A monster collection of female hip-hop from its most empowering to its most dispiriting.
Uncorked and capped by two crucial battles from the bloody 1980’s melee known as the “Roxanne wars”, the unstoppable musicology label Soul Jazz’s Fly Girls! B-Boys Beware compilation isn’t all “Revenge” as its subtitle, Revenge of the Super Female Rappers, insists. It’s far more of a party album, with ass-kickin’, booty shakin’, fast speakin’, name-takin’ Afrocentric females with authority MCing.
J.J. Fad do the first of the two Roxanne raps, a subgenre named after the plethora of both light-hearted and vitriolic creativity arising out of the reaction records fashioned in response to Roxanne Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge”. This phenomenon pretty much constituted the inception of the dis record, which was a female creation, for good or ill. J.J. Fad, known for their Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling Supersonic album, deliver cold and relentless catty jabs at Roxanne via their “Ya Goin’ Down” (misnamed here as “You’re Going Down”). Over a sweet psychedelic wah-wah funk melody and hordes of turntablist textural scratching, the three ladies of J.J. Fad proceed to slander their target with every backwards-ass superficial schoolyard taunt their minds can conjure. In more or less words, they call Roxanne a ho, intimating that she has slept with not only Mc Shan, but her producer Marley Marl, who is referred to as a “pimp” who needs to “slap you silly”. They imagine ways to “strike a dyke on the mic” and refer to Roxanne as “cracked out”, a “washed up clown” who has “never seen the world” and who has done “112 inches but never made the pop chart”. Perhaps worst of all, they harp incessantly on Roxanne’s appearance, calling her a “heffer”, “butterball”, and “fat girl” who is “as big as whale” and so ugly that when she dies “it’s gonna be a closed coffin”.
That J.J. Fad launched their careers with the production assistance of the original Niggaz With Attitude crew should come as no real surprise. Inventing the new vernacular and redefining the role of women in hip-hop (to the point where musicologists today often forget that women were coming up in a big way in rap music before the rise of gangsta), Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Eazy E, and Ice Cube (who produced “Ya Goin’ Down”) seem prime candidates for tracks that overemphasize the dirtiest and most egregious aspects of young womanhood. Roxanne Shanté’s entry into the war journal, which bookends this double album, proves to be not much more enlightened than J.J. Fad’s, though neither track is even close to being the most brutal or puerile thing to emerge from the Roxanne schoolyard battleground.
Somewhere in the middle of this jumble is Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”, an energetic and compelling slice of sax-squelching feminism that promotes unity, equality, and positivism. On the now-emblematic track, Latifah and Monie Love seek to lead by example, proclaiming black women of the hip-hop generation to contain multitudes. “Some think we can’t flow/ Stereotypes they got to go”, Latifah says.
It’s somewhere between these two poles of Latifah and J.J. Fad that the women of hip-hop have found their ground for the past 30 years. Women were around at the inception of hip-hop, in gender-integrated groups like the Funky Four Plus One, all-female rap squads like The Sequence, and working as producers like Ann Winley of Paul Winley Records and records executives like Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill. They’ve been there at every step since as well (though Fly Girls mostly emphasizes the period before the 1990s). Yet, every time a wealth of double X chromosome talent begins to be recognized in the genre, their output is either treated as something of a novelty or a revelation by the music press. Meanwhile, as Fly Girls roundly illustrates, an alternative history could be easily written with groundbreaking females on top throughout, never faltering or even missing a beat in this so-called boy’s game.
In fact, the ladies of Fly Girls are so intimately linked with the major players of hip-hop that it almost detracts from the collection’s agenda. Nearly every strong female voice here is tied to a powerful man behind the decks. Sweet Tee is produced by Hurby “Love Bug” Azor, the alchemist whose decks made Salt N’ Pepa stars. Two Sisters are assisted by Raul A. Rodriguez, architect of seminal stunning electro cuts by Jonzun Crew and Man Parrish, whose clubland perspective set the stage for Hi-NRG and Freestyle. Missy Elliot’s longstanding partnership with Timbaland is well-documented, and both are in fine style here with her first hit “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”. The Bahamadia track included is produced by The Roots, the She Rockers cut comes courtesy of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, and Dimples D is mostly remembered at this point as the launching vehicle for her then-boyfriend Marley Marl. Perhaps most impressive of the collaborations is the hypnotic and epically psychedelic “Jazzy Sensation (Manhattan Version)”, Tina B’s flip-side to Afrika Bambaata’s nearly identical “Brooklyn Version”, written by West End Records hitmaker Kenton Nix, mixed by 80s go-to remixer Shep Pettibone, and produced by the inimitable Arthur Baker, who would later marry Tina B.
But Fly Girls is not muscled by testosterone, it’s just crowded with talent. In fact, at times, the party feels a bit too congested. Spoken word poets like Nikki Giovanni and Sarah Webster Fabio, as well as narrative soulsters like Camille Yarborough, are all deserving of their own respective Soul Jazz compendiums, but they feel a touch out of place here. Maybe this is because the much harped-upon link between the song-poets and their influence on hip-hop has always seemed a bit forced. Yes, hip-hop’s vocal delivery is generally announced rather than sung, but there’s a significant divide between the wild style of the street prophets and the razor-tongued approach of the Black Arts movement. The latter were likely more useful for rare groove raw materials than for specific inspiration to first wave hip-hop crews. Nevertheless, their appearances here as “spiritual heirs” shouldn’t be completely dismissed as their additions are fine ones, though certainly incongruent.
Fly Girls avoids trying to define a single narrative for these tunes, which is wise since each of these tracks comes from a distinct persona, even if taken together they all make a pretty righteous mix. From the Miami Bass of Princess MC to the freestyle verse of Philadelphia deejay Lady B to the haunting dub minimalism of Bahamadia’s MC Lyte cover, this brief incomplete segment of the story is essential for what it does capture, as well as what it anticipates in its potential sequels. The music is also enough to make up for the interesting but frustrating historical booklet included, which is plagued by editorial errors and mis-sequenced blurb and graphic order. Even if the story can’t be told, it now can be, and demands to be, heard.