For two years Cristalle Bowen put her chemistry degree to good use at the Chicago Heights offices of Silliker, a food safety laboratory. But in July she quit her chemist's job there to concentrate on her career as a rapper. "The more serious you get about music, it becomes a 24-hour-a-day thing," says Bowen, aka Psalm One. "So I was kind of like, 'I have my degree. I might as well let go and really try to make a living at this rap thing.'"
Bowen's decision wasn't rash. Next week Chicago's Birthwrite label will release a revamped version of Psalm One's 2002 full-length debut, Bio: Chemistry, which quickly sold out its initial 1,000-copy pressing. The new version, titled Bio: Chemistry II: Esters and Essays, is resequenced and remastered and includes five previously unreleased tracks. Reconstituted, it outstrips the original--Bowen's flow is tart and confident throughout the mix of brainy beats and block-party jams. On "The Dubblewood Pipe" she makes her ambitions clear: "I'm an underground chick, broke as hell / No loot po' boo knows it well. . . . Even with this promising flow / I can't, I won't water down my music."
The record's a stopgap until next year's release of The Death of Frequent Flyer, her first album for Minneapolis's Rhymesayers label, where her labelmates will include Atmosphere, MF Doom, and RJD2 side project Soul Position. It features production by and guest appearances from Overflo, Thaione Davis, Brother Ali, and DJ Ant. "The tracks on the new album have a lot to do with the fact that I was in the process of quitting my job as a chemist," Bowen says. "It speaks a lot about doing what you love to do instead of just settling for something easier. It's very much a testament of where I've been and where I'm going."
Bowen, 24, was raised in Englewood, where as a child she attended Trinity Baptist Church, singing in the choir and playing guitar, piano, organ, and drums. In junior high she began gravitating to hip-hop acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and Fu-Schnickens ("the fun stuff," she says); during her junior year at Whitney Young Magnet High School, she began attending neighborhood rap battles. "There was some really good stuff going on back then," she says. "I was really blown away by All Natural, Capital D in particular, as well as J.U.I.C.E. and Common, of course. But my biggest influences were my peers in school, just unknown rappers who really encouraged me to keep at it."
Her passion for hip-hop was rivaled only by her interest in chemistry. "For some reason I always knew I wanted to be a scientist--I've always been a geek when it comes to that," she says. "I guess I was intrigued by the whole idea of working in a lab coat." In 1998 she entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a chemistry major and creative-writing minor. She also began rapping at showcases sponsored by the black student union, where she developed her skills. "I gave myself homework as a rapper," she says. "Once I realized I could make words rhyme, then I wanted to become versatile, to be able to write to any beat, to make my voice sound different on different songs. Just like actors don't want to be typecast, I didn't want people to be able to pin me down as a certain type of rapper."
She recorded her debut, the six-song Whippersnapper EP, during her junior year. Released in 2001, the disc caught the ear of Pugslee Atomz, leader of the south-side hip-hop collective Nacrobats and cohost of WHPK's CTA Radio show. Atomz placed the Nacrobats' "Simply Beautiful," which showcased her, on Network of Stars, a 2001 Chicago hip-hop comp he produced. Shortly before graduation, she released Bio: Chemistry, then returned to the Chicago area to work at Silliker, where she tested and reported on nutritional values for food manufacturers. In the meantime she released another EP, Personal Surplus, on Birthwrite, and began booking solo gigs; she opened for 50 Cent at E2 in February 2003, a week before the club's stampede disaster.
In the fall of 2002 she became a full-fledged Nacrobat, making her the group's sole female member. But she doesn't stress that distinction. "I always sorta made it a point that I'm not trying to be just 'the girl' in a crew," says Bowen. "Some crews get a girl 'cause they 'need' a girl and it's just a fad. For me, I made sure I had respect for my songs and my lyrics. I've been blessed to have people respect me as an MC."
"There's all kinds of ways to critique a rapper, to look at their strengths," says fellow Nacrobat and frequent collaborator Allen Johnson, aka Overflo. "With some people it's the cadence to their voice, to their delivery, their rhyme patterns, their metaphors. But she hones in all those things. She can flip from a style joint to more of a groove-sounding track. She's got quality content in her lyrics and keeps it fun and open-minded but can also deliver socially conscious, politically minded tracks, as well as more creative experimental stuff. She's a rapper's rapper. You believe what she's saying when she's on the mike."
Bowen contributed to the Nacrobats' excellent third album, All Ways, and toured with the group in the spring of 2003. Though the Nacrobats imploded amid personality clashes later that year, she continued to work with Overflo; last November they began recording material for a new album. She also started collaborating with Rhymesayers perennials DJ Ant and Brother Ali, whom Bowen met when she was a U. of I. student. "I was performing in Champaign, and after the show I was doing a radio interview and she just appeared and started rapping in my ear," Brother Ali says. "Like almost whispering, rapping in my ear. I never forgot that." After recording with Brother Ali in Minneapolis and opening for him and MF Doom on a recent midwest tour, Bowen signed with Rhymesayers in October.
Bowen will celebrate the release of Bio: Chemistry II with a show at the Logan Square Auditorium on December 18, and Rhymesayers tentatively plans to release The Death of Frequent Flyer in the spring. Bowen, though, is already looking ahead to the album after that: she's begun recording new tracks that she says expand her musical range--"playing with my voice some and adding more melody"--and focus her lyrics on gender politics, which she's only slightly addressed in previous releases.
"Now that I don't have to prove myself anymore on a skill level, I'm trying to reembrace those gender issues," Bowen says. "'Cause I can talk about stuff that [male] rappers can't talk about. As a rapper I never wanted to be viewed as just 'good for a girl'--that's insulting. Or like the term 'FeMC'--that's insulting too. I'm an MC. Now let's show you what kind of MC I am."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.