Kitch in Sync

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia