Lisa Lee looks on as Sha-Rock, the first female rapper ever, drops some 2014 freestyle bars. Photo by Lexi Tannenholtz.
It’s easy to forget that before Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj... Before Missy Elliott, Eve, and Gangsta Boo... Even before Lil Kim defined a certain type of American icon, there were pioneer female MCs who fought to make hip-hop a safe space for women to express themselves through rhyme.
From August 8 through 11, those founding females of hip-hop and some of the most important women in the rap music biz descended upon Martha’s Vineyard for the second annual Summer Madness Music Festival & Conference. With a guest list that included everyone from Monie Love to MC Lyte, it made perfect sense that this year's festival bore a "Ladies First" theme. According to Sean Porter, one of the event’s co-founders, the event was a "celebration of all genres of black music" intended to "counterbalance all of that negative imagery surrounding African American women."
The time felt right. There's a lot to celebrate and discuss when talking about women, race, and hip-hop these days. In 2013, no black artists topped the Billboard 100 charts, while a white artists like Macklemore nabbed the Grammy for Best Rap Album. This year, magazines claimed that Aussie newbie Iggy Azalea and her interpretation of a Southern black drawl "run hip-hop" after dropping a couple hot singles. Not to mention, we've seen skinny white asses in Sports Illustrated get celebrated like the Super Bowl, while an album cover featuring a single bulbous black ass wearing a pink thong caused controversy and uproar across the web.
So instead of high-fiving everyone at the conference over how awesome hip-hop is, I took the time to ask a bunch of these rap's OGs about gender in hip-hop and the impact of the so-called "white-washing" of the culture.
VICE will be rolling out a new installment of my conversations with the mother's of hip-hop every week in a series called "Ladies First." Check out my inaugural chat with hip-hop's first female MCs, Lisa Lee and Sha-Rock, below.
VICE: Lisa Lee, you were the only woman to rap in Wild Style. What was it like being a part of that?
Lisa Lee: At that time, we didn’t know it was going to be history. We were just young kids and they gave us some money. It was Charlie Ahearn and it was amazing for somebody to be interested in us coming out of the Bronx. We were just out there rapping for fun. We thought it'd just be a movie played in the neighborhood or something and it turned out to be history. It was an amazing thing years later to see what we did as children.
And Sha-Rock, you were the first female in a rap group—the Funky 4 + 1.
Sha-Rock: I was the original part of the four. There were three other guys and myself. We are the original Funky Four.
As the pioneers, the people who basically invented MCing, do you think there are rules to hip-hop?
Lisa Lee: There are.
Sha-Rock: Absolutely. And there should be.
Lisa Lee: Keep the truth the truth. Don’t try to change history. A lot of people try to do that.
What do you mean?
Lisa Lee: There used to be a lot of people who used the word pioneer. A pioneer is someone who originated something. There’s not that many of us who originated stuff. That’s why Sha-Rock speaks on the first thing that she did. The first things that I’ve done are not the same as her, otherwise it wouldn’t even make any sense for me to speak on it. When people say they are the pioneers, as some people do, I ask, What did you begin? What did you start? Sha-Rock was the very first female. No one can take that away from her. She’s going to hold that title way past when she’s gone and I hold the title of the first female and only female of the Universal Zulu Nation. No one can ever take that from me. When people use certain phrases, they should do their history and learn what these words mean in the hip-hop culture.
Sha-Rock: For me, when we talk about the culture, we’re not talking about rap music. We’re talking about respecting all elements of hip-hop—the culture. There’s a code of ethics that these things are followed by, especially being a female. You’re supposed to uphold that culture and the relevance of what it’s supposed to mean and that means that you are a queen. You go out there and you represent your culture of hip-hop. You represent rap within a culture, but you’re respecting yourself and you’re showing your skills. You need to say, I don’t have to do this or do that. You keep the attention on I’m going to show them what I got with my rhyming. You have to respect the culture and not just rap about partying. That’s disrespecting everybody. That’s where a lot of people get it wrong. You have to celebrate hip-hop for hip-hop. Hip-hop is about peace, unity, and having fun—because it wasn’t always like that. We had to step over dead bodies, bullets, children, people sticking other people up—but we were trying to get away from that. This is why we’re so adamant about the culture being about having fun. Why would you want to go back to that negative environment? That’s not what it’s about. There’s a code of ethics we’re supposed to live by when you say that you represent hip-hop culture. As far as rules, if you want to share your story, by all means share it, but do your homework.
Sha-Rock pops off her sunnies to talk Iggy Azalea with the author. Photo by Lexi Tannenholtz.
These days white rappers like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea reach commercial pop success in what seems like an instant.
Lisa Lee: Well you’re talking about hip-hop, but you have to separate that. Iggy Azalea is rap music. I know the way she raps, I know that it’s marketed with T.I. and you can’t take that away from her. Rapping within hip-hop is for everybody. I don’t know if she celebrates hip-hop culture, but say rap. That’s all I’m saying.
Sha-Rock: You can’t take nothing away from her because rap music is made for everybody. You have the right to express yourself. People go all off into oh she’s this, she’s that. The rap culture is different. It’s just one element of hip-hop. People understand that it’s a different type of music that you can’t put that hip-hop culture thing around. Iggy Azealia has the right to express herself. The same for everybody. There’s a level of respect for the hip-hop culture.
Does she have that level of respect?
Sha-Rock: It’s not the same thing because she’s rapping a different culture. Rap music is a different culture. You have a right to express yourself. It’s not just for African Americans. It’s for everybody.
What role did other races play in the beginning of hip-hop? Like Charlie Ahearn with Wild Style.
Sha-Rock: Well you’re talking about the 80s. Charlie Ahearn saw me on stage at a theater in the Bronx up in the valley. So yeah, Charlie Ahearn did come, but he came in the 80s. He did have a part with Fab Five Freddy and making the first hip-hop movie, but if we’re talking about the inception, it was African Americans and Latinos. That’s the truth.
If people like Iggy and Macklemore get popular so quickly, does that take away from opportunities for young black artists?
Sha-Rock: You should say commercialism of rap music. That’s not representing hip-hop culture. The hip-hop culture is about peace, unity, and having fun rap within that. It’s not disrespecting the next man, not disrespecting the next female, it’s not calling the next female a bitch, a ho, a this, a that. Rapping is an element and people have the right to say what they want to say, but hip-hop includes everything too. When you say commercialism, it is what it is. But rap music within the culture is not just for African Americans, it’s for anybody that decides that they want to bring a message. It’s whatever. If it wasn’t Iggy and it wasn’t L. Boogie, then it was Nicki Minaj.
Do you think Nicki Minaj is true to the culture?
Sha-rock: I think that she’s a businesswoman. I think that she has skills. I do like her. I know that she could go raw as an MC. But I also think that there’s a level of respect that we’re supposed to have and to me you have to be responsible for your own actions. What do you think?
I would say she’s the best rapper right now.
Sha-Rock: Nicki is good. She’s good, but there’s a lot of underground women that you have not heard of either. People want to just say Nicki Minaj and I’m sick of it personally. You’re not hearing nobody else, really. There’s a lot of women that’s out there that are so good.
Why don’t they get noticed?
Lisa Lee: You had Trina, you had MC Lyte, you had Sha-Rock. Everyone has a time to shine. There will always be someone coming after that person that we’ll be able to say, you know, this person is good as well. People have their time to shine.
For female MCs, does it always have to be one after the next?
Lisa Lee: When I started it, I didn’t have to deal with the craziness of the one-at-a-time because I was just one of the dudes. I didn’t have to show myself off. I could have been eye candy because I was young, but I also had to show my skills. So they never looked at me as a female MC. They looked at me for my skills. We inspired women to also think about being MCs. When I look at the rap culture, I’m looking how you're MCing, how you're engaging the crowd with your lyrical flow, and not just something that’s pre-written.
It seems that white rappers like Iggy Azalea or Macklemore don’t need the talent that Nicki Minaj has to go platinum. Does that just reflect the buying power of white people? Or is it the record labels that are perpetuating this?
Sha-Rock: What I would say to people within rap music—if they’re mad at people like Iggy because they’re getting brushed to the side—is that you cannot concentrate on the next man. Hip-hop is supposed to be a culture that is accepting. You should not be out there disrespecting the culture by selling drugs and killing and this and that. Guess what, record companies are putting that out, but they’re pushing other people. Iggy ain’t out there talking about that. She’s not out there disrespecting her race. Iggy’s not being disrespectful as a woman. Macklemore’s not out there disrespecting his race. So are you mad because he wants it more? Then step your game up. Be respectful of the culture and then don’t worry about it. Macklemore, I like his music. He ain’t out there making music about selling drugs and mollys and all that stuff. He’s making music that people want to hear. That people will buy for their kids. I won’t say it’s all positive, but no mother wants their children to hear negative rap music.
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