'You gotta fight and fight and fight for your legacy'
Sha-Rock claims her place as the first female MC in hip-hop history
This story was adapted from Episode 2 of Louder Than A Riot, Season 2. To hear more about MC Sha-Rock and the fight to situate women in the rap canon, stream the full episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.
Listen to Louder Than A Riot: MC Sha-Rock
Hip-hop was born in the Bronx at a back-to-school party in 1973, when DJ Kool Herc started scratching for the crowd, but rapping didn't become the music's primary form until it transitioned beyond the party — with record deals, singles, tours and TV spots. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a formative time for MCing with seminal acts from Sugar Hill Records leading the charge: Keef Cowboy, of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is often credited with coining the term "hip-hop," and, in 1979, the trio The Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper's Delight," which broke the music for a national audience. These are familiar figures in recaps of rap's ascent into a global phenomenon, but who gets to leave a legacy and who gets left out?
The retelling of hip-hop history centers men, often excluding the women in the same frame, so if you haven't heard about MC Sha-Rock, original member of Sugar Hill's Funky 4 + 1, and the first woman MC, you're not alone. She was such a titanic force in early rap communities that even DMC, one third of the game-changing group Run-DMC, cites her as an influence. Yet she is not given her due as a trailblazer.
But Sha-Rock has receipts. Using her personal mementos, Sha-Rock takes us through her entry into early hip-hop culture as a B-girl, her emergence as a pioneering MC, her groundbreaking (pregnant!) performance on Saturday Night Live and her long-running fight to preserve her legacy, in her own words.
The very moment [I got] my taste for hip-hop is 1976 as a B-girl — you know, being out there, break dancing, watching young kids move around throughout the Bronx, traveling as nomadic B-girls and B-boys, just to hit those breakbeats. The MCing came in 1977. The first person that I saw breakdance was friends of mine that had went to junior high school with me. They taught me what it was to uprock, what it was to just hit the beats whenever you hear that certain break beat.
From there, you know, I used to travel and watch the famous twins perform, back then were called the N**** Twins, now they are called the Legendary Brothers, Keith and Kevin. I used to travel around with them to B-girl, to every park jam, every DJ that played, every house party, every hip-hop venue. I traveled all over the Bronx just to be a part of the whole scene.
The circle was always male-dominated. It was a young male sport at the time. I was sort of like a tomboy growing up. But there was just a feeling that you knew you had to be a part of. Some of us was living in poverty, politicians always doing their own thing. So when we came within that circle, that was our way to get away from all the other negative stuff. I mean, just being out there in the street and just listening to some of this, the sounds and the music and the percussion — it just gave you a feeling like you could just take on the world. It just empowered you as a woman.
A young man that was a part of the organization called the Brothers Disco Work was passing out flyers. He said, "Listen, you know, we're having an audition. Would you wanna come and audition for MC?" I said, "Sure, why not?" The audition was held in the basement at DJ Breakout's house. And so I took a friend with me uptown in the Bronx and auditioned. Everybody uptown knew where he worked, where he lived. And so it was a lot of people. I had to go home from school that day; I wrote the rhyme on the bus and just recited it over and over and over again heading back uptown. And I won the part. There was no other girl MCs auditioning. But because they loved the way that I wrote my rhyme and how my cadence was, I became the MC for the organization.
In late 1977, I became the first female MC, but at the time there were only two male MCs [in the organization] — Keith Keith and K.K. Rockwell. And then at the beginning of '78, we add another MC to the group, Rahiem. This is how we became the original Funky 4.
Then you had the Furious Four, which was Grandmaster Flash's group. They had four male members. So the Funky 4 and the Furious Four — before we became the Funky 4 + 1, and before they became the Furious Five — we created the first rap battles in the history of hip-hop culture. That means groups going against each other. I was the first and the only female MC to ever battle anybody.
I was always a secret weapon. In order to compete with my group, a lot of other groups were scrambling trying to find female MCs that can be able to deal with Sha-Rock. I never felt no kind of way because my group had always let people know, out there in New York City or wherever we travel — whether it was Connecticut, Washington, D.C., any place up and down the I-95 corridor — that MC Sha-Rock was the best female MC, and that they had the best female MC ever.
One day we had a battle and we come to find out that Rahiem from our group was thinking about going over to the Furious Four. We felt like Raheim threw the battle because he said he didn't wanna sing — he was the singer and the harmonizer of the group. And so we knew that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Four won because of that. We were the only two groups in New York City at that time that was garnering attention and getting everybody to come to our parties. So the other two members kicked him out of the group, and he winds up going to the Furious Five in 1979.
Rahiem and I were very close, so I didn't know what really went down. And so I left the group. I came back to the group on the strength of the manager asking me to come back. They had gotten two new members, so when I came back, that's when I became the plus one.
I never thought about [why they called it Funky 4 + 1 and not Funky 5] at the time. I'm young — 17, 18 years old — I'm just saying, OK, well I'm the plus one. Yeah, it's added on. I think in the end it was like a gift and a curse. When people hear Funky 4 + 1, they think of 1979 rap records, but they don't know the history before 1979, of me being a part of the original Funky 4, me being on the streets in New York, playing at over 500 hip-hop venues, on 500 flyers as opposed to any other female in the history of hip-hop culture.
I never really looked at it as I should have been the Funky 5. I think what my manager probably had in mind is that he wanted to be different than the Furious Five. He just wanted me to stand out, and that's why he came up with the plus one.
My manager, Jazzie D, went and found out how to buy this instrument called the Echo Chamber. So whenever I used to say a rhyme, he'll put the echo on it. It would repeat every last word of my rhyme. When you used to hear my voice on cassette tapes, it would carry. And so that's why you would have people like DMC from Run DMC [using it]. When he heard my tapes floating around in the streets, he told Jam Master J, "I want you to make me sound like Sha-Rock on the Echo Chamber." And so when you hear them doing the Tougher than Leather album, you could hear the echo in their voice.
[Editor's Note: One of the people who noticed that distinct style was Darryl "DMC" McDaniels of Run-DMC. Here's what he told the Louder team about Sha-Rock: "So I heard Funky 4 + 1. I heard that. And then on that record was this girl. And since it was a girl, the voice was so distinctive, but it sounded stronger, more grounded, more versatile, more unique, more impressive than all of the dudes that I had heard up to that point. It was just a different energy and they were all switching off from rapping. But when it got to the part where they said, "Sha-Rock, don't stop, just turn on your mic and you're ready to rock." And this person, I don't wanna just say "girl," this person just went. I heard her rhyming over the break beat "Seven Minutes of Funk" and it was just, it was just the craziest thing that I ever heard. And I heard a lot of people do it. But there was something about the way Sha-Rock delivered her rhymes. That was just the prototype to be."]
I had my first record deal under Enjoy record label, as the Funky 4 + 1. I signed it in October of 1979. And we recorded our song three months after "Rapper's Delight," which was the first breakout hit for The Sugarhill Gang off of Sugar Hill record label. The song came out in November. Enjoy had all of the top MCs that was on the streets of New York prior. For some reason, there was a scout that came to us and said, "Sylvia Robinson wants y'all to come over to Sugar Hill Records." My manager was against it, but we felt like because she had the No. 1 song in the world at the time — a rap song — we felt like her marketing reach was better than Enjoy Records. ["Rapper's Delight" topped the charts in Canada, Spain and the Netherlands and finished Top 5 in nine other countries, but peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100.] Somehow the owner of Enjoy, Bobby Robinson, worked something out with Sugar Hill Records, and we were able to get off the label, and sign to Sugar Hill that following year.
I was 17, going on 18. But the crazy thing about it is that my mother didn't even sign my contract for me. My sister, she wasn't my legal guardian, but she signed my contract for me because I wanted to do it so bad. When it came to songs that we recorded, like "Rappin' and Rocking the House," you know, we went into the studio and did that in one take, simply because we used the rhymes that we were already rhyming to in the parks and the streets in New York before record deals. "That's the Joint" — we were always doing routines. That's what we were known for. We just gonna let each and every MC rhyme and then bring in the cadence of a rhyme to bring the next person in.
What Sylvia Robinson did with this first Sugar Hill tour is she wanted everybody that was under her label at the time — Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, the Funky 4 + 1, and The Sequence — she wanted to take us on like this major tour around the world to be able to let people see what Sugar Hill Records was doing. I mean, we hit every major city that you could imagine. Every arena, every place that we played at was sold out. People of all ages were coming because you're talking about 1981, where rap music is hitting. She took this R&B group Sky that was out there with us, and she took Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band with us, and the Rapping Dummy was out there with us as well. And so it was the best thing ever: the first documented hip-hop tour. It was on a different level. The Sequence and I were the only females out on the major tours in the beginning of hip-hop culture outside of New York City or the surrounding areas.
When you going to places like Wisconsin, you going to places like Chicago, Florida, you know, places that we never even been before, hip-hop was something new to them. They treated us like we were the Jacksons. When it comes to hip-hop, I'm very protective of the culture and its stories and its essence, especially the truth when it comes to it.
So to be out there on that stage and hear the young teenagers and their mothers and fathers just roaring for something that we young kids brought to them was one of the most exciting things.
Ms. Robinson called us out on tour to say, "Saturday Night Live want y'all to come and perform." When we got the call, everybody on that tour bus was mad but us. A lot of animosity built up on that tour. A fight erupted with the Furious Five. We were the top groups in New York City at the time. And so once they find out that we were gonna be on Saturday Night Live — so much stuff happened within those last couple of days, fights and arguments, all that stuff went down.
It came to a head in the parking lot of Sugar Hill Records. We didn't know at the time the impact of being on that television show. We were hood stars in our own areas. People knew us in New York City. They knew who we were from the tapes floating around, from them knowing who the Funky 4, the Funky 4 + 1 was because we traveled all over the five boroughs of New York City. But to be on Saturday Night Live and have the entire world hear us rhyming was like one of the best things that ever came our way. You may have had, like, Kurtis Blow and Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train, but we were the first authentic hip-hop group out the streets of New York to ever perform on national television.
They wanted the Funky 4 + 1 because we was a group that not only played in punk-rock clubs, we were the first group to ever go down to Soho, in Manhattan, and play for a different genre of people. So Blondie wanted us. Debbie Harry, the lead singer of the group, wanted us. And we were told the reason why she wanted us, as opposed to Grandmaster Flash [and] the Furious Five or The Sugarhill Gang, is because we had a female, and the fact that we were young and innocent looking. So I have to commend Debbie Harry for bringing us on because it allowed us to show the world what we were doing back in the Bronx. When Debbie Harry announced us, what she said was: "I got the best street rappers, the best street rappers from the Bronx, the Funky 4 +1."
When we walked into NBC, the Saturday Night Live set it was like, OK, we're gonna be on TV. And I was pregnant at the time. I think I was about four or five months pregnant. So I was like hurting, I was feeling kind of crazy. But my group didn't know.
We were gonna work with Blondie and Debbie Harry. She was trying to help us get off our contract. She was like, "Whatever you do, don't go re-sign. I'm gonna hook you up with our attorneys and we are gonna try to get you off the label and want you to tour with us." We were gonna start recording with her and everything. But some of us, including me, my crazy tail, went and re-signed thinking that Sylvia Robinson was gonna do the right thing by us again, because this is what she promised us. She promised us that she was gonna pay us. She promised that she was gonna allow us to record as many songs as we want, and she was gonna ensure that all our fruits of labor would come to fruition — where we would be able to monetize off of the culture that we created. And she promised us that, but it didn't happen.
My crew was very upset at me once they did find out that I was pregnant. They felt like it would hinder everything that we had moving forward simply because I was the plus one. I was the female. I was the female that a lot of men try to compete with as well. "We are the Funky 4, we out here, but Sha-Rock is our secret weapon. Not only is she a woman, but she's also a dope MC." In their minds, they think that we were at the peak of our career, and because I was pregnant we probably wouldn't have gotten as much work.
They wanted to be able to capitalize off of Saturday Night Live. After we did go on television, that's when the craziness started — within the group and within Sugar Hill Records. We started being pit against each other. Li'l Rodney C was basically like the spokesman for the group, but he had no filter and he would say what he felt was right. That was intimidating to some of the owners at the label. It's just that we didn't follow his lead, because we other members in the group felt like [Sylvia Robinson] was going to do us right.
Rodney C and K.K. Rockwell, who were very tight, were allowed to leave the group because she felt those two were the outspoken ones. Me, Keith Keith, and Jazzy Jeff stayed. At the time, being pregnant was a scary thing. I was at the height of my career as well, and I was so nervous, not because I didn't have the support of my family, but nervous to know that it would put a damper on me moving forward. So I had to figure out how I was gonna navigate through all of this. With the support of my mom, I was able to. And then once I had my daughter, I was able to try to figure out what's my next move?
So I went back into the studio and started recording because Ms. Robinson promised me that she was going to look out for me, especially for the fact that she became the godmother of my daughter. She christened my daughter at two months old. She came up to the Bronx in her Rolls Royce and christened my daughter. So I believe that she was going to look out for me — for all the money of the songs that I made. I honestly believed that if she didn't look out for nobody else, she was gonna look out for me, because I had her goddaughter.
My daughter was born in 1981. I signed my contract with her in 1980. So this is like the beginning of a good relationship. So I felt like no matter what she would be there to be the godmother. So if something happens to me [or] my mom — she's able to financially take care of her. And the fact that that was my money, made from my songs. So it wasn't like I was asking you for anything. That was my money that you were supposed to give me.
When I realized that no money was coming in — I'm broke, given all I had, all my good songs, all my good lyrics to these records. I'm not seeing no money. I'm not seeing no tabulations of credits, or breakdowns of what sold or what didn't. In 1983, I said, I'm not gonna do this. I'm not gonna allow no one to pimp me and take everything away from me that I love. So I fell back and I didn't record for a long period of time, simply because I felt the way for me to handle this was to regroup, let my contract run out. I don't do anything that anybody can take away from me again. So in order for me to love the culture that I helped build, I fell back because of Sugar Hill Records.
When I decided to come back on the scene and figure out a way to attack the situation, I was aware of Queen Lisa Lee that was down with Afrika Bambaataa. We were very good friends. And I seen Debbie D rhyming in the early '80s. I said to Lisa Lee, "We need to start a girl group. I know this girl that'll be good to be a part of the group." And there was an audition that was happening downtown at the Roxy for the movie Beat Street that was gonna be produced by Harry Belafonte. I said to him that day when he was at auditions, "We are the three best female MCs out here in New York City. We need to be a part of the movie. People know us."
The other girls weren't under contract. I was the only one that was signed. Because I was under a recording contract and we had to record a song and be in a part in the movie. I wind up having Harry Belafonte call Sylvia Robinson. And she said OK. But there's a stipulation. Melle Mel from Grandmaster Flash the Furious Five has to write the hook and the song to Beat Street.
When we went down to Harry Belafonte's office, he said, "I have somebody in here that's got a song. I want y'all to do this song. It's called "Us Girls Can Boogie, Too." And that's how we became the Us Girls. He had us come in, do the song and a little routine to it, and then we just wrote our own rhymes to the song.
When you talk about the movie Beat Street, for me, "Us Girls Can Boogie, Too" — it made a statement. It wasn't like the type of girlish rhymes. You know, the "Yes, yes, y'all / to the beat, y'all / freak freak, y'all / Let's rock the house, y'all." It wasn't that type of rhyme. It kind of offered a different sentiment to how us as women were portrayed. Then it shouted it out to the world. It's not just about the men, but we can rock as well.
I came in the game in 1977. So to fight to still be even talking about this right now — it's like you gotta fight and fight and fight for your legacy. To say that you was first at doing this or the first at doing that, comes with a price because you're gonna always have somebody come and say, "Listen, nah, it didn't happen like that." You're always gonna have detractors that's gonna try to switch the story up a little bit to take away from what you accomplished. But the way that I see it is: The only way that you can share your story and go toe-to-toe with anybody that come[s] behind you to say, "No, that's not how it happened," is to show proof and to account for everything that you said you did.
The misconception is that it was a male-dominated field, and the females just came on the scene later. No, the males didn't dominate anything. We were always there.