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Dirty Southern Comfort

Dancer Turned MC Mama Base Finds a Collaborative Hip-Hop Community in Atlanta That Baltimore Lacked

MAMA KIN: Mama Base pretty much does it all.

By Jason Torres | Posted 8/24/2005

MaMa Base performs at 5 Seasons Aug. 25.

The Legend of Tracy Chambers is available at Sound Garden and through www.mamabase.com

“I’ve been dancing all my life,” says MaMa Base over the phone from Atlanta. “I felt like being married to something like that for so long, and then to start rapping, it felt like cheating.”

But if cheating sounds as lithe and multihued as her 2005 debut, The Legend of Tracy Chambers, then who wants to be right? The twentysomething MC—“I don’t tell my age,” she teases behind a coy laugh—came to the microphone through the back door of music videos, which made her a player in the game before she even thought about playing.

“I was always involved with hip-hop,” she says. “When I moved to New York, I met a lot of people, and ended up dancing in a lot of hip-hop videos. I would rhyme around people [between takes], and they would be like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing with that? You tryin’ to get into the business?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’”

Dropping her professional dancer gig to pursue life as an MC is comparable to a heartbreaking divorce in Base’s mind. She had dedicated her life to dancing, all the while harboring a natural lyrical ability and a fascination with rap. And the two forms couldn’t co-exist in her art.

Born Rhonda Heard and raised in Harlem till she was 10, Base bounced from NYC to Baltimore with her mother, who was in the military. She attended Walbrook High School in West Baltimore, then returned to New York to attend the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in the early 1990s. Her ability to earn work as a dancer afforded her run-ins with local hip-hop so-and-so’s who took a liking to Heard’s physical stature and asked her to appear in a few videos.

Dancing in videos—many Nice and Smooth-era rap acts (the early ’90s), about 15 in total, including videos for Big Daddy Kane and Heavy D—paid the bills. During shoots she started testing her rap mettle while chilling around the sets. It was an ideal location to network with performers and producers, and she soon earned a reputation as more than just a pretty face. She scored primo face time with a few big wigs—Rodney Jerkins, Teddy Riley—who after hearing her freestyle before, between, and after takes shifted their focus from her physical attributes to her developing microphone techniques.

After some semi-success in New York, she doubled back to Baltimore to check out the local underground scene. “New York was cool, but it was just too expensive,” she says. “And at the end of the day I was so tired from dancing I couldn’t do anything else—and I wanted to do music. So when I came back to Baltimore I was so deep into hip-hop I wasn’t even trying to dance anymore.” The move proved successful, and eventually she earned some opening slots on bills featuring the Fugees, the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Dru Hill, and Philly’s Most Wanted as they passed through town.

As she ran through the gamut of local resources, however, she found only frustration—enough to prompt Base to move to Atlanta about a year and a half ago. “I was feeling trapped in Baltimore,” she says. “There’s not a lot of people helping each other there. There’s a constant fight to try to get on the radio. I was on the radio a few times, it would be like on local program Kiss It or Dis It, or they would play my stuff in a mix and never play it again.”

That disappointment led her to Atlanta’s better weather and a more united Southern network. “In the South [rappers] are cool about getting on a track with you, doing collabos for free,” she says. “There’s not that same tension, like in Baltimore. Everybody wants to do it first, and because of that they don’t wanna help anyone else.”

And in her music MaMa Base relishes wearing the many hats that hip-hop artists live with but rarely bother to explore lyrically. As a portrait, The Legend of Tracy Chambers presents a young woman who is practically bipolar. In “Pimp da Game,” Base is the Euro-designer-name-dropping ’hood princess, bragging, “All I want is the money and that Gucci, Fendi/ I’m wearing minks to the club ’cause it’s windy.” And she sounds perfectly comfortable spittin’ the ghetto-fab anthem over a horn-heavy, sped-up Southern bounce beat. Then a melodramatic guitar riff and lazy piano backbeat cues up “Queen of Sorrow,” and Base turns thoughtful reporter, sharing an account of childhood misery:

I was dressed to go swimming at the park pool me and my home girl Lucy Lu I said when I was leaving I would stop on her floor so we could go together and we wouldn’t be bored I knocked three times before she asked who is it and then she cracked the door, as if not expecting my visit she said she couldn’t go and that her body felt sore and then her father’s naked body slowly closed the door.”

The album’s title highlights the soap-opera ups and downs of the stories contained within, referring to the pseudonym Base adopted as a partial tribute to Diana Ross’ character in the 1975 movie Mahogany. “I kinda pattern myself after her, the whole ghetto girl makes it big thing,” she says. “A lot of rappers pattern themselves after people, usually mafia, but that ain’t me.”

It’s a casual admission that there is no dramatic rift between the Base the ghetto superstar and Base the what’s-going-on? brooder. The vibe that carries through the phone matches the one on her album, one of a mature, down-to-earth woman with a multitude of personal experiences who isn’t afraid to share them with the world: heartbreak, anger, celebration, disappointment, enthusiasm, and a penchant for Gucci.

And she is currently adding new adventures to her life experience. Base started her UpSouth Records label in 2001 after deciding that she didn’t want other people telling her what to do. She has also started a budding management company and taken full advantage of Atlanta’s hip-hop hot-spot status, hosting open-mic functions and playing nightclubs. Down South, she is finally finding a supportive web of local connections that didn’t exist for her in Baltimore.

“In Atlanta you have an advantage. As far as networking, you can actually go out and meet people here,” Base says. “I’ve never met anyone in the music business who can do anything for me going to a club in Baltimore. Celebrities don’t even come through. And if they do they’re so heavily guarded you don’t even get to see them—let alone network.”

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