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The Revival: A Declaration for Female Emcees

Photo of Roxanne Shante (partial) by © Jesper Skouboelling

Hip-hop needs a women's movement ala Seneca Falls. The Declaration of Sentiments used the Declaration of Independence as its structural model (in hip-hop we call that "sampling").

The Scenario

Ask fans to list the things they'd like to improve about hip-hop, and you're likely to hear answers raising a wide range of issues. Among them is undoubtedly the concern that female emcees, or "femcees" for short, have become something of an endangered species around these parts. Reports that the "femcee" is extinct are somewhat exaggerated, considering that there are working females in the biz today. Problem is, they aren't enjoying the publicity or the success, either critical or commercial, of their male counterparts.

This, of course, assumes that the females in the game actually want or need this type of publicity or success. More to the point, "mainstream" attention, whether on a national or international scale, might not always be the great opportunity it's made out to be, especially if courting the "mainstream" involves exchanging artistry for album sales and product placement. That's a rather cynical view of things, isn't it? Let's hope nobody is in favor of that distribution model.

However, it's probably safe to say that the female rappers and deejays enjoyed a higher profile in the '80s and '90s than they are enjoying today. There once was a time when the ladies of hip-hop were making their voices heard and, to the fullest extent possible in our male-dominated society and industry, they were demanding membership in the de facto hip-hop boys' club.

Juice Crew member Roxanne Shante put the boys in their places with songs like "Brothas ain't sh*t". Meanwhile, Queen Latifah and Monie Love, in "Ladies First", urged the sistas to take their rightful places in the world. Just so you know, Queen Latifah might have gone Hollywood to add height to her paper stacks, and she might have done a couple of jazz-oriented singing albums, but she isn't gone from hip-hop for good. In 2009, she released Persona. Sure, the album could have been a bit more rap-centric, and less pop (I still say Pink would have made great use of this material), but I actually liked it once I got over my preconceptions about the type of music she ought to be making.

At any rate, no rundown of the past would be complete without mentioning how Salt 'N' Pepa sported sassiness and sensuality ("Push It", "I'll Take Your Man") but did so with a sense of empowerment (see "Independent", recorded years before the Destiny's Child tune of a similar name). They also stressed the role of social and personal responsibility, particularly in terms of the consequences involved when people aren't honest and diligent in their dealings with one another ("Chick on the Side", "Let's Talk About Sex", "Heaven & Hell").

MC Lyte blazed a significant lyrical and conceptual path, as her albums explored urban renewal, love and relationships, drug use, disease, partying, and plain ol' battling. Lyte set herself apart from others, whether male or female, because she is known for writing her own lyrics. She even boasted as much in her classic track "10% Dis", saying, "Others write your rhymes, while I write my own / I don't create a character when I'm on the microphone". Antionette, the rapper to whom many of MC Lyte's battle raps were addressed, was also dope.

Although Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown were frequently derided for their sexually charged lyrics and performances, it's worth noting that they, like most female rappers, were the lone wonder women of their otherwise all-male crews. Lil Kim made her way as the Mae West of the Notorious B.I.G.'s Junior M.a.f.i.a. clique, while Foxy Brown was the ride-or-die sista for the Firm. Kim and Foxy were, for better or worse, able to take male-centered raunchiness, reload it, and shoot it right back at the fellas. It is significant that these women had skills on the microphone in addition to their risqué imagery.

This is only a hint of what hip-hop had to offer from its female emcees. Suffice it to say, times were better for lady lyricists back then.

The Factors

Things are different in the 21st century, with female rappers still making music and female deejays still spinning records, but with their activities pushed to the periphery. It's difficult to unravel this turn of events, and probably impossible to pinpoint the fork-in-the-road moment that brought us to our current predicament. Perhaps it's an amalgam of factors, any combination of which could have caused the decline of hip-hop's already tenuous relationship with female performers and listeners.

Two of these factors, "presence" and "climate", are important to our discussion. The first one, which I'm calling "presence", refers to my rather obvious theory that the spotlight shifted away from female rappers when key figures stepped away from the music business or took their talents toward the underground and/or the do-it-yourself aesthetic. Occasionally, as is the case with an artist like Queen Latifah and, to a lesser extent, MC Lyte and Eve, the acting bug strikes and our otherwise avid female hip-hoppers take a shot at what Hollywood has to offer.

As a result, we've lost unique voices that are difficult to replace. Imagine, for instance, how awesome it would be to have Lauryn Hill making records again on a consistent basis. While her solo album, The Miseducation of the Lauryn Hill, is often treated by critics and fans as a hip-hop album, it relies on Ms. Hill's R&B sensibilities than her tremendous rap skills. I'm still of the opinion that she had the potential to out-rhyme nearly any contender, male or female but, unfortunately, as we've all lamented many times before, we haven't been able to get much more from her.

Quite a shame, really, because in this era of the R&B-rap hybrid -- which would include rappers on Auto-tune -- Lauryn Hill could really be racking up the victories. All of the glowing things Talib Kweli said in his "Ms. Hill" song -- about Lauryn Hill's talent, charisma, and impact on the self-esteem of young girls -- are still relevant.

At the same time, let's say we did have Lauryn Hill on the scene. What about the grimier, gangsta side of rap? Lauryn Hill was never a fixture in the hardcore arena. Back in the day, we had other rappers for that, and Boss is one of the best examples. Boss, which was Lichelle Laws along with her cohort simply named Dee, released 1992's Born Gangstaz, a rough and rugged concoction of supremely formidable rhymes coupled with funky production from Def Jef, Erick Sermon, AMG, and MC Serch. Boss' voice was commanding, and it boomed through your system with the type of authority that served Chuck D and KRS-One so well. Born Gangstaz is not just a great album by a female rapper. It's a great album, period, if you enjoy tales from the hardcore side.

A couple of cool things about Born Gangstaz. First, there are the telephone messages that bookend the album, in which Boss' parents disclose that Lichelle Laws isn't a total gangsta. She had attended 12 years of Catholic school, taken piano and dance lessons, and attended three years of college.

Second is the song "Recipe of a Hoe", in which Boss attacks the lack of chastity and loyalty of men to the point of making Brand Nubian's "Slow Down" (about a woman who is a "sick, mixed up individual" at best) sound like a tribute to sexual freedom (it's so not). In "Recipe of a Hoe", Boss takes the playboys down a peg, saying that the men who brag the most "ain't even bulgin' up under them belts".

On the LP version, she proceeds to get increasingly rowdy about men and their wayward habits, echoing the sentiments of Roxanne Shante's tune "Brothas Ain't Sh*t". "You fake ass wanna be a pimp mother*cka," Boss sneers."You heard me right, brotha, this b*tch here don't stutter". Tough luck in the industry, along with health problems, put Boss on the sidelines. These days, balance should be the watchword in hip-hop, especially when it comes to subject matter, and a vital component is lost when rappers like Boss are out of the mix.

The other factor, "climate", is probably easier to see with the benefit of hindsight. Here, the idea is that the more hip-hop's general worldview veered away from inclusion, the easier it was for the culture to tolerate, and become indifferent to, the decline in visibility of our female rappers. Specifically, with the "bling"-era materialism and commercialism of the '90s taking the place of what was once an Afro-centric movement, hip-hop became less concerned with its African and Nubian queens and more concerned with "honeys" and "dime pieces".

That change in focus was accompanied by a shift in global perspective. Where hip-hop in the United States had once been concerned with international issues such as Apartheid in South Africa, the overall post-9/11 view tended to be isolationistic. Before news and attention had, rightly, turned to lending aid to Haiti in 2010, hip-hop had already cycled away from dead prez's "I'm an African" and was on its way to the localized allegiances expressed in Jay-Z's "New York State of Mind". With US hip-hop fragmented between "us" and "them" in terms of "mainstream versus underground" and "home versus overseas", it's possible that the disappearance of our female emcees slid right by us. Or that's my theory at least.

I'm almost tempted to pinpoint 1995 as a pivotal year in this, if only symbolically. That year, Naughty By Nature released Poverty's Paradise. That album ended with the song "Connections" in which front man Treach introduces a female emcee to the track, saying, "I put this on everything I love, man. It's real sneaky. Sistahood. Females sneak up in here and come through."

With Treach vouching for the female in question, Kandi Kain, she proceeds to rip the track to its finish. By contrast, that same year LL Cool J released Mr. Smith, which contained the album closing "I Shot Ya" remix. In this song, a posse track, young Foxy Brown takes her place alongside Keith Murray, Fat Joe, and Prodigy with a noteworthy appearance, only to have LL himself end the song with a verse about his ability to battle anybody in the rap game, along with the taunt, "Name the spot, I make it hot for you b*tches / Female rappers too, I don't give a f*ck, Boo."

I always thought that part undermined Foxy's appearance in the song. I mean, how are you gonna have a sista show up for a song and then you record a verse where you're going into verbal battle mode against women? And with that condescending "Boo" tacked on for good measure! Considering LL's history for making songs to woo the ladies in his fan base (I think Canibus joked that 99 percent of LL Cool J's fans wear high heels), it might not have been intentionally disrespectful.

Maybe it was just careless. I've come to associate these two songs with a paradigm shift, from males making room for the females (as in "Connections") to males being indifferent to the female presence (as in LL's subliminal salvo in "I Shot Ya"). In 1996, the debuts of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown upped the ante on sexual imagery and became associated with a much more explicit way for female rappers to relate to the culture.

Whatever the details, we can agree that something needs to be done about getting more exposure for lady rappers. We need a plan for getting this accomplished.

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