Years ago, a 7-year-old Indya Streams was riding in the back of her aunt's car when she burst into a spontaneous freestyle rap.
Streams' aunt, Tracy Wilkins, turned down the car stereo to listen. When Streams was finished, Wilkins tested her, making her repeat her rhymes, and was impressed with what she heard.
"She just spit it out," Wilkins said. "I was like, ‘Wow. Do you want to do that?' She said, ‘Yeah.' "
Most 7-year-olds dream big, but Streams followed through. She formed an all-girl hip-hop group called Just Enough, and performed at a local high school. As a teenager, she set out on her own, adopting the MC name Mz Streamz and honing her freestyling.
Now 19, Streams is poised to be one of Baltimore's next breakouts. She collaborated with British hip-hop/rock sensation Gorillaz, did a featured spot on a Lily Allen tune and signed to the New York City-based record label Milkcrate. She won so many consecutive rap battles on radio startion 92Q that she was retired from competing, and her first mix tape, the 30-track "It's Alive," comes out Thursday.
"Indya is everything I want from an artist and more," said Milkcrate founder Aaron LaCrate. "She wants to put the city on the map. She wants to be the first girl to really do it. And quality-wise, she's there."
One of seven children, Streams grew up in East Baltimore's Lafayette Homes public housing, listening to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Streams' mother, Tina Jones, named her after a character from the TV series "Guiding Light."
The family moved to Middle River in 1999, around the time Streams started jotting down verses in notebooks. When she didn't have a notebook, she would staple a few sheets of paper together, and if a couple of lines stuck out, she would say them over and over in her head until she had them memorized.
Streams admired hip-hop artists such as Lil' Kim, Jay-Z and Nas, who dominated pop radio at the time, and emulated her two elder brothers, who also rapped. Streams would practice her flow wherever she could, from her bedroom and backyard to Woodlawn High School and a rec center in East Baltimore.
"It caught me at an early age," Streams said. "I always knew I wanted to do that. I always thought when I listened to other people that I could do it better."
The only time Streams questioned her ambitions was after her younger brother, Vernell, was fatally shot in Middle River during a confrontation with another teenager in 2006. Shocked by his death, Streams stopped rapping for a while, but eventually decided to get back into it.
"I realized he wouldn't want me to stop doing what I really love doing," she said. "So I picked it back up."
Tall with long, curly hair and a stud ring in her upper lip, Streams can seem just as imposing in person as she is in her music. Last week, she walked through a downtown mall in tight, bright-red pants, a beige leather jacket, big gold hoop earrings and a leopard-print belt. She raps in a high-pitched voice, speaking fast but with a crisp, effortless delivery.
Streams got her first break several years ago, when Baltimore club disco jockey K-Swift added one of Streams' songs to one of her compilation CDs. Streams had recorded the track, "Watch Dem Broads," with local producer Debonair Samir, with whom she has since worked extensively. The song was played at local clubs such as Paradox and helped Streams become recognized.
Early last year, Streams caught the attention of LaCrate, who was putting together a mix called "B-more Club Crack" and needed a female MC. He added two of Streams' songs, "Tear It Up" and "Everybody on It," to the album, which was distributed by Koch Records. Streams made such an impression on LaCrate, he rushed to sign her to Milkcrate.
"When I first heard her, I loved her," LaCrate said. "It was all systems go, immediately. It wasn't a slow build. It was like, ‘Hi, welcome to the label, you're signed, let's go.' "
Soon after, LaCrate arranged a session with the multiplatinum British experimental alt-rock and hip-hop group Gorillaz. Known for its cartoon alter egos, Gorillaz made a mainstream splash with hits such as "Feel Good, Inc." and "Clint Eastwood."
Streams met with Gorillaz founder Damon Albarn and recorded her part to a track called "Plastic Jellyfish" in about 10 minutes, she said. Virgin plans to release the song as a B-side in the coming months, LaCrate said. Streams was thrilled to share a studio with such a prominent band.
"I got to meet the people behind the cartoons," she said. "I was in the booth laying it down, and they loved it."
When Streams wasn't recording, she was sharpening her freestyles in the streets and on the air. On a whim last May, Streams signed up to be a contestant on 92Q's "Tuesday Night Tap Out," a weekly MC battle. She first faced off against a male MC, according to Mike "Squirrel Wide" Squirrel, a host of the show.
"It was ridiculous," Squirrel said. "She came in looking all girly, and the guy was like, ‘You brought a girl in? I'm going to make quick work of her.' She destroyed him. He was our reigning champ, and she destroyed him. Destroyed him."
After five weeks of toasting the competition, Streams was retired from the show, Squirrel said. He ranks her in the top five best MCs who have been on the program.
Last August, Streams faced off against Philadelphia rapper Shiest Raw in a streetside MC battle in Federal Hill. The duel, labeled Philly vs. Baltimore, was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, where it has since racked up more than 40,000 views. In it, Streams shut down Shiest at every turn and won over the crowd of onlookers.
It took about a week for Streams to record "It's Alive," which Milkcrate is releasing Tuesday. By itself, a mix tape won't make Streams famous, but it could put her on the map and set her up for future releases. Given the fickle nature of the music industry and hip-hop listeners, Streams knows she only has one real shot at going mainstream.
"I'm going to be the one who throws the basketball at the buzzer and scores," she said. "That is going to be me. That is going to be me. I'm going to take us where we need to go."