Compilation Spotlights Women Rocking Hip-Hop Mikes, Battling 'Vixen' Stereotypes
When Pam the Funkstress started out as a member of East Oakland's all-female hip-hop group 3 Deep in the early '90s, she was one of the only woman DJs in the local scene. Today, that's not the case -- she points to numerous women who spin regularly in Bay Area clubs, such as Backside, Neta and Daniela, to name a few.
In the past couple of years, all-female DJ nights have become much more common locally, but the phenomenon isn't limited to the Bay Area. "I didn't realize how many women DJs were really, really out there until I hit MySpace," Pam confides with a chuckle.
Typically, women in hip-hop have been portrayed as video vixens (i.e. Karrine "Superhead" Stephens), oversexed divas (think Lil' Kim and Trina), or asexual tomboys (a la Lady Sovereign). Occasionally, they get to be girlfriends of a thugged-out Big Willie type, but only if they're "bootylicious" (like Beyoncé). However, those limited stereotypes are but a small representation of the role women have actually played in the culture.
This week, S.F.-based independent label Outta Nowhere Entertainment hopes to alter the public perception of women in hip-hop with the release of "Queendom, Vol. 1," the first in a projected series spotlighting female emcees and DJs from across the country and the world.
This long-overdue tribute to women in rap is the brainchild of S.F. rapper and entrepreneur Oposit, who became inspired after throwing a series of successful female-themed showcases with local hip-hop collective Sisterz of the Underground between 2002 and 2005. After seeing the diverse array of female talent -- not just rappers, but b-girls, graffiti writers and DJs -- at these events, he remembers thinking, "Yo, this is crazy. We got a movement!"
Yet, while researching the idea of an all-female rap album, he discovered there weren't many on the market. In fact, he was aware of only one such collection: Rhino's three-volume 1998 set, "Fat Beats and Bra-straps." "To me, this was a void in the marketplace," he says.
Oposit knew of the wealth of female talent in the Bay Area's underground scene, yet, "I wasn't really seeing that as far as how women (rappers) were being portrayed in the mainstream." He spent six months doing market research, and he found that the "Queendom" concept had an even larger appeal than he initially thought. "People who said, 'I want to like rap but I can't because of its attitudes toward women' were all for it. ... I got a 90 percent positive response across the board."
Oposit reached out to female rappers, both known and unknown, to license tracks for the album. "All the artists were feeling (it)," he says. Yet because the album was on a small indie label, he adds, "I don't think anybody really knew what to expect."
"Queendom's" diverse lineup includes East Coast veterans MC Lyte, Bahamadia, Ladybug Mecca and Apani B. Fly, as well as NYC turntablist Kuttin' Kandy, L.A.'s Medusa, Sacramento's Tenashus, Portland's Siren's Echo, and Australia's Macromantics. Thankfully, "Queendom" doesn't overlook the Bay Area's feminine hip-hop royalty: Pioneering women such as the Conscious Daughters, spoken word/hip-hop theater maven Aya De Leon and Pam the Funkstress are along for the ride as well.
"As a female, I'm 120 percent behind this compilation," Pam says, adding, "It's inspiring to see a woman do anything a man can do."
During a recent interview with De Leon and the Conscious Daughters in Oakland, the three discussed what it means to be a woman in hip-hop, the prevalence of sexism and misogyny in the culture and how that relates to society as a whole.
According to De Leon, "There have always been a lot of fabulous and really strong women artists in every field," including hip-hop. However, she says, "a lot of times, hip-hop gets blamed for the problems of the larger society. And I think, when it comes to women, this is certainly no exception."
As she notes, "Sex sells in a society that sells sex." And while hip-hop videos have contributed to the sexual objectification of women, "The Lil' Kims and the Trinas aren't the gatekeepers. They're not the decision-makers." Even more problematic, De Leon says, is the fact that "you have porn directors directing (music) videos ... one of the things about super-sexualized imagery is the more you have, the more numb people are to how sexualized it is, how over the edge."
To CMG of the Conscious Daughters, sexual imagery and objectification "comes with the territory right now of what's mainstream. Showing what you have. You gotta have money and cars, and along with that comes a lot of T&A."
Her partner in rhyme, Special One, says, "It's come to a level with the exploitation of women where it's like, what more can you do? Take off your bikini?"
Even so, Special One -- who notes that the Conscious Daughters' first two albums, 1994's "Ear to the Street" and 1996's "Gamers," sold more than 700,000 units combined -- believes that "any female MC that's good will be heard. I don't think you gotta be so super-sexy with a long weave and be the baddest bitch."
Speaking of the b-word, De Leon and the Conscious Daughters have somewhat differing ideas regarding the controversial term. De Leon says she makes a point not to use it in her personal conversations, although she relates that in her one-woman hip-hop theater show "Thieves in the Temple," one of her characters "uses it intermittently as a term of empowerment for herself, or as a way of attacking other women."
"I think (these words) become signifiers of being urban or being down or being edgy, when that may or may not be people's reality," she says. "Overall, I think it reflects the casual way that sexism is in all fibers of our culture, certainly not just in hip-hop or the language people use in hip-hop."
For the Daughters, who "grew up in Oakland listening to Too $hort," "bitch" is "just a word," which could be either empowering or degrading, depending on the context. "A man could be a bitch," Special One says. "Don't limit that word to just a woman."
Part of the problem with hip-hop's attitudes toward women is the genre's inherent gender imbalance. As De Leon relates, "A lot of times, there's the compilation with just one woman." Often, she'll do a show and discover "I'll be the one woman on the bill." This perceived separation, she says, can lead to a sense of tokenism.
"It's hard being the only woman. You feel like you have to speak for all women everywhere. ... You've gotta be really tight, because you're the only one representing for your gender that whole night."
Asked why there haven't been more all-women rap compilations, Special One replies, "I'm sure there are a whole lotta women trying," adding, "I know a lot of young female MCs and a lot of female producers that are making beats." In addition to the "Queendom" project, the Daughters have a new album, entitled "The Nutcracker Suite," scheduled for summer 2007 on local indie label Guerilla Funk Recordings.
The album's title, which the Conscious Daughters say was given to them by their producer, Paris, is intended as a not-so-gentle rebuke of rap's patriarchy. "It's a male-dominated industry," Special One explains. Because of "the tits-and-ass thing, with the girls being exploited all the time, we're going for your balls." Ouch, indeed.
But if women ran hip-hop -- as De Leon's spoken word track on "Queendom" imagines -- would that also mean the end of sexism and misogyny in the genre? Not necessarily, all three admit. "It would depend on who the women were and what their agenda was," De Leon says.
"You know how male artists have their crews? There'd be more catfights," Special One says with a laugh. "But at the same time, I think it'd be more productive, more of substance." According to CMG, "the topics would change. We would talk about other things than sex." For instance, "domestic violence, adultery, teenage pregnancy, runaways," Special One says, finishing the thought.
She points out that on "The Nutcracker Suite," the Conscious Daughters address some of those thorny issues. On prior albums, the duo focused their efforts on being equally as hardcore as their male counterparts; this time, they also express a more mature perspective.
"We've been here for 10 years. We've realized that we have grown," Special One says. "Younger girls are looking up to us, so we don't wanna say, 'Oh, we ridin' and getting high all the time.' That's not what we're about. We wanna let 'em know it's more than sexism in hip-hop and in life, period."
These women may be among the most visible females in the Bay Area hip-hop scene, but they're far from the only ones.
Although Pam the Funkstress feels there's still a long way to go -- in particular, she cites the lack of women DJs on commercial radio as a major obstacle -- she's aware of the influence female hip-hoppers can have on young women. She's spun for girls aged 14-18 at the Huckleberry Youth Programs who were very inspired by "seeing a woman who can hang with the best of 'em."
To De Leon, the very notion of women in hip-hop is an empowering one.
"There's something about hip-hop, it forces you to step up and face all your fears and insecurities. There's nothing but you and the beats and your words," she says. "When I was coming up, hip-hop was something new. Nowadays, it's everywhere." For that reason, she says, "We need to keep putting out those positive images and those strong voices."
Echoing that sentiment, Special One adds, "we have to be recognized other than just standing next to the rapper guy. We have something to say too." The Conscious Daughters: ?Fresh? performers. 9 p.m. Fri. Poleng Lounge, 1751 Fulton St., San Francisco.