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."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic