Their Mics Still Sound Nice: BET Puts Ladies First

In Ava Duvernay’s My Mic Sounds Nice hip-hop doc on BET, reflections and observations come from an insightful set of hip-hop stars and industry insiders.

My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop
Ava DuVernay
30 August 2010

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 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.

In 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 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. It reminds 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. 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, we have to be vocal and vigilant about what we really want to hear.

Below, I’ve outlined some 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.

Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s “My Mic Sounds Nice”

When you saw the documentary’s title, 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.

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 regarding 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”. Compared to 2010, female rappers’ relative prominence 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 of 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 entered 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?

My Mic Sounds Nice’s Chronology

My Mic Sounds Nice quite logically and chronologically approaches its subject. 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 hip-hop’s women’s movement pioneers, 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. That’s 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, the discussion of the ’80s 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 most 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, but Eve, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott are also 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. Queen Pen’s “Girlfriend” was built on Me’shell NdegeOcello’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” which 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 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 why female rappers seemed to lose steam in the new millennium.

If you think about it long enough, you can quibble with this chronology, 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 to illuminate the present and future. If we want to understand and change the problem of female rappers declining from mainstream popularity, we’ve got to be educated about it.

On the Subject of Sexism

According to the insiders and rappers themselves, many factors are involved in the near extinction of female rappers from the post-2000 mainstream music scene. The reasons range from fiscal to social, although this range is narrow since there aren’t any connections between female emcees and circumstances outside of hip-hop. For example, we are all willing to ponder the influence male rappers have on negative social attitudes towards women, but we don’t consider the impact of, say, the accusations of sexual harassment leveled at United States Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Not to mention Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone starring in the controversial but commercially successful film Basic Instinct in 1992. Basic Instinct caused quite a stir over its depictions of sexuality and violence.

Events in the dominant society tend to influence the attitudes and behaviors of participants in the smaller cultural context. The tension here is negotiating the proper balance between tying hip-hop’s analysis too closely to its own happenings and making connections from the outside that risk being so tenuous as to amount to conjecture.

There are, however, a few things we can take to the bank. It’s ridiculous to argue with Nikki D’s assertion that sexism (“It’s a man’s world, straight up”) plays a crucial role in the careers of female artists. You’d have to be living on another planet to argue that sex appeal isn’t a component of the commercial retail formula, and even then, there’s no excuse for not using a telescope.

There are assertions in My Mic Sounds Nice that are worthy of our concern. We should be most alarmed if they are true. Their existence alone should call us to action and force us to realize that somewhere along the way, we should have borne some responsibility to shape hip-hop into what we always claimed we wanted it to be. There are three such assertions in the documentary.

First, with respect to the sexually explicit imagery introduced by Lil Kim, the argument is made that Kim is the ultimate male fantasy. The idea is that she’s sexually obtainable, and the man who obtains her can dominate her and “rule with an iron fist”. Later, Trina asserts that men are willing to listen to a woman rap as long as the woman looks good, first and foremost. Having something important to say is secondary at best but most likely irrelevant.

Is this true? Must the ultimate fantasy woman be a supplicant, a hypersexual puppet ready to meet her man’s every whim? I want to think men are a little more complex than that – and yesteryear’s near-universal popularity of Lauryn Hill hopefully bears this out – but I’m wishing more than I’m observing. If it’s not true, men must speak up as listeners and consumers. If we want to listen to ladies who display lyrical dexterity, then those are the artists we need to publicize and support. If it is true that we’d rather hear a woman who looks good but doesn’t have much to say, then that’s exactly the type of hip-hop we’re going to get. We shouldn’t be surprised by it.

It’s like the sample in Public Enemy’s song “Revolutionary Generation” that quotes Mary McLeod Bethune as saying, “The character of its womanhood must measure the true worth of a race.” More to the point, it also reminds me of the scene in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged when the character Francisco D’Anconia is asked to explain why he created the illusion that he is a careless, shameless playboy and he declares, “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with, and I will tell you his valuation of himself.” Under that view, what does it say about us – hetero male hip-hop enthusiasts – if we are saying we are more attracted to the female artist who says nothing but tries to look alluring than the artist who focuses primarily on lyrical substance?

Sexuality, it seems, became the new entryway into a hip-hop career in the post-Kim/Foxy rap world. In the past, female rappers mainly came into the spotlight via a male-dominated crew or with the validation of a male counterpart. Jermaine Dupri points out that the latter strategy was employed with Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor’s tutelage of Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Dupri’s own work with Da Brat, Notorious B.I.G.’s relationship with Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj being a “female version of Lil Wayne” (Dupri’s words, not mine).

There’s some truth to this, although I think the bigger picture demonstrates Nikki D’s point that men dominate rap. Under those conditions, the person in the best position to do any “validating” will likely be male. Here again, that’s where we, as the audience, need to speak up, which is much easier today than it used to be. Before, our main method of agreement or dissent was through our purchasing power.

I guess the documentary wasn’t supposed to say this, seeing as how BET would be airing it, but networks like BET probably could have done a better job of balancing some of this imagery. Not censoring it or ignoring it, but balancing it with a diverse array of female artists. Nowadays, if you think a female rapper is dope, you can at least hook a sista up with a supportive tweet.

Piggybacking the sexuality issue, rapper Yo-Yo confesses her struggle to find her comfort zone in the aftermath of the “hip-hop sexual revolution” sparked by Foxy and Kim. She talks about how she wondered if she should add provocative elements to keep up with the times, and it seems she worried about losing the integrity of her voice. This, to me, was the most sincere comment of the entire piece, a fascinating yet heartbreaking glimpse at an artist searching for the best way to present her craft to the public.

This puts her work in a different light so that her most recognizable tune, “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” isn’t just clever wordplay on her stage name. It, and much of her discography, is about balancing sensuality with the need to be taken seriously. Is it possible to do both? Again, Lauryn Hill’s name frequently pops up as an example of how to do it and do it right, but how many people are as talented as Lauryn Hill? At her peak, she was a better emcee than most of the men in the business, yet it seems men have always had a tad more leeway to express the gentler insides to their rugged exteriors. I like Young Jeezy as much as the rest of y’all, but he’s no Lauryn Hill. C’mon.

In the meantime, whose fault is it that Yo-Yo and other female rappers were encouraged to tilt their styles toward Lil Kim’s end of the sexual spectrum? Insecure artists? Record execs looking to capitalize on an emerging trend? Fickle fans? Good questions.

Finally, the discussion of Nicki Minaj as the future of hip-hop puts the problem in context. The documentary notes that writers and editors haven’t quite decided how to deal with Minaj, in much the same way that the overall problem in the documentary consists of identifying a place for females in hip-hop – a room of one’s own, to borrow from Virginia Woolf.

I still maintain that the impulse to pit women against other women, to crown a Queen and declare her the reigning face of female rap, does us all a disservice. When we succumb to it, our search for the next big thing eclipses the others out there who would seek to entertain and enlighten us. Along these lines, My Mic Sounds Nice gives major props to the underground as a haven for talented and savvy emcees, name-checking the likes of Jean Grae, Invincible, Eternia, Tiye Phoenix, and Bahamadia. As far as Nicki Minaj is concerned, the good news is that our desire to hail her as the poster child for the female emcee shows that we’re at least hopeful about the future. “[Female emcees] are not dinosaurs,” Missy Elliott declares. “We are not going anywhere.”

Let’s hope she’s right. In the meantime, listen to some albums released in 2010 by female hip-hop artists, like Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, Eternia & Moss’ At Last, Rah Digga’s Classic, and Boog Brown & Apollo Brown’s Brown Study.