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.
This past August, 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 artist 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." Not to mention, we've seen plenty of white asses in Sports Illustrated get celebrated, 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 rap's female OGs about gender in hip-hop and the impact of the so-called "white-washing" of the culture. This week we have my conversation with the first female rapper to ever release a full-length album, MC Lyte.
You released the first female rap album in 1988. Five years later, your fourth album, Ain’t No Other, was the first to go gold. It took a bit of time. Iggy Azalea released “Fancy” in February of this year and it went platinum in May. After the second week of her debut album release, she became the first non-American female rapper to hit the top of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts. What do you think about that?
MC Lyte: First off I would just say that hip-hop has grown since my first record. There’s just no comparison between the times. It has grown wide and embedded into everyone’s culture. It doesn’t matter what color you are when you can tap into what people can enjoy and want to hear. Yes, hip-hop was born out of a struggle, but it was never intended to not encompass all cultures. Iggy is a lover of the hip-hop culture. You can just tell by the way she rhymes that she’s studied. She’s from overseas as well. They have a different level of appreciation for all of hip-hop, no matter the year. So congratulations to her.
Is it wrong to think it might take away from young black female artists trying to break into the game if someone like Iggy Azalea, who mostly makes pop hits cloaked in hip-hop, seems to have such a broader appeal right off the bat?
I don’t think it can be any harder than it already is. Prior to her coming on the scene, there was a struggle with having more than just one female on the scene representing all female MCs or representing all women or having all women looking towards one female representation. That trouble was there long before Iggy stepped on the scene, so do I think it makes it a little more difficult than it was before?
What about in terms of the commercialism of various artists, because that’s inseparable from hip-hop right now. Do you think labels might go straight for white rappers because they have this proven pop appeal?
I believe the face of rap changed with Fergie, with Nellie Furtado, and with Gwen Stefani working with hip-hop producers. You know, Will.I.Am, Neptunes...
Exactly. So to me it just seems systematic that hip-hop has grown. I mean, there was a white woman who did it before all of us—Blondie. Well, I wouldn’t say before all of us—Sha-Rock was first. But Blondie did it before me. The only thing record labels are interested in is making money. They’re a business. So if they find an artist who has pop appeal that the masses are going to be quicker to purchase, they'll do it. I don’t think it’s a record labels business to further the mission of hip-hop culture or to educate, unfortunately. We need to be the ones that make that decision and then you’d see it in the content of our music. But we’re not concerned with that.
What would the content be, in that case?
It would be what it was back then. It would sound a little bit more realistic. It would be more reflective of the struggle that’s actually happening. It would be the reporting of truth. And right now, it’s a big party. But people are not partying 24-hours-a-day—if they are, then there’s an issue. There’s a problem. For the most part, I think it would be like a Common album that speaks on what’s going on in places like Chicago and is more reflective of what’s really happening.
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