With Ms. Melodie’s passing, the presence of powerful women in hip-hop has grown even smaller. Women in hip-hop are like black Republicans: people caught up in a world that they fear, despite belonging on some level, also ultimately hates them.
It’s not as if Ms. Medlodie had any platinum albums or number one hits, but she will forever be remembered for her verse on the ’89 anthem “Self Destruction.” The verse, short and to the point, stood its ground with bars by the top emcees of the time:
I’m Ms. Melodie and I’m a born again rebel
The violence in rap must cease and seckle
If we want to develop and grow to another level
We can’t be guinea pigs for the devil
The enemy knows, they’re no fools
Because everyone knows that hip-hop rules
So we gotta get a grip and grab what’s wrong
The opposition is weak and rap is strong
One could argue that her verse, along with that of fellow female emcee MC Lyte, was one of the most memorable on the star-stocked epic hip-hop message song. Ms. Melodie was not only a credible emcee in her own right, she was also the former wife of legendary rapper, KRS-One. Despite this iconic status, Melodie would never have fit in with the ladies of rap today depicted in forums like TV’s Love & Hip-Hop.
The recent death of Ms. Melodie makes us mourn that the roles of women in the art of rap have drastically changed since the days of “Self Destruction.” While it was never an easy road for women in hip-hop, the “golden era” of the genre (which many say was ’88 to ’93) showcased articulate women with a voice. Remembering these women will help us keep in mind how much female power has been lost.
One of the first women to powerfully express herself in rap was Roxanne Shante. Shante took on the identity of the woman from the UTFO song “Roxanne, Roxanne” and started one of the first battles on wax with her song “Roxanne’s Revenge.” “Roxannes Revenge” was a clever, devastating retort as she gave a distinctive personality to the fictional woman barely outlined on the first track — plus she held her own in a verbal competition with the hottest rap groups out at the time.
One could even credit Shante as being one of the first battle/dis record pioneers. Outside of her battle with UTFO, she clashed with The Real Roxanne, Sparky D, and openly dissed popular rappers LL Cool J, Run DMC and Kurtis Blow. Beyond brazen and bold.
Shante would hold her own in the Juice Crew with Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and Marley Marl, and endure the epic Bridge wars, in which her womanhood was attacked when KRS-One said, “Roxanne Shante is only good for steady f**king.” Unperturbed, she would respond to KRS-One by viciously dissing him and his Boogie Down Productions Crew in return.
Way before 50 Cent, she made a name for herself by dissing rappers, both male and female, and becoming intertwiened in lyrical battles. Shante showed that women could compete with men in hip-hop and have their own unmistakable voice — while still being fully integrated in hip-hop culture.
Roxanne Shante was young, fierce and fearless, yet still distinctly feminine. She would find her mantle taken up by the women of Salt ‘N Pepa.
Like Shante, the ladies of Salt ‘N Pepa would get their start answering a popular rap song with “Showstopper,” a dis track targeting Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show.”
Cheryl James (Salt) and Sandra Denton (Pepa) were both sexy and feminist, bashing promiscuous men with their hit “Tramp” and celebrating female sexual empowerment with the timeless anthem “Push It.”
Their hot style, divalicous attitude and energetic lyrics reflected a positive identity to young, urban African-American women. They could be sex symbols who still wouldn’t take any ish from a man — a powerful message lacking in images of women associated with hip-hop today.
Roxanne Shante’s other heiress apparent was MC Lyte, another feisty teen rapper who would give a voice to the “around the way girls” in cities across the country. Lyte would become the first female to put out a full length hip-hop album in 1988.
Lyte would represent hard for women in the war of the sexes, going toe to toe with Positive K on “Not Havin It” and releasing the female-empowering, man-bashing hit “Paper Thin.” Lyte also had a scene-stealing verse on the aforementioned hip-hop classic, “Self Destruction.” She showcased dazzling storytelling skills on “Cappuchino” and “Poor Georgie,” the latter an old school gem.
The success of Lyte and Salt ‘N Pepa allowed several other women to get chances at the mic. Queen Latifah and Monie Love provided a much-needed touch of feminism to the Native Tongues’ progressive, abstract afro-centrism, contributing clever, honest verses about sex on “Buddy” with De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. The two also created their own black female anthem, “Ladies First” in which they took pride in their gender and struggle. That song will still get any club hopping, and both men and women thinking.
Out west Ice Cube introduced Yo-Yo, who was the South Central girl with the attitude and intelligence to match his. She branded her crew the IBWC –Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition — and rapped about uplifting her gender. It’s hard to imagine that today.
Def Jam would put out Nikki D, who would tell tales of teenage sex from a woman’s perspective in “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and Boss, a talent who put out a female take on the paronoia and stress inherent in gangster rap on her track, “Deeper.”
Isis would bring a strong female presence to X-Clan, just as Sistah Souljah did for Public Enemy. Boogie Down Productions of course had strong female members such as Ms. Melodie, along with her sister Harmony and Real World reality show alumna Heather B.