May 23-29, 2002
Since rap music emerged from the South Bronx in the 1960s, the music has branched out into a worldwide hip-hop culture that's been linked to everything from social activist movements to gang violence, from spiritual consciousness to moral obscenity.
Though it would be impossible to pigeonhole rap's many cultural roles, one thing is certain: Rap music has been dominated from its beginnings by men.
The genre has its roots in the generally aggressive and macho competitive style bf Jamaican party music called "toasting," where DJs would talk or "rap" over the songs and "battle" each other to prove who was the best.
"The competition boiled down to who had the loudest system and the most original records and technique," says Henry A. Rhodes, a fellow at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute who developed a curriculum to help teach hip-hop culture to middle-school and high-school students in American history classes.
"It was not uncommon for things to get out of hand and for fighting to erupt during these DJ battles once the crowds got caught up in this frenzy."
After the Sugar Hill Gang released the seminal commercial-radio-friendly hit song "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, rap began to crossover from the ghettos and into white, middle-class culture. Hip-hop culture, however, continued to be dominated by male producers and artists.
Many of the complex sub-genres like dirty rap and gangster rap — which brought the sometimes morally outrageous and criminal aspects of the music into the national spotlight-—often objectified and denigrated women, further emphasizing rap as a male dominion.
"What in society isn't dominated by men?" said Joel Aigner, owner of Mole 33 Records, a downtown store that specializes in hip-hop and electronic music in Colorado Springs. "Hip-hop is a part of society and therefore its value systems are going to run parallel to society's."
Though men still constitute and control the vast majority of the commercial industry, women rappers are emerging as a force.
There is not necessarily much difference in the topics women rap about; rather the perspective usually reflects where the individual artist is coming from.
And, much like some male rappers denigrate or objectify women, some female rappers slap right back about men.
Several often-overlooked female hip-hop pioneers and innovators set the stage for women's emergence in hip-hop. The suavely confident group ESG, for example, carved a positive niche for women who weren't content to watch from the sidelines in the late '70s and early '80s. Roxanne Shante (whose records are out of print) could rhyme, brag and talk trash just as ruthlessly as any male master of ceremonies.
The femme phenomenon Salt'N Pepa broke into commercial party rap with their hit "Push It." And more recently, commercial all-stars like bad-girl diva - Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and potty-mouthed gangster Lil' Kim have dared to claim the same kind of authority as male MCs.
Armed with a guitar, hip-hop beats, a do-it-yourself approach to production, and an erotic post-feminist stage persona, Princess Superstar began to do what no other female MC had ever done: invade commercial hip-hop while retaining total control over her own music.
On her first two albums, Strictly Platinum (1995) and CEO (1997), Superstar combined all her interests and influences, blending frantic punk and metal riffs with Died hip-hop beats and her bitingly quick wordsmithing (she was in the Latin club in high school) in a great big cultural Cuisinart. Evading categorization. Princess Superstar has baffled the record industry.
Determined to be entirely self-produced, Superstar held down a day job at the Women's Financial Association (WFA) doing web work to support her own label (with the ironic moniker A Big Rich Major Label), Though she had no corporate aspirations, working for the WFA taught her a lot about running her own business. For Superstar, it was the only way to avoid having her dignity and creative control swallowed by the record industry.
Though she hasn't gotten much radio play outside the college stations stateside, her new European fame and the growing support and recognition she's getting in the U.S. have allowed her to finally quit her day job-—and signals the rise of a new hip-hop underground.
The Independent caught up with the Princess, who recently performed in Boulder, to talk about gender, sex, the record industry and the many years of dedication it takes to make it on your own.
Indy: 'You run your own label. You do your own production. You tour, etc. So what's an average day like for you?
PS: Fortunately I'm now officially a working musician, thank God! My day usually starts out with about 100 e-mails I have to answer. And that's everything from business deals to fans to friends. After that I try to go to the gym, which barely happens. Then I'll either be working on music or just going to tons of meetings. It's crazy.
Indy: You must have had so many offers from major labels.
PS: I did have a lot of offers in the beginning, but they either wanted to change me, or they promised me a lot of money but never came through with anything. And then there was a period where nobody wanted anything to do with me because they just didn't know what to do with me. They couldn't figure out what I was doing because sometimes I would rhyme and sometimes I'd play guitar and rock out and sometimes I'd do drum and bass. I think they were a bit scared. At that point I just took things into my own hands and started my own label.
Indy: Do you feel like you got to sidestep a lot of the discrimination in the music industry?
PS: Yeah, definitely. When you take things into your own hands, then you can avoid a lot of the bullshit that goes on in the music industry. Especially now in Europe where I have a really big hit with "Bad Babysitter."
Indy: What or who do you feel like gave you the green light to talk about sex so freely?
PS: It wasn't any one thing, but I think I was influenced a lot by people like Prince, and I also just had a super sexual imagination. There was a point I started wondering why men like Prince can talk about sex so freely while it's so scandalous when a woman does it!
Indy: But you don't seem to be pushing sexual politics. It just sounds like you're having a good time.
PS: I actually do like to push buttons, but in asubtle, comedic way. And I think that's more effective than hitting you over the head with a hammer and trying to be all in-your-face about it. I think comedy is a strong political tool.
Indy: So what's next?
PS: I'm just touring a lot. My latest fantasy is to have Dolly Parton singing on a hook and me and Ghostface Killah going back and forth. [I'm] trying to write the next album ... a musical about cloning. The song with Dolly Parton all fits in--you know how the first cloned sheep was called Dolly.
— Noel Black