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Their Mics Still Sound Nice: BET Puts Ladies First

Nicki Minaj - still from BET

Do women rappers have to shake it in our faces in order to get us to listen? As this doc. notes some, like Salt 'N' Pepa do it with sassiness and sex appeal " know, if I was a book, I would sell / 'cause every curve on my body got a story to tell".

A woman's voice to this game right now is so extremely necessary to save it.

-- MC Lyte, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women & Hip-Hop

On 30 August 2010, Black Entertainment Television (BET) aired My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women & Hip-Hop. Directed by Ava DuVernay, My Mic Sounds Nice is BET's first-ever original documentary (a fact that is definitely something to think about in its own right) and it delved into the subject of female rappers -- their fashion, record sales, and current lack of mainstream presence -- from a welcoming historical vantage point. PopMatters broached similar issues in the 15 April 2010 installment of this column, The Revival: A Declaration for Female Emcees.

TV Show: My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop

Network: BET

Image: My Mic Sounds Nice, reflections and observations come from an insightful set of hip-hop stars and industry insiders. Men immersed in hip-hop, like Jermaine Dupri and Chuck D, also contribute, although I would've liked it if more major label record executives and radio deejays would weigh in on these topics. The documentary only lasts about an hour, though, and since an all-encompassing discussion could turn into a voluminous series, careful editing and filtering is to be expected. After all, it's a documentary. It ain't supposed to be Roots.

My Mic Sounds Nice does a great many things right, which is the point of this column's discussion. It raises important questions about hip-hop's culture and patterns of consumerism relative to women. It doesn't, as might be surmised from the subtitle "A Truth About Women & Hip-Hop", spend much time analyzing women as subject matter in hip-hop songs -- that's a different topic altogether. What it does do is remind us of the power and depth inherent in the female perspective. It also highlights the possible reasons why the mainstream appeal of that perspective seems to have dwindled.

On a more subtle level, the documentary suggests that we -- the audience, the listeners -- ought to be more vocal and less passive about this state of affairs.Much of the burden is placed on the entertainers themselves, and while artistic freedom and personal creative vision are paramount, we have seen record sales used to justify all manner of musical content and imagery. Perhaps the retail model is no longer the definitive paradigm, but if we love hip-hop, then we have to be vocal and vigilant about what we really, really want to hear.

Below, I've outlined a few of the areas where My Mic Sounds Nice enlightens us and encourages further study and growth. Hopefully, as hip-hop adapts to the industry changes evident in today's climate, we are moving closer to seeing the much-discussed resurgence in female participation.

The Song

When you saw the title of the documentary, did you wonder why it was called "My Mic Sounds Nice"? It comes from the Salt 'N' Pepa song of the same name appearing on the 1986 album Hot, Cool & Vicious. Right, the same album that spawned the scorching single "Push It". But when it comes to a documentary about women in hip-hop, you might suspect, as I did, that Queen Latifah's "Ladies First" would be on a short list of preferred theme songs. You could call the documentary something like: "Ladies First: The Story of Women in Rap".

Back in the '80s and much of the '90s, Queen Latifah, as an emcee, exuded the style and grace befitting her royal stage name, as she dressed in classy and regal ensembles topped with an African-style headdress. What's more, "Ladies First" champions the strength of womanhood and femininity and, with UK rapper Monie Love contributing additional verses, it encourages solidarity and support among women across socioeconomic strata and geography. "Ladies First" is about as close to an anthem as we could ask for, here.

Upon closer inspection, Salt 'N' Pepa's "My Mic Sounds Nice" adds much needed spice to the proceedings. Where "Ladies First" makes a definite statement in favor of gender affirmation and self-reliance, "My Mic Sounds Nice" operates, with a touch of listener imagination, as a profile for the enterprising female hip-hop artist. It emphasizes what I consider the most important aspect of any rapper's career -- lyrical skill, the ability to move the crowd, evidenced by the "mic" in the title and how "nice" it "sounds". Salt 'N' Pepa profess to be "fly", known as "America's Best", and most definitely "here to stay".

Salt 'N' Pepa convey sassiness and sex appeal, which the documentary goes to great pains to discuss in regards to Foxy Brown and Lil Kim: "And you know, if I was a book, I would sell / 'cause every curve on my body got a story to tell". The relative prominence of female rappers, compared to 2010, comes through in the rhyme, "This is the year all men fear / Female emcees is movin' up here". They allude to the hard work and dedication that goes into being an emcee, let alone a lady lyricist, with quips like, "The Pepa MC is like hot ice / and I paid the price to make the mic sound nice".

Sincerity is a touchstone in rap, even when you know the rapper cannot possibly be telling the truth, and you'll find the insistence on proving their sincerity to be a common theme among female rappers. Just as MC Lyte ridiculed rappers who don't write their own rhymes and "create a character" in "10% Dis", Salt 'N' Pepa are equally uncompromising: "Don't tell me how you're gonna rock / Don't brag about the things that you ain't got!" Add to that the song's sample of Grover Washington, Jr.'s very bouncy "Mister Magic" and the result is a song that superbly matches the vibe of the documentary.

By the way, "Mister Magic" was also sampled for Heavy D's "You Ain't Seen Nuttin' Yet", DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "A Touch of Jazz", and X-Clan's "A.D.A.M." I've always thought it interesting that Salt 'N' Pepa's appropriation of the tune allows females to flip a song by a man, with a masculine title, into a declaration of achievement by women, much like Salt 'N' Pepa's "The Showstoppers" repurposed Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh's "The Show" into a bona fide diss track. As My Mic Sounds Nice, the documentary, explains, women often made their entry into the rap game by making battle records.

Not to digress too much, but since we are talking about Salt 'N' Pepa, thinking back to their work with their deejay, Spinderella, should remind us that an awesome follow-up to BET's first documentary would be a segment chronicling the careers of female deejays. It would probably deserve a different title. How about "Beauty & the Beat", another Salt 'N' Pepa song, to the rescue?

The Chronology

My Mic Sounds Nice quite logically approaches its subject in chronological fashion. The eras of the chronology are rather straightforward, using each decade from 1980 onward to organize hip-hop's significant events and crucial personalities.

In the '80s, the focus is on the pioneers of hip-hop's women's movement, particularly Funky Four Plus One's Sha Rock, Angie Stone, and Roxanne Shante .These women opened the door.

Three interesting points emerge from the documentary's treatment of this era.First, Angie Stone, who we now talk about as one of our most soulful singers, was once upon a time known as "Angie B" in the female rap group The Sequence. I just think that's really cool. Second, the rappers reflected on how they got started with rap, and the ages were rather young -- Roxanne Shante started at ten, The Lady of Rage was 12, and Missy Elliott was 14. There's something about rhymes and beats that are forever captivating. Lastly, Roxanne Shante's contribution to hip-hop is rightly celebrated. As a "battle emcee" known for challenging entire crews, Shante injected the fierceness necessary for competing with males.

Not surprisingly, discussion of the '80s basically concludes with segments on Salt 'N' Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. Although Latifah is noticeably absent from the commentary, Salt 'N' Pepa and MC Lyte offer remarks on the majority of the issues presented.

The arrival of the '90s is accompanied by a boom in hip-hop's female presence. Not only do we get Foxy Brown and Lil Kim, there's also Eve, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott on the scene. As important as the aforementioned rappers are, I would supplement the documentary's summary of the '90s with more info about rappers like Nikki D, Boss, Monie Love, Da Brat, and Queen Pen. Strangely, Monie Love wasn't even mentioned in the references to Latifah's "Ladies First", a track previously noted as a Monie Love collaboration. Da Brat was the first female rapper to go platinum. Meanwhile, Boss made significant strides in terms of hardcore gangsta rap, and Queen Pen's "Girlfriend", built on Me'shell NdegeOcello's "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" featured a female narrator telling a man that she'd stolen his girlfriend, which is not something you often hear in rap.

That leaves Nikki D, whose comments in My Mic Sounds Nice are spirited and candid. Her own album, 1991's Daddy's Little Girl, should really be considered a significant release, considering the intricacies of the album's title track and the album's sequencing.

Daddy's Little Girl -- Nikki D

"Daddy's Little Girl" delivers the first-person account of a teenager determined to maintain a veneer of innocence for her father's benefit ("What Daddy doesn't know won't hurt him"). Nikki D, a storyteller with a nimble flow, gives this account over "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, which was popular in its own right with radio stations that played rap back in the day. That's the "Tom's Diner" with the phat beat, not the a cappella. Beneath the facade of the good little daughter lies an insecure young soul, bartering her body for momentary thrills ("Sexin' like crazy / my body amazed me") with severe consequences ("And in about three months, my stomach will be plump"). A well-written narrative that does a great job of withholding platitudes and slogans, the song constructs a striking psychological profile.

When Daddy's Little Girl was released on cassette, the album's A-side was filled with radio-friendly jams ("Monday We'll Be Together", "Hang On Kid", "Sunny Daze") while the B-side boasted a lineup geared toward the lascivious. Songs like "Wasted P*ssy", "Your Man is My Man", and "Gotta Up the Ante for the Panties" could easily get your head nodding, but were also explicitly freaky and, ultimately, precursors to the sexually frank work of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim.

The third era, post-2000, scans as a period of decline for female emcees. Florida rapper Trina gets a sincere shout out from her peers for her consistency, if not for her substance. Missy Elliott's innovative style and video work as the creative bridge between the '90s and the 21st century, and even Nicki Minaj is described as a cross between Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Eve. The documentary also explores the reasons why female rappers seemed to lose steam in the new millennium.

You can quibble with this chronology if you think about it long enough, but you can't dispute its purpose. By placing our prominent rap personalities in a historical and cultural context, My Mic Sounds Nice provides a basic foundation for understanding the past in the hope of illuminating the present and future. If we want to understand, and change, the problem of female rappers on the decline from mainstream popularity, we've got to be educated about it.

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