"Rappin' and Rocking the House," a little-known 1979 single by the Funky Four Plus One, contains probably the first-ever female rapper on wax. She went by the name of Shy-Rock (she was the "Plus One") and dropped a few verses in the quaint and elemental style of hip-hop's so-called "old school."
In 1980, fast on the heels of its stunning success with the Sugarhill Gang, Sugarhill Records concocted a female trio, Sequence, with minor results. Hip-hop's first female star, teenager Roxanne Shante, arose in 1985 amid a bunch of answer records to the UTFO hit "Roxanne, Roxanne."
Only in the past few years have women stepped up to take a real share of the rap market. Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah are among the top names in the business today.
The move toward gender parity hasn't been altogether noble. Since the 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. sold a million albums and got loads of publicity with their filthy talk about sex and the streets, two female rap crews -- H.W.A. (Hoes Wit Attitude) and B.W.P. (Bitches With Problems) -- have come along with some ear-scorching raunch of their own.
But that's the fringe. Most members of the emerging hip-hop sisterhood are grappling with serious themes, often with as much muscular grace as the best of the brothers.
Monie Love: 'Down to Earth' One of the most exciting debut releases of the year, "Down to Earth" (Warner Bros.), is bound to push Britain's Monie Love to the front of the line. From the first swirling track, "Monie in the Middle," a lighthearted tale of high school romantic intrigue, Love's personality pours through the speakers.
Commanding as a lyricist and a vocalist, Love covers a lot of thematic ground. "Just Don't Give a Damn" is a surprisingly genuine story about walking away from an abusive boyfriend. "Bruises heal, feelings don't. And when you wish to see your daughter, best believe that you won't."
"Don't Funk Wid the Mo' " is a densely worded, apparently autobiographical show biz success story, taking us from the stoop of her family home and into, then out of, the hands of a sleazy independent producer. "Pups Lickin' Bone" is a comically nasty warning to any flirty girls who would dare to make a move on her man. Even during this hard-core dis, Love's positive nature shines through as she tells her promiscuous rivals to respect their bodies and watch out for AIDS.
One of her least imaginative rhymes, "Swiney Swiney," is at least admirable for slamming pork. Not as didactic as KRS-One's attack on red meat in "Beef," Love's song indicates a welcome and growing health consciousness in hip-hop. Now if only someone would go after the tobacco industry.
Shazzy: 'Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody' More a producer's showcase than a rapper's, "Attitude: A Hip-Hop Rapsody" (Elektra) is a state-of-the-art funk collage, a thousand snippets of sound on a vast magnetic canvas. In fact, it speaks well of rapper Shazzy that she doesn't get buried under all the busyness.
In this age of digital sampling, the best hip-hop mixologists distinguish themselves by their taste in selecting and deploying old riffs. Producers J. Gamble, Dante Ross and Geebee Dijani have excellent taste, drawing from Gwen McCrae, the Horny Horns, some way early Kool & the Gang and such oddball sources as radio serials. At times, they consciously evoke De La Soul and Public Enemy. And instead of simply appropriating, Shazzy and friends honor their funky forebears by name in "Do You Remember," a CD bonus track.
As a rapper, Shazzy succeeds more on her agile, strong-throated delivery than on her writing. "I'll Talk" is a speedy, "crazy ill" showoff piece. "Giggahoe," in which she cuts a Lothario down to size, contains some elaborately strung together put-downs. She comments on such community problems as teen pregnancy and drug dealing in "That's the Way It Is" and "Get a Job, Kid," and her attitude is refreshingly pro-social -- sometimes even preachy. But she doesn't seem as passionate in these songs as when she's simply cutting loose with words.
Harmony: 'Let There Be Harmony' You would expect "Let There Be Harmony" (Virgin), as the latest project from the Boogie Down Productions collective, to be driven by the fast-evolving political aggressiveness of BDP's leader, KRS-One. But it's more complicated than that.
Yes, the album is interspersed with bits of a lecture by revolutionary pan-Africanist Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael), as is BDP's latest, "Edutainment." And in the one song on which Harmony is obviously a mouthpiece for her producer's lyrics -- "The Art of War" -- KRS-One makes his most direct endorsement to date of worldwide armed struggle, including a recitation of the square mileage of Africa and Europe, meant as some strange kind of encouragement to unite and kick butt because Africa's bigger.
But most of the album is loftily spiritual, reflecting Harmony's own brand of Christianity. (The liner notes give praise to "Jesus the African.") "I'm not a slut who sells records with her butt," she says proudly. One of the album's best tracks is a remake of "I Want to Thank You," an R&B hymn recorded in 1982 by Alicia Myers.
Oh yeah, Harmony sings. And sings and sings. BDP fans expecting a straight-up rap album are in for a shock. Harmony's singing voice is rich and worthy of showing off, and it's used to fine advantage in a rap such as "Poundcake," when she livens things up with a freestyle warble.
But in a corny ballad such as "Take My Breath Away," regardless of her godliness, Harmony and co-producer-keyboardist Sidney Mills demonstrate, ironically, why rappers so proudly rejected the melodic conventions of R&B in the first place. Just because a song has chord progressions and a lilting sax and a singer hitting notes, that doesn't necessarily make it more soulful.
"Let There Be Harmony" is such a jumble of performing styles and messages that it has very little cumulative impact.
Isis: 'Rebel Soul' The first voice you hear on "Rebel Soul" (4th & B'way/Island) belongs not to Isis but to Lumumba Carson, a k a Professor X the Overseer of X-Clan. As the godfather of a cryptic social movement called Blackwatch, Carson is famous for his attitude of untouchable grandiosity. "We have come!" he declares on X-Clan's album, and on this one. His annoying "vaaaan-glorious" incantation, familiar to any X-Clan listener, shows up on every track of "Rebel Soul."
Isis, then, is nothing but a female front for Carson and his X-Clan brethren, who produced this project. "I'm a pathfinder, not a dope rhymer," she proclaims, letting you know that this is much more important than simple rapping. But aside from Egyptian symbolism and Afrocentric name-dropping (Marcus, Malcolm ...), she doesn't say why. I recently came across a young Muslim who said disapprovingly that X-Clan seems to be exalting only itself. That vibe continues here with song titles such as "Hail the Words of Isis."
The Blackwatch groups speak in such esoteric language that their songs are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Isis is always saying something about scrolls, pyramids, the light, the key, the star from the East, or gold. Or else she and Carson are directing coded insults at the white race. Envisioning her own queendom, Isis says, "May Wonder Bread shudder under her reign." If Carson and his confederates are on a divine mission to rescue black people, as they suggest, maybe it's time to talk about how.
Otherwise, the beats are tired, including several house tracks. And Isis, true to her own words, is no "dope rhymer."