The Lash is a black walled, high fashion bar in Downtown Los Angeles. Tonight, it plays host to the LA debut of Kitty Crimes, a rambunctious young rapper from Denver, Colorado. Real name Maria Kohler, Kitty Crimes built her style out of an Outkast mold that has been called “stamina rap.” Less than two years into the identity she’s managed to build a name for herself in the local Denver scene, not just as this rap persona, but as a multitalented singer and musician. Whether as a lead vocalist or mercenary talent, Kohler is a known quantity for her work with local wave making bands like Science Partner and Harpoontang. There’s always a demand for her work as a vocalist or drummer or guitarist, but this recent tour is an effort to step more fully into her hip hop aspirations.
“When I was 13, I was really obsessed with hip hop,” she says. “I made this album called ‘Country Clubbin’. I was the producer with this really shitty beat software and my brothers were the vocalists.”
Ever since then, she’s been an avid hip hop enthusiast, although her musical career has rarely had the chance to indulge in it. That’s what makes Kitty Crimes and its blossoming popularity important to her.
We’re walking down Winston Street in downtown just before she takes the stage at midnight. One block makes all the difference downtown, and we’re a stone’s throw away from skid row. It’s not a place people look to stroll at night, but Kitty Crimes seems at ease with everything and explains to me her growing vision under sickly yellow street lamps.
“I decided to use the identity of Kitty Crimes to step into something a little bigger and a little bolder,” she says. “I feel like I’m getting my legs in it every time I play a show. I understand the identity a little more.”
Anyone who’s ever seriously dedicated themselves to art beyond a hobby understands what it’s like. Finding your voice and the consolidation of an identity is a common journey, but talking to her I begin to understand the sense of freedom it gives her.
“I felt like my style was unique and I could contribute it to the local scene, which is how I think a lot of artists work. They feel like there’s a void and they put their little mark, their small dent, in the bigger spectrum of things. And everything falls into place.”
“So you thought that was something you could fill,” I say.
“At least where I’m from, yeah,” she says. “I also think there’s more room for women in hip hop. It’s a genre I really love. It really moves me.”
But hip hop in the digital age has come a long way from the low grade beat software and rap chat rooms she found herself in as an adolescent. A lot of the hottest artists in rap appear fully formed on the internet with hype and followings and viral hits before they even sign a record deal. The race begins now with a sprint. Does Kitty Crimes deal with pressure to start building hits right out of the gate?
“I’m taking my time with my creative development along the way. When it happens isn’t so much a worry to me as how it happens. [I want to be] constantly finding ways to incorporate all of the different musical influences that inspire me and really find my identity musically. That’s my ideal I’m going for.”
The finding yourself phase is probably one of the most interesting points in any artist’s personal arc. It’s a chance to relive all the experimentation, all the mistakes and victories, that you normally burn through as a teenager. Kitty Crimes’ track record thus far is commendable: her video “Find a Penny” achieved modest viral success on YouTube.
Its success was a confluence of fortunate events. First, a local film student named Jess L. Paul chose the project as his chance to show what he could do, and that meant uncommonly high production values and even a helicopter rental. The video’s sense of humor and striking music made it an easy share, and it achieved its first wave of popularity purely through word of mouth. That was amplified by brief but meaningful spotlights on Autostraddle and, of course, the internet’s viral clip world-engine, Buzzfeed.
We head back to The Lash and it isn’t long before the show begins. Her opener is a dance group of sorts called Werk Out Palace. They’re 4 or so women clad in the best of 80s aerobics outfits that get the audience participating in their increasingly humorous dancercizes. The genius here is that it’s literally a warm up act – as out of place as it is in front of the black-and-white nightlife scene, it’s an effective way to loosen up a crowd if they’re game.
“People can and should step into themselves more fully and wholly”
When Kitty Crimes begins her set, she begins with a blistering rap that is heavy on verses and light on pop hooks. The lazy way music writers like to evaluate rappers who are women is to compare them to other rappers who are women, as if “female” were a genre. So her desire to cram a ton of syllables into a single bar might compel one to describe her developing style as Angel Haze-like but over electro beats, but upon deeper inspection it can sound like Aesop Rock at his wordiest. That’s not a remark on quality or content, but flow and sensibility. As of now, at this point in her growth, she’s a rapper that privileges words in a rapid fire cadence.
But the set continued into what was probably the strongest song of the night – the smoky R&B tune Grades – which showcases her ability to belt out heavy lines. She mentioned before the show something about R&B coursing through her veins, and this song shows what that might look like.
A sensible “B.O.B” cover and the aforementioned “Find a Penny” make appearances on the set list before ending on the song “Yogue Out”, an attitudinal rap draped over a spindly beat. It also has a popular video.
There are shades of different approaches and genres under Kitty Crimes. Perhaps that’s part of what makes it a bold and wide open transformation for the (seemingly) band lifer Maria Kohler. But she has the ideas, mindset and raw talent to take it in any number of directions.
“People can and should step into themselves more fully and wholly,” she said, earlier in the night. “The whole essence of this project has been creating a standard for myself to step into in order to own it a little bit harder.”
When she finally gets a hard grip on the reins of Kitty Crimes, when she owns it completely, is when the journey really starts. When that moment comes, it will be exciting to see where she decides to go.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.