Born in Chicago Heights, raised in the south suburb of Markham and attending high school in Richton Park, Melissa Young didn't think a lot about the role of women in hip-hop--or, for that matter, about her own relationship with feminism.
"I didn't grow up listening to too many female rappers, though I did like Salt-n-Pepa, because they were so poppy and fun," Young says. "But my father really was the one who raised us--he was the disciplinarian who instilled all of the knowledge--and he was one of five boys in a family that had no sisters. There was never this message of, 'You're a woman, things are different.' It was like, 'You're my kid, get out there and crank up the lawnmower and do your chores just like your brother!'"
So while the 29-year-old artist--better known to the music world as Kid Sister--is one of the most exciting voices to emerge on the scene since the heyday of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Yo-Yo, she'd prefer to be known as a great rapper, period, instead of as a great female rapper.
"When I do music, it's my goal to create in a way that is as good if not better than any of the guys out there. It doesn't even cross my mind, to be honest. I never think, 'I have this responsibility because I'm a woman.' I think, 'I have a responsibility to be a bad ass because I'm a musician and I don't want to put out crap!' You don't get extra points for being a girl--hell no!"
As Young describes it, she fell into hip-hop by accident. She studied film at Columbia College, and then moved to New York, where she struggled to break into the field. "There just is not that much going on there, compared to L.A., and I came back to Chicago because I couldn't afford to live in New York. I ended up working on a reality TV show here in Chicago called 'Starting Over,' and it made me want to start over: 'This is horrible, five women changing their lives in a house--snooze-fest 2002!'"
In between a now-celebrated string of retail jobs--including time at The Limited, Bath & Body Works, The Gap, and Victoria's Secret--Young started recording almost as a lark. Music ran in the family--her younger brother, Josh Young or J2K, is half of the celebrated DJ and production team Flosstradamus, along with Curt Cameruci/Autobot--and they produced the song that introduced her to the world.
"Pro Nails" is a sassy, sexy jam with a subtle message. On one level, it's about primping to look pretty at a party; "Got her toes done up, wit' her finger nails matchin'," goes the recurring chorus. But dig a little deeper, and it's actually a statement of female empowerment: "Gotta put these chickenheads in their place," Young raps. "I ain't rockin' no stupid babes."
The track first surfaced on a mix tape released by Kanye West in the fall of 2007; the superstar rapper and producer discovered it through his DJ, A-Trak, who happens to be Young's boyfriend, Alain Macklovitch. West added a verse to the tune, and it became a hit, building anticipation for Young's full-length debut. The wait dragged on for more than two years, but "Ultraviolet" finally droppeds on Tuesday, Nov. 17. The inspired rhymes and fresh grooves justify the buzz--and the many delays. What took so long?
"Well, I finished recording and I turned the tracks into the label and then... I was waiting and waiting for them to mix them," Young says. "It was, 'Maybe the drums are too loud on this one' or 'There is not enough reverb!' It was a little crazy, and all the while, I was like, 'Oh my God, I want a song on the radio again!'" Still, she says she never argued with her label, Downtown Records. "We just both wanted to do it right.
"I look at it like this: I got signed at the beginning of April or late March, 2008. I wasn't working on an album before that, so I had no pressure. I wasn't on a label, so I didn't have anyone saying, 'OK, you should be thinking about album art, this, that, etc.' Every couple of months, I would just write a new song; think, 'Oh, this would be fun to play,' and then be jumping on couches with a beer in my hand doing these random songs at Sonotheque."
Meanwhile, success snuck up on her. "One day, it dawned on me: 'I have to play Coachella on the main stage today!' This is before I even had a demo. Things like that were happening, but they didn't faze me, because it was just like, 'Wow, this is fun!' I had never gone through it before, so how would I know? Anyway, as soon as I signed, the pressure was on, and then I started to feel like a real artist. I was like, 'Oh, I actually have to work on songs now!' It forced me to really grow up: I'm not riding my bike to Roscoe Village in the snow anymore to work at the store!"
On the other hand, all those day jobs have produced some useful skills. "I worked retail for seven years, and it prepares you to meet any and all kinds of folks. I actually enjoy it, so I have no problems at all with the idea that I'll be on the road [promoting the new album] for the next two years," Young says, laughing.
For that matter, though she's also left her film training behind, there is a cinematic sensibility to many of the songs on "Ultraviolet," with Kid Sister spinning vivid and engrossing tales over pulsing grooves often powered by synth-pop hooks resonant of basement parties in the'80s with MTV blasting in the background.
"The songs create this world for people that they can escape to; that's what I write them for," Young says. "I like to create soundtracks for different things I do in my life. That could be driving to Target or Whole Foods, but I always like to be listening to something that puts me in a good mood."
Rather than a specific sound, it's that attitude--along with a refusal to dwell on gangsta rap cliches--that marks Kid Sister as one of the strongest rappers Chicago has produced, a storied list that also includes West, Common, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest.
"In New York and L.A., you have people who feel like they have a lot to prove, and here, you don't see that--there's no reason to perpetrate fraud or prove yourself in that way. There are gangbangers out there; in my family there are people who are living kind of crazy. I'm not going to judge anyone. But I think what is refreshing about Chicago hip-hop, at least the examples you were citing, is that we may not talk about gangbanging, but we know that still exists. We're just here to give a reflection of our lives that is a little bit more well-rounded instead of this one particularly negative aspect that makes us look big, tough and hard.
"Focus on the positive! We have to do what we can to stay happy and positive, and I think that's what I do."
Kid Sister with Flosstradamus, Rob Threezy and Green Velvet
6:30 p.m. Wednesday [Nov. 25]
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
Tickets $16 in advance, $18 at the door
(312) 923-2000; www.hob.com/venues/clubvenues/chicago/