Credit: Andrea Bauer

Psalm One, age 31, is a hip-hop artist (and former chemistry student) signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment.

My name is Cristalle Bowen, professionally known as Psalm One. I’m a graduate of Whitney M. Young high school, which is kind of a nerdy high school. I was immersed in the science and math realm as a youngster. I dug music and I dug hip-hop in particular, but it wasn’t something that I was looking at as a career path. Growing up in Englewood, it was more trying to get out of a bad situation.

When I was around 14 my mom got laid off from her job and ended up getting a couple of scholarships to go back to school for journalism at Roosevelt. While I was studying my first problems in chemistry—really hitting the books hard—she was hitting the books for that. Rapping was definitely not in the books. If I would have told my mother at 16 or 17, “Hey, mom, I’m going to be a rapper,” she would have killed me.

For me and my mom, education was the key, so going to U. of I. on a chemistry scholarship was really more my path. But as I continued to work in my studies, people that I knew who dig music wanted to work on a bigger scale, more than just a hobby, so I was able to finish albums in my time at U. of I. While I was looking for a job in my field after graduating college, I was actually laying a foundation for my rap career. I was supplementing my income with rap shows—a few here, a few there—and just doing music with as many people as I could. I caught the attention of a few good labels like Rhymesayers, who I signed with in 2006.

I guess for me there’s always been parallels between being in a laboratory and being in the recording studio. It’s like synthesis in chemistry: you take parts of elements and you put them together in such a way that you come out with a completely new product. I never thought, when I was in Whitney or U. of I., that I would be touring and doing music as a real career, my primary career. I have been able to take the opportunities that have been given to me and run with it. It’s definitely my version of living the dream.

I don’t speak for the label, but I know in ’98, ’99, they didn’t have any idea that some of the artists would be where they are right now. There weren’t any blogs, really. The Internet wasn’t that big with hip-hop. This is pre-Napster. This is pre the shift in the music business, and the indie rapper was something that was still kind of an anomaly. As you were walking the path, you were making the path.

Nowadays it’s not like that. There are kids coming out of Chicago who would never want to go on the path that I am on. They want to go straight to radio, straight to MTV. I’m not quite old-school, so I can definitely relate to what these newer kids are thinking about in terms of what they want to get out of the music business. For me, I still have that hunger and that desire to make—hopefully—really, really dope and innovative rap music.

It would be cool if all of us who have more strength and knowledge of the industry in Chicago [could] pass those tips along to the younger generation so we can build a really strong, unified industry. The industry for me, and the scene, is kind of weird because you have these kids who have visions of grandeur. I don’t know if they’re delusional or not. But you also have people who’ve been grinding on a smaller level for a long time. You get some people who have enjoyed some real success, some people who are very hungry for that kind of success, people who feel they have to leave, but there’s beginning to be a little more unity and a little more knowledge of how the record industry works.

ASCAP has this annual program called the Songwriter Residency, where they send one of their artists to a network of schools run by America Scores, a nationally accredited program that combines poetry and soccer in this weird team-building way that gives kids a lot of insight in how to behave in the real world. Every year certain schools are picked to have an artist from ASCAP come and do a three-day program. They spend two days hanging out with the kids and the third day they go to a really pimped-out studio and record the song. Being able to use rap and pop culture and my efficiency and my organization in a studio, my unique way of writing songs, being able to share that with kids who are less fortunate, that just gives me a really great feeling.

The energy is crazy because they get so excited. Any time you feel a little bit down or something, they pick you right up because they’re just excited to get their ideas down. Some kids, their minds are opened up so much to the fact that they can think about something and get it to the point where it’s something they can hear. It’s something that they did and it’s not necessarily based on homework or regular school. Someone came and did this whole thing with them from conception to creation. Their excitement and their positivity about it creates a snowball effect for everybody involved. —As told to Miles Raymer