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Stress Test

After Years of Honing Her Battle Chops, MC Tekia Johnson Cuts Her Debut Album

Sam Holden

By Jaye Hunnie | Posted 10/12/2005

This past July, a 24-year-old west Baltimore native and Edmondson High School graduate was crowned “Madame of Murderland,” after dominating a women-only freestyle battle hosted by WEAA’s Strictly Hip-Hop at the Black Door on West Lombard Street. The medium-framed, brown-skinned shorty with a neatly tapered close haircut and perfectly arched eyebrows commanded the battle with clever puns and sassy charisma. She moved the crowd with a performance of a prepared song that combined the confident tone of early MC Lyte with the fierce attitude of Rah Digga, as well as ruled the microphone in one-on-one battles. And, yes, she received a crown, sash, and jewelry like true royalty.

Later this year, Ms. Stress plans to self-release her debut album, Surviving Life. It’s her first foray into studio recording, her skills cut primarily in battles and ciphers in Baltimore and New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, Los Angeles and Richmond. “Yeah I’ve been battling dudes on Baltimore Street,” she says. “But I’ve also battled dudes on Eighth and Broadway [in New York]. I’ve battled dudes at the Hit Factory. I’ve battled dudes at Ruff Ryders Studio.”

It’s all an effort to both learn what’s going on in other cities and start working her way out of her own ’hood. “People be like, ‘I’m hot on the streets,’” says the young woman born Tekia Johnson. “That’s good to be hot on the streets, but how many streets? Nowadays when dudes say they are hot on the streets, they are either hot on their block or hot in their city. I ain’t tryin’ to be hot on my block. I’m trying to be hot on everybody’s block, everybody’s neighbor, everybody’s living room.”

On a sunny afternoon, Ms. Stress stops in at a downtown eatery with her manager Rio in tow, just a few hours before a scheduled studio session. The West Baltimore native explains that she started rhyming as a child. “My mother got me into the Twilight Program at the [Baltimore] School for the Arts,” she says. “I started doing spoken word there. I wanted to be the next Jada or ’Pac.”

At about 12, she was given an assignment to write about her favorite poets for a language arts class at Booker T. Washington Middle School. “I was supposed to do an essay, but I wanted to flip it and do something like ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ but in my own way,” she says. “I wound up doing a poem called ‘Life,’ about what goes on in the streets, but I was scared to recite it and I did it too fast.”

She laughs at the memory now. “Life” was Johnson’s first flirtation with rhyming to a beat. While she rehearsed the essay-poem, her family pounded out some inspiration for her to follow along. “I let my cousins and my uncles hear it, and they started banging beats on the table,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, this sounds like a rhyme. Let me see what else I can come up with.’ And I took it from there.’”

From then on, Johnson—who started calling herself Ms. Stress in 1997, a name derived from her life’s trials being a woman in the supposedly man’s world of rap—set out to earn respect as a real MC. Her first battle took place in the mid-1990s under a crowded bus-stop shelter in the rain. “I felt like I had something to prove,” she says. “I had been in hip-hop ciphers before but never in a confrontational thing. The dude was hot, but I felt like I had something to say, and this was the time to prove it. I had my audience. I didn’t care if it was big or small—or on a bus stop.”

She stepped on the scene doing random freestyles and taking part in battles anytime, anywhere. Stress would hit the streets and take on all comers—mostly guys. “I used to go down to the old Crazy John’s [formerly on Baltimore and Eutaw streets] for ciphers on the outside,” she recalls. “[The corner of] Park Heights and Belvedere. I’d go in barbershops. I’d go to clubs. I’d be too young to get in the actual club, but I figured somebody would be outside so I’m going there anyway.”

Stress says that guys in the game should beware of local hip-hop’s upcoming women who are serious about their rhymes. “A lot of male MCs fail to realize that females are really bringing it on a higher scale and a higher level,” she says, believing that the ladies write more complex lyrics and have tighter flows.

She is not, however, talking about the ladies aimlessly trying to mimic Lil’ Kim and Trina. “What female can’t talk nasty?” she asks. “If that’s you, OK, I’ll respect that, but don’t switch up to keep up with the Joneses. But just because I respect other female artists’ crafts doesn’t mean that I have to follow that bunch.”

After flexing her skills in street battles, Stress felt she was ready to perform onstage. Her first live performance was in a small west Philly club in 1997 whose name she doesn’t even recall. A Baltimore promoter had come across Stress on the street scene and offered her a set. She agreed—if she could be provided with travel accommodations and free admission to the club.

She has been impressing people ever since. In 1998, Stress performed at Morgan State University’s homecoming, a bill that included Backland, Charm City Records, Tracey Lee, and Memphis Bleek. Tracey Lee caught her performance, saw her in some backstage ciphers, and kept in contact with Stress after the show. During the 2001 NBA All-Star weekend in Washington, Stress was introduced to West Coast hip-hop/R&B artist Domino, and after doing one freestyle he was interested in featuring her on his album.

That invitation sadly never panned out—Domino lost his contract during label shifts—but Stress never lost focus. “That was just another foot in the door/foot out the door, but it didn’t stop me,” she says. She continued to perform in the Blaze Battle at Baltimore Live and at the original 5 Seasons, as well as performing sets and battles at V.I.P., Club Savannah’s, and the Platinum Club. All this grinding honed her skills until they were sharp enough to retire from 92Q’s all-women Cipher Battle and the male/female Cipher Battle after many straight undefeated weeks in 1999; to retire from the X105.7 FM’s freestyle battles after five straight wins in 2001; and to walk away with Strictly Hip-Hop’s Madame of Murderland title in July.

Surviving Life is her first recording. Armed with local producer/MC Sean Touré, Stress proves that she can deliver just as much heat on a CD as she does in the streets. She flaunts her versatility with the melodic “Love Is,” a smooth hip-hop/neo-soul hybrid. Stress and Touré team up for “Settle Down (So Lovely, So Beautiful),” a track with a Jean Grae-meets-Q-Tip feel that’ll keep underground heads nodding. And her “Who Am I (Madame of Murderland)”—which was recorded before she won the Madame of Murderland battle—is a catchy yet rugged cut with punchy, clever lines such as:

 

I spit acid, call me heavy duty

I dare you to try to move me

I bring the type of heat that you find in Jacuzzis

And your boys only heard me when I spit lukewarm

Stress not X-Men but I can carry the storm

You think you better?

Well I dare you to try

’Cuz I helped you piece all your rhymes together

Call me CSI

 

The album is only a glimmer of Stress’ full talent. Like many battle rappers, she shines onstage. The highlight of the Madame of Murderland night was when Stress and her skilled opponent, Symphony from Tha Plague, were paired up for a tag-team freestyle about a random topic chosen by the hosts. That topic: robbing a bank. The two femcees set it off. They played off each other’s lines as if it was a script and mimed the body language of a real bank robbery, pointing to imaginary security cameras and riding off in a getaway car. The chemistry was so on point that the two chatted up recording together afterward.

And that stage presence is something that Ms. Stress has over tenderfoot MCs who haven’t cut their teeth much performing live. She can carry herself in a freestyle cipher as well as onstage.

“In this whole battling scene I think I’ve grown a lot,” she says. “My confidence level and my lyrical level is up. I think I’m at a point where I can go in the studio and freestyle a song. I’m trying to get like Biggie and don’t write nothing down, ya know?”

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