Lejla Bajgoric: Where the ladies at?
“Y’all see, how these bogus n****s try not to notice the dopest bitches?”
The question, posed by Da Brat, alludes to a fact rap fans are all far too familiar with: the hip-hop industry is male-dominated (in other news, water is wet). Brat’s point is that no matter how dope a female rapper may be, it’s unlikely for her to get the credit she deserves.
And with that, the visibility of women in hip hop dwindles. And when you aren’t seeing (because you aren’t exposed to) many female rappers, you notice a pattern and construct this notion in your mind of what a rapper should look like — a man. The cycle continues and even the “dopest bitches” fall by the wayside.
The question asked by Brat-tat-tat-tat comes from her opening line on “Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix).” A summer anthem back in 1997, the hit was Lil Kim’s third consecutive number one on Billboard’s Rap Songs chart. It’s not surprising if you look at the all-star line-up: Lil Kim, the “Queen Bitch” of Bad Boy and, at one point, the Queen of Hip Hop as well; Da Brat, So So Def superstar whose Funkdafied rhymes led her to become the first female solo rapper to go platinum; the late, great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, known for the colorful commentary she contributed as a member of the best-selling American girl group in the history of American girl groups, TLC; multifaceted Angie Martinez, who has a string of hits to her name, but is more so revered for her role in radio, historically being Hot 97’s leading lady. Oh, and Missy fucking Elliot, whose ’97 debut Supa Dupa Fly still sounds like some shit straight out of 2050. Still.
So what gives? There’s tons of talented, boundary-breaking rappers out there who happen to be women, yet their contributions (which are massive, and we’ll get to that) go unrecognized.
Some of the struggle to be acknowledged is due to socialization telling us to only take male rappers seriously. On her CRWN interview with Elliot Wilson, Nicki Minaj let the music journalist have it when he brought up her verse on “Monster,” objectively the most impressive verse on the track (this is the same song where Hov babbles off the names of a bunch of creatures of the night and calls it a verse, and we all collectively decided to suppress that from our memory). Some people (me) would say Nicki not only stole the song, but the album. But this isn’t the first time Nicki both graced and put the fear of God into us with her lyrical prowess.
“I feel like a lot of people only accepted it because Kanye and Jay were on there,” Nicki said. Elliot shared that Nicki’s animated approach and use of alter-egos didn’t resonate with him … until “Monster.”
“Because if I were on there by myself, y’all wouldn’t have given me my props,” she said. “I been ill… I didn’t get ill [from] ‘Monster,’ I was ill before.” Nicki implied that “Monster” was the first time many people flirted with the idea of being Nicki fans because it was the first time many people really listened. And they listened because people they respected (referring to Ye, Hov and Ross — a.k.a. men) co-signed.
Another obstacle that delays recognition, stemming from gender biases determining credibility, has to do with support. If you aren’t taken seriously, there’s a likely chance you won’t receive a sufficient amount of support to breach the mainstream and attain an audience adequate enough for you to really eat off of.
In the music industry, this looks like your albums being shelved in favor of a man’s. If you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, you’re going to have to wait. And this waiting either ends or seriously limits the longevity of what could otherwise have been a flourishing career. Case in point: the afro-puff-wearing, “unfucwitable” and lethally lyrical Lady of Rage.
Brat was the first female rapper to go platinum, yet it very well could have been Rage. But Death Row fucked up. At this point in time, Dre’s classic Chronic had been released; Snoop can be heard on what feels like every song, and this was purposeful. The placement was an introduction — a way of catapulting Snoop onto the scene and implying that he had next.
As planned, Doggystyle debuted a year later, solidifying Snoop’s place in the game. In similar fashion, Dre used Doggystyle to prepare listeners for who would follow Snoop. Thus, “R-A-G to the motherfuckin E” is the first to spit on “G Funk Intro.” But this time, the plan fell apart.
Rage’s Roughness was shelved and, instead, Daz and Kurupt got to ride the wave of attention and acclaim with their release of Dogg Food. Roughness wouldn’t see the light of day for two more years, and by that point, Dre left, Suge was incarcerated and Pac was murdered. In other words, Death Row was falling apart.
Rage shared, “I didn’t have the conductor and I didn’t have the same help that everyone else had when it was time for their albums to be produced … Everybody came in and contributed for The Chronic, Doggystyle and Dogg Food. Everybody came in for “Above the Rim” and ‘Murder Was the Case.’ When it was my turn, it was just me.”
It should be stated, though, that Rage was brought on to the label with good intent. She recorded some bars for an L.A. Posse tape. Dre heard her verses and immediately flew her out to California, and she was inducted into Death Row. Though her career was mismanaged, the significance of men with power in the music industry highlighting, and thus normalizing, the presence of women rappers is vital and should be encouraged.
Ice Cube did this with his protégé Yo-Yo. She went toe-to-toe with him on “It’s A Man’s World” from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and held her own. She demanded respect in her verse: “Give us credit like you should / If I don’t look good then you don’t look good.” And she demanded respect in real life, letting Cube know he wasn’t going to get away with referring to her as a bitch in his bars. And he listened. A year after she was formally introduced via her guest feature, Yo-Yo released her debut Make Way for the Motherlode, chock full of uplifting messages, sharp delivery and one of the best rap joints of all time: “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo.”
Without such support, some of our favorite artists would still be working the underground circuit, waiting for their chance.
Imagine if the Ruff Ryders dismissed Eve when she flew out to New York to audition for a spot in their crew. Eve wrote her own rhymes — rhymes that stung. After all, she was introduced to hip hop through battle rapping on the block with friends. And though she did have to work twice as hard at first to prove herself as a woman, Ruff Ryders made sure their first lady got the attention she deserved, making sure to not only include her, but also oftentimes center her.
Whether it’s fellow male rappers in the game like Ice Cube, or legendary label executives like Sylvia Rhone — who played a crucial role in launching Missy Elliott’s career, all the while encouraging Misdemeanor to preserve her progressive and eclectic style — the support of gatekeepers is crucial. Because when women rappers don’t receive the recognition they deserve, one of two things (oftentimes both) happens: either their impact on the culture is overlooked or we, as listeners, miss out on some purely dope content. Both suck — whether it’s their loss or ours.
A great example: Before Cube put Yo-Yo on, he himself played a role in the neglect of female rappers’ contribution to the culture. Most people’s conception of Ruthless Records is limited to N.W.A. and Bone Thugs, but before N.W.A. could introduce themselves to the world, the credibility of Ruthless had to be solidified. J.J. Fad, an all-female rap group, were integral in doing just that. In ’88, their debut album was a smash. It was easier to digest than gangsta rap — and this was the motive — but it proved to be phenomenal in its own right.
The album would become Warner’s first platinum hit, while the single “Supersonic” had an impact beyond the rap scene; an interpolation of the track was used for Fergie’s “Fergalicious.” Don’t give Ferg too much credit for her flow in her song either — sounds awfully similar to Fad’s. Sadly, J.J. Fad wasn’t included in the “Straight Outta Compton” biopic last year, which many people felt was plain foul. Thus, Juana, Juanita, Fatima, Anna and Dania’s names are forgotten, even though their impact is undeniable.
And to my last point — about how we as listeners deny ourselves of some of the best content out there by maintaining a limited concept of who or what a rapper is and looks like — well, there’s too many examples to list. Though Eve got to shine, fellow Philly native Bahamadia is criminally underrated. Her debut Kollage consists of wordplay that doesn’t let you rest, complemented by laid-back, bohemian beats. Guru describes it as “a collection of lyrical and musical art that brings forth a masterful contribution to the hip-hop world” on the interlude. And he’s not overselling it a bit.
Whether it’s cool and composed Ladybug Mecca and Lauryn Hill, or southern superstars Diamond, Princess and Gangsta Boo, women rappers offer the same range and versatility, if not more so, than male counterparts. Women like Jean Grae have established a capacity for longevity, while up-and-comers like Junglepussy continue to push creative boundaries and infuse rap with the radical and forward-thinking dynamism that critics claim corporatization wiped out of it.
While most of us aren’t in the same position as the gatekeepers I mentioned, we do occupy a position that is just as important: the listeners, lovers and consumers of the genre. If we deconstruct our conceptions of who belongs in rap, expand our palate and expose ourselves to dope women rappers, we could realistically initiate a movement starting at the grassroots — one that shakes the structure at its core and demands the incorporation and recognition that female rappers deserve.
A bit optimistic, I admit, but how much longer could we go without noticing the dopest bitches?