Chicago Hip Hop is in an interesting place right now. The city has always been respected for it’s Hip Hop contributions, but Chicago is really in the spotlight these days with the likes of Chief Keef, King Louie and Chance the Rapper (and this album called Yeezus that dropped earlier this year, you may have heard about it). It’s a great time to be from Chicago as everybody’s looking towards it for the next big thing. One rapper who was here before the hype and continues to hold the city down is Psalm One. Since her critically acclaimed Rhymesayers debut release, Death of Frequent Flyer Miles, Psalm has been a solid ambassador for Chicago, as well as an active member of the community. I caught up with Psalm One a.ka. Hologram Kizzie, to talk about everything from her new release, Free Hugs, to Prince to writing bars in a laboratory.
Mazin: Alright, so first of all congratulations on the release of Free Hugs. How does it feel to put it out?
Psalm One: Thank you, thank you. It feels really good because we worked on it and I did it in a different way. I did it a different studio then I normally work out. So Free Hugs for me was a new chapter in my life then when I started making it. So it feels really good to have other people hear it.
Mazin: It’s been a while since your first release and you’ve released a lot of music between now and then. How has your sound grown and how have you grown as an artist between The Death of Frequent Flyer and now?
Psalm One: Well, I’ve actually done some self-release stuff and had a chance to kinda gauge where my whole career was as social media became more in the forefront of an artist’s whole business side of it. So me just navigating the waters of a new industry was really just the difference between the Rhymesayers Death of Frequent Flyer and now, for sure. Because in 2006 a lot of things happened in the music industry, for not only me but a lot of artists. Doing that and touring for a couple of years. And then actually I moved to San Francisco and moved back to Chicago since then. So I’ve been through a lot of different chapters in my book, so to speak, since then and now.
Mazin: You got involved in dance music while you in San Francisco, can you speak on that?
Psalm One: San Francisco was kind of like dubstep time for me. Dubstep has gone mainstream in the past couple years, but in 2008 that’s when it was heavy in my life. My rapping actually got better because I was actually out there hosting a lot of dubstep parties with my frequent collaborator, whose name is DNA Beats. He goes by Peace X now, but he’s a native of the Bay. So when I lived out there, we made a lot of music together and he was heavy into the electronic side or EDM side of things. Before they blew up I played shows with Hudson Mohawke and Lazer Sword and people like that. They were just around during that time and it was a really rich time in EDM as far as the Bay area is concerned. And I was really right there. It was a cool time. Coming back to the Hip Hop side of things, it taught me a lot about being a really good emcee on stage because dubstep, more EDM parties, they don’t really give a fuck about the rapper. It taught me how to be more humble as a rapper and to really cater to people on the performance side. And on the rapping side there was just some really cool soundscapes to rap when you open it up to EDM. So it just taught me how to be a better, faster, stronger, all that.
Mazin: Definitely definitely. You also released this new project under a different name, Hologram Kizzie, and you said that “it represents a place of freedom for you.” What was so trapping about your previous name?
Psalm One: Well, I kinda touched on that before with like… not the collapse, but the shift in the music industry. Some artists still haven’t embraced the Internet, haven’t embraced a lot changes that have happened. Some rappers are actually imprisoned by different aspects of having a career and having the full package. For me, my personal prison was kind of figuring out how to navigate not being a priority on my label. Figuring out how to get my music to the people, regardless. I actually have a really good deal with Rhymesayers. They treat me like family. So there’s no like bad business, you know what I mean? Or anything like that. There are other artists on the label that are a priority. So for me, just trying to navigate that and still be able to get my music out. Do cool things. I just played Millennium Park in front of 8 thousand people…
Mazin: Congratulations on that!
Psalm One: Thank you. That was crazy! So being able to do things like that and be able make really cool contacts and get really cool projects out is what’s important to me as an artist.
Mazin: My next question was related to what you just touched on, I wanted to know what your relationship was like with your label and what’s the status on your next release?
Psalm One: I’m actually in the final stages of mixing my project with Oh No. I’m super excited about that. He actually helped score the new Grand Theft Auto video game. So he’s finishing that, [and] as soon as he finishes that were back to work on our album. I’m jus basically super focused on that and Rhymesayers has expressed interest in that album. So basically finishing this and that and see what happens. I can’t promise it will come out on Rhymesayers, but I can promise that it’s gonna be a very cool project. Hopefully it comes out with the fam over there.
Mazin: Oh No’s an incredible producer so I’m sure that will be awesome. One thing that you’ve also touched on slightly in your previous answers was in 2006, music was very different to how it is now. Rhymesayers, from the early 2000s, has been a flagship for underground Hip Hop and there was a pretty clear distinction between underground and mainstream. Now with the Internet that line is kind of getting blurred; like you could not be on the radio but still be very successful. How do you feel about the impact of the Internet? Do you think it’s been positive? And how do you feel about those labels, the label underground and the label mainstream?
Psalm One: I agree with what you’re saying about there being less of a line. Everything has been opened up to this. Like entertainment. Like an umbrella of entertainment, it happens in radio and radio sounding stuff in the mainstream and indie. There used to be much more of a distinction between someone who is very popular and go through the certain regular channels of there being popular and that being considered mainstream. But that’s not so much anymore especially because of the Internet.
I think Rhymesayers still is a flagship for a certain kind of Hip Hop. They’ve reached out to some alternative sound. Especially with Aesop Rock coming on and Kimya Dawson with the new Uncluded album that they have. So I think they’re opening up to what you would call, if you had to put a label on it alternative rap. I think that the Internet has been both positive and negative. I think everybody has to figure out these waters except for the really, really brand new artists who kind of live on the Internet. I like to pose a question to other people: Do you think a brand new artist could survive be successful without the use of the Internet? I don’t think so. I think older artists that have established fan bases can do whatever they want. Like Prince or somebody. But even someone like Prince, I had the blessing to see him on my birthday weekend in late June actually. And he played a show that I wouldn’t have known about had my friend not gotten an email and I’d been in the same room. But Prince doesn’t even really have a Twitter or a Facebook or anything. But he’s Prince. He can do whatever the fuck he wants.
Mazin: He’s omnipresent.
Psalm One: Yes. But a new artist, no. The Internet is a necessary tool to be successful.
Mazin: So you think it’s easier to get on now then it was in the past?
Psalm One: I think it’s easier now to navigate the Internet, as it is now, and just knowing that you can’t control it. [Laughs] And building the relationships with the people that you know can do good projects that are web based. It’s just another thing to keep track of. You have to keep track of your relationships in person, your phone relationships, your text relationships, your email relationships. It’s just another thing that you have to be accountable for. Some people don’t like that. I think it’s just another tool and it’s a very powerful tool to be successful.
Mazin: It’s a different landscape and people are adapting.
Mazin: Speaking of the Internet, a lot of rappers in Chicago have gotten popular through viral videos and they tend to be the more aggressive and direct rappers. Like your Chief Keefs and your King Louie’s. It’s gotten national attention and even alternative hipsters circles have embraced the aggressive music coming out of Chicago. How do you feel about?
Psalm One: I think the aggressive stuff has been in the limelight recently. I think that it may be shifting. I know there are a lot of rappers that are around right now who aren’t doing that and who are becoming more popular. I think everything has a season. I think it’s hilarious that what Chicago finally got a huge national spotlight for was not the Common Sense sort of stuff that we were kind of known for before we got the limelight so to speak. You know? We do have this aggressive style of rap here. We have gangster shit. That’s the thing with Chicago: when Chief Keef first came out, I was very vocal about the way he was portrayed in the media. I didn’t really blame him because there are a lot of kids out there making this kind of music. You know? It’s good that some of these kids have an outlet to be creative as opposed to being on the streets acting out what they’re talking about. But there is also that undercurrent of, there is a gang problem here in Chicago. So that aspect is knowing the realties of it and experiencing the repercussions of that kind of lifestyle first hand and knowing people that have died because of it. It sucks. Having the Chief Keef spotlight opens the door for a lot of people coming out of Chicago. So it’s not all bad.
Mazin: It’s true reflection of what’s happening.
Psalm One: Yeah, yeah it is. Now you got kind of knock offs. Once something is trendy and really kinda like mainstream and in the spotlight, you get a lot of people trying to copy that. It just happens, it happens with everything. So you get a lot of residual that’s not really that good. Kind of even fake portrayals of street life here in Chicago. That’s terrible.
Mazin: You once described Chicago rap scene as being kind of like a “boxing ring.” What did you mean by that?
Psalm One: [Laughs] I don’t think it’s actually like a boxing ring anymore, but it still is a competitive sport. But now, it’s a lot more like chess because there is kind of a budding industry here. You don’t necessarily have to leave Chicago to be popular. You know? Where that used to be… like Kanye West had to leave; he talks about that in his music. Common had to leave. There are people in the city that turned their back on Common because he moved to New York to make bigger moves in his career and why wouldn’t you? Sometimes you have to go where the opportunities are. But now there are opportunities here and you don’t necessarily have to leave. So where as it used to be like a boxing ring, and you had to win, win your spot by knocking someone else out. It’s definitely a game to win, it’s a game of chess. For me it’s become a marathon. I feel like I’m an artist that can weather these trends just by making the music that I wanna make and is true to me. You know what I’m saying? Now you just have to be a lot smarter. Not just the most grrrr.
Mazin: [Laughs] Legit. Speaking on Kanye West. He recently did the Got Bars program with Rhymefest, setting up after school programs for the youth. I know you’re heavily involved in the community, you do music mentorship and the Child Support album last year. Social responsibility is obviously something that you take quite seriously. Do you think artists have a duty to use their voices to give back to the community?
Psalm One: Some artists do. Depending on their story and their particular involvement and their awareness and their worldview. I think that once you have a certain worldview then it becomes a responsibility. Especially in Chicago where we need it. I know for a fact that the Kanye West story will be bigger then anything I do with kids. Possibly… most likely, I’m 99.9% certain. And I don’t feel any sort of negative kind of way about that because I think that Kanye West doing an after school program is amazing and it’s awesome. I know Rhymefest. I worked with him on his political campaign when he was running for alderman. I contributed time and I actually performed for one of his benefit shows. So I know his involvement in the community and I’m glad that they’re doing something. And I hope that a lot kids get some really cool opportunities. My rhyme school program, we’re actually performing at North Coast and that’s gonna be awesome for the kids that are able to do that. You wanna go in these places where it’s needed and there’s nothing but good that can come out of it.
Mazin: Right. Any help is good.
Psalm One: And it’s particularly good when it’s somebody with a lot of juice, so to speak.
Mazin: Do you think there’s more pressure on Hip Hop artists because of the history and the nature of the music and neighborhoods it comes from, as opposed to very successful artists from other genres?
Psalm One: Nah, I think that’s bullshit! Because I think everything is sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll when it comes down to music a lot of times. A lot of times. So I think other genres, everybody has responsibility because Hip Hop is more aggressive and it’s in your face, just generally speaking. There’s all kinds of Hip Hop now, but generally speaking, Hip Hop has always been more aggressive. It’s been more rebellious, but there’s other genres of music that may not be so overt about it. But there’s still edgy people and bad asses and people who do music who weren’t the best kids and straight A students and all that shit. I think that, like I said before, it depends on the person and their worldview and their heart. You know what I’m saying? Where that is and knowing that you need to help. They say ignorance is bliss but once you know that there’s a problem and you never do anything to try to help, if you could, well that sucks for you. You know?
Mazin: So you feel like it should be genuine and it shouldn’t just be a PR campaign their heart should be there. They should understand why they need to do this.
Psalm One: Yea. Well that’s the one side of me. Then the other side of me: well what if it a PR campaign? And what if some kids actually get some benefit from it, is it wrong? It’s better to have done it then not have done it. For a lot of these artists, the shit is a PR campaign and they never actually give their actual time really. And they never actually do anything; they just kind of attach their name and their celebrity to it. For other people, it’s a vanity project or a tax write off. That’s not the greatest thing in the world, but if someone can actually get out of it what they want people to think that kids are getting out of it, if it actually happens, then that’s not bad.
Mazin: For sure. On to my next point; a lot of the coverage surrounding you is obviously around the fact that you’re a woman in a male dominated field. Do you ever get sick of answering questions about what that’s like and what that means?
Psalm One: I’ve been asked that since day one. And it hasn’t really changed. With big artists like Nicki Minaj, she kind of changed the game to show that a Hip Hop female black artist can come from the Hip Hop roots and kind of become a pop star. I don’t bump Nicki Minaj’s music or anything, but you have to respect what she’s been able to do in the game. With that said, its still hard being a woman, its still hard being taken seriously. Or even when you have a lot of clout, there are still males that try and challenge that… not being a priority. There’s not many females on their label that are the priority. Nicki is kind of the exception to the rule. Just dealing with that and just knowing that I have a fan base and knowing that there are females out there doing it. We’re rare, but there are female acts that come from Hip Hop who are doing different things. Like I do stuff with my band. Once you add live instrumentation, especially on a performance side, to your repertoire, it opens the door for a lot of different things. There are instances of women being successful in rap but it’s rare. It’s just not… Hip Hop wasn’t necessarily engineered for women [Laughs]. Women were not in mind when a majority of these kind of Hip Hop themes became true.
Mazin: Do you think we’ll ever see a time when the terms “female rapper” and “femcee” will be irrelevant because men and women are equally represented in Hip Hop? Can you foresee a time like that?
Psalm One: Maybe when I’m super old. I don’t know. It’s kind of… I think it’s gotten better. You know what I mean? But there’s still a lot of boys clubbing, as it were. On radio, you’re never gonna hear two Hip Hop females with hot songs, but there are plenty of hot songs by females artists that are out there right now. It sucks. But with the Internet there are other avenues where female acts can be relevant and have their fan base and feed their fan base, so it’s alright. It’s not ideal, but it’s alright. I can work with it.
Mazin: For sure. The Internet allows to you to keep feeding your fan base and continue to tour and stay relevant.
Psalm One: For sure.
Mazin: You recently released a video for a song off your first album called “Mac and Cheese.” What was the story behind that?
Psalm One: Well, I had this young man named DJ. He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He’s 17 years old. Let me start with that, he’s 17. He’ll be a senior this coming fall. He started doing $100 videos at his school and he mentors kids in little league softball because he plays softball. He’s not even sure he wants to make videos when he goes to college, he’s just the kind of kid that does everything. He approached me on Twitter actually and told me that he loved me and loved Rhymesayers and he loved my album, The Death of Frequent Flyer, and told me that he wanted to do a video for me. So, I said lets do a video for “Macaroni and Cheese” and he came back with the idea to have me make macaroni and cheese and take it and maybe help someone out or feed someone in need. So I approached a women’s shelter, Deborah’s Place, here on the west side of Chicago that take in women, battered women. They said that I could come in and kinda hang out with the ladies there and maybe have lunch and then we filmed it. We didn’t know we were gonna end up dancing and hanging out for real, for real. We thought we were just gonna talk and get something a little more editorial but it turned out great. So shouts to DJ. He’s a great kid, a great young man, he’s not a kid and I wish him luck in whatever he does. I think we were able to make a little bit of magic together. And it was all through the internet, through the power of twitter.
Mazin: For sure, it keeps coming back to that. Right, so now you’re 7 years in the game, pretty far removed from your days as a chemist. How do you see your position in the game and what do you see for the future?
Psalm One: I always have goals. I keep goals, but if I think about starting from ‘06 and where I was. I wrote the majority of The Death of Frequent Flyer at the lab that I worked at.
Psalm One: So just going back there and knowing where I was as a person. I’ve achieved a lot dreams in my life. I feel like I’m blessed to not only do one career, which was chemistry, which was what I went to school for and actually do that for a little while. I was able to do a career that I never dreamed of having which was just like a passion. Being in the game, I think you get jaded when you kinda see things that you maybe wanna do. I think there’s a lot of bitterness in people who feel like maybe they should’ve been bigger, or maybe they should’ve had certain opportunities that they didn’t get that other people got. I’ve had my bouts with that. But for me, when I look at the grand scheme of my life, like man, I never thought I would be here. So having goals has always been a part of my life and achieving goals. So there’s always gonna be place that I wanna get too but I’m really happy with the work that I’ve done and the work that I’m doing and I just can’t wait for people to hear my new stuff. I feel like I’m still getting better and I have a lot of unfinished work that I have to do with a lot of collaborators and friends that I’ve made throughout the years. So I’m just excited to keep working and still be kind of relevant. It’s a blessing.