When Jahcyy and Galli, the lyricist-producer duo Jahlli, are asked how they got together, Jahcyy's husky voice dips into a lower register. “Girls,” she says.
They might be the first male-female duo in hip hop to have lived Usher and R. Kelly's “Same Girl” dilemma. “We were both talking to one girl at the same time! Might still be,” she says, with sly glance at Galli.
It's a Saturday afternoon in late January, and the two are spending the day on Jahcyy's porch in Watts. After placing second in the House of Blues Foundation Bringing Down the House competition last October, they used the $300 prize money to buy a proper microphone and stand. The Internet, Syd and Matt Martians' Odd Future subgroup, are in the process of remixing one of their songs. Finally, the 19-year-olds are feeling confident about their future.
Their music is a blend of East Coast atmospherics and West Coast references. “PCH” is reminiscent of early '90s jazz-soaked hip-hop groups like Digable Planets, even if the lyrics are clearly evolved from the battle-scarred bitterness of Ice Cube and Tupac's: “Don't nobody trip off of red and blue rags,” Jahcyy raps. But her gently blunted voice causes most people to scratch their heads. Is this a girl or a guy rapping?
A line from “Change Me” clears up that discussion: “If y'all lookin' for a lipstick lezz/Call a soft one who uses butt plugs instead.” Jahcyy can't remember when she came out, just that it was at a young age. She cut her hair when she turned 18 and began dressing as a boy last year. Is it hard to be gay in Watts?
“No,” she replies without hesitation. “[Transvestites] are always walking up and down the block here. [Gangbangers] will press me, asking me where I'm from and I have to remember to say, 'I'm a girl.' They're like, 'Oh, ok.' I have it good, in certain situations.”
“More people are worried about other things, like paying rent,” Galli adds. Over here, people got their own issues. They aren't worried about everyone else's internal issues.”
Jahcyy chimes in, “Then they're like, 'Hey, if they can help me make a dollar tell 'em to come over here.'”
Even if being gay wasn't, growing up in Watts was a struggle. When Galli was in the 9th grade, his best friend committed suicide; Jahcyy's mother has been in rehab for several months, and she never knew her father. Throughout the interview, a steady stream of people – her toddler niece, sister and grandfather's friends – walk in and out of the house. At one point, her 70-something grandmother falls off the porch and lands on her back. Jahcyy scrambles to help her up, but her granny just smiles. “I needed that,” she says.
“See, that's normal,” Galli says.
“Not her falling, but -” Jahcyy continues.
“Just tough-built,” Galli finishes. “That's part of the Watts life. You've got an armor that doesn't want to let people in. Music has kinda been that demolition ball and helped us let down our guards.”
The two have been friends since Jahcyy stuck gum in Galli's hair in 8th grade, and their conversation is easy, flowing back and forth as they complete the thought the other began. They first started making music in 9th grade when Bambu, a rapper who works with Sessions LA, started a music program called Ready Aim Speak in their school, Locke High. It was geared more toward creative writing, and Jahcyy flourished. Galli supplied the group with beats.
But the following year, Galli's chance to specialize arrived when their teacher's husband, Patrick Huang — aka DJ Phatrick, one of the instructors at Sessions LA — began working with a city-funded afterschool program called Inner Circle Youth (ICY). Jahlli were recording mixtapes, with Galli making beats digitally, yet they wanted to record all-original material. Phatrick had received grant money to purchase a microphone, and ICY hired DJ Beesyde to teach production. “He taught me analog beatmaking on an MPC and turntables,” Galli says. “That's when my mind exploded.”
Now, Galli says he's found a college, Academy of Art in San Francisco, that is interested in the pair. As much as they love Watts, they can't help but feel they have to leave in order to succeed.
“People around here aren't really used to success,” Galli says. “So when they see it, they don't believe it.” Their families are hesitant; after all, both teens are, in their own words, broke. Still, Jahcyy notes, “But my sisters know all the words to my songs.”