Saturday, January 29, 2011

Female Rap (Essay)

Historically, rap has been a very male-dominated idiom -- much more so than R&B, country or dance-pop. That is true in the United States; it is true in Europe and Latin America, where women don't play nearly as prominent a role in rap as they do in Latin pop (a field that has given us countless female superstars). Nonetheless, female rappers have made some important and valuable contributions to hip-hop, which would have been a lot poorer without Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte or, more recently, Eve. From rap's old school era (roughly 1976-1982, give or take a year) to the early 2000s, the same pattern has prevailed when it comes to gender: male rappers outnumber female rappers, but talented female rappers will inevitably break through commercially. Every hip-hop era has been male-dominated but has also had some important female rap stars -- and they range from Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa in the '80s to Foxy Brown, Nonchalant, Da Brat and Lil' Kim in the '90s and Eve in the early 2000s.

From the beginning, hip-hop had a lot of testosterone; it has often functioned as a form of musical sportsmanship. The old school rappers who were active in Harlem or the South Bronx in the late '70s could be an extremely competitive bunch; microphone battles were quite common back then, and rappers spent a lot of time articulating why they thought they were the best and why "sucker MCs" (rival rappers) were inferior. Machismo was always a big part of hip-hop; talk show host Bill Maher (who had everyone from Chuck D to Snoop Doggy Dogg to Lil' Kim on his Politically Incorrect show when it was on ABC in the late '90s and early 2000s) has often said he loves the fact that rap is the one form of American music in which a male point of view is celebrated instead of marginalized. That said, hip-hop hasn't necessarily excluded a feminist perspective either -- the female rappers who have succeeded in their field have had a reputation for being assertive, take-charge women. No one could ever accuse MC Lyte, Roxanne Shanté, Queen Latifah or Foxy Brown of projecting a wimpy image or coming across as shrinking violets; if anything, the fact that hip-hop (hardcore rap more than pop-rap) tends to be so competition-minded forces female participants to have more of a feminist outlook.

The first example of a female rapper recording as a solo artist came in 1980, when the Philadelphia-based Lady B recorded her single "To the Beat, Y'all" for Sugar Hill Records. After that, Lady B didn't make rapping her main focus; she ultimately made her mark as a radio DJ in Philly. Nonetheless, she is a historically important figure, as are the members of the Sequence -- an early female rap group that also recorded for Sugar Hill Records in the early '80s and was quite popular during hip-hop's old school era. Another noteworthy female MC from that period was Sha Rock, who was part of a mostly male group called the Funky Four Plus One.

Unfortunately, the female rappers who were popular during rap's old school era were unable to maintain their commercial success when hip-hop's second wave (Run-D.M.C. , LL Cool J, Whodini, the Fat Boys, among others) took over around 1983-84. In rap, the turnover can be mind-blowing -- hip-hop has always had an "out with the old, in with the new" attitude, and MCs who stay on top as long as L.L. Cool J are the exception instead of the rule. By the mid-'80s, Sha Rock and the Sequence were considered old school, and there were plenty of younger hip-hop women to take their place (if you want to look at it that way). Roxanne Shanté, the Real Roxanne (a Puerto Rican MC), MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa (who were originally known as Super Nature), Queen Latifah, Antoinette, Sparky-D, Ice Cream Tee, Monie Love, Sweet Cookie and Pebblee-Poo are among the female rappers who emerged in the mid- to late '80s. And that list of artists underscores the fact that female rappers are as diverse a bunch as male rappers. While Shanté and MC Lyte are essentially hardcore rappers and are famous for their battle rhymes, Salt-N-Pepa have had more of a pop-rap focus -- the group has had no problem appealing to urban contemporary and dance-pop audiences.

When it came to female rappers, the term pop-rap could mean different things in the '80s. Salt-N-Pepa and Oaktown's 3.5.7 (who were MC Hammer protégées from Oakland, CA) had crossover appeal, but they weren't bubblegum -- certainly not the way that J.J. Fad and L'Trimm (two female pop-rap groups of the late '80s/early '90s) could be bubblegum. The Miami-based L'Trimm (best known for their 1988 hit "Cars with the Boom") never received any respect from rap purists, who disliked their cutesy, girlish image and their frivolous lyrics. But L'Trimm's work should be enjoyed for what it is: goofy, silly, frivolous, escapist fun. Comparing L'Trimm to MC Lyte or the Real Roxanne would be like comparing Poison to Slayer -- L'Trimm didn't pretend to be hardcore rap any more than Poison pretended to be death metal.

The early '90s saw the rise of a variety of female rappers, who ranged from Ice Cube associate Yo-Yo to the militantly sociopolitical (and downright controversial) Sista Souljah to some very sexually explicit groups: Chicago's HWA (Hoes with Attitude) and L.A.'s Bytches With Problems (BWP). Both of those groups came out with their first albums in 1990, which was six years before the release of Lil' Kim's debut solo album, Hard Core. Like HWA and BWP before her, Kim has never been the least bit shy about having X-rated lyrics. Kim commands a large following, but she also has her detractors; some feminists have argued that her willingness to exploit sex promotes the objectification of women. But if anyone is being objectified on Kim's albums, it's men. Kim has always projected a take-charge image on her albums -- if anything, Kim's releases have portrayed her as the dominatrix and men as the submissives who do her bidding. On the song "Not Tonight," for example, Kim bluntly states that she expects any man she is intimate with to perform oral sex on her -- and that men who cannot pleasure her in that way shouldn't even bother wasting her time.

The list of other female rappers who started recording in the '90s is a long one. It's a list that includes, among many others, Nonchalant, Da Brat, Mia X, Foxy Brown, Bahamadia, LeShaun, the Conscious Daughters, Shorty No Mas, Heather B, Overweight Pooch, Tam Tam and Queen Mother Rage. Gangsta rap was very male-dominated in the '90s -- like rap in general -- but it did give us Sh'killa, a Bay Area rapper who set out to be the female equivalent of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg or Warren G. Sh'killa's Gangstrez from da Bay (released by Priority in 1995) was right out of the Dre/Snoop/Death Row Records school of West Coast G-funk.

The majority of female rappers have been black -- at least in the United States. But some white female rappers have recorded albums over the years, and they have ranged from L.A.'s aggressive, in-your-face Tairrie B (who was very much a hardcore rapper) to pop-rapper Icy Blu (who Irving Azoff's Giant Records envisioned as a female version of Vanilla Ice). In 1990, Tairrie went after the hip-hop world with her debut album, The Power of a Woman, which didn't sell. And subsequently, she shifted her focus from hardcore rap to rap-metal and alternative rock as a vocalist for the band Manhole (more recently known as Tura Satana).

When the 21st Century arrived, rap wasn't showing any signs of becoming less male-dominated -- the high level of testosterone that rap had in the late '70s and early '80s wasn't any weaker in 2000, 2001 or 2002. But if women were still a minority in rap, they were a commercially viable minority; Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown (just to give two examples) continued to command sizable followings, and the early 2000s were a great time for the Philadelphia-based Eve (whose first album came out in 1999). Again, every hip-hop era has had some major female stars, and there is no reason to believe that the future will be any different.

by Alex Henderson


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