MC Psalm One, born Cristalle Bowen, was raised in Englewood. After receiving a scholarship to study chemistry at UIC, Bowen earned her degree and began working professionally as a chemist before self-releasing her first hip-hop album, Bio:Chemistry. By her third album, Death of a Frequently Flyer, she was signed on to the legendary Minneopolis-based hip-hop label Rhymesayers Entertainment. As Psalm One, Bowen soon earned acclaim as the “first lady of the Rhymesayers,” inspiring a new generation of MCs in the underground hip-hop scene. She’s released a new album, Hug life, for local Chicago label Bonafyde Media. The South Side Weekly sat down with Bowen at her home in Ukrainian Village to discuss her recent travels, her new album and sound, and the new generation of Englewood MCs.

You just finished the Hug Life project about two months ago. Can you talk about that album and the meaning behind the title?

Well, a hug is a mutually beneficial action. A proper hug benefits both parties, so that is kind of how I’m looking at what my music is, it’s gonna benefit both of us, not just me. I think a lot of rappers have a one-sided kind of music. You’ll put your headphones on and listen to it, and it’ll be basically a rapper saying that you’re broke as fuck and aren’t cool enough to hang out with him. But for me, I don’t want to have any parts of that, I want everything to be cool for everyone. That’s kind of the physical part of it.

The acronym is Help Us Grow, so when you purchase Hug Life, you’re basically helping us grow our business, helping us grow our label, helping us put out better videos, helping us grow life. I mean, we don’t live posh or anything, but we’ve got some Netflix going.

After releasing some of your earlier records on Rhymesayers, you’re putting out Hug Life on Bonafyde Media in Chicago. How did that transition come about?

Bonafyde’s been showing me love and support for years now.

I actually lived in San Francisco for two years, and when I came back to Chicago, the climate had changed. I released Frequent Flyer in 2006, so coming back home in like 2009 having not really released anything, people thought I was dead or something. I was actually really involved in the pre-blown up dubstep scene. Spending time in San Francisco, and making so much of that dubstep, taught me how to navigate sounds. I find that EDM and trap are very, very busy-sounding, up-tempo, dance-y music. Not every rapper can rap over it. There’s really nuances that happen in the beat, and you really have to understand when to go hard, when to fall back, and those are just skill sets that come with wisdom and training and experience. I’ve always been an MC who trains to rap on different cadences and different tempos. I’m very much a student of voice and rhythm.

A lot of those [EDM-influenced sounds] show up now in Hug Life. But basically I made this music and gave it to Rhymesayers, and they were kind of like, “What the hell is this?” They didn’t know what to do with the sound. Rhymesayers is very traditional, very sincere, kind of that blue-collar sound. The sound that I was presenting was definitely not something they could have done anything with successfully without changing a bunch of things.

Half of the songs on Hug Life are songs that Rhymesayers rejected and that I sat on for a long time. Then I realized that just because they don’t know what to do with this music doesn’t mean the world won’t know what to do. There was a point where I was ashamed that I wasn’t putting out the music that they were looking for. What the fuck do I have to be ashamed for? They have a certain thing they’re looking for, I wasn’t doing that. So what? There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and I had a pretty bossed-up contract that stated I can do other things. I wasn’t locked down by Rhymesayers, but I was locked down mentally by what being on Rhymesayers meant. I had to come up from that, and that’s a huge part of what Hug Life is about.

Do you think the role of women in hip-hop has changed recently? How do you feel about female hip-hop fans still not having many figures to look up to onstage?

I think it’s stayed the same, and I think you know what the same is. We’re not appreciated as much as men are, period.

I didn’t have anyone to look up to either. When I was in school, I found Jean Grae on a whim. My whole world was blown. Every time I run into Jean Grae, I tell her, “You never read that letter I wrote you in college.” I wrote her a straight-up letter and emailed it to her because I found her contact. She never got it, but she was the only one I actually looked up to because she was doing it and wasn’t this super overtly sexual act. She was just rapping about life and shit. To me that was really cool. Sometimes I really feel like quitting and I know that I can’t because I do stuff not just for the kids, but I think that I really am a voice that isn’t represented. Not only being a woman, but just the kind of woman that I am.

You don’t hear a ton of women’s stories. I’m not the most complex person, but I do have a lot of different experiences, so I try to keep that in my music, because I never know who’s listening and there may be some little kid or young man or woman who’s never heard that before and I’m providing it.

For girls who were in the position you were growing up, what would you want them to take out of your experience?

I would want them to know the older you are, the more offended you’re gonna get. If you’re bringing yourself up to be a respectable member of society, as a woman, as you get older and older you’re going to be more and more offended by the dumb rap shit. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have merit, it just means that you have to work harder to find the good stuff. I don’t want to give up on hip-hop, as much as I want to sometimes. Don’t lose your love for the music.

You studied chemistry in college. How did that side of your education intersect with your career as a rapper?

I’d always wanted to be a scientist since I was six years old. Then I got a scholarship to U of I, and it was a really tough, kind of heartbreaking major, but I became a chemist for a little while, and then I became a rapper. It’s pretty cool, because now doing the stuff I do with the kids, all that education comes back to that.

When I was living in San Francisco, I was randomly tutoring kids in chemistry for extra money, and I was tutoring this one kid in chemistry, and he was like, “Holy shit, are you Psalm One?” And I was like, “What the fuck?” It was like all my worlds are colliding. Education isn’t something that’s touted in rap—educational raps, that sounds corny as hell. I’ve done a couple of raps for schools that are big hits, and kids and teachers remember them. I’m really trying to keep that intersection going, because that’s the kind of stuff that’ll really last way longer than I will.

How do you feel like your work with Rhymeschool and your promotion of the Hug Life mentality relates to someone like Chief Keef or the other drill rappers in Chicago?

I mean, if you’re smart enough to understand the difference between fantasy rap and reality rap. Someone like Chief Keef is perfectly fine to listen to, but if you’re an impressionable youth and you think that Chief Keef is cool, that’s the real issue. I’m not just talking to little black kids or whatever, I’m talking about everybody who doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand that this shit isn’t cool at all.

There’s some drill music I can jam to. Some of my favorite rappers are street rappers, but usually there’s always been a sort of cautionary tale that goes with that brand of music, always an awareness of society and a reverence for good and evil, whereas I feel like a lot of the drill music is just, “I do this, my homies do this, we’ll fucking kill you, I’ll kill you,” and it’s great.

If Chief Keef had so much fun in the hood, and it was such a great thing, why do you live out in the ‘burbs now? You have to ask more questions about where these kids are coming from, but when do we cross the line for being responsible and continuing the cycle? There’s only a couple of ways out, but education is a way out, and I’m living proof. People don’t want to do that, it’s easier to skip school and go sell drugs, but is that really easier? I don’t think so.

At Rhymeschool, we were doing raps with these kids, and last summer they all sounded like Chief Keef. And I have to encourage them, but I just wanted to ask them to find someone else to like, but that’s the influence. They’ve grown out of it now, but that’s because Chief Keef isn’t on the radio as much anymore.

In some ways it’s got to be nicer for you to have a smaller, sort of steadier career than to rise to huge fame and then quickly drop down to obscurity again. 

I guess. I read a review where someone said, “Psalm One has enjoyed the perks of having a career that’s been at a low boil for years.”  It’s better than a simmer, [but] I also think that I’ve been a source of inspiration for a lot of rappers, male or female. But my goal is not to be this source of inspiration for everyone, not to enjoy the fruits of more success. I work really hard, so it does get frustrating sometimes when you see what the trends are and what is making the most money. But it never was about money to begin with. Chemistry wasn’t too shabby, those checks were good, so if it were about the money I would never have quit my job as a chemist. I don’t even want a Bentley, I just want a tour bus. I want to be able to put out my music when I want, how I want, and not have anybody to answer to.

Additional reporting contributed by Kari Wei.

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