Super Star Search
If you were a 13-year-old local gangsta rap prodigy suddenly blowing up all over the place, you'd need all the trappings of instant success just to maintain credibility that you weren't fronting, that you were in the game to stay. For starters, you'd need a crew of people like so much human insulation, from round-the-clock bodyguards who pound outsiders into tapioca for getting too close, to a posse of hangers-on you've known since the second grade to keep you real and leech off your good fortune. Then, you'd need Pilates instructors, bling coordinators, hoodie laundresses, a clipping service to remind you who disrespected you in the press last week, and you'd need a 24/7 procurement department to make sure there was always a Costco-sized supply of Dom Perignon and crunk juice to entertain visiting dignitaries.
The last thing you'd want to have around is parents. You know, the sort of people Parental Advisory stickers were meant to ward off.
But we're not talking gangsta rap here. Now that hip-hop has been around as long as rock and roll was before it really started to suck, we find a generation benchmark parents who grew up listening to rap and have kids of their own who heard it from the womb like the woofer rumble of a beat car. And riding in on that wave is the 13-year-old rapper we're about to meet: Ashlee Chavonn Byrd, a.k.a "Supa Nova Sta," who has potential to break into the hip-hop "hyphy" movement, a scene full of teens making rap for teens that originated in the Bay area. Four years ago, Ashlee told her parents she wanted to be a rapper. And now, her parents are shaking every hand and pulling in every favor to make rap stardom difficult to maintain in the adult world and near-impossible to achieve as a minor a reality. In just a couple of months, Ashlee's nabbed some major gigs (including her debut on a festival bill at Glendale Arena), recorded two tracks in a professional studio and started work on a full-length CD, and signed a contract with a professional management company called Static Management. Her music, influenced by artists like Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill, is full of hydraulic-pumping beats, catchy synthesizer hooks, and props-to-it rhymes like these from her club cut, "Jus Looz It": "I'm a true soldier when it comes to this game/nobody can take me down/I'm gonna stay around in this town/'Cause where I'm livin' Arizona/the street heats for my beats/It's the 602, baby!"
This is the story of Supa Nova Sta. No bodyguards, no bling coordinators, no Pilates instructors. Check back in a few months, though.
Make no mistake, Marcello and Tegra Byrd are parents first and foremost, a loving couple who want to do right by their daughter. If Ashlee an only child like both of her parents blurted out tomorrow that she wanted to be an Olympic gymnast (and had the talent), they'd be on the phone ordering her a balance beam, a trampoline, a carpenter's level, whatever it took.
Some parents might see the more unsavory trappings of mainstream hip-hop stardom and try to steer their child into a safer rap-related field like, say, ballistics, or a rims hydraulic specialist. But Marcello and Tegra know their daughter better than anyone and have put their focus on her uncanny ability to crank out beats on a portable Casio keyboard, record it on a karaoke machine, and then rap over that. To nurture this budding talent, they got her ProTools, the state of the art hard-disc-recording program many major recording studios use to lay down tracks. In short order, they've created a triple threat a female teen artist/producer/writer wunderkind, the likes of which pop music hasn't seen since the days of Debbie Gibson and that rap music arguably has yet to deliver.
The hope was to observe Ashlee and her parents in their natural surroundings, being a typical American family, but given Marcello's relentless schedule splitting his days working as a mortgage broker while simultaneously acting as CEO of Mateas Enterprises, promoting his daughter and trafficking her to and from school that never happened for this story. Instead, all meetings take place in the very unnatural surroundings of Claim Jumper, a Western-themed restaurant chain.
Here's parental paradox number one: Despite spending all of his spare time hounding people on the phone to increase Ashlee's local exposure, the protective Marcello doesn't want to reveal any details that can lead a stranger to where Ashlee lives or attends school ("Kyrene school district" is all that he'll volunteer). "It's my personal thing right now," he says, somewhat apologetically but firm. "I don't want to draw attention to her if it's not necessary. Someone might be camping outside the school, you never know."
At the outset, there was a real possibility that this combination manager/father might have that creepy Joe Simpson vibe about him, but one pre-interview glance at the Supa Nova hype sheet boasting of Ashlee's "good grades" and "basketball skills" allayed those fears. Both he and Tegra are extremely warm from the get-go and too unfamiliar with Simpson's inappropriate comments about his daughters to suggest they're working from his shallow handbook. Marcello's not even sure who Joe Simpson is. "Jessica Simpson's dad. You know, the way he talks about his daughters, he's not like a father," Tegra offers as a qualifier.
To date, they haven't witnessed the proverbial pushy stage mom or bullying dad, but Marcello allows, "I've seen some funny managers. I've seen people act like they've already made it big. No humility, without having a reason to."
But there's every reason to believe, all humility aside, that Ashlee could be really big, if handled right. In just a few short months, she's enrolled enough disciples for the cause to make her "Supa Nova Taking Ova Now" mantra a formidable rallying cry. But first, she had to convince her dad and mom she could "loozit" and win.
It's hard to reconcile this mellow kid shyly sipping through a straw with Supa Nova Sta, a performing juggernaut who tore up the stage at the Glendale Arena last month with all the poise and confident choreography of an Aaliyah or a Missy Elliot. Backed by five dancers and clearly holding her own, she could easily pass for a young lady of 17 or maybe even 20. But even at 13, she has a history of hamming it up that extends further back than the day she spied a poster in her science class and decided to name herself after a massive star explosion that outshines its galaxy.
"I've got some videos, boy," Marcello says with a laugh. "She hit the ground running, when she was 4."
"You know that Missy Elliot video of 'I Can't Stand the Rain?'" Tegra asks. "She was so fascinated by that whole video, she memorized the whole thing. She's got the trash bag on, doing the whole dance."
"And she was such a perfectionist," Marcello adds. "She kept saying, 'Dad, you're messin' around. Record it right,' if I didn't get the exact camera angles."
While Marcello may have fostered her persistence and love of rap music, Ashlee's inherent technical understanding of music and choreography comes from her mother, a singer in the church choir and a former dancer for the Phoenix Suns.
"That was when Charles Barkley was playing," Tegra says proudly. "During the time when it was a lot of fun and I got to the finals. When you didn't get to the finals, the season was over too quick."
After some prodding, Tegra admits to rapping when she was 16, then endures a little good-natured ribbing from her husband before retorting with mock indignation, "I was never freestyling! I came up in church, through the choir. So yes, Ashlee has some roots."
So when opportunity met experience, Ashlee was ready. She auditioned for and easily secured a spot for herself in the Gimme the Music Concert and Artist Expo, a two-day event with multiple performers that took place at the Glendale Arena over this past Labor Day weekend.
"She came in, did her audition, and everyone was, like, 'Wow! The kid's 13?'"
So says Larry "Tank" Jones, the show's organizer and an important early mentor for many young Valley performers. A motivational speaker, as well as an actor and musician, Jones started a nonprofit program, the Choices Education Empowerment Program, to teach kids to "set goals, know where you wanna go, and make a plan to help you get there." Jones saw in Ashlee a perfect embodiment of the program's positive message, which was lost on many of the other hip-hop hopefuls who signed up to audition but failed to follow through.
"Of the 20 acts that made the final show, a third were hip-hop. We had probably around 40 hip-hop acts registered to audition [that] didn't show up. It was kind of a running joke, almost. Unfortunately, a lot of them didn't see the opportunity that was presented to them because you have a lot of hip-hop acts out there that believe they've got to use four-letter words to get their point across. They couldn't tone it down."
Jones' patronage for the 20 acts that did appear continues. October 20-22, he's bringing back Ashlee and other standout performers such as the rock band We Are They to appear at the 2006 Arizona Goodyear Balloon & Air Spectacular at Goodyear Airport.
With such high-profile shows, Supa Nova Sta was going to need a choreographer, some dancers, and, most importantly, merch. That's when the manufacturing arm of Mateas Enterprises really went into hyperdrive with photos, tee shirts, posters, and CDs. As for an image, Ashlee was able to come up with something that was both hip and wholesome without too much prodding. Says Tegra, "She's already got a strong idea of how she wants to dress. And that's also without being suggestive. Ashlee's modest. She doesn't want to expose a lot of skin like most hip-hop girls do. And she doesn't have to."
No less a hip-hop authority than Kanye West said it when Ashlee's parents took her backstage to meet him at his last Valley appearance. According to Marcello, West said of Ashlee, "Hey, she's got some style on her."
Capturing that style on disc was trickier. On that count, they needed an objective set of fresh ears, like those of Jamison Weddle, an engineer at Chaton Studios who recently set up his own studio in the Valley called Studiocat Productions. "Ashlee came in with one song ["Jus Looz It"] which she recorded in her studio, which we mixed here. And then we did another song here ["Club Hoppin"] from scratch," Weddle says.
"I've had parents bring in their kids to record for fun but never anyone who was actually prepared to make a record, which is what she did," he continues. "Certainly no one with her potential doing her all her pre-production at home."
Technically, how good is she? "While the recording quality of what she's done on her own wasn't quite up to major label status, what she's accomplishing by herself with her ProTools rig is pretty mind-blowing," says Weddle, who's currently working on a full-length CD with Ashlee.
Of all the hats Ashlee has to wear, she concedes that "getting the right sound" has been the hardest. For Marcello, his biggest challenge is getting people to listen to that sound and come out to see Supa Nova Sta perform, whether it's a gig at Great Skate or a big show like the one coming up at Goodyear Airport. The proof is definitely in the pudding, but without a listen and a look-see, everything has a hollow "My child is an honor student" bumper sticker ring to it.
"I'll admit we were skeptical at first when we heard she was 13, because we don't work with children in that demographic," says Melissa Garten, the Director of Business for Static Management, which counts among its clients Top 5 recording artist Afroman.
"We normally deal with people who are a little bit older and have been touring for years, who have a little more experience under their belts. But as soon as we heard the music, we were hooked," says Garten, who finally broke down and took Ashlee on as a client. "What translates well with Supa Nova is that she hasn't been signed or dropped or had any of those experiences that would make her music contrived or jaded. She loves the music, has the passion for it, and she's very real. It's a sound that's very wholesome because that's who she is. She's 13; she hangs out with her friends."
"And as an added bonus, she's tapping into the youth culture in California," Garten adds. "If you go to an all-ages show in California, it's crazy. There's such a good all-ages scene there. It's on a different level than what we have in Arizona. I'm always envious of that underground scene down there, and as she grows here, I think she's gonna help bring that kind of vibe here."
The scene Garten is referring to as making waves in California, specifically the Bay area, is the hyphy movement, which has street credibility and appeals to younger kids who can't quite identify with the explicitness and glock 'n' spiel of most mainstream rap. The phrase "hyphy," credited to S.F. rapper Keak Da Sneak but popularized further by E-40, signifies hyper kids dancing or fidgeting in a manner that can be described as getting dumb, goofy, or riding the short bus. Although alcohol and marijuana are sometimes in the lyrical mix, kids can get behind hyphy without getting baked as a main component. Ashlee's single "Jus Looz It" is pay-dirt hyphy, as evidenced by the "Go Stupid!" refrain of her single, which can easily be misinterpreted as Ashlee just asking someone stupid to leave. Garten says Static Management's first order of business is to get the 2000 CDs the Byrds pressed into the right hands, handle Ashlee's promotion, generate some buzz, and reach out to a fan base that is not likely to hang out in bars or have access to wheels.
"Ashlee's fan base doesn't drive yet. At least, I hope not," Garten says. "Shows have to be well-organized for them to get to. But I think touring acts are going to start to seek Ashlee out because she's gonna have a legitimate fan base in that market."
And what does Garten think of the possibility that if or when Supa Nova takes ova, there could be a clothes line of some sort aimed directly at kids, à la the Olsen twins? This is the sort of forward thinking that Static is hoping for as it partners with Mateas Enterprises.
"The teenage fan base is where a lot of people focus because they have disposable income, they buy records. They buy tee shirts, they buy hoodies. And that's something everyone's trying to do," Garten says. "As she gets older, she's gonna be unstoppable. This girl does not stop. Marcello, his team, does not stop. And they push you as hard as they push themselves."
It's true. The second meeting at Claim Jumper is punctuated with several follow-up phone calls. In a week's time, Marcello's hooked up shows at Zia Record Exchange and he's gotten a few club DJs to spin the Supa Nova Sta single. When Marcello is asked about radio DJs, the love train grinds to a temporary halt.
Radio is really tricky. Mostly driven by advertising dollars to appeal to a demographic that buys car insurance and engagement rings, it reaches a young audience without ever directly acknowledging it, unless you're talking Radio Disney. And that's out of the question for hip-hop, as anyone who's ever heard rappin' Goofy knows.
"Radio? They don't want to hear about it," Marcello says. "Do you know anybody there that can make any decisions?"
One person in radio who can make decisions is Karlie Hustle, midday on-air personality and assistant program director at KKFR-FM, Power 98.3, the top hip-hop and urban radio station in the Valley, and one that does play records by local artists.
"We have Friday Night Flavas, which is an underground hip-hop show where they play underground music from across the country, but have a feature called Homegrown, where they showcase local talent. That's your first line of defense," Hustle says. "If there's a record that just stands out and has mass appeal for our audience in regular rotation, we'll look into it and try to get it some spins."
As for Supa Nova Sta, when Hustle turns to www.myspace.com/supanovaworld, she realizes yes, she has seen the CD cover but no, she hasn't had the time to listen to it yet.
All Hustle can do is conjecture what an artist she hasn't heard yet should do. Big image plus points: "I love to see young female MCs in general because there's not a lot of women in hip-hop, period, that are rapping about anything other than their sexuality, and I imagine because of her age, her parents aren't going to have her talking about that."
Big image deterrent? You guessed it. Friggin' advertising.
"You have to think of advertising. Our music is a lifestyle genre that caters to late teens and early twenties," Hustle says. "How much credibility does a 13-year-old have in the hip-hop world where everything is so image-based and image-driven? It's street or it's club. I would think a 24-year-old male wouldn't have much in common with a 13-year-old MC. That's probably why we don't play those records like Lil' Romeo or Bow Wow very much. Chris Brown's song makes sense to a broader audience."
Ultimate advice? "The best thing she can do is to continue to get people in her age group to be interested in her music and know who she is. Judging from her MySpace page, she has a good stage show, she looks natural, so she's ready to roll. A lot of those younger acts do cross over to pop radio first. Like Jo Jo or Chris Brown."
Both teens, yes, but neither a rapper. "Supa Nova Take Ova," as far as radio is concerned, will have to wait another day.
Back at the Claim Jumper, it's apparent that few families are as fixated together on one thing as the Byrd brood is on Supa Nova Sta. There are hundreds of underage rappers who come up harder, if they come up at all, because they don't have the kind of built-in support system Ashlee has. This idyllic, attractive young family is embarking on a journey from which there is no return, the cutthroat business of show. An early indicator may be that Ashlee, extremely likeable and not the least bit boastful, already has haters who got in on the ground floor. In the seventh grade.
"Some kids, I was cool with them last year," Ashlee says. "Now that I'm getting bigger, they're acting like I'm changed. They don't act like they did last year. They think I think I'm conceited."
Maybe they're just projecting the boastful aspect of rap onto her?
"Yeah, but I'm not like that at all."
Guess what? We all had haters in the seventh grade. And they stamped their disapproval directly on your feet before knocking over your books and pummeling your hunched-over frame. The worst Ashlee's haters can do is leave her alone.
But negativity is pulling no one's ear at the moment. If you believe the motivational spiel of most swamis and success peddlers, they'll all tell you the trip is the reward, the arrival never quite lives up to it, and this moment frozen in time is actually the happiest the Byrd family will ever be. Check, please! For now, God's in his heaven, everyone is beaming with excitement, and the chocolate milkshakes arrive not a moment too soon.
When Marcello is preoccupied, Ashlee's asked that question you never get to pose to indie punk bands and moody singer-songwriters. "So, what do you want for your birthday?"
Mom and Dad would be so proud of the answer:
"A record deal!"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.