1996: The Year of the Sista

This essay was originally written for Maura Johnson’s Maura magazine in November 2016. Unfortunately, the magazine lost funding and ceased publishing. As a result, this story hasn’t been posted until now.

Earlier this summer, I attempted to write a story about 1996, the last year when women seemed close to reaching an equal footing with their male counterparts.

I failed.

How best to contrast an era when women had a voice to today, when they have been largely relegated to video models; dime pieces, side pieces and trophy wives on urban gossip sites and reality TV fare like Love & Hip-Hop; occasional murmurings on music blogs and websites; and a largely unseen support staff of label executives, publicists, talent managers, and booking agents? In 2016, rap music is largely defined as a man barking and singing about his verbal and physical prowess. It is the product of a country that, as I write this, has just elected Donald J. Trump, an unrepentant sexist who, until his increasingly white nativist campaign revealed his true priorities, hung out with hip-hop icons like Sean “Puffy” Combs, Lil Jon, and Russell Simmons.

Given the current nightmare of such an unapologetically misogynist environment  – albeit one that may finally improve from the rise of Young M.A, Noname Gypsy, Dreezy, Kamaiyah, and Dej Loaf, as well as the continued pop hegemony of Nicki Minaj – the year 1996 resonates as a time of missed opportunity. It’s most often remembered as the year of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars, which may have created the circumstances that led to 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.’s unsolved murders; and the end of the “golden age of hip-hop,” before the pop mainstream embraced Sean “Puffy” Combs’ shiny-suit vision of jiggy rap. A few prominent women headlined magazine covers that year, too, including Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Lauryn Hill of the Fugees.

Often forgotten is that 1996 was also, as one URB writer termed it during a profile of Mother Superia, “the year of the sista.” This optimism was not only due to Lil Kim and co., but also Bahamadia’s critically acclaimed Kollage, MC Lyte’s bubbly top ten Billboard single “Keep On, Keepin’ On,” and Nonchalant’s rap hit “5 O’ Clock.” Women seemed determine to participate in the biggest cultural revolution of their lives. “Being a woman in the ‘90s into hip-hop wasn’t easy,” activist Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra explained in the 2015 documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives. “The culture was so exciting and important that I looked at the misogyny as something that comes along with it.”

Female voices were present in all corners of what was then idealistically known as the “hip-hop nation.” In the Bay Area, there was Conscious Daughters and Suga T of the Click; in nearby Sacramento, there was Marvaless; Medusa and Feline Science ruled L.A.’s open-mic hotspot Project Blowed; and Warren G launched his G-Funk Era imprint with his protégés Da 5 Footaz. In Memphis, “devil’s daughter” Gangsta Boo was a prominent member of horrorcore sensations Three 6 Mafia. In New Orleans, Mia X starred alongside Master P on “Bout It, Bout It,” the song that effectively launched No Limit Records as a Southern rap juggernaut. Puerto Rican MC Hurricane G was a vivid presence on Redman’s hit single “Funkorama.”

Other vivid performances abounded, from Mama Mystique on “Tremendous,” to Heather B, a housemate on the inaugural season of MTV’s The Real World who made a startling hardcore leap with “If Heads Only Knew.” For “3 the Hard Way,” Bahamadia assembled a B-girl cipher that included K-Swift and Mecca Star (neither of whom appear to have recorded anything else since). Mecca Star’s verse dismantles stereotypes of women as sub-par MCs: “Some people peep the exterior and think inferior/Next thing you know, they calling for a sound bwoy burial.”

One of the most impressive debuts of the year belonged to Brooklyn sharpshooter What What (who’d later rename herself Jean Grae) and her trio Natural Resources’ self-released 12-inch. The A-side brought “Negro League Baseball,” a college radio hit that improbably landed on a few broadcasts of BET’s popular video show Rap City. But the B-side, “Bum Deal,” found Grae taking center stage with wicked verbal panache as she attacks major label practices. (Though uncredited, she produced the track’s beat as well.) “I drop my style like this/Twist, shapeshift, bum deals get dissed/My flow’s been blessed, choppin’ up with the breath/Expand thoughts, chest refract, inhale the sess.”

Women faced the same industry problems as their male counterparts. The first advertisement for Jay Z’s soon-to-be-iconic Roc-A-Fella Records announced his forthcoming Reasonable Doubt debut along with “the rugged beauty of rap…Ruffness” and her single, “The Baddest Wiz On Da Planet.” Ruffness’ song was never released, and she hasn’t been heard from since. Island Records shelved Mother Superia’s debut Levitation despite an impressive advance single in “Most of All.” (Rare promo copies of Levitation can still be found on Discogs.) Paula Perry got a solo deal with Motown Records after paying dues in the Masta Ace Incorporated camp, but nothing came of it besides the 12-inch “Paula’s Jam.” Most notably, the Lady of Rage, a linchpin of Death Row’s G-funk success, couldn’t get her Necessary Roughness out until 1997, after 2Pac’s murder and the label was falling apart.

Perhaps these difficulties were amplified by gender. Still, the overriding sense was that a dope female MC could make waves. She may have had to work harder than the men to prove herself, but her skills would eventually lead to acceptance.

The question of whether Lil Kim is to blame for shifting women’s roles in hip-hop from a question of talent to an assertion of sexuality remains a source of debate. (Her sexpot rival, Foxy Brown, sold plenty of copies of her debut album Ill Na Na. But she didn’t have the same impact.) In a 2000 open letter critique of the Brooklyn rapper for Essence magazine, Akissa Britton wrote, “While your lyrics may speak the truth of young women’s realities—hard-core sex, drugs and the rough street life—they don’t empower women in these situations to get out. … Just because a voice is feminine doesn’t mean it’s feminist.” A decade later, Claire Lobenfield argued in a first-person WonderingSound.com essay that Lil Kim was an inspiration. “With her tiny frame and massive presence – surrounded by men who respected her and allowed her voice to boom above theirs – Kim was my first foray into feminism,” she wrote.

The Notorious B.I.G., Kim’s sometime-boyfriend and mentor, may have respected her, but it’s a stretch to claim that he treated her as an equal. He determined the creative direction of Hard Core, and allegedly wrote most of her rhymes. The result was a single-minded ode to pussy power embodied by the first lines of opening track, “Big Momma Thang”: “I used to be scared of the dick/Now I throw lips to the shit.” Other women such as Bahamadia and Lauryn Hill implicitly protested her rise. I keep my clothes on, so I’m not emphasizing that part of me,” Hill told Vibe magazine. “Right now, it’s popular for women to promote this really dumb, money-hungry image. It’s not healthy. We can’t see the effects now, but that shit is gonna be painful later.”

Today, it’s easier to dismiss the outdated concept of Hill and Lil Kim as binary Madonna/whore opposites. Lauryn Hill was the clear star of the Fugees, an artist as adept at neo-soul singing as she was at spitting standout punchlines like “Don’t remove my Polos on the first episode.” Kim may have been spitting Biggie’s words, but she owned them through her brazen attitude and lyrical panache. The problem is that the music industry chose Kim was the new archetype. Female rappers signed to major labels were coerced into wearing heavy makeup and rapping about sex. After releasing Anuthatantrum in 1996, Da Brat switched her look from long braids and baggy jeans to skin-tight dresses and bustiers. Magazines such as The Source and XXL started publishing “sex issues” that featured hot rap women in half-naked and coital poses.

The late 90s and early 00s era of hyper-capitalist “jiggy rap,” with its incessant images of men in throwback jerseys and sexy women in brand designer dresses and high heels, included a handful of female stars like Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, and Trina. Missy Elliott, who easily shifted between puckish raps and silky R&B vocals (and was one of the few women producers as well), was an iconoclastic exception to the gender expectations. But overall, these increasingly rigid stereotypes led to a stark decline in female participation. In Ava DuVernay’s excellent documentary My Mic Sound Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop, journalist Smokey D. Fontaine says, “In the new decade, the 2000s, [the number of signed women artists] went back down. So it went from 40 MCs who were really getting shine back down to 10, 12. It was slim pickings. It was hard to find a female MC of any worth who had the support of a major record label.”

This was not only a mainstream problem. There was also a dearth of women in the underground as well. There were few female MCs on popular early 2000s indie labels such as Definitive Jux, Hiero Imperium, Stones Throw (who signed the singer and occasional rapper Georgia Anne Muldrow), Quannum, and Rhymesayers (who briefly worked with Psalm One). Despite Jean Grae’s prodigious talent and a widespread (albeit condescending) view among fans that she was the best female rapper of the era, she struggled to transcend her Okayplayer.com acclaim. Another highly regarded MC, Invincible, abandoned music for a life of activism in her native Detroit. 

The cumulative effect of this absence is incalculable. Women comprise over half of the country’s population. It’s true that they face similar obstacles in other areas of pop culture, from a white-male-dominated film and television industry to a country music scene hijacked by “bro country.” But that’s a poor excuse for effectively wiping out any resemblance of a female voice in the most important American cultural innovation of the past 40 years. Succinctly put, if women do not have the opportunity to participate in rap music on their terms, or are clowned as “dykes” when they do, then rap music doesn’t reflect real life.

It remains to be seen if that will change due to the lingering effects of Nicki Minaj’s huge success, and whether it has awakened a new generation. In the meantime, don’t blame Lil Kim for the plight of women in hip-hop. Twenty years ago, she dazzled on “Get Money,” a radio staple where she went tête-á-tête with the Notorious B.I.G., and proved herself as sharp-tongued as the king of New York. It remains a radio and club staple, and the continuation of a he-said-she-said tradition in black music that dates back to MC Lyte & Positive K’s “I’m Not Havin’ It,” and Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ “Tramp.” But few listeners realize that “Get Money” is a distillation of domestic violence. (Years after the song was released, Elizabeth Mendez Berry reported in a controversial 2005 Vibe article on rappers and domestic abuse that Biggie’s “Get Money” lyrics about assaulting his lovers was rooted in reality.)

“Kick in the door, waving the .44/All you heard was Poppa don’t hit me no more,” raps Biggie. Kim answers, “Now you wanna pistol-whip me/Pull out your nine while I cock on mine.” Her hard Brooklyn cadences and undisguised vitriol underline the fact that she’s fighting for her life. Her struggle for respect is mirrored in the perilous situation rap ladies often find themselves – wondering if they were on the verge of achieving creative equity or virtual obsolescence. When The Source asked Lil Kim what she hoped to see in 1996, she answered, “I would like to see less jealousy and more unity—and a lot more respect for women.”

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