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The Struggle: Where Are the Female MCs?

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Longing for the days of old is nothing new for Hip-Hop heads.  The conscious, grimy, hustlin’, party filled soundtrack of the last millennium have been replaced with today’s swagger filled, remixed, R&B collabo (complete with vocoder) cuts.  Despite these shifts, one thing that hasn’t changed is the struggle of the female MC to stay as relevant as her male counterparts while keeping her clothes on, and avoiding arrest. During Hip-Hop’s rise, it was nothing for a female MC to get on the mic and rock hard, if not harder, just to prove that she belonged.  Even if that meant sporting a baggy pair of Cross Colours just to keep the focus on her lyrical skills and off her ass. They didn’t switch up their fashion game just to simply get on, but to get on with respect. Did it work?Gaining respect upon entering the game was a no brainer for rapper Terressa “Shortie No Mas” Thompson.  Bursting onto the scene in the early 90’s after collaborating with De La Soul, Shortie admits that even her name had to make a statement before she uttered one rhyme.  “No Mas was added by Posdenous and it means no more,” explains Mas.  “[He meant] I don’t need make up or to get my hair done. I can just be dope for what I am.”  Being dope equaled respect.  “Everybody was more about skills as opposed to image back then,” continues Mas.  “You might not sell as many units as a male artist, but you definitely had more of an arena to be more respected for your skills.”  Inspiration Produced by JZone – Shortie No MasFemale rap icon Roxanne Shante’s first hit, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” commanded lyrical attention right away.  Recorded as a response to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” the track about a girl that just couldn’t be had put the then sixteen year old in the spotlight as one of the first female MC’s to step into the male dominated battle arena and hold her own.  Dr. Shante too remembers a time when lyrical ability held more weight than being sexy.  “I didn’t compromise my sexuality nor did I flaunt it,” she says. “I said some atrocious lyrics and probably said some things that I may not say now, but I kept my clothes on.”   

“Society itself is as much to blame as [Lil Kim & Foxy Brown] for

ushering in a sexy style. When was the last time you met an ugly

successful female artist?” -Marleny Dominguez (Koch Records)

But times changed and so did the art of emceeing. When it did, women had to incorporate a more feminine imagery into the mix in order to stay relevant and boost sales. According to Koch urban label head Marleny Dominguez, labels weren’t the only ones dictating those changes.  “If you look at a timeline, when MC Lyte was out the fashion style was baggy jeans and shirts.  Enter 1995 and 1996 you will see Hip-Hop changed its style. Enter the Foxy Browns and Lil’ Kim’s of the world. I think that society itself is as much to blame as the female MC for ushering in a sexy style.  When was the last time you met an ugly successful female artist?  We can’t accept an ugly female but we can accept an ugly male.”The early 90’s Hip-Hop made room for Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown to introduce a raunchiness to female emceeing that hadn’t been heard or visualized before. While some expected and welcomed the change, others refused to compromise.  Roxanne Shante was one of them.“I left after I did ‘Big Mama,’” explains Shante. “I left in the same vein that I came in with. Hip-Hop wasn’t just my job or culture.  It was my religion.  I truly believed, lived, died, ate, and slept Hip-Hop.  That’s never going to change.  I am Hip-Hop.”  She continues, “When I saw that the turns and twists were applying to Hip-Hop, and then saw that they would be applied to me, I couldn’t take it.  When I realized that the industry was always going to be a pimp and ho industry I understood that if I didn’t become the pimp, guess what I was going to wind up being?”   Rah Digga, lone female member of the Flipmode squad who entered onto the scene with a voice of thunder and beautiful face to match, discusses how she sought to balance her skills and looks without having to compromise herself.  “If you show your ass and do all of that rapping about sex then that’s what I call slut rap.  I guess that was becoming the dominate thing when I was coming out and I had a hard road ahead of me.”  Happily she adds, “I think people still appreciate that I was real.  I was still grassroots as far as the lyrical aspects and didn’t know any other way to put it.”Tight – Rah DiggaOn the other hand Trina, whose latest effort is titled Still Da Baddest doesn’t think a sexy image has to detract from skill.  Making her debut on Trick Daddy’s ‘”Nann N***a” single, the Florida MC recognized early on what it was going to take to make it.  “Artists fail to realize that in order to stay relevant in any industry you have to stay on top of your game,” she says via email.  “You have to realize that every avenue in life is competitive and you have to work hard at your craft and make sure you are the best at it. The primary focus of staying significant in the rap game is leaving an influence and a major impact.” When asked if you can stay sexy and lyrically hard, the self proclaimed “Baddest Bitch” offers a simple reply.  “You can definitely be both; it’s all about being creative.”  Rapper Styles P, whose Ruff Ryders label brought Eve to light, agrees.  “Lauryn Hill had a nice clean image and she sold more than everybody with a dirty image.”Lost Ones – L BoogieThe buying habits of the Hip-Hop consumers often dictate what the next trends will be.  The industry has to offer the listener a complete package in order to encourage buyers to spend their hard earned cash in these days of slow sales.  Dominguez admits that for women to stay relevant, they must be able to break down barriers that male MC’s might not necessarily have to encounter.  She goes on to say women “have to prove their talent 700 more times than a male would” just because they are females.  “They don’t sell it as easily. They have to work harder to sell their struggle, story, lyrics, talent and craft.”  So it’s not the industry that packages the sexy to the masses?  Not completely according to Dominguez.  “I think you do have to look good right now. And that’s not because of Kim and Foxy.  That’s because of society in general.  Hip-Hop didn’t make women look like this.  You have to look good with anything you are involved in right now.” If looking good and selling sexiness doesn’t equal sales, can you still be relevant?  Maybe.  Rah Digga confesses what she realized a long time ago. “For whatever reason no matter how much you like a female, we seem to have a hard time convincing people to buy our albums.  I can’t even think of the last time a female rapper went gold or platinum.” Digga recognized that in order to make it, she had to be willing to change lanes and switch styles.  “We don’t mind the females as long as you are looking good and turning us on,” she says laughing.  “As soon as you start talking too much about how real in the field you are it starts disconnecting with folks.  I think rap is like a stepping stone for everybody and probably the shortest lived career for females.”  When asked what the industry may be missing Dominguez gives her take.  “I think it’s pretty much because no one’s bringing it that hard like it used to be.  Lyrically, personality, and style wise what’s different?”  Shortie No Mas, offers up her insight on the difficulty women trying to stay relevant experience in a fickle industry always looking for the next hot thing. “It’s a male dominated industry. Whether it was gangta rap back in the day to now, there is a perception that it [Hip-Hop] will be represented better by a black male rather than a female.  I also think that females in general don’t support Hip-Hop.  It’s such a large scale of male consumers.”  Can a female MC be packaged and sold just like a CD?  Shortie No Mas says yes.  “I think that everything is visual.  I don’t think you have to be able to sing or rhyme.  I think that if you can be marketed in a way that is visually appealing to men, then you are going to win.”Trina believes ladies can sell as well as men, but the reasons they might not be have nothing to do with looks.  “I think that it is so hard for females to stay relevant in the Hip-Hop industry because there is no unity among any of the female rappers that are currently out,” she offers.  “The primary focus of staying significant in the rap game is leaving an influence and a major impact.  We can have a whole female music movement.”So what’s going on?  What do female MC’s have to do get props and sales? According to Styles, it’s all in the way you grind.  “Go hard like a man,” he said.  “You gotta go out there and hustle like a man just like any other corporation in America.  Get out there and bust your ass like anybody else. I think its all in the work you put out and the track record you lay.  I think it has to do with the amount of work you put out.”  Time in the spotlight already comes with a number. In the days when one’s career fate can be sealed with an arrest, the key to longevity seems to be an ability to stay optimistic in an industry that doesn’t embrace its female rappers for long.  Being able to bounce back from low sales, controversy and a temperamental audience are par for the course.  Trina envisions a crop of female MC’s coming together ladies first style and taking over. “I do believe that the rap game is male dominated but you never know around this time next year Lil Kim, Eve, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliot and myself might put together a whole album and take over the world,” she laughs.  “The Hip-Hop industry is nothing more than what you make it.  As an artist you get back from your fans what you put out.  If you demand respect you will get respect.”

“What saddens me is here it is 25 years later and

they still do the comparisons to me… I can’t express enough how sad I am about the

females in Hip-Hop today.” -Roxanne Shante

What about the female artists who recognize the honor of being considered a skilled woman in the game is nothing to be taken lightly? Rah Digga offers her wisdom.  “I believe that emceeing is a gift and a talent and everybody does not possess it.  It’s something that you really have to work at. It’s a craft you have to work on like any other craft.  You can’t compromise your morals and principles.  People like to say lyrics don’t matter anymore.  They do matter.  There are a million and one people rapping and if you aren’t a skillful lyricist you aren’t going to matter anymore down the line either.”Roxanne Shante is still waiting for that next MC to pass the baton.  “I officially became a doctor in 2003 and I love being Dr. Roxanne Shante right now.  What saddens me is here it is 25 years later and they still do the comparisons to me.  Is it an honor? Of course.  Do I love the accolades?  Absolutely.  But it saddens me that in 25 years that I can’t say the torch has been passed on. They put a time line on them [female MC’s].  I can’t express enough how sad I am about the females in Hip-Hop today.” So what’s really preventing women in Hip-Hop from achieving the long term success they desire?   Is it lack of skills or lack of clothes?  Do they need more unity and less scrutiny?  Rah Digga gives her perspective to those female MC’s seeking answers.  “When you have the opportunity to make it, use it wisely.  Always remember as fast as you rose, it can be taken away.”

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