“Ladies listen up, I really hope you’re ready
cause what I’ve got to say is far from petty
We’ve come a long way, baby, so maybe
Shanté can help a sister that’s way be-
hind, lost in the mind, and can’t find
her way to a better day, you know the kind
So wrapped up in fairytale dreams
so naive that every male seems
honest and loyal, ready to spoil
Buyin’ him gifts as if the boy’s loyal
But Shanté is here just to say a few things
some you heard before, but some are new things
So lend me your ears, dry up your tears
and let’s hear the cheers for the years
of the independent woman”
(Roxanne Shanté, “Independent Woman,” ’89)
If rap music has witnessed anything that could be called The Years of the Independent Woman, it was the relatively short time span from 1987-1993. Those were crucial years for rap period, but particularly for female rap. Compared to this day and age when Eve can be advertised as ‘the last female rapper left,’ at the turn of the 1990s female rappers had the critical mass to be a force to be reckoned with: Roxanne Shanté, Sweet Tee, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Antoinette, JJ Fad, Dimples D, The Real Roxanne, YoYo, Michie Mee, MC Trouble, Finesse & Synquis, MC Peaches, Monie Love, Nikki D, LA Star, Ms. Melodie, Anquette, The Mistress & DJ Madame E, L’Trimm, The Poetess, Tairrie B, Isis, Choice, Ice Cream Tee, Queen Mother Rage, Oaktown’s .357, Lady of Rage, Boss, PreCISE MC, Nic’ee Quikk, LeShaun, HWA, Sista Souljah, BWP, Heather B, Def Dames, Bigga Sistas, Sweet n Lo’, Nefertiti…
In a New York Times article from October 21st 1990 (‘The Women Who Talk Back in Rap’), Jon Pareles pointed out, ‘Until recently, rapping was almost exclusively a men’s club, but a wave of women rappers appeared in the late 1980s and is gathering force. (…) Female rappers are still greatly outnumbered, but they’re beginning to speak up directly against macho bluster, and to remind the rap audience that women aren’t exclusively “bitches,” “hoes” (whores) or sex-crazed “freaks,” as too many male rappers pretend.’ Presenting releases from artists as different as Harmony and Hoes With Attitude, the author singled out Shazzy’s “Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody” as ‘the most ambitious and substantial new female rap album.’ After detailing the MC’s ‘multiple agendas,’ the writer offered, ‘Shazzy is always serious, unwilling to drop her guard; the only jokes turn up as snippets between songs. But Shazzy knows the difference between preaching and rapping; she lets the rhythm carry the message, never the other way around.’
The overview concluded, ‘The fray is bound to continue. Not just in rap, but across American society, gender roles are under contention; rap’s verbosity simply unveils what other pop tidies up. For now, women rappers are showing their male cohorts that they haven’t had the last word, and that designated sex objects can – and will – speak for themselves as the stakes grow higher.’
Establishing a female point of view was one of the most important innovations rap had yet to deliver by the mid-’80s, and it remains a continuing challenge in a business that is so visibly dominated by males. In a genre that relentlessly divides the world into winners and losers, those who regularly end up losing in rap songs – women – need positive role models. Not positive in the sense that their art should be devoid of negativity, but simply in that they are an option in the market, that they are visible to the audience, that they are given a chance to exist the way even the most chauvinistic MC’s are banked on by the music business. It’s about the other side of the story being told. Guys triumph all the time in their raps (whether over other males or females). Every once in a while a girl should be able to depict herself as the victor (be it in the everyday struggle, the rap competition, or in the battle of the sexes) instead of steadily being victimized. If that’s somehow inconvenient, for a woman to speak her mind through rap music, that casts a rather unfavorable light on our modern society.
It has to be noted that Shazzy was far from a full-time women’s libber. Hers was simply a female variation of the ‘attitude’ so characteristic for hip-hop and rap that the title of her album alluded to. That attitude is present throughout here, sometimes, such as on the bonus track “Jamaica, Jamaica,” where her and guest Kofa assert that there are “nuff strong women in the house,” with a distinct female note. There is one track on which she insists on discussing gender relations, the anthemic, rhythm & blues-inspired “Believe It’s So.” After praising Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, she adds, “anything a man can do, you know a woman can.” Although acknowledging, “There were great men in history – women of the same sort,” for some reason she fails to follow up with historical female figures. Instead, she attacks patriarchy that taught us “to believe that a woman was a tool to cook and clean.” Her diatribe culminates in the album’s strongest showing of female pride: “9 women out of 10 will tell ya: ‘Hell no / I ain’t livin’ like a body with no face / Identity is set, my mind is a terrible thing to waste.'” On “Believe It’s So” Shazzy is both an activist holding protest speeches and an attorney arguing for women’s liberation in court:
“When all men were ‘created equal,’ that meant the white man
and anything the white man could do, so could the black man
But understand the formula as it used to be:
Equivalent to 1 white man was black by 3
3 black men equivalent to 1
Then 6 women in general equivalent to none?
What is this a conspiracy? I’m not havin’ it
Opportunity steps to me and I’m grabbin’ at it
Books’ll be read as the words’ll be written
Time will go on and their tongues will be bitten
Cause all will grow and will rise to the highest height
Believe in yourself, you know, because it’s your right
Here was my example so that you could see
the better, the lesser of you, so the best you’ll be”
While empowerment was high up on Shazzy’s agenda, “Attitude” starts out on a pessimistic note, as “The Way it Is” touches on poverty, drug addiction, gun violence, homelessness, spousal abuse, etc. “Will it ever seem to me like anyone does care?” she wonders, as she sides with the victims: “Old Mrs. Smith’s the nicest woman in town / comin’ home from work she got robbed and beat down / It’s a shame how the younger overlook and neglect / Don’t this age have any kind of respect?” She adopts a parental point of view as well in “Get a Job Kid,” where she scolds drug dealers, “You got a lot to learn, you got a life to earn.” Ignoring the economic and social realities that might prevent someone from getting a job, she argues:
“You’re supposed to have money, but where do you live?
In the house with your mommy and one of your kids
You would pay the rent if you could tell your mom
You do make the money, but you don’t have a job
You’re slackin’ on self with no plan for your future
Bogartin’, it’s hard, your life as a moocher
Gettin’ caught by the cops is an everyday life style
And criminal livin’s livin’ low by a long mile
Soon you’ll get caught, you’ll be out in the cold
sportin’ your chains and your fat rings of gold
Bills to be paid and no money to pay them
no kinda job and no check’ll be waitin'”
But she also speaks about the political dimension of the conditions in “America, a land of opportunity / and only opportune if you’re not a minority,” as she quips in “The Way it Is.” The album’s political centerpiece is the intense “Black Is a Nation.” If Sista Souljah would have been actually able to rap, this is what it would have sounded like – a relentless lyrical assault over a dense, militant beat that only stops to catch its breath with a Chuck D “Refuse to lose!” snippet before continuing its attack. Public Enemy meets X Clan as Shazzy combines revolt against the oppressor and pride in African ancestry. When she concludes, “The doors’ll be open and black’ll be free / Black is a nation and black is me,” we are reminded that in the era “Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody” falls into rap music was indeed able to give the impression that black was a nation.
While some of the previously mentioned ladies were signed because of the sheer novelty of it, made highly forgettable music and fell for all the gender-specific traps the term ‘female rap’ holds, Shazzy was a serious MC who recorded a straight up rap album. As she said in “Play in Vain”: “Came to play, but nay, I won’t play in vain.” With a vocal tone that was a degree warmer than fellow Queens rapper Antoinette’s, she showed no mercy in her battle raps, cautioning competition, “Destroyin’ you in rhyme until the damage is done / I’ll disengage your heart from your soul cause I don’t have none,” and offering false hope only to strike twice as hard: “The beat breaks you down to a tear and I console you / under my wing; in time you feel I can be trusted / my Russian roulette I play fully loaded, then I bust it” (“Ode II a Dead Man”). And on “Here Endz the Conquest” she promises to “cut you down with the force of what a female said.”
While in “Playhouse” she portrays the femme fatale in a suggestive tale where males end up losing to her both as partners and competitors because they “refused to see what I saw in me.” Boasting that she’s “on a roll and in control like I’m supposed to be,” Shaz establishes a dominant persona for the greater part of her album. She takes full control on the hilarious “Giggahoe,” where she exposes an unfaithful ex as a gigolo, but “Heartbreaker” tells a different story as she switches roles, playing the promiscuous predator that doesn’t know a good thing until she loses it. True story or her way of making male listeners identify with her viewpoint?
“Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody” was not just Shazzy’s debut, it was also the first album completed by the Stimulated Dummies (AKA SD50’s) John Gamble, Dante Ross and Geeby Dajani. “Attitude” was for the SD50’s what “Paul’s Boutique” was for the Dust Brothers, what “3 Feet High and Rising” was for Prince Paul and De La Soul, what “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” was for the Bomb Squad – their playground. Not yet intimidated by the music industry’s backlash against sampling, they pieced together a collage of sounds that ever so often originated from outside of hip-hop’s immediate comfort zone, including blues breaks, funky folk guitars, highly differentiated drums, channeled eruptions of noise, and input from Grandmixer Muggs (soon-to-be-famous with Cypress Hill) on the turntables and Mackie Jayson (formerly of hardcore band the Cro-Mags) on the drums. A great number of vocal samples and adlibs, often serving as segues, add to the multi-layered structure of “Attitude.” They range from Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One lines to quotes from political figures such as Winston Churchill and films like ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, to Cheech & Chong comedy and a pioneering “SD50” producer tag.
To be a truly concerted effort, this “Hip-Hop Rapsody” may have needed a conductor. The vocal samples don’t always fit the songs they happen to be part of. There are occasions where you feel that Shazzy is merely the featured vocalist on a Stimulated Dummies record. Musically, she’s not as naturally part of the equation as the Beastie Boys, De La Soul or Public Enemy were on the aforementioned albums. Her nimble tongue and clear diction notwithstanding, her matter-of-fact voice risks being an accessory in the listening experience provided by the SD50s. But as self-proclaimed High Priestess of Funk she’s just the woman for the job to pay tribute to the forms of music that inspired rap on the bonus track “Do You Remember”: “Who’s to credit for the styles we drop? / Old funk and soul made it there for hip-hop.”
Lyrically, Shazzy positions herself “above all the lips that speak of lyrical junk,” and often does so with a rather unique parlance that doesn’t follow traditional sentence structuring too strictly. She’s completely out there with “I’ll Talk,” but balances her creative energy with plenty of well written songs. In sum, Shazzy was a competent, realistic rapper that could rely on an inspired, upbeat background. She was poised to come back in 1994 with a second album for Elektra. Boasting production from Pete Rock, EA-Ski & CMT, and Rockwilder, “Ghettosberg Address” would have probably presented a less feminine and less feminist Shazzy. A street version, so to speak. Being a sign of the times just as well, “Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody” is a pleasant reminder of the diverse opinions represented by rap music around 1990.