“Roxanne, Roxanne” (2018): What The Netflix Film Left Out
While the Netflix feature film about the pioneering emcee Roxanne Shante was a triumph, it didn’t even come close telling the world exactly how influential and great she really was…
On March 23, 2018 Netflix debuted Roxanne, Roxanne, a biopic about pioneering emcee Roxanne Shante. While the film tells the story of her triumphs in the face of her struggles as a young woman coming up in the male-dominated field of rap, unfortunately, many critical details were left on the cutting room floor.
As someone who was of radio listening and record-buying age during the Roxanne Wars — there were actually two of them — I know firsthand that viewers won’t truly be able to understand the overwhelming influence and importance of Roxanne Shante.
Let’s change that.
To be clear, Roxanne, Roxanne is great, and anyone who hasn’t already seen the film and who read this far should carve out 100 minutes to do so, but given how much she accomplished in her career, Shante deserved better — she deserved a New Edition BET style three part mini-series. A teenaged Roxanne Shante went toe to toe with grown men both in arranged rap battles and on wax. She was trading bars with her superstar rap peers as one of the Juice Crew All-Stars. At one point, leading into the Golden Era, she was the premier woman in Rap who inspired a generation of young girls to pick up mics.
Shante’s contributions to the culture that weren’t covered in the film need to be acknowledged for the people who watch it on Netflix without any semblance of context.
Marley Marl’s answer to the 1984 Full Force-produced UTFO smash hit “Roxanne, Roxanne” not only put Roxanne Shante on the map as a 14 year old rap wunderkind and off the top freestyle prodigy but it was the rhyme that launched a hundred answer records. Back in the day, it was all about recording a response/diss to the hottest record out, or making a rap version of that same song. Marley Marl and Shante did that to UTFO but all of these answer records built off of the foundation laid down by Shante as opposed to UTFO.
What it also did was make Full Force and their associate Howie T seek out a young woman to fill the role of the “real” Roxanne in the midst of all of these responses. They first chose a girl named Elease to record but later settled on Adelaida Martinez, who recorded several singles beginning in 1984 with UTFO as The Real Roxanne after their original choice had bowed out. Shante even battled legendary emcee Busy Bee for the championship at the 1985 New Music Seminar and got robbed because the old school cats who judged the competition wouldn’t give a teenaged girl the win over the veteran.
In 1985, producer Hurby “The Love Bug” Azor would record Queens trio Super Nature’s “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)” a diss record/response to “La Di Da Di”/”The Show”, the nuclear rap hit 12" by Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick & The Get Fresh Crew, which was inspired by the success of Marley Marl and Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Super Nature would later change their name to Salt N’ Pepa before becoming one of the most successful rap acts in history.
In 1986, E-Vette Money would record “E-Vette’s Revenge”, a response to LL Cool J’s “Dear Yvette” off his red hot LP “Radio”. This vicious attack on LL Cool J was inspired by a teenaged Roxanne Shante’s singlehanded takedown of UTFO. One year later, in 1987, after the success of Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble”, they decided to pre-emptively record their own response record, “Guys Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” featuring Ice Cream Tee. Thing is, Shante’s influence extended past just answer records and disses. She recorded numerous classic singles during a singles-based era as the lone woman down with rap’s premier collective, Mr. Magic’s Juice Crew.
Azor also produced Sweet Tee & Jazzy Joyce’s “It’s My Beat” in ’86 and in 1987, a teenaged Brooklyn rhymer named MC Lyte recorded her first single, “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)”, which she wrote several years prior. In the years that followed Michie Mee & L.A. Luv, J.J. Fad, L’Trimm, Cookie Crew, Antoinette, Queen Latifah, Finesse & Synquis and more all emerged on the scene. Roxanne Shante addressed each and every one of them on the 1987 Pop Art 12” “Pay Back”, establishing her dominance over the new wave of women in rap. She even had a brief feud with J.J. Fad, prompting the diss track “Wack It” in response to Fad’s 1988 hit, “Supersonic”.
Although Roxanne Shante was the spark that opened doors for a new generation of woman emcees, she didn’t release her first solo album, “Bad Sister”, until November 1989. This came five years after she first recorded “Roxanne’s Revenge” and a full year after The Real Roxanne’s (Martinez) debut LP was released on Select Records. Although MC Lyte is credited as the first solo woman to release an LP in September 1988, with “Lyte As A Rock”, it’s entirely possible The Real Roxanne’s album came out earlier. In any event, five years as an active recording artist without a solo album is ridiculous.
While The Roxanne Wars that launched the careers of The Real Roxanne and several other women and resulted in close to 100 answer records geared at either one or all involved parties between 1984–85, while was unknowingly initiated by UTFO not making a scheduled appearance on Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack following “Roxanne, Roxanne” blowing up which led to Magic enlisting Marley to make “Roxanne’s Revenge” in the first place has been documented numerous times in the past and even has its own Wikipedia page, the second Roxanne Wars (1991–93) have rarely been chronicled or discussed outside of hip-hop head circles.
In Fall 1991, rap promoter Van Silk decided to put on a pay-per-view rap concert called “Sisters In The Name Of Rap” as a follow up to the success of his 1990 “Rapmania” concert. Seeing as how rap was finally hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, he figured he should strike while the iron was hot. However, when Shante saw other women performers make demands prior to the show — specifically, regarding their billing, set length and the order they should be performing — she wasn’t happy.
The backstage drama coupled with her opening her set performing “Dance To This” which, while it sounds like a pop song is actually a diss track/battle rap aimed at women in rap, led to a wave of ill feeling within the community. Before stepping off the stage that night, Shante addressed the crowd by stating, “Ain’t no bitch in the house that can fuck with this!” It was the shot heard around the world.
The main difference between the first Roxanne Wars and the second iteration was that, seven years later, rap had become big business. Once Salt N’ Pepa’s single “Expression” blew up in early 1990, followed by MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, major labels began signing rappers to record material that could crossover. This resulted in Queen Latifah and MC Lyte opting for much lighter fare on their 1991 albums as Latifah’s lead single “Fly Girl” and MC Lyte’s “When In Love” were complete departures from the sound of their previous works. In comparison, their albums “Nature Of A Sista” and “Act Like You Know”, respectively, were pronounced steps down from their previous full length LP’s. Shante, of course, publicly called them both out for watering down their sounds.
The world around rap changed, too. Specialized publications like The Source and Rap Pages were covering the burgeoning Second Roxanne War; people in the ‘hood had cable which meant they could watch Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City plus Rap was finally being played on the radio while the sun was up. The beef even got mainstream coverage in 1992, when Kurt Loder reported on it during an MTV News brief prior to the release of Shante’s “Big Mama” single. In fact, the beef between women in Rap was such a hot news item that they were even brought onto the NYC’s The Jane Whitney Show in an attempt to finally clear the air. Good luck trying to find any footage of it on the internet today.
In any event, once Salt N’ Pepa (“Very Necessary”), MC Lyte (“Ain’t No Other”), Queen Latifah (“Black Reign”), etc. released their next full length albums in 1993, complete with response records to Shante, the Rap game had changed. Hip Hop has entered a new Golden Era and the rap aesthetic/sound had undergone a sea change. Sadly, Shante never got credit for being ahead of the curve. She also never received proper royalty checks from freestyling several classics before having her bars penned by Juice Crew members like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap & Grandaddy I.U. for her albums which made her bow out of Rap altogether.
Without Shante, one of the most sampled voices in Rap history as well as one of the most influential emcees of the past 35 years Rap wouldn’t be what it is today. It’s just unfortunate that even while honoring her we’re still doing her a disservice. Hopefully, the next time we do a rap biopic we can give the legend we acknowledge the effort they rightfully deserve.