LandSpeed Records continues to make legendary recordings available to those interested in receiving hip-hop history lessons. After Master Ace, MC Shan, Biz Markie and Kool G Rap, it’s the Juice Crew’s leading lady who gets the best-of treatment. This is not Roxanne Shante’s first retrospective, however. In 1995, Cold Chillin’ Records released “Greatest Hits”, with a tracklisting very similar to the 2002 version. In fact, 13 tracks are identical, with the only difference that “The Best of Cold Chillin’ – Roxanne Shante” contains four more tracks that predate her debut album. There’s “Def Fresh Crew”, “Bite This”, “Runaway” and “The Payback”, all rare recordings which albeit having surfaced on other compilations, have never met on the same release.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, the people in charge messed up severely when it came to correctly crediting the tracks. “Def Fresh Crew” was most definitely NOT produced by TrakMasterz in ’92. “Bite This” was certainly NOT produced by Tony T in ’92. “Runaway” was NOT produced by Kool G Rap NOR was it released in 1990. “The Payback” sounds nothing like ’92 or involving production by the likes of Sir Jinx and TrakMasterz. Q. Neighbor did NOT produce the original versions of “Have a Nice Day” and “Go on Girl”. “Dance to This” was NOT produced by Marley Marl but Grand Daddy IU. “Knockin’ Hiney” was NOT produced by Q. Neighbor and “Feelin’ Kinda Horny” NOT by Marley Marl. It was the other way around. “Brothers Ain’t Shit” was produced by Kool G Rap & Large Professor, NOT by Marley Marl. “Big Mama” was written and produced by Grand Daddy IU, NOT by Marley Marl. Mister Cee, NOT Kool G Rap, Large Professor & Anton did “Yes Yes Y’all”. “Straight Razor” was produced by TrakMasterz, NOT by Large Professor. “Deadly Rhymes” was produced by Kool G Rap and Large Professor, Eric B. had nothing to do with it. Neither did he do “Queen Pin” from 1995 (not 1990), that was done by Tony T.
Provided my sources are legit, LandSpeed and whoever was responsible for compiling or manufacturing this album got exactly one credit right: the CJ Mackintosh remix of “Live on Stage”. Big deal, the important thing is that the tracks are there, you might say. True, but since her only two albums, 1989’s “Bad Sister” and 1992’s “The Bitch Is Back”, are rather hard to find, some young hip-hop enthusiasts who do care might never find out they were provided with false information. And say what you will, but getting facts like these straight should be a top priority for any retrospective.
Here’s why this release is still important: A handful may have come before her, hundreds after her, but to this day Roxanne Shante remains a symbol for what female MC’s can achieve in the male-dominated rap world.
Tracing the life and times of Roxanne Shante means to go back to the very beginning of the new school era. At the tender age of 14, Lolita Shante Gooden, originally from Jamaica, Queens, initiated her career by going up against a group of grown guys. When Brooklyn’s UTFO released their hit “Roxanne, Roxanne” in 1984, a song about three men unsuccessfully competing for “stuck-up Roxanne”, nobody would have imagined they would get dozens (someone tallied even over 100) of answer records. A substantial amount of those, however, were directed at Shante, who was single-handedly responsible for the Roxanne craze of 1985. Overhearing a conversation between the trio of Tryone Williams, Mister Magic and Marley Marl, who felt instrumental in breaking “Roxanne, Roxanne” on the radio and were upset that UTFO hadn’t shown up for a gig they had organized, the runaway with a talent for freestyling offered her services.
She went to cut “Roxanne’s Revenge” on Marley’s 4-track recording equipment at his Queensbridge home, Magic and Marley played it on their show, and the response was so overwhelming that “Roxanne’s Revenge” was later pressed up by Philadelphia’s Pop Art Records, at first simply taped off the radio, complete with Mister Magic announcing the record. UTFO threatened to take legal action against the use of their instrumental, and so “Roxanne’s Revenge” was re-recorded. It is my understanding that “DJ Red Alert Presents Beats, Rhymes & Battles Vol. 1” features a newer, stripped down version, while the track in front of me is very much based on the original Full Force-produced track.
Hearing this Roxanne come to life to the very same music over which The Kangol Kid, Doctor Ice and The Educated Rapper got back at the girl who had turned them down is part of the experience, part of the joke. Imagine their surprise when they heard their creation come alive, asking in an annoying tone, “why’d you have to make a record ’bout me?” As a result, Roxannes popped up everywhere in 1985. UTFO were quick to introduce The Real Roxanne, while others tracked down her family: “The Parents of Roxanne” (by Gigolo Tony & Lacey Lace), “Roxanne’s Man” (by The Invasions), “Roxy (Roxanne’s Sister)” (by DW and the Party Crew). Even “Roxanne’s Doctor” (by Dr. Freshh) spoke up, although he could not confirm that “Roxanne’s a Man” (by Ralph Rolle).
But “Roxanne’s Revenge” was more than just a joke. In an article from 1987, Shante is quoted as saying: “”Roxanne’s Revenge” is saying that guys should stop talking about girls because it’s not working anymore. It’s played out! Talking about girls is fine as long as you’ve got something good to say about them. Why do you always gotta say girls are stuck up?”
There is definitely a feminist statement hidden somewhere in this song. But most of all, it radiated that raw hip-hop attitude. In their book “Bring the Noise”, authors Havelock Nelson and Michael A. Gonzales wrote:
‘[“Roxanne’s Revenge”] is – perhaps – best remembered for its brutal grit and casual spunk. It stood out, in stark, funky contrast, against more polished cuts by hitmakers Kurtis Blow, Whodini and the Fat Boys. And Shante’s vicious, profane style caught even the toughest rap customers off guard. She started off “Revenge” by bragging, in breathless, squeaky-voiced tones, about how effortlessly she could rock a jam. Then, over a sample stolen from the instrumental mix of “Roxanne, Roxanne”, Shante got nasty, directing to, among other things, “suck my bush.” She was out to define a respectable place for women in hip hop, and her pointed rhyme cut through all the mysogyny and sexism associated with the artform. Not just another b-girl honey, Shante cold-cocked all the skeezoids and, on rap’s battleground she became a force to be reckoned with.’
Supposedly selling a quarter of a million copies in New York alone, “Revenge” made Roxanne hip-hop’s first female superstar. She is said to have performed up to three shows in three different states in one day, jetting around in private planes. But cutting full-length records was still out of the norm at that time. So until she finally released her debut album in 1989, she ‘only’ released a handful of 12-inches. At least five of them on Pop Art Records, all produced by Marley Marl: “Roxanne’s Revenge” (84), “Bite This” (85), “Runaway” (85), “Queen of Rox (Shante Rox On)” (85), “Def Fresh Crew” with Biz Markie (86), “I’m Fly Shante” with Steady B (86) and “The Payback” (87). She also collaborated with Rick James on the R&B chart-topping “Loosey’s Rap” (88) and with Brandon Cooke on the acid track “Sharp as a Knife” (88).
Interestingly, Shante wasn’t the first female rapper Marley Marl, the musical mastermind behind the Juice Crew, had worked with: In 1983 he came out with Dimples D’s “Sucker DJ’s (I Will Survive)”. He cut several plates with MC Shan, and finally Cold Chillin’ and the Juice Crew began to take shape with Biz Markie’s debut EP in ’86 (Prism). Her own first singles on the label were “Have a Nice Day” (87) and “Go on Girl” (88), but you can bet the initial success of “Roxanne’s Revenge” ultimately laid the foundation for Cold Chillin’ Records, established exactly two years after “Revenge”. And despite strong competition, she hold her own amongst a crew of male heavyweights, most notably Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap.
This brings up the topic of ghostwriting. The credits on her first “Greatest Hits” compilaiton list a whole bunch of writers and just once the name Gooden is mentioned (co-authoring “Knockin’ Hiney”). Marley is credited for writing “Roxanne’s Revenge”, Big Daddy Kane for “Have a Nice Day” and “Go on Girl”, Kool G Rap for “Live on Stage”, G Rap and Large Professor for “Brothers Ain’t Shit” and “Deadly Rhymes”, G Rap and TrakMasterz for “Straight Razor”, Grand Daddy IU for “Big Mama”, and “Dance to This”, Master Ace for “Yes Yes Y’all”, and finally someone named Elite for “Queen Pin”.
This indeed rubs a rap lover wrong. Especially for someone who is said to have had a reputation for freestyling, went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology and who boasted on her farewell track: “Untouchable Queen Pin, the most relentless in the business, making money without men.” How can you record a rap called “Independent Woman” when you haven’t written it yourself?
Well, it may not be as bad as it looks. Who knows how writing credits were handled back in the days? Maybe Rox was involved in the lyric writing process but overpowered by the males? Unfortunately, some tracks DO bear all too clear the style of their alleged authors. Anybody familiar with Kool G Rap can sniff out the tracks he left on “Brothers Ain’t Shit” and “Deadly Rhymes”, where he even makes a cameo. “Yes Yes Y’all” is unmistakably Master Ace, and you can easily imagine Kane authoring “Have a Nice Day” and “Go on Girl”.
It was and still is quite common for female rappers to stand in the shadows of male mentors. Most of Roxanne’s late ’80s/early ’90s peers were rolling with a male posse. But they made it clear that they wrote their own lyrics. So what was the Juice Crew thinking? Maybe they were overprotective and wanted to make sure Roxanne became a success. Maybe every record was seen as a group effort, and they acted by what you could call a hip-hop version of ‘one for all, all for one’? After all, Kane penned some of Biz’ greatest hits and there was never much commotion about it. Maybe they just found out earlier than everyone else that a rap record is a product and that as such it has to be as good as possible. Maybe for the men, writing a woman’s rhymes fulfilled some type of strange fantasy. Or maybe it was just a scheme to screw her out of any writing and publishing rewards.
Her regular album credits show that she did write some of her lyrics (the J.J. Fad dis “Wack Itt” for example). Also, a Pop Art Records compilation credits her as a co-writer of all the cuts she appears on. Look at this lengthy review as an effort to do the job the compilers of this CD failed to do. Ultimately, the evidence remains inconclusive. She may have written all of her earlier material, she may also have been involved in writing her two albums. What remains is the fact that it is Roxanne Shante who raps on these tracks. So while we should be hesitant to judge Roxanne by her lyrics, we are free to judge her by everything else.
If people took to revengeful Roxanne, it certainly wasn’t because of the finesse of her performance. “Roxanne’s Revenge” attempts to be elaborate, but comes off clumsy. Sounding exactly like the inexperienced young rapper that she was, she fights in vain to find a suitable flow, her voice unsteady and her characterization of ‘Roxanne’ flat. But as mentioned, that is very much part of the record’s crude charm. Indeed, if this was a casual freestyle battle, it might be acceptable even today.
By the time she cut “Bite This” and “Runaway”, her flow had already vastly improved. One of her best recorded performances is her interplay with Biz Markie beatboxing on the live recording “Def Fresh Crew”, speeding up and slowing down her flow, always in sync with the booming sounds Biz produces with his mouth. There’s definitely something to her claim “we rap so fresh that they think it’s three.” She continuously developped her breath control and learned how to accentuate, quickly becoming the dominant female rapper of the mid-’80s. So that by 1987, she could boast:
“A lot of MC’s today really know how to please
but I gave birth to most of them MC’s
so when it comes around to the month of May
send me your royalty check for Mother’s Day
Because yo, you know you can’t deal with this
I’m Shante the microphone grand mistress
a pioneer like Lola Falana
with a name that stands big like Madonna
Speaking of Madonna, some girls on the mic
rap like virgins and get real tight
but I get loose with the rhymes I produce
that’s why I’m queen of the Crew with the Juice
cause I’m the super female that’s called Shante
and like Hurricane Annie I’ll blow you away
Whenever I’m in a battle, yo, I don’t play
so you best go about your way
and have a nice day”
Her voice remained an acquired taste, as it never quite lost its squeaky timbre. But Rox made up for such shortcomings by displaying a confidence that even rappers exhibit only in rare cases. Notwithstanding the doubtful authorship, “Bite This” is a fine example as well, as she goes from scolding biters to calling out top-ranking acts like Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis Blow, a just-starting-out L.L. Cool J, her Roxanne rivals Sparky D and The Real Roxanne – “and all the other Roxannes imitatin’ me.” As a matter of fact, calling out names became this MC’s trademark. An attitude she developped very early on: “I’m talkin’ to all you MC’s out there / I’ll say your name cause I don’t care.”
The argument could be made that she herself bit off more than she could chew when she went against rappers like KRS-One and later tried to serve Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte and Yo-Yo in one single package. But in an environment where disses are almost always anonymous, those who get personal should get props for daring to name names. After all, Shante was gravely insulted by KRS-One, who on the classic “The Bridge Is Over” labelled her as “only good for steady fucking.” Of course she had to strike back:
“You may remember the voice from a few years ago
when I first came out and dissed UTFO
I chilled for a while, I put down my pen
but now some suckers from the Bronx got me started again
Now I’m not out to dis the whole Boogie Down
just a featherweight crew from that part of town
You made a little record and then you start frontin’
tried to dis the Juice Crew but ain’t hurt nothin’
Now KRS-One, you should go on vacation
with that name soundin’ like a wack radio station
and as for Scott La Rock, you should be ashamed
when T La Rock said “It’s Yours” he didn’t mean his name
So step back peasants, poppin’ all that junk
or else BDP will stand for Broken Down Punks
Cause I’m an all-star just like Julius Erving
and Roxanne Shante is only good for steady serving”
Still, the unprecedented “Big Mama” from ’92, as dope as it is, left a bitter taste. More than a desperate attempt it looked like a cheap stab at the dominant female MC’s of that time to gain some recognition. Still, down to the ghostwritten lyrics, the song is vintage Roxanne Shante. There’s no doubt that this girl’s best defense was her offense, “recitin’ poems that hit like boulders / smackin’ your head dead off your muthafuckin’ shoulders.”
Of course, disses are only one aspect of Shante’s recording career. Early on she tackled serious subjects. “Def Fresh Crew” talks about the dangers of crack cocaine, while “Runaway” sits down and has a talk with a young runaway, apparently speaking from experience. Her most outspoken songs (besides “Independent Woman”) may be “Brothers Ain’t Shit” and “Straight Razor”. The former (which possibly might have provoked the infamous “The Chronic” bonus cut “Bitches Ain’t Shit”) laments male infidelity with loads of funny punches:
“Brothers ain’t shit
so don’t honk your horn, keep rollin’
No, I don’t wanna ride cause the shit might be stolen
Anyway, I know your number
You got a “Gas, Grass Or Ass”-sticker on your bumper
Go ahead and say I’m stuck up
cause I ain’t doin’ nothin’ that’ll make my rep fucked up
cause it happens to the best of us
fuck the rest of us, niggas keep testin’ us
A man could make you wanna kill him
or late at night make you wanna thrill him
he’ll give you money, you can even be fly
but he still has to cheat, and you wanna know why?
That’s the dog in him – woof woof
that makes him get up in the middle of the night and go poof”
As a result, she considers the use of voodoo as a remedy (“Make his dick small / make him see spiders on the wall / then make him throw a fit / Why? Cause brothers ain’t shit”). “Straight Razor” takes things a little further. Here, the authoring Kool G Rap lays out a narrative that is simply too gory for Shante, as she comes off too much like a female version of Kool G Rap. More in tune with her humourous nature was “Knockin’ Hiney”, which basically said: You’re spreading rumours about me? All you can kiss is my ass. On the other hand, she wasn’t ashamed to express her sexual needs, see the lascivious “Feelin’ Kinda Horny”. Also in her repertoire were club tunes who were still strong on the lyrical side (“Go on Girl”, “Live on Stage”, “Dance to This”, “Yes Yes Y’all”).
To conclude, “The Best of Cold Chillin’ – Roxanne Shante” saves a rapper from oblivion who in 1988 already was ready to claim her veteran status:
“Whatcha gonna do to this?
You may be older than me, but you’re new to this
cause I been out there, queen of MC’s
when your man was walkin’ round in mocknecks and Lee’s
While you were over here perpetratin’ a fraud
I was overseas on the charts with Boy George
You’re the beginner, Shante’s the winner
Have another competition for dinner
Sit you on the table with a plate and cup
say grace and then eat your ass up”
Roxanne Shante was the very definition of a sassy lass on the mic. One that would appease fans and attack foes in the same breath. All of which unmistakably makes her the blueprint for today’s female rappers – with the main difference being that her versatility reflects the versatility of that golden era of rap, lyrically, musically and mentally. Last but not least, her pioneering role alone makes her one of the most important hip-hop artists of all time as she went from being the original Roxanne to become an original MC. All the while, she remained a female rapper and never aspired to be a feminist rapper. All she ever did was fight for the right to rap:
“Men say that women are only good for cooking, cleaning, and making babies. That’s changing. But now if a woman goes to work, people call her a woman of the world. When men go out to work, they’re just working men. Why can’t they just be working women?”
One thing is for sure: Shante went out and got the job done.