Female Emcees Say 'My Mic Sounds Nice'

The hip-hop industry has long been a boy’s club that’s often called misogynistic and violent. Yet the heyday of hip-hop was quite a different environment where the ladies were just as likely to be fierce on the mic and inspiring to their fans and fellow emcees. A new BET documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop explores the history and the legacy of the women who helped invent and nurture the Hip-Hop genre. MC Lyte, who is featured in the film, says the industry now barely resembles the one she helped launch. Also joining the conversation is filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

In a time that sometimes seems long ago and far away, when African pendants and cry for black consciousness ruled the day on the radio, hip-hop was born. It's a style of music originally devoted to the uplift and education of the masses. It embodied everything from anger to celebration of the neighborhood to the nation's cities, and it embraced the voices of strong women who had something important to say, women like Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, heard here in "Ladies First."

(Soundbite of music, "Ladies First")

QUEEN LATIFAH (Rapper): (Singing) The ladies will kick it, the rhyme that is wicked. Those that don't know how to be pros get evicted. A woman can bear you, break you, take you. Now, it's time to rhyme. Can you relate to a sister dope enough to make you holler and scream?

MONIE LOVE (Emcee): (Singing) Ayo, let me take it from here, Queen. Excuse me...

KEYES: As the genre gains popularity and drew big money, the queens and homegirls of hip-hop gave way to performers with more overtly sexual images. Rappers like Lil' Kim told critics that change was strictly business, because sex sells. But the sex became a formula, forcing some female fans and emcees to choose between the image and the message.

Music tastes change, sales dropped, and in 2005, the category of Best Female Rapper was dropped from the Grammy Awards.

But the female emcees, like platinum-selling emcee and producer Missy Elliot and Grammy-winning performer Lauren Hill say don't get it twisted. They're not going anywhere.

Documentarian Ava DuVernay presents her film "My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip-hop" tonight on cable channel BET. DuVernay joins us, along with another guest, the legendary Grammy-nominated artist, rapper and entertainer, Lana Michele Moore, better known as MC Lyte.

(Soundbite of music, "Lyte as a Rock")

MC LYTE (Rapper): (Singing) The world ultimate. I'm here to take the title, but I had a little trouble upon my arrival. But I got rid of those who tried to rock me. Lyte is here, no one can stop me. I am the Lyte. L-Y, L-L-Y-T-E.

KEYES: We should note that one of MC Lyte's diaries is now in a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about hip-hop. Thank you for joining us, ladies.

Ms. AVA DUVERNAY (Film Director): Thank you for having us.

MC LYTE: Thank you.

KEYES: Ava, I have to say, the documentary seems something like an ode, almost to an era long past. Is it?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Oh, it's a love letter. It's a love letter to the art of the female emcee. It's a love letter to women in hip-hop, whether they be DJs or emcees or graffiti artists, dancers - executives, even. It's really time that we look at these sisters and give them their due.

KEYES: Ms. Lyte, I know you've been around all in this from the beginning. Was hip-hop ever truly equal? In other words, was ever based strictly on an emcee's skills and not on your gender?

MC LYTE: Oh, boy. That's an interesting question. I don't believe so. I think it was always you're a female emcee, you know, not just looked upon as just an emcee. But you could always - oh, you good for a female emcee, though.

KEYES: Right. But only for a female, not in your own right as emcee who is stepping to it?

MC LYTE: Well, yeah. I mean, you can ask a couple of the male emcees and - you know, I sometimes make their lists as, you know, one of the five to 10 best emcees ever. But I think it's just some very isolated incidents.

KEYES: Mm-hmm. I wonder, earlier on, I mean, women were a big part of this battle game. I mean, why did that change? And I would love for Ms. Lyte to answer first, and then Ava.

MC LYTE: I don't know that I can agree with that. I think from the beginning, it's always never been enough of us.

KEYES: Okay.

MC LYTE: To this date, I don't even - I don't believe Def Jam ever held onto two at one time. They always switched out. You know, first it was Nikki D, then it was The Boss. And then it might have been somewhere in between there, but then came Foxy and then - you know, so they only did one at time. And that period of time was probably the late '80s to the mid-'90s. But we've always been trying to stand our ground and have more on the frontline. It's just that opportunities haven't been available.

KEYES: Ava, what do you think?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Well, I mean, definitely, the late '80s to the early '90s, as Lyte said, was the golden era of hip-hop overall. And, definitely, during that time, you saw, you know, good numbers of women comparatively, about 45 or so, women signed to major labels at that time: recording, touring, making music videos on the radio. And there's been a drastic drop off to the point where we're at 2010 and there are about three women signed to major labels at this point. And so...

KEYES: Wow, are there even that many?

Ms. DUVERNAY: There are three, yeah. Three signed to major labels, Nicki Minaj, Trina...

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DUVERNAY: ...and new woman named Diamond, who just signed to Jive. And so...

Ms. LYTE: And what's important to know about both of those is that they may be signed, ultimately, to a major, but they came by way of an independent.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYTE: So it's not like that record label taking a big gamble saying oh, well, we're going to sign this artist. What they're doing is making someone else do the work and then they're reaping the benefits. So it's not even like it was, back in the day, being signed to a major artist.

KEYES: In other works Lyte, it's not like they're going out looking for female MC's.

Ms. LYTE: Right. Right.

KEYES: Do they have any interest? I mean they're all through the documentary people were saying women don't sell, women don't sell. I mean is that really true?

Ms. LYTE: You want to take that, Ava?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUVERNAY: Yeah. Yeah, I mean that's the answer that all the executives that we interviewed gave, that the industry changed, and ultimately that women didn't sell. I mean we have examples of women selling, you know, from - whether it's Missy, who's the most commercially successful female rap artist of all time...

KEYES: Right.

Ms. DUVERNAY: ...to Lauryn to Foxy and Kim, I mean there are instances. But the theory that's given is, comparatively, to their male counterparts, the sales are not robust enough to warrant the money that's spent on grooming, developing and keeping a female artist out. There are glam squads that they point to, the hair, makeup and styling, other needs. Some of the women that we interview say that's hogwash. And so that's what the documentary explores, the different reasons, theories behind it. The bottom line is we are where we are. They're very few women on the radio anymore.

And so if you want to hear a female MC, you've got to kind of mine the underground. There's some great pearls there, great gems, women that are doing amazing things in that space. But ultimately, they're not in the mainstream.

KEYES: Ava, I'm going to come back to both the glam and the underground in a second. But I'm curious, who is buying the CD's currently, of the three women who are out there on the labels?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Well, Trina is one of the women. She's been out for 12 years. She's a rapper out of the Miami area. She has a very, kind of sexual image, and she has a fan base that's largely regional and predominately male that she appeals to.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DUVERNAY: And we interview her in the documentary and she talks about the fact that this was her strategy that this is how you sell records. You have to be sexy. Men want sexy and that's what she gives them, and she's been around for 12 years doing just that.

There's also Diamond, the new woman, she kind of fits in that mold of the kind of a sexy image. And then, of course, Nicki Manaj, who's kind of the MC of the moment. I think part of the reason why people are turning their attention to the lack of female MC's is the rise of Nicki Manaj, a woman that's incredibly popular right now, and basically is kind of standing alone on the air waves. Her fan base - largely male, and very young.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

We're speaking with documentarian Ava DuVernay about her film My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip-Hop, and lyrist and rapper MC Lyte.

Lyte, you made an interesting point about the power and influence of male rappers who have these scantily clad women in their videos, and that kind of makes it hard for the people that watch those videos to think of women as having the brain to have something to say that they want to listen to.

Ms. LYTE: Right. You know what's so funny? When you first asked me, the first thing that came to mind, and I wanted to completely keep it music...

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYTE: ...but I read an article way long ago, about Robert Redford was at that time, I think, on a couple of dates and, you know, dating some people and he dated Jane Fonda.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYTE: And Jane Fonda said that Robert Redford told her, it's always great for a woman to not to say everything she knows.

KEYES: Wow.

Ms. LYTE: Just show up. That's the history of our life. You know, like it's so much better when we just don't speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: As long as we're wearing red lipstick.

Ms. LYTE: Yeah. And Chuck D said it best. It's like really, people - what's being sold is like lips and hips and T and A in a bottle. It's like we don't they don't want anything, you know, that has to do with making them look at themselves, or correct some things that may be wrong or... So yes, to answer your question, it becomes, you know, eye candy - and much better to have. And I think - I don't know if I did the documentary, but I liken it to soul food that leaves the hood. When you're in the mall, most of the seasoning goes out.

KEYES: Right.

Ms. LYTE: Like, you're like okay, I'm really going to have travel all the up to that spot to get the food because it just doesn't taste the same. And that's pretty much where we are with hop-hop in general, and then also that that part that involves the female MC, is that ever since, you know, Missy, who's innovative, has hit the scene and she and Timbaland came up with this crazy dance sound.

(Rapping) This is for my people, people. This...

You know, it's like, oh my god, this can really happen. Then after that point, it was a whole bunch of people, you know, built on sort of the blueprint that Missy came from, which was, you know, which is Nelly Furtado and Fergie and all of the rest of them. So now when a black female hip-hop artist comes out, she has to be able to compete with Gwen Stefani, Fergie and all of the rest of those pop acts that have somehow merged themselves into the hip-hop world via a hip-hop producer.

KEYES: So, if current rappers like Trina and Nicki Manaj are embracing that very sexual image, aren't they kind of buying into that program?

Ms. LYTE: I think what they're doing, and not just them, but the new MC is realizing, this is a business - like it's become a business. And you will have, with the corporate structure, you have people who deal with business all day and then you have people who are grassroots, who are showing up at the YMC and the Boys and Girls Club. It's two different mindsets. So in hip-hop, you have people that look at it as a business.

Trina is very right to say; that's what men like. I mean that's what a lot of our hip-hop magazines it's no longer Word Up or Rap Masters. It's these other hip-hop magazines that cater to just that. They have automobiles, they have women who have barely anything on, and they have men talking about hip-hop. Like so, female MC's are I mean, excuse me, women are not buying female MC hip-hop. I don't believe they are, because there's nothing for them to grasp on to.

KEYES: Ava, let's take a look to Lauryn Hill. People in your documentary had a lot to say about her.

(Soundbite of song, Doo Wop, That Thing)

Ms. LAURYN HILL (Singer-songwriter; Actress) (Rapping) The second verse is dedicated to the men, more concerned with his rims and his Timbs than his women. Him and his men come in the club like hooligans. Don't care who they offend popping yang, like you got yen. Let's not pretend, they wanna pack pistol by they waist, men Cristal by the case men, still in they mother's basement. The pretty face, men claiming that they did a bid men. Need to take care of their three and four kids men.

KEYES: You know, a lot of people in the documentary Ava, talked about Lauryn Hill as if she left and took the entire female talent in hip-hop with her; although, you've just said that there some current women on the underground. But is that overreaching her influence?

Ms. DUVERNAY: I know. It was so strange. As I asked the questions about Lauryn and I went back and I looked at the footage, every single person that we interviewed spoke about her in the past tense. Lauryn was this. She was beautiful. She was the jewel of hip-hop. She was, you know, and really, as we put the footage together, it's an emotional part of the film, to kind of talk about her legacy and just the emotion that she evokes when you say her name.

We interviewed 35 people and literally every single one just kind of went into their own world and their eye glaze over when they talk about Lauryn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUVERNAY: And, you know, that's the question. I mean she does leave the game. She stops actively recording, performing and appearing and, you know, the question is: did that signal the, kind of, turning away of that kind of music and the embracing of the more hyper-sexual image? I mean was she was her departure the cause for the industry to say, you know what, she was the only one that could do that. She's gone. Let's embrace what's left. And so that -all those arguments are what we present there.

The interesting thing is I just flew up to San Francisco and saw Lauryn at Rock the Bells.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DUVERNAY: She performed a very rare performance in San Francisco, last weekend, and literally blew the roof off of the place.

KEYES: Lyte, I actually want to go back to something that you did that always made me love you, from the beginning, because you were one of the first female MC's that called out all the boys for their crudeness and their violence. What was it (unintelligible) you say, you know what, I'm doing my thing but I have to say that this is not cool?

Ms. LYTE: I was I was insulted. Like really, I think for a long time and I even watched an interview that I did with Arsenio Hall and he said well, you know, how do you feel about the B word? And I was like well; they're not talking to me. And years later, yeah, no, they are. They are talking to me. They're talking to all of us, because I am my sister, so - and my sister is me. So my perspective is very different from then.

But also, I just remember the first time I was in an L.A. club and I heard a song that had, you know, B, B, B, and it was by Snoop Dogg. And I walked over to the DJ and I was like what is this? And he told me and I was like can you change it, because I'm offended right now. And he did. But we're a long way from there. You know, it's kind of become the norm.

KEYES: What do you think, Lyte, about Snoop and some of the male rap that is out there? Is it still as insulting as it was in the past? Has it mitigated at all?

Ms. LYTE: I think we've become somewhat numb to it, you know, because I can't say when Drop It Like It's Hot comes on that I scurry from the dance floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LYTE: I'm still there, you know. And part of it is the music. The music is incredible. And I think we've learned to sort of like not pay attention to the words. And that's what hip-hop is missing. Like you could Drake stepped on the scene, is making so much noise because you can actually hear what he's saying. He's not hiding behind a beat, but he wants you to like listen and understand that he actually has thoughts that sort of merge together. It's not like these sporadic, you know, line after line and then like at the end, you're like what did I what did he just say or what did I just hear?

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYTE: I feel somewhat disappointed still in what I hear.

KEYES: Ava, what do you think? Is there music out there now that doesn't offend you to listen to?

Ms. DUVERNAY: Oh, well, there's an incredible woman named Ty Phoenix and she has an album called Half Woman Half Amazin', which is amazing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. Treasury PHOENIX (Hip-hop artist): (Rapping) Yo, subliminal, l played you like my finger roll. It's commendable. I'm lending hope and making women dough. You love to smoke that thing. You need to smoke that thing. You need smoke that. Stop right here. You got the one, one, one...

Ms. DUVERNAY: There's a woman named Medusa in Los Angeles, tons of great music out.

(Soundbite of music)

MEDUSA (Hip-hop artist): (Rapping) Rock this play, gotta get on a train. Ride L.A. with West Coast slang. Don't mean that I bang. I ain't got to bang my peach is (unintelligible). License plate, gotta get on the train. Ran L.A., with...

Ms. DUVERNAY: There's a woman - actually a white woman - out of Detroit. Her name is Invincible Detroit. She's incredible.

KEYES: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUVERNAY: Oh, my god. She makes your head spin.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. INCVINCIBLE DETROIT (Hip-hop artist): (Rapping) Man I hate hate, but I hate bigots, especially the ones who make eight digits. His maid underpaid and while she's making his steak dinner, unaware of her tears. He wonders why the taste bitter. Caught the heavy eyelids. Sleep too deep to wake him in his dream state cleans plates, and his feet are aching. Leans weight side to side.

Ms. DUVERNAY: They are out there. I hope people kind of watch the doc or pick up some names. Go on iTunes. Google these women. You know, they've all got Facebooks. They're all very social media savvy. Their music is readily available. There's really no excuse. If you say that you miss women in hip-hop, we're telling they're there. If you really miss them, go support them and, you know, help their voices be heard.

KEYES: Ava DuVernay's documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop, airs on BET tonight. She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Lyricist and rapper MC Lyte joined us from Los Angeles.

Thank you ladies very much.

Ms. LYTE: Thank you.

Ms. DUVERNAY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, Cha, Cha, Cha)

Ms. LYTE: (Rapping) ...and recollect the worst whipping you ever had yet. And I'll bet that I did it. My fingerprints are still on you. How many times I gotta warn you about the light? It'll blind your sight, but the rhythm will still guide you through the night. Kick...

KEYES: And that's our show for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, Cha, Cha, Cha)

Ms. LYTE: (Rapping) Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick. Kip this tip. Kick, kick, kick. Kick this tip. Kick, kick, kick. Kick this one here for me and my DJ.

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