ALL HAIL THE QUEENS
Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt n’ Pepa
When I see the twitter “Best female MC” arguments, they ususally don’t go back further than Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. They are the standard by which any female rappers that came after are compared. However, Lauryn and Missy weren’t the first to switch it up between spitting and singing, Lauryn wasn’t the first concious female rapper repping for knowledge of self, nor were Kim and Foxy the first to take ownership of their sexuality or come as hard as the boys. That was all happening as hip hop was coming of age, and the originals are long overdue for their propers: Queen Latifah, MC Lyte & Salt-N-Pepa.
For the past 20 years, Queen Latifah’s been known as actress first, and rapper second (if at all). She may even now be known as a singer as much as a rapper to some. But folks have forgotten how real she was out here. Dana Owens Latifah took her moniker -which she picked out of a book of Arabic names at the age of 8- seriously. Back when we called “woke”, “conscious”, she was representing for descendents of Kings and Queens.
She was also kicking global knowledge, as we would have said then. “Come Into My House” was a tribute to music speaking to ALL #GiveMeBody
La, Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa were standing shoulder to shoulder with the men, demanding props. “Women’s Empowerment” before the phrase became a buzz word.
Even as Latifah started branching out into acting, she was still reppin’ the style of who she was and what she stood for. There was a period when Latifah was never seen without her head adorned and some type of tribal or ancestral pattern or symbol.
And I don’t think any of us would be with this clip today, but when Jungle Fever came out, it was spot on.
For her second album, Latifah keeps the headress for the cover art, but drops the military theme. She’s now making Hollywood moves, but still gotta let fools know not to get her f*cked up.
We’re in the golden era of Black movie soundtracks right now, and Latifah joins LeVert to update “For the Love of Money” for New Jack City.
It was also an era when being in a crew didn’t have to mean same label. Latifah was part of the Native Tongues (Tribe, Jungle Bros, De La, Black Sheep)…
…and of course part of Flavor Unit, originally the 45 King’s crew. La took over the name and built on it. Through Flava Unit, she’s connected to Naughty by Nature.
In 1993 Living Single debuts. Latifah & Will Smith are now sitcom stars. They, along with Cube and Ice T, blazed the Hip Hop to Hollywood trail.
Between her second and third albums she’s become a TV star and changed labels from Hip Hop hub Tommy Boy to the broader Motown. Tragically, she’s also lost her brotherLance in a motercycle accident. She wore his bike key prominately on a chain, in and out of character, for years.
By her third album, she’s an elderstateswoman. Always conscious and message-heavy, she’s even more reflective, and we get “UNITY”.
At this point, as I was saying in the beginning, people are regarding Latifah as more actress than rapper. Living Single is a massive hit as part of Fox’s Thursday night line up with Martin and New York Undercover. And yes, it did inspire Friends
Latifah also doesn’t get credit for rapping and singing. Ya’ll do know that was always her on her albums, and on the Living Single intro?
Like I said, Lauryn and Missy weren’t the first to switch it up. As her brand grew and she was freer to explore other areas of her artistry, Latifah dipped more into the singing space, but with Jazz. Years before the Oscar nod for Chicago, she had a break out role in the movie Living Out Loud as a jazz singer. (Any jazz singer will tell you this is not an easy song to sing, by the way).
Now, even with Hollywood stardom, a thriving production company, Cover Girl contracts and more, she still flips it right back to b-girl.
Speaking of the “I Wanna Be Dow” remix, it’s a perfect transition to MC Lyte.
Latifah & Lyte were both carrying feminist messages, but Lyte was talking cash sh*t, too. She came up in the diss rap era; she ain’t play.
Lyte was the first female rapper to release a full length album. She got her deal in part because of her relationship with Milk D (“Top Billin’”). What I always loved about Lyte was that she felt like the chick who hung out with all the cool guys and could match their game. She had swag and attitude.
You thought you were gonna just roll up on Lyte and pull her with some corny ish? Please… She was combatting street harassment in ‘89.
There was a big anti-violence movement in the late 80s/early 90s in response to the rise of gang banging and street violence that accompanied the crack era. Lyte joined the super- group of NY-area rappers organized by KRS-One as the Stop the Violence Movement for the classic “Self Destruction”.
Side note, if you’ve never seen the “Self Destruction” video, please go watch it. Hip hop legends throughout.
Lyte regularly addressed the dangers of drugs and violence in her music, but was smooth about it. Like “Cappuccino”, which was about getting caught in a drug deal gone bad.
And “Poor Georgie”, about a fiiiiiiiiine dude she was kicking it… with who killed himself drunk driving.
I said earlier that Lyte talked sh*t. While men were objectifying women, she flipped it back & objectified men. “Ruffneck” didn’t age well, but it did earn Lyte the first Grammy for a female solo rapper.
And one of my late Lyte faves, from the Sunset Park soundtrack, which is basically “Ni**a come take care of this” (with some help from JD & Xscape).
As we moved into the “shiny suit” era, Lyte embraced it in a way La didn’t, getting production from 90s Dance Captains (my term) Puff & JD.
Lyte’s done a little dabbling in acting, too, although I’m not sure why she hasn’t done more. I loved her as a sassy label boss on Half & Half.
In the last few years, Lyte served as the first AA president of the LA Chapter of NARAS (the Grammy organization), she’s a sought after DJ, and she does a good bit of hosting and VO work, including serving as the announcing voice for the BET Awards for several years.
I would bet money Lyte could still kill it on the spot though.
Now, let’s move from Lyte to Salt-N-Pepa (just like the rap version of “Freedom” from Panther did. Ha.)
Sandy & Cheryl (and I guess Deidra, too. No shade) are my muffugin’ faves. All of these pioneering women in Hip Hop were about equality, the power of women, and the strength of sisterhood, but S-N-P were also about a good ass time.
They may not have been as lyrical as Latifah and Lyte, but they brought incredibly high energy, and were early with using their sexuality as power.
No matter what S-N-P were talking about, it was FUN. But don’t get it twisted in thinking their content had any less substance; they were rapping about agency, independence, and ignoring clowns from jump.
Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor (who also discovered and produced Kid n’ Play) infused a D.C. Go-go sound into Salt-N-Pepa’s early music that became a trademark.
“Push It” was originally the B-Side to “Tramp”, but then it blew up. This video paved the way for there to be a Kim, a Foxy, a Nicki, etc.
Now they’re Grammy nominated & the first female rappers to go platinum. Hurbie turns the Go-go vibe up with “Da Butt”s EU (Peep KnP’s cameos).
I just need to take a minute to get into S-N-P’s looks, though. I-damn-CONIC.
Lemme back up a little becasue I forgot one of my fave S-N-P videos. The girls took a little “Beat It” & a little “Love is a Battlefield” for this.
In 1990, Salt n Pepa released their third album, and in my opionion had realized the power of their platform. They were always about non-conformity. Even “Shake Your Thing” was an ode to doin’ you: “It’s my thing & I’ll swing it the way that I feel with a little seduction & some sex appeal. ” Now they gave us “Expression”: a song about not getting caught up in the hype or scamming to keep up appearances. Still relevant.
Oh, and did I mention the album title and cover? #BlackPoepleAreMagic And #BlackGirlMagic before they were even concepts. Ya’ll better recognize these pioneers, dammit.
Long before Destiny’s Child asked “Question?” S-N-P told us they were independent, and ain’t need your drug dealing scamming ass…#BoyBye
“Self Destruction” responded to growing violence year earlier. Now was the rising HIV/AIDS epidemic and growing teen pregnancy. S-N-P said let’s talk about it…over a classic nostalgic sample.
S-N-P were now moms, and had relaxed the sexier side of their brand for Black’s Magic. But chile they got in that gym & showed UP for “Shoop”.
I was only a Freshman in college and I remember we were still looking at them like “Shit, we need to go to the gym.”
Very Necessary was a massive success because of “Shoop”, and of course becasue “Whatta Man” with En Vogue. All these midriffs, lawd. Lemme go do pilates.
Still standing for agency and overall grown-womanhood, the ladies won a Grammy for “None of Your Business”. And lol at the ultr-throwback term “skins”.
After this huge album — also the first multi-platinum album for any female rap artist, group or solo — the girls part ways with Hurbie (age old issue of mismanaging $), Salt splits with Hurbie romantically.
They change labels, and get a huge advance (as they deserve at that point). But then the label folds, so no promo. They were also entering a field with Kim and Foxy; a challenge in itself. So, we know the story from there: they split. Pep marries (then divorces) Treach. Salt gets saved. Spin does…what did Spin do? Anyway…
They get back together, on TV, with some growing pains, and now they tour again! Yay!
The moral to all of this is: put some respect on Dana Owens’, Lana Moorer’s, Sandra Denton’s and Cheryl James’ (and Deidra Roper’s) names!!
Women in Hip Hop was not a new phenomenon in the late 90s. These ladies (plus more I didn’t get into) broke barriers. Give them their due.
As an addendum, let’s also give proper attention to the hair and wardrobe moments of these pioneering women in rap.
Please get into Latifah’s afrocentric focus. La could stroll through Brooklyn in this fit right now and would blend right on in.
She was serious about not only representing the diaspora, but presenting authority. Her video looks first album were paramilitary.
Look at this regal Nefertiti inspired ass sh*t right here
And she was still also giving us polka dot and bamboo earring late 80's/early 90’s realness
Then with Khadijah James, La gave us B Girl who could flip to professional and turn it all the way to grown and sexy.
Also, La’s hair was and is always bouncy as hell.
Speaking of hair, Lyte was an asymmetrical haircut chamption.
The early 90’s was the era of girls in baggy street wear. We mixed our stuff with boys clothes. The question was how well you could pull it off.
I’ve seen at least 3 Lyte outfits while I was putting this together that I’m certain I had damn near in replica in my closet back then, which is easy bcecasuse it was a lot of Polo, Hilfiger, Girbaud jeans and Nike. And Structure (remember Structure?)
Queens’ own Salt N’ Pepa. A leather trench, a shearling, and a fur. This shit is so NY.
But of course when you think S-N-P, the FIRST thing you think of is spanex body suits, 8 ball jackets, and asymmetrical cuts. Also gold. Lyte and S-N-P rocked a lot of ropes chains, big earrings, all that good stuff.
Salt n Pepa went through maybe the biggest style evolutions from album to album. From Hot Cool and Vicious…
To fully stepping into and embracing the sexy during Salt With a Deadly Pepa. (And Salt went blonde during this era). Also, HAIR!!
The kind of retro influence we were bringing into early 90’s accessories (no more big gold), the combo of baggy and tight, softer hair.
And in the pre-social media era when you didn’t see artists in between album cycles, I can’t express how big their Very Necessary reveal was.
They came back sexy, svelt, with the grunge-influenced plaid + denim + leather + midriff out look of the moment. They were ALWAYS on trend.