterious heart ailment.
"From what I understand, she went to the hospital, something was wrong with her heart, she went home, and then she had to be rushed back to the hospital, where she passed away," Kitchen says.
Six years earlier, she'd lost her father under similar circumstances, while she was away from home, playing basketball. As with her mother's death, she seems unclear about the cause of death, and does not appear to want to know. "The story I got was something about his kidneys," she says tersely.
Kitchen isn't one to wallow in her emotional frailties, and she tends to offer a detached view of such personal losses. She says in the past two years alone, at least six close relatives have died, most from drugs and violence. But the hard-boiled emotional resilience that her grandmother planted in her as a child continues to guide her.
"People ask me, 'Kitch, you don't cry?' But I can't put my life on hold because you chose to live your life a certain kind of way. It's not so much that it doesn't bother me or that I don't care about it, it's just that's how my grandmother raised me.
"I tell everybody, 'Don't call me to come home unless my grandmother died. If anybody else died, I'll write a letter to read at the funeral.' I can't take five-hour trips back and forth across the coasts because someone wanted to get shot or somebody wanted to be drug overdosing. I can't deal with that kind of stuff."
Nonetheless, Turner Thorne contends that the accumulation of tragedy, particularly the death of Lorraine Kitchen, took its toll on Kitchen's play in the second half of the season. Though she had a solid year (averaging nearly 10 points a game), both she and the team saw their fortunes dip down the stretch. The Sun Devils dropped 11 of their last 15 games, and failed to advance to either the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
"She still had a great year, and we progressed the program," Turner Thorne says. "But she was playing really well when it hit, and emotionally she never totally recovered.
"In some ways, I think she didn't always have the benefit of having someone help her cope with stuff. I think in some ways it would be good for her to cry, but she just kind of has a tough persona, and she'll say, 'I'll be okay. I can handle this.' But she's dealt with more tragedy in her short life than anyone I know."
Turner Thorne can't help but consider the possibilities if Kitchen had been eligible to play one more season with ASU. She says an additional year would have been enough to earn Kitchen a spot in the WNBA draft. As it stands, Kitchen probably needs seasoning in the European leagues before she can compete for a spot in the WNBA.
"She has the ability," Turner Thorne says. "She'd probably need to pick a position. If she's going to be a point guard, concentrate on that, or if she's going to be a two-guard, work on that. But she's got a lot of qualities that could help a WNBA franchise, because she'll play good aggressive defense. And she's versatile."
Kitchen herself has vacillated on the issue of professional basketball. A few months ago, she says, she felt strongly committed to giving it a try. Now, she's cooling on the idea.
"I'm 24, and I'm not going to the WNBA tryouts every year to try and play in the league," she says. "They don't pay enough. I might as well work a regular job."
But Kitchen continues to work on her game, in case she decides to try out again for the WNBA. She practiced with the ASU team at least twice a week this season, and plays as much pickup basketball as her schedule will allow.
During Spring Break week, a Wednesday night of pickup hoops at Mesa's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints demonstrates what a force Kitchen can be on the court when she's at her peak.
Teamed with Wady and three other friends, Kitchen starts slowly. She's obviously not in optimum shape and she's mildly uncomfortable with the large size of the basketball, which is more inflated for the men's game. She's the shortest player and the only female on the court, but she conveys a casual sense of leadership at all times.
Throughout the four games her team plays, she talks more than any other player, either admonishing herself for a bad play, shouting encouragement to her team, or offering a bit of friendly advice. When a teammate makes the mistake of firing a waist-high pass at her, which is intercepted, she calmly instructs him to throw a bounce pass next time.
By her fourth, and final, game of the night, Kitchen has got her groove back. She suddenly makes her talented teammates and opponents look like supporting players in her private showcase. She nails shots from outside the three-point arc, fakes her defender off his feet for an open jumper and at one point grabs a rebound and takes the ball coast-to-coast, slicing between two taller opponents for a slick, reverse lay-up. All in all, she scores her team's last five buckets. Breathing hard as she slowly walks off the court, she turns to Wady with a smile and says, "I told you. It takes me three or four games to get warmed up."
Wady can only shake his head in admiration. He contends that the competitive fires that Kitchen developed on the court at a young age have translated perfectly to the world of hip-hop. It might explain why, with practically no performing experience before coming to Arizona, she managed to make a name for herself instantly on the local scene.
"You can see her get in that zone before she goes onstage, especially if one of the other MCs says something about her," Wady says. "She won't say anything, but she'll have her head down with her eyes closed. She's getting ready."
However much the media want to make Eminem the whipping boy for sexual intolerance, the fact remains that he's working firmly within an established musical tradition. No musical genre has ever demonstrated as much consistent hostility toward homosexuality as hip-hop.
From its earliest days as a form of street competition, the most devastating insult one MC could hurl at another was to call him a "faggot." And, over the years, even many of hip-hop's smartest, most enlightened artists have been guilty of gay baiting. Consider DMX's "Dogs for Life": "I will do for my niggas as they would do for me/Bust a faggot like you for free." Or Brand Nubian's "Punks Jump Up to Get Down": "I can freak, fly, flow, fuck up a faggot/Don't understand their ways, I ain't down with gays."
Even the politically revolutionary Public Enemy, in its 1990 warning shot about AIDS, "Meet the G That Killed Me," stooped to anti-gay propaganda: "Man to man, I don't know how they did it/From what I know the parts don't fit."
What's amazing about Kitchen's local success is that her blatant homosexuality seems to escape this equation. She and Coulson make no attempt to hide their relationship, kissing and hugging in nightclubs, in full view of Kitchen's fans. At a recent Big Fish Pub showcase, they even did a suggestive onstage bump-and-grind during Kitchen's performance of her forthcoming single, "Clubheads." But it's almost as if, by shoving her gayness in people's faces, Kitchen has defused the issue completely, and rendered it a moot point to the hip-hop crowd.
"I'm definitely more out than anybody, probably in the whole state of Arizona," Kitchen says with a laugh. "Everywhere -- school, coaches know, and everything.
"In hip-hop, you're battling people, and you've got people saying, 'You're gay,' but I'm so gay that it doesn't even matter. People are like, 'Tell us something about Kitch that we don't know. What's your point?' People that know that, it doesn't come up."
Kitchen says she knew at a young age that she was a lesbian, and -- as with most of the positives in her life -- credits her grandmother for unconditionally accepting her sexuality, and creating an environment where the entire family was comfortable with it.
"I've never been deliberately discriminated upon," she says. "I kind of overpower that when I'm making music. I think it's coming from a female with that kind of aggressive side to it, so guys could buy the music and girls could buy the music. So it's something that doesn't have a very harsh gender gap to it."
She even argues that it could work to her commercial advantage, saying: "Lesbians don't buy a lot of hip-hop music, but I guarantee you they'll buy mine."
Part of Kitchen's ability to neutralize hip-hop homophobia also has to do with her personal charm. Because she's so direct and unaffected, she manages the trick of making people like her, no matter how extravagantly she brags about herself. It's a talent she shares with icons like Muhammad Ali -- arguably the spiritual father of the hip-hop aesthetic -- and Jay Z -- her rap idol, and the artist with whom she's most often compared.
So she can write a transparently egocentric line like "I'm the hottest thing to hit the street since Malcolm," or freestyle a boast like "Let the Kitchen air out spray just like Raid on roaches/You don't wanna approach this/I'm ferocious/Lyrical prognosis, I gotta dosage/And it's gonna make you sleep," and somehow make the audience share in the moment.
Aside from the occasional freestyle battle on the East Coast, Kitchen had practically no performing experience when she moved to Arizona in the summer of 1998. But after quickly deciding that there was little to do for entertainment in the Valley, she started making the rounds of local hip-hop nights, looking for freestyle contests to enter.
"The thing that made it fun was battling right off the bat," Kitchen says. "The style that I prefer is that kind of rap, battle-rapping against people. And all the hip-hop places that I went to were battle-rapping, which made it easy for me to jump on the scene and make a name for myself."
After winning her first contest at the Big Fish Pub, she grew so accustomed to winning local rap battles that she began to count the $100 and $200 victory prizes in advance when planning her finances each month.
William "Big Willie" Walker first heard Kitchen rap two years ago on a local AM radio station. At the time, he was working at a radio station in Bakersfield, California, and visiting a friend in Phoenix. He heard her battle a male MC and was stunned by her talent.
After moving to Phoenix a year ago, he met Kitchen playing basketball at the Scottsdale Community College gym. A few months later, he saw her competing at O'Mally's and was even more impressed than he'd been by her radio performance.
"She'd gotten even better," he says. "But from the conversation I'd had with her at the gym, I knew she wasn't really sure how serious she was about it. She did it for fun, but she kinda wanted to pursue it. So to see that she was this good and was kinda undecided was amazing to me."
Walker says Kitchen's dominance of the O'Mally's scene was such that other MCs at the club would go out of their way to put obsequious compliments to her in their raps, just to make sure she wouldn't rip them to pieces.
Four months ago, Wady called Walker at Power 92 and asked if he knew of any promising female rappers on the scene. Walker told him he needed to check out Kitchen.
The 25-year-old Wady, a graduate of Tempe High, was trying to expand the reach of his fledgling management/production company, Dezert Heat Entertainment. The baby-faced entrepreneur, a lifelong hip-hop fan, jumped headlong into the music business last summer when his cousin's Long Beach, California-based group, Concrete Jungle, saw its Pacific Records label go under. The label's entire roster was left out in the cold, so Wady snatched up a handful of the acts.
But Kitchen is clearly his top priority right now. He recently took her to Long Beach to hook up with several potential producers for her forthcoming album, which he hopes to release on his own label, with distribution support from an established national label.
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During the Long Beach trip, Kitchen started freestyling with members of the Black Knights, a Wu Tang Clan protégé group. According to Wady, one member of the group was so intimidated by Kitchen's freestyling flow that he ran to get one of his previously written rhymes. It was a repeat of the effect she's had at O'Mally's every Tuesday night.
"I haven't met any person that can match my mental capacity when it comes to using words and putting things together that make so much sense," Kitchen says. "Things that have to do with life and history and books. You can tell that I read a whole lot and my brain has a whole lot of vocabulary in it."
She credits this vocabulary to her studies at ASU, but beyond the impact that college has had on her music, there's a bigger reason Kitchen's so driven to complete her education. She looks upon it as payback to her grandmother, a way of thanking the woman who salvaged her from an orphan's life, and showed her a way out of the streets.
"My whole focus was to show my grandmother that raising me was not going to be a waste," she says. "I wasn't going to end up in the street causing havoc or a ruckus. I just wanted to show her that I really appreciated it."