An Essential History of the Women of Hip-Hop
“This is a man’s world, thank you very much!” Ice Cube proudly proclaims in “It’s a Man’s World,” from his 1990 debut album AmeriKKK’s Most Wanted. But even he concedes that such one-note domination might make that world kind of boring, and lets Yo-Yo finish the couplet with a slam-dunk: “But it wouldn’t be a damn thing without a woman’s touch!” Similarly, Kathy Iandoli’s landmark God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop highlights the important role women have played in the development of the genre. With male artists more readily grabbing—some might say hogging—the spotlight over the years, Iandoli works to address the gender imbalance, finally giving female artists their due.
Though the book tells the tale chronologically, Iandoli stresses in the introduction that she didn’t intend for the book to be a linear history: “This is a collection of stories; a compilation of moments.” Her conversational approach allows the history to breathe and more readily come to life. And it’s a tangled history to sort out, especially in hip-hop’s early years. But Iandoli gets the story all first-hand from the women who were there, such as Debbie D an early female MC, later in the Us Girls, who shares her collection of flyers from an era when having your name on one of these colored posters might be the only evidence that your act ever existed. Interviewees run the gamut from influential pioneers like Baby D of the Mercedes Ladies to such well-known names as Lil’ Kim, Monie Love, Spindarella, Rah Digga, and Remy Ma, to name a few.
One recurring, and depressing, theme in the book is the continuing reluctance of the industry to make room for women in hip-hop, even as they’ve proved their commercial viability. As hip-hop was getting off the ground in the 1970s, there could be a woman in a rap crew…but only one. At the 1985 New Music Seminar MC Battle for World Supremacy, rapper Roxanne Shante was in the lead to claim the victory until Kurtis Blow knocked her out by giving her a low score, a move that even the victor, Busy Bee, felt was due to her gender: “I think they weren’t ready for a female to take the helm.” Blow now admits the error himself, telling Iondoli “She should’ve won … I still feel bad today about that.”
Columbia wanted to steer Lauryn Hill in a more R&B direction on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. According to the label’s senior advertising copywriter, “They wanted to market and promote her the same way they would Mariah Carey. They wanted a pop star,” until someone leaked “Lost Ones” to radio, forcing their hand. Miseducation went on to win four Grammys. And Iondoli argues that the industry doesn’t necessarily see new artists as expanding the field: “When Cardi B arrived, it was phrased that Nicki [Minaj] was being replaced, not that Cardi was widening the lane,” Iandoli writes.
Even an act’s success could be used against them, as when a radio program director dismisses the impact of Salt-N-Pepa’s breakthrough smash “Push It”: “The female rap songs are novelties. Some of them, like ‘Push It,’ are a little more of a song, while the others are a little more novelty. I hope the trend continues, but I don’t want to see a glut of product.” It’s an attitude that worked to keep women always on the outside, perennially a “trend.”
So in many ways, God Save The Queens is a book about struggle. Iandoli doesn’t say that male artists face no obstacles themselves, but that women encounter different ones. The double standards that allowed men to get “flashier … while women like Monie Love were shaving their heads just so they wouldn’t be hit on while proving their worth on a stage.” Ladybug Mecca (Digable Planets) says the “ingrained sexism” in hip-hop led in part to her taking a break from music for an entire decade. “I just started experiencing really disrespectful things from men in the industry,” she tells Iandoli. “Just shit like that is very shocking when it happens. It just wakes you up.”
But it’s also a story of triumph, as Iandoli charts the inexorable rise of women in hip-hop: “…women no longer have to collectively fight just for a seat at the table. Now they’re fighting for a spot at the head.” And it’s the story of hip-hop’s rise as well, from being a scrappy genre on the fringes to the dominant music force it is today. Iandoli brings to the subject not just her own extensive experience covering the genre, but her unabashed fandom (when a friend’s father secured TLC’s autographs for her on a cassette, she used a cheap detective kit to dust the case in the hopes of securing Lisa Lopes’ prints). It means she knows her subject from the inside out, and can relate that knowledge in the confident, assured manner of someone who just can’t wait to tell you why their favorite music is so great.
God Save the Queens is a much-needed, long overdue history that gives credit to hip-hop’s unsung progenitors, and celebrates the accomplishments of their successors. One such celebratory moment comes in Iandoli’s description of Lauryn Hill’s performance at the 2014 Summer Madness Music Conference & Festival in Martha’s Vineyard, with Debbie D and Sha-Rock (the Funky Four + 1) watching from the audience. At one point, the two women high-fived each other, Debbie D happily saying, “We created this.” And now there’s a history to tell you exactly how they did.
(Day Street Books, October 22, 2019)