Rapper Babii Cris reflected on her upbringing as we drove past strip malls and apartment complexes on the way to her home studio in the Peninsula town of Belmont, where she's currently based. "Growing up is weird," she mused as she fingered the Hip-Hop for Change lanyard dangling off the rearview mirror of her Honda Civic. "I wish you could put your childhood memories into a movie reel and have them to look at."
Babii Cris was born in San Francisco, but spent much of her childhood moving around the Bay Area. Her parents were teenagers when they had her, and her mother raised her as a single parent, so her home life wasn't always stable. At one point, she lived in the East Bay suburb of Hercules while going to school in San Bruno, just south of The City.
In spite of the difficulties of her childhood, the young, emerging artist is family-oriented and committed to positivity — both in her lyrics and her outlook on life. Her upcoming album, Fearless, contains a touching tribute to her mother, "Why I Love Her." The track is a sentimental homage without being overwrought, with Cris rhyming quickly over a beat that brims with twinkling, improvisatory jazz piano. She took a chance and made my life/That's why you're the love of my life.
Cris' parents listened to a lot of old school hip-hop when she was growing up and her father was a break dancer. Flipping through the pages of Hip-Hop Family Tree, a comic book about the history of the genre, she told me that she's been putting words to rhythm since she was a toddler, though she started rapping seriously in high school. She's a disciple of hip-hop pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and learning about hip-hop history has inspired much of her socially conscious lyricism. When she's not working on music, she's a canvasser for Hip-Hop for Change, an Oakland nonprofit educating people about social justice through hip-hop culture.
"A lot of people associate hip-hop with negativity when in the first place, it wasn't meant to be negative," she said. "It was actually started for positivity and empowerment in the Civil Rights Movement in the Seventies."
Babii Cris is also a sound engineer and producer, and her first album, fittingly titled Triple Threat, showcases her skills in those disciplines. Though gender is a background detail of her work and not a central focus, it bears pointing out that there are even fewer female producers and sound engineers than female rappers. Using Triple Threat to assert her skills is a powerful statement in and of itself — a declaration of her right to be here, even if the industry isn't making space for her and other women.
Triple Threat has an early-Nineties sensibility reflective of Babii Cris' influences, with old school break beats colored with bursts of breezy piano and occasional guitar and flute samples. Its generally laid-back beats give Cris room to toy with different flows. She adopts emphatic, exaggerated cadences on "Already" and "Sleepin"; meanwhile, "For You" and "Ight, Bet" juxtapose smooth crooning with fast-paced rhymes, attesting to her vocal versatility.
Relationships are major motivators for Cris as a songwriter, and she's somewhat of a hopeless romantic. As she played me tracks from Fearless in her home studio, her girlfriend of four years, Jackie Espejo, edited a video of the latest edition of the hip-hop showcase they put on together, Unrapped (which they throw every month at Honey Hive Gallery in San Francisco), on her neighboring computer monitor. Cris explained that when she was dating guys in high school, she wasn't as motivated to write passionate lyrics as she is now.
"When I had a boyfriend, I noticed the pattern of the types of songs I was making," she said. "It wasn't about a relationship; it wasn't about love. I was just rapping and saying cool shit that rhymed." As she became more comfortable with her queerness and eventually fell in love, she watched her songwriting gain depth, she added.
Fearless sees Cris shedding her discomfort with herself as well as any timidness about expressing her beliefs. "I'm going to be fearless about saying how I feel about the government, corruption — corruption in people, corruption in the industry," she said. "Fearless is me becoming more conscious as an artist, more conscious as a human being."