“I am hip hop. Discovering my life’s work as a performance artist, writer and producer – discovering that this is what I was created to do – meant that hip hop was innate. Natural. Always. Whatever you are most passionate about is what you are. You can’t shake it. You can’t rest until you see it through.”
Philadelphia-born Antonia Reed – the rapper, writer, producer and educator known as Bahamadia – is hip hop, a woman who has forever “seen things through” since the start of her career. Though her coolly emotive, smooth-flowing raps inventively formed the basis for her 1996 genre-jumbling, paradigm-shifting classic, Kollage, and graced the work of forward- thinking jazz-hop and electronic producers, there’s so much more to her story.
From the uniquely monotone manner in which she phrases her words – what she calls the “syllable-ization” of ideas, presentation and structure – to her early work on drum-n-bass tracks with producer Roni Size, there has never been anyone like Bahamadia, then, or now.
Born in West Philly’s Black Bottom, Bahamadia was a fan of expressive vocalists such as Nancy Wilson, Phoebe Snow and Ella Fitzgerald – strong, smart female artists, all. Coming to terms with her own matriarchy and individuality, as well as the horrifying issues that plagued her neighborhood, the young Bahamadia planned her next moves carefully.
“I watched crack destroy my people, but finding healthy vices allowed me to bypass the devastation in real time,” she says. “I used my then-developing artistic abilities as an escape.”
The earliest inception of Bahamadia saw her spinning as a DJ at house parties in West Philly where she credits Birds Nest Productions’ crew as being the key to her first studio work. From there, she began making records such as 1993’s “Funk Vibe” – a track that benefitted from her sotto voce approach and literary, street-savvy wordplay.
Through “Funk Vibe,” Bahamadia caught the attention of the jazzy Gang Starr crew and MC Guru who helped her get a record deal with Chrysalis/EMI. “Gang Starr complimented what I was doing at that time, the jazz influence, the development of melodic hip hop and the progression of drum machine programming of DJ Premier,” she says.
Gang Starr opened the door, but it is what she did once inside that house that was revolutionary. “We didn’t have any demos or pre-production,” says Bahamadia of Kollage, her debut album. “We wrote the tracks of Kollage on the spot. It wasn’t even work for us. It was love.”
Her 1996 definitive debut, Kollage, officially set the tone for female Hip Hop practitioners in regards to true lyricism and style. A template used by male and female ecclesiastical artists to date. But the relationship with the label didn’t last long as they folded months after her epic was released. Not willing to go with just any label (“I was frustrated: who would understand my eclecticism”), Bahamadia became a business woman with no warning or training. “I learned on the job because I had no option,” she says. “I had mouths to feed and art to make.”
Bahamadia managed, booked, performed and publicized her own work, got herself features on albums by The Roots (Illadelph Halflife) and Sweetback (Sade’s band’s eponymous debut), and toured Europe as “a truly independent contractor.” When not on tour, between 1997 and 1999, she hosted a Philadelphia-based FM weekly radio show, “Bahamadia’s B-Sides” where she introduced up-and-coming artists such as Madlib and the Stones Throw’s mixtapes to the world.
During her European/UK tours of this time, Bahamadia became part of the bourgeoning Euro- electronic scene of techno, house, jungle and drum-n-bass. There, she repositioned herself, confidently, as the first MC to journey into drum-n-bass, with producer Roni Size’s influential 1997 New Forms album which revolutionized drum-n-bass and garnered a Mercury Prize in the UK, then repeated that feat one year later on producer Towa Tei’s techno-house Sound Museum.
“I didn’t know any people in hip hop, THEN, who were aware of electronic music’s world,” she says. “But I came up in disco and house music scenes. I loved how I could let my voice flow and form pockets within each track.”
Following her ascension as a rap force in electronic music, Bahamadia returned to hip hop, with hypnotic flare and improvisational intensity on 2000’s BB Queen, an album filled with pro- female-empowerment anthems that pivoted from the gold-digging, wealth-conscious themes of that time. Beyond her outside-the-box lyrics, BB Queen was executed with new friends such as J Dilla, Kwele and the Slum Village camp.
After BB Queen dropped, Bahamadia went into non-stop touring mode before releasing her next studio album, 2005’s Good Rap Music. It was then, while playing dates in the United States and Europe, where she finally realized her true impact, the power of her voice and the influence
“I never got to see certifications or sales figures back in the day, but every time I played a show, in the UK or the US, everyone was holding up copies of my record,” she says. They knew every melody and lyric.”
Such love and acknowledgment throughout the years, since Kollage, BB Queen and Good Rap Music, have made Bahamadia understand the magnitude of her talent and its reach, and how much more she had to give.
“I realized just how much I had not yet reached my potential. Back then, I never had the support system and never had the chance to be 100% just the creator because I had to wear all of those hats. I often get labelled “classic hip hop” for my early contributions, but I was, and am, so much more.”
Moving forward, Bahamadia is taking no prisoners. “I don’t have the gene to compromise,” she says. “And I have been too silent for too long.”
With that Bahamadia is promising that the first of several new projects to come will be a live album recorded in New York City, as well as an expanded re-release of her Kollage classic.
“I always chose the art of hip hop over the business,” Bahamadia says, proudly. “That’s how that should be. Now, I’m taking back all of what’s mine.