Daisha McBride had two things at age 16: a zeal for showing off her ability to drop bars, which she did in a rather high, excited vocal register, reflecting her youth, and a nickname, The Rap Girl. She’s worked out a lot more since then about what being a hip-hop artist and making a career of it involves, and let her voice mature in real time.
She seems in her element in the studio these days, steering her collaborators toward what she wants in amiable fashion. She’s pinpointed a guitar-based sound on J. Cole’s new album The Off-Season as a guide for the track that her collaborators Big Bruno and Sci-Fy are creating for today’s session.
While the two producers take turns at the computer, adding keyboard chords and flute samples and adjusting the booming bass frequencies, she stands to the side, typing and retyping verses on her phone, murmuring nonsensical sounds over the music to test rhythmic cadences and rhyme schemes.
When the music bed is basically in place, McBride takes a seat at a condenser mic positioned right next to the computer, and Sci-Fy, whose real name is Josh Smith, cues up the track in her headphones. McBride has gotten into the habit of recording her raps from a chair; she doesn’t have to exert herself to convey confidence. If she slouches just a little, she can give her vocals the laidback attack she’s looking for. Outside of her performances, though, she’s diligent and driven, as she spells out in her first line:
They say I work too much
Every beat I touch
gets ate up and spit out
make you think ‘bout lunch.
She lays down the same bars several times in a row, until her flow starts to convey a sort of sly insistence.
“That was good and strong,” comments Scy-Fy.
“Yeah, that one felt good,” McBride agrees.
McBride’s classmates heard her flow, in its nascent form, when she freestyled in the high school cafeteria. This was Knoxville, a city that—McBride points out—wasn’t exactly a hotbed of hip-hop. She did orchestra and basketball with her peers, her calendar packed with extracurriculars, but dropping bars set her apart. She was nicknamed The Rap Girl, and created a pump-up anthem for her school, Hardin Valley Academy, whose teams are known as the Hawks. The money line? If you’re not a hawk, then you’re just prey.
“I wanted to get people’s attention in school and be like, ‘I’m gonna show them that I’m actually really good at this,’” says McBride. “I made this anthem and a really terrible music video for it and it blew up. Even to this day, the football team plays it at their games.”
McBride liked how the moniker The Rap Girl presented her as singular. She certainly broke the mold in a household where her older sister became an electrical engineer, her mother directed a nonprofit and her father worked in national security.
“Even in my family photos growing up, my mom would try to make us all dress alike,” recalls McBride, “I would literally scream and kick and fight.”
Her dad was also a Baptist deacon, and McBride struck a bargain with him: she’d keep her lyrics church-friendly if he’d help her take a first step in music. “‘I’ll pay for the studio time,’” she says, mischievously imitating his lecturing tone, “‘but I don’t want to be hearing this stuff that I hear on the radio.’”
McBride studied the music business at Middle Tennessee State. She got modest online buzz by layering clean rhymes over radio hits and posting the new versions from her dorm room. She learned how tracks get placed on popular streaming playlists when she landed an internship for a promotion company that specialized in exactly that. She also found her core producers, first Sci-FY, then Big Bruno, the latter of whom was in her copyright law class.
He made the first move: “I saw her sit down, and of course I recognized her face, and I was just like, ‘Don’t you go by the Rap Girl?’ And she’s like, ‘Yes. Do I know you?’ I was like, ‘No, but we know the same people, and I think we should be friends.’ And next thing you know, we wind up starting to collaborate and everything. And then as a team, we grew together.”
“We kind of all have that same drive and energy,” Sci-Fy says. “We want to go in the same places. So we’re going to take those same steps, and it’s better to do it together.”
They were advised they should move to Atlanta, with its booming rap industry, after college. Bruno leaned strongly that way, until McBride pitched him on her rationale for staying in Tennessee: “’There’s very few female rappers here in Nashville, especially dope ones. So I feel like I kind of would stand out a little bit more.’”
McBride is hardly the first rapper to seriously pursue a career in Nashville, but there’s no proven template for success in hip-hop here—not like for other kinds of music careers—so she’s been fleshing out her own. She’s blended the hip-hop practice of doing features, or paid guest verses, on tracks by pop, R&B and country acts, with the Nashville industry practice of congenial coexistence. “If someone wants me to hop on a track,” she explains, “it’s like, ‘OK, I can finesse this.’ Attitude-wise, when it comes to maneuvering in those spaces, I’m always just kind to everybody, which is so cliché to say. But sometimes I’ve been in industry situations and people are not nice, and I think it just comes back to bite you in the ass if you’re not. It’s just respect.”
Since the city is a hub for music publishing, McBride signed an agreement for her songs to be pitched for various projects. That’s how “Dolla$,” a track off of her 2019 project Wild, landed in the show “Trinkets.” She’s also getting into another side of writing and recording work, tailoring tracks to specific shows and using her chops to deliver whatever style is called for, even if it verges on Megan Thee Stallion-style toughness. That’s how a new McBride track, titled “Do What I Want,” made it into in the comedy series “Shrill.”
“These sync tracks are so easy for me to do,” she reasons. “So it’s like, why not carve out a time once a week where I can just spend an hour and do a sync track and that gets placed on Netflix or HBO for a couple thousand dollars? And then that’s a residual check that hits every year. If I built up a catalog of those, that’s a retirement, you know?”
That’s a highly practical dream, but it’s still a long ways off, since McBride just turned 25. Another of her priorities, in the meantime, is working to sharpen her identity as an artist, often with Bruno and Sci-Fy.
“I told Daisha one time, I said, ‘Can we start to dig deeper?’” says Bruno, paraphrasing a years-old conversation.
“He told me to step it up,” she clarifies, playfully.
Part of what that entailed was broadening her vocal approach from the classic hard rap techniques she’s honed to incorporate more melodic rapping and outright singing. And as for how she puts her voice to use, she’s pairing playful swagger with more pointed perspective.
“[People] have seen me keep it, you know, pretty PG and not really get too political about things,” McBride reflects. “But I think in the past year, it’s just like you gotta pick a side.”
She did just that last summer, writing rhymes that affirm the value of Black lives and the need to protect them—as no-nonsense fact—for tracks like “Black Queen.”
McBride, who’s always been deliberate about the way she presents herself on social media, practicing minimal self-disclosure as opposed to oversharing, also began occasionally posting about her romantic life. She’d thrown shade in plenty of her lyrics about guys in general not being worth her time, and now she’d shared, in her thoroughly low-key fashion, that she was dating a woman.
She says, “It’s like, ‘OK, well, how transparent do I want to be?’ I used to do Christian music. So is that going to ruin my image? And I think the beautiful thing that I’ve learned in the past year is people just love me for me.”
All of this is part of the gradual and continual evolution of the The Rap Girl, who’s carried that moniker for nearly a decade, from high school through college and beyond—into every big Nashville live hip-hop lineup in recent memory, including a livestream showcase assembled by Nashville Is Not Just Country Music back in April and a headlining slot at June 30’s Exit/In Out/Back show; into the semifinals of the BET Amplifind talent contest; into the multi-artist Los Angeles recording project One Week Notice.
“You really discover who you are as a person,” says McBride. “The way I came out of college is certainly very different than the way that I entered college. And my music changed as well.”
She hints that her upcoming music will reflect even more of what’s on her mind, and maybe feature slightly spicier language, if she feels a track calls for it: “I’ve been able to make clean music for so long, it sends a message that you don’t have to be saying all this stuff just to make a good record. But now I know that I can kind of do both.”
“I’m not a saint, you know,” she adds, with a laugh.
Savvy, that’s what McBride is. She’s figured out how to adapt her skills to numerous different settings, with different rules and expectations, while putting herself out there.