The Women Of Baltimore Hip-Hop Are Slowly Taking Over The Game
"Y'know, I hate being lumped into a `female artist' thing," says B-Fly, the rapper known as the "First Lady" of long-running Baltimore hip-hop/reggae crew Brown F.I.S.H., her annoyance coming through crystal clear over the phone line. "I've worked really hard to try to surpass that--and I think I have--to constantly be brought back into, `OK, she's a female MC, she's a female artist,' as opposed to just recognizing that the art is the art. When it comes to men, you don't say `male MC.' You just say MC. But for some reason, when it comes to a woman, you have to say `female MC.'"
She's got a point. Every few years, "Women in Rock" headlines, or variations thereof, sweep the music press, bizarrely subjecting half of humanity to tokenism. Whenever more than a handful of female musicians suddenly become prominent in a given genre--particularly one where they don't already hold a significant market share, as with pop or R&B--it becomes a tempting angle for lazy journalists. But few genres are more of a boys club than hip-hop. The lyrics that male artists pen about the female members of the hip-hop audience are, at worst, blatantly hostile and misogynistic, and, at best, often pandering "for the ladies" slow jams.
But an unusually large number of active, ambitious female rappers in Baltimore has resulted in a remarkable surge of hip-hop girl power over the last two years. And what's more, it's good for business. Local hip-hop concert promoters and club owners are constantly striving to attract more upscale and less overtly male audiences to shows, and lately it seems like the best solution is to get a female rapper on your bill. And this informal network of femcees is gradually becoming a tangible movement--one that's already spawned an official networking organization, several themed concerts, and now a documentary film.
One of the scene's few female mainstays from the '90s, Silohette of Tha Annexx Click, returned in a big way last year with the local radio staple "Chicken Box." Aggressive MCs like Ms. Stress and Symphony (of the group G.E.M.) have been winning battle-rap tournaments, from the explicitly female-themed Madame of Murdaland to the coed Style Warz. Transplants like ShellBe R.A.W. (originally from Boston) and B-Fly (originally from California) now proudly call Baltimore home. And given how female-friendly Baltimore's hip-hop scene is becoming, especially when compared to other regional rap scenes, you might learn sooner or later that women are moving here specifically to join in such a welcoming community.
"I've actually been more impressed with the female MCs than the male MCs," says Kimberly Glenn, the willowy, soft-spoken 25-year-old who raps under the name Jade Fox and claims that she's frequently told, "You don't look like a rapper." On her second album, Ashes of Another Life, released in January, she addresses the skepticism female MCs face on the song "Got 'Em Like," her voice rising with incredulity during the trenchant couplet: "They say females can't spit fire/ They say I got a ghostwriter?" It was a line inspired by direct experience. "It's definitely interesting, because I know a lot of times I get asked [if] I write my own lyrics," she says. "And I wonder, How many male rappers ever get asked that?
"I'm proud to be a part of it, because there are a lot of women that are actually saying something [in Baltimore]," Glenn continues. "I think they could really change the impression of women in hip-hop, from where [fans believe] they either have ghostwriters or they're selling sex."
And while some MCs like ShellBe R.A.W. or Keyaira Chanel have undeniable sex appeal--and dress to showcase it in their live shows--there's rarely a sense that they're flaunting it as explicitly as mainstream female rappers such as Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim have in the past. Many of the clichéd roles that rappers play today--the gun-toting crack dealer, the cold-hearted pimp--are so explicitly male that perhaps a female MC has no choice but to carve out more personal lyrical territory. That's not to say that Baltimore's femcees are necessarily making a softer or more emotional type of hip-hop--like any MC, most crave the hardest beats they can find.
When D'lonna Marie Willis moved to Baltimore from Boston a few years ago and became ShellBe R.A.W., she took notice of the higher than average number of fellow women in the scene. "It's definitely more females here, it's a way bigger impact for the females here than it is in Boston," says the 24-year-old rapper, whose rapid ascent in the scene has been helped by an affiliation with the influential Architects Recording Studio. "There's maybe two in Boston. The males are definitely dominating there." And while the short list of prominent Baltimore MCs is still decidedly skewed toward men--it's hard to ignore the blunt significance of the suffix shared by two of the scene's biggest names, Bossman and Mullyman--Willis and others are tipping the scales toward a little gender equality.
"As far as being a female MC, it's harder to get respect," says Tekia Johnson, 26, who as Ms. Stress earned her respect by winning the Madame of Murdaland rap battle tournament twice, in 2005 and '06. "You have to prove yourself as bein' an MC and actually being able to rhyme. And when they find out that you actually can rhyme, you're still labeled as a `female MC' instead of being a general MC. They don't look at you as being in the same realm as a male."
Rapper/singer Nikeya Muldrow has a particularly unique perspective on the local scene as sister of popular Baltimore rapper Mullyman. Initially a singer, she eventually began rapping, forging a swaggering persona as Nik Stylz while frequently collaborating with her brother and signing to his label, Major League Unlimited. But in anticipation of her upcoming double album--one disc of R&B songs, the other hip-hop--she's started to reach out to fellow female MCs, name-checking ShellBe R.A.W., Golden Seal, April Love, and others on her single "Cut My Check." She plans on collaborating with them directly in the near future.
But Muldrow's experiences as a musician have been illustrative of exactly how many men tend to view female artists. "I deal with a lot of men in the industry, and you really don't know if they have your best interests at heart," she says. "You really wanna know if the person's wasting your time because of lust or being infatuated with your looks, basically. Or they wonderin', can they get the jackpot--you know what I mean?" She laughs. "I ain't talkin' about the lottery!"
Female involvement in the local hip-hop scene doesn't begin and end with a handful of rappers, of course. Courtney "C Love" Wheeler documents local hip-hop on her blog ItsBaltimoreBaby.com, as well as having released a mixtape and hosted local live events including the now defunct Style Warz battle tournament. Versatile producer Ms. Tris Beats has graced dozens of local releases by artists like UnReal, Tyree Colion, and Parts Unknown with her tracks. And renaissance woman Me'Aze "Bosslady" Millioni does a little of just about all of the above, releasing mixtapes (four volumes of On Da Grind) and a DVD magazine (Lyve Magazine), producing beats, and hosting events. Countless other female managers, writers, label owners, and promoters have long been the glue holding together the scene--and now, they're starting to get organized.
Last summer, two local music journalists, Music Monthly editor Kelly Connelly and City Paper contributor Jaye Hunnie, took it upon themselves to unite the local female hip-hop community when they founded the Organization of Women in Entertainment (OOWE). "She and I both knew so many women involved in hip-hop here, but knew many of them didn't really know each other," Connelly says. Initially beginning with a small core of Baltimore artists, OOWE now boasts more than 50 members spread across the country. And while it's still a loose umbrella under which these women interact and work together, Connelly explains that they're branding the organization with an upcoming mixtape featuring music by OOWE members and affiliates.
"One of the things that makes us most unique--apart from the obvious fact that we are all women--is that our members represent so many different roles within the music community," she says. "We count artists, managers, photographers, journalists, graphic designers, and more as OOWE members. In my opinion, the greatest benefit that OOWE offers is the networking and camaraderie."
Another nonmusician among the OOWE's ranks, Tasha "Civil" Jones, a radio host on Delaware's Kiss 101.7, has begun taking some steps to make sure Baltimore's femcees become a recognized force outside the city. After booking several rappers for last year's "Even a Man Can Do This" showcase at the 5 Seasons in Mount Vernon, Jones, 26, used the title as the basis for a feature-length documentary about the women of Baltimore hip-hop.
Jones recruited Amotion, 26, a local rapper with ample experience behind the camera producing the local cable access series Deep Flow TV, to shoot footage for the initial event and a second concert this May. Currently in the process of editing and with an eye on festival appearances this summer, the Jones-directed, Amotion-produced Even a Man Can Do This is a love letter to the ladies who make Baltimore hip-hop go round. Golden Seal's anthem of gender role reversal, "Sistahs Pimpin'," serves as the film's theme song, and the movie features extensive interviews with local MCs.
Amotion says that one pivotal sequence in the documentary came from asking various femcees about every macho rapper's favorite B-word. "A lot of people had different stances on the `bitch' word, whether they used it or not, how they used it," she says, pointing out one particularly entertaining scene where the members of G.E.M. let the expletive fly with abandon. "Every single person had something different to say about it." And in this sensitive post-Don Imus climate, in which hip-hop is once again under scrutiny for lyrical content, particularly the coarse language used to describe women, it's a subject every MC has to take a side on, regardless of gender.
"It's definitely about time for a change," says rapper Tufflon Dona, 27, who competed in the Madame of Murdaland battles and recently released the mixtape Best of Both Worlds: Royal Queens Edition with local R&B songstress Tyreika Renee. "There's so many guys in the industry, there's no reason it shouldn't be as many females."
Indeed, on a major-label level, hip-hop has perhaps never been more overwhelmingly male than it is in 2007--and rap was never an equal-opportunity field. As little as five years ago, female rappers like Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott, and Eve were regularly going platinum. The only female MC to have emerged with any impact on the charts in recent years, however, is Lil' Mama, a teenager with a novelty song about her lip gloss. But there are even some Baltimore artists poised to tap that novelty market, including teen rapper Rye Rye, a protégé of Baltimore club producer Blaq Starr; she featured on his single "Shake It to the Ground."
Whether or not anyone from Baltimore's estrogen-fueled grass-roots movement stands a chance of breaking into the hip-hop mainstream in the current commercial climate, the scene offers a far more diverse and grown-up spectrum of womanhood than one is likely to hear on the radio. B-Fly's live-band-backed neo-soul sound doesn't have much in common with Ms. Stress' forceful, battle-tested holler, but bound by geography, they often find themselves on the same concert bill. And few rap crews in Baltimore put on a more joyous show, full of audience participation, than the duo of Jahli and Reflect-Sun, who have performed as Golden Seal for nearly a decade.
"It just seems like females . . . put on better shows than guys, they make it more entertaining," Amotion says. "Guys might just come up there with a big group of people and just kinda rap." Where most MCs perform to a prerecorded vocal track--and let their homeboys join them up onstage to shout every other line in unison--the women in the scene seem much more comfortable taking the stage to face the crowd alone.
One of the standout performers at this year's "Even a Man Can Do This" event was Symantyx, 25, a gruff-voiced tomboy whose freestyles displayed a disarming wit. "We've always been around," she says, pointing out that many of the current crop of female MCs, including herself, have rhymed for more than a decade. But they've only begun to perform professionally in recent years, thanks in part to the greater number of opportunities. "Because of a lot of things changing, as far as the open-mic venues and all the hip-hop venues in Baltimore, we're kinda intersecting a lot more now," Symantyx says. "We all just started to meet." And although many of those women have forged friendships and business relationships since meeting, as rappers there's no doubt that they're every bit as competitive as their male counterparts. In a city where passionate feuds have developed over claims to the mantle of the "king" of Baltimore hip-hop, it seems only a matter of time before "queen" becomes the more sought-after title.
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