Cuts of Beef
A single diss track catapults Keys into the local hip-hop discussion
On a murky April afternoon, a young woman enters Valentino's restaurant escorted by an entourage of a manager and two assistants. Her caramel complexion is almost hidden under an Army fatigue print cap pulled low over her black, bone-straight hair. She proudly wears a black fitted T-shirt bearing her hip-hop moniker, keys. Mere months ago, the name Keys didn't ring many bells in Baltimore hip-hop, but due to an impromptu freestyle dissing of the most popular female rapper at the moment, this local MC created quite a local and national buzz. Her sweet, innocent face contrasts with her fearless and profanity-laced rhymes. With the help of a YouTube video, Keys unintentionally became an internet star.
The 21-year old-Baltimore native--originally from the Northeast section of the Alameda before moving to the Edmondson/Poplar Grove area of West Baltimore at the age of 10--is new to the local music scene, but not to hip-hop. While most MCs were introduced to rhyming on the streets, Keys--she doesn't want to print her given name--credits her family with exposing her to freestyling and battling.
"My earliest memories of rapping are from [family] New Year's parties" Keys says. "My father is a big hip-hop enthusiast, so at New Year's parties it was a big thing for us to get a cipher. Somebody would always get a karaoke machine for Christmas. We would do a cipher and have little battles. Kids would battle the adults. I have four sisters and other relatives, but I was always the youngest one rapping. And I would be the best, even against the adults."
In addition to hosting memorable parties Keys' father, Evan, also exposed her to KRS-One. She says growing up listening to quality old-school music gave her the appreciation for the art form that many of her peers don't have.
"KRS-One, I have to say, is my favorite MC of all-time," she says. "Like I said, my seeding in hip-hop came from my father, and he was crazy about KRS-One. I remember trying to go to sleep and my father saying, 'I know you got school tomorrow, and I'mma let you get to sleep, but just listen, KRS just came out with a new album. It's hard! Listen to this.'"
She laughs at the memory. "I had him to teach me that's what hip-hop is about," she continues. "I think a lot of people in the new generation just don't get it. When I say, 'Hip-hop is watered down,' they say, 'What? No, it's rockin'.' But because I had people like my father to show me what hip-hop was, I can compare it to what's being played today."
Despite this background, Keys had no intention of becoming an MC. Instead, this student at a local Medix School had her head in the books studying to be a surgical technologist until a few months ago, when her freestyle went viral online. "I never pursued a career in rap until now, because I didn't like [where] I saw hip-hop going and I didn't want to be a part of that," she says, singling out the buffoonery of current pop hip-hop artists. "I was focused on being in school. I've always had a passion for hip-hop, but it was like my secret little passion."
That was before Keys appeared in a YouTube clip dissing Lil Wayne protégé Nicki Minaj that hit YouTube three months ago and has since logged more than 8 million views, according to worldstarhiphop.com, thanks to coverage at web sites such as MediaTakeOut and a flood of comments. She wasn't shy about speaking her mind:
Fuck five stars
Tell 'em Keys is the galaxy
The rap game's hungry
Tell 'em that I'm calories
I'm speaking for the hood
They say you wack, I'm sorry
I'm a grown ass woman, what I need with a Barbie?
When I did play with toys it was nines and Glocks
With no Polly in my pocket I was toting them rocks
If you think about poppin', I will smash you. Stop
Your bars is inexistent like them gats you got
And that shit sounds faker than that ass you got
Now, hip-hop is no longer Keys' secret little passion.
"With all the attention that I'm getting from the Nicki Minaj diss, I'm getting an outcry from people that miss the way hip-hop used to be, and they see that in me," she says. "A lot of people have reached out, like, 'Yo, I want you to come out with a mixtape. We need people like you in the game.' So that really is my new motivation. I want to be the change that I thought wouldn't come along."
Since Keys' video appeared online, other YouTube disses of Minaj have appeared from unsigned rappers, and Minaj has even posted her own video response. Keys never imagined her words could have started such a conversation.
"It wasn't like I planned to do it [the diss]," she says. "It really wasn't like that. Me and my friends was sitting around talking about hip-hop and Nicki Minaj. The people I was around at the time all had different opinions. We talked about how she was a part of why hip-hop and female rappers ain't going nowhere.
"So somebody said, 'You rap--you should to a little diss or something,'" she continues. "So I said alright, let's do this for fun, and we got everybody together and went outside and did it."
The video was recorded on a whim by one of Keys' sisters on York Road in May 2009. It features Keys spitting an off-the-top-of-her head rhyme in which she imitates Minaj's annoyingly erratic delivery style. Keys' spotlight is a car's headlights, and her backdrop is several homeboys and a pitch-black city sidewalk at night. The video captured a true hip-hop battleground.
"I had no idea that it was going to get that kind of attention, but I'm glad that it did," Keys says. "That video wouldn't have gotten that much attention if people were happy with her. People were waiting for someone to step up and say, 'This is bull.'"
The original freestyle was re-recorded for an official video, which was also posted on YouTube. Keys emphasizes, though, that she isn't hating solely on Nicki Minaj.
"I'm ready for the mixtape and singles to come out so that everybody can see it's so much deeper than that," she says. "It's not really just about Nicki Minaj. Yes, you [Nicki] are a part of why hip-hop is watered down, but you're not the only watered down aspect to it. I'm coming for all of ya'll eventually. Beef is healthy in hip-hop."
Aside from the YouTube viewers, Keys has sparked interest from various media outlets trying to figure out who she is. "I did an interview on BET's The Deal last week, I was up in Rhode Island for a radio station there, and of course local radio," she says. "I'm also getting a lot of calls from blog sites. I'm have them [referring to her entourage] to handle 1,001 e-mails and phone calls."
Major record labels have also contacted her, but she remains zipped-lipped about details. "Yes, I'm getting some offers," she smiles. "But the details about that are on low. I'm taking my time, thinking it out, and doing it right. I might not ever sign to anybody and just sell my own stuff."
Keys is also fine-tuning her debut mixtape, Infiltration, which came out May 22, with the same caution. "This time is so fragile right now," she says. "People are watching and waiting, so I want to make sure I do it right. It's like I'm dribbling and about to go up for the lay up, and if I don't get it in the basket then I might not get a chance to do it again."
In usual mixtape fashion, Infiltration features her rhyming over familiar tracks, but also includes several cuts with original productions and surprise cameos from local MCs. At the April 28 show coined the "Harder Than Baltimore Tour" at Sonar, Keys gave an impromptu freestyle during a show that featured local hip-hop heavyweights Comp, Skarr Akbar, Mullyman, and Bossman, who also made a appearance in the official video for the Nicki diss. And though she is a proud B-more MC, Keys insists that she has a versatile sound that isn't easily classified.
"I wouldn't consider myself a battle rapper--I'm a truth teller," she says. "I think it's easier mentally for people to categorize artists. But with me, you won't be able to do that because on one song I might have a Common sound, the next one I might sound like Gucci [Mane], and the next one I might come at you off the wall like Bruce Willis or something."
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