How Sha-Rock's legacy as the first woman MC got buried in the hip-hop archive : Louder Than A Riot Decades before hip-hop's current renaissance of women rappers, there was MC Sha-Rock. Despite her influence on future generations, her contribution to the craft of hip-hop is not widely known. In this episode, we break down legacy: who gets to leave one in hip-hop and who gets left out.

Baby girl, you're only funky as your last cut: MC Sha-Rock

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A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.

OK. So, yeah. So this is the Bronx Music Heritage Center. It's giving very much Bronx after school. Painted piano, drum set, community center vibes, posters everywhere, good crowd, cute crowd. We're the youngest people in here.

MANO SUNDARESAN, BYLINE: Definitely the youngest people in here.

MADDEN: I'm here with my producer Mano Sundaresan to see a Bronx hip-hop legend. There's a small crowd in the community center. Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers is cutting it up on the turntables. As we make the rounds to get a sense of who's here, we see an older white man in the front row.

SUNDARESAN: What's your name?

CHARLES TELERAN: Charles Teleran.

SUNDARESAN: And what do you know about Sha-Rock?

TELERAN: I was really into hip-hop, but I got into it later. I didn't know about her. I thought Shante was the first, but Sha-Rock was the first.

MADDEN: Caz fades out the music and people start quieting down. The woman of the hour takes the stage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right, everybody, make some noise.

MADDEN: Her name is MC Sha-Rock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We are so happy to have on the stage the first female MC in...

SHA-ROCK: Say word.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For those of you...

MADDEN: Sha's got on big shades, gold hoop earrings and a black leather jacket. The way she commands the room, you can definitely tell she was raised in the Bronx.

SHA-ROCK: I was the first female MC to help move hip-hop culture with little or no resources. I set the blueprint, and I say that humbly, but y'all got to know the truth. Y'all got to know the truth. Especially when we talking about the Bronx and especially when we talking about the history of the Bronx. Y'all got to know the truth. There were other female MCs that came out in 1979. I'm the first female MC to have a record deal - authentic female MC to have a record deal...


SHA-ROCK: ...The first female MC on national television - "Saturday Night Live." Yeah. I got some more. But I'll take some questions.

MADDEN: But hold on - if you haven't heard of MC Sha-Rock, member of the Funky 4 + 1 More and the first female MC, you're not alone. There's some specific reasons why. See, some people get erased from history, but Sha was never in it to begin with. Part of the reason was because she was laying the foundations for hip-hop before it was even really being documented.


Yeah, but the bigger reason is because she was treated like an accessory and an afterthought. This season is about how hard it is to be a woman in rap today. But imagine what it must have felt like to be a woman doing it in the genre's infancy. Now, Sha-Rock was no stranger to the spotlight during her heyday. In 1981, she and her group the Funky 4 + 1 became some of the first MCs to bring hip-hop to the mainstream when they took center stage on "Saturday Night Live."


DEBBIE HARRY: The next group are among the best street rappers in the country. Please welcome my friends from the Bronx, the Funky 4 + 1 More.


CARMICHAEL: That night should have cemented Sha's legacy. But it didn't. Instead, it led to her group's downfall.

SHA-ROCK: They wouldn't talk to me. They didn't want to say anything to me. They was like, really fall back. I mean, there was really no conversation, but like, why would you do that, Sha-Rock, you know?

CARMICHAEL: And the reason why Sha's story is really where all these double standards started. I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sydney Madden.


MADDEN: Where we confront the double standard that's become the standard.

CARMICHAEL: On every episode this season, we tackle one unwritten rule of hip-hop that affects the most marginalized among us and holds the entire culture back.

MADDEN: And one that a new generation of rap refuses to stand for.

CARMICHAEL: On this episode, we're breaking down legacy - who gets to leave one in hip-hop and who gets left out.

MADDEN: From her rap crew rejecting her to a 25-year legal battle, MC Sha-Rock takes us through her fight to be remembered. Rule number two - baby girl, you're only funky as your last cut.


CARMICHAEL: All right, Sid, I've been dying to ask you this. On mic, who is your top five, dead or alive?

MADDEN: That's mad hard, but OK. I mean...

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

MADDEN: ...For me, Missy's on there. Kendrick's on there.


MADDEN: B.I.G. is on there. But you know what? You know what always seems so unfair about this question to me?


MADDEN: It makes me think about all the biases that go into these lists. Like, you know, I know, of course, everyone has their own taste.

CARMICHAEL: But you're saying it feels like there's something more than taste reflected in these lists.

MADDEN: Yes, exactly. It's implicit bias that's used as a way to cover up the fact that the people making the lists think that men are just overall better at rapping. And if there are any women on the list, it's usually just one token one, you know, and it's always the same usual suspects.

CARMICHAEL: Lauryn, Missy, Kim, Nicki.

MADDEN: Exactly. But what about Jean Grae, or Azealia, or Rapsody, or Megan? And that's why reimagining the canon of the greatest MCs takes real work. We talked to somebody who's doing exactly that.

CLOVER HOPE: When you're thinking about carving out history and the people who are in power, obviously, it's men. And men get to tell these tall tales, basically, about what they did. And men get to create history for other people as well.

MADDEN: That's Clover Hope, a longtime hip-hop journalist whose bylines range from XXL and the Source to The New York Times and Vogue.

CARMICHAEL: But even as a revered critic, Clover admits Sha-Rock's story was brand-new to her.

HOPE: I certainly, even as a hip-hop head who was writing about it for - like, since I was 20 and in it since I was, like, 13, like, I didn't know a lot of these stories about the young girls who were part of, like, creating this culture.


HOPE: I knew the date of hip-hop being created and the names of some of the early, you know, like Grandmaster Flash. And I didn't know her name.

CARMICHAEL: That was a big motivation for Clover to write "The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop." It's like a reimagined canon that finally puts women front and center.

MADDEN: Sha-Rock is one of the first profiles in "The Motherlode." Clover writes that Sha's considered, quote, "the first prominent female MC." Clover says she wanted readers to know Sha's story because it'd been hidden for so long. And that's the case for many rappers. But for Sha, the reasons behind that erasure reveal how bias is built into the foundations of hip-hop.

HOPE: I wrote a line in there that I always go back to, which is that history is what a dominant group decides is fact.

MADDEN: Sha herself is a living testament of this.

SHA-ROCK: History has been changed over the years. And I see it in hip-hop culture. But I'm not one to allow that to happen.

CARMICHAEL: When we called up Sha, she was sitting at a kitchen table in Texas. It's a long way from the Bronx, where she got her start. And back then, Sha wasn't thinking about legacy. She was focused on having fun. Outside, her corner of the Bronx was giving birth to hip-hop. And as a teenager, she discovered break dancing. She rocked the oversized sweatshirts and Lee jeans. She was becoming a B-girl.


SHA-ROCK: The first person that I saw break dance was friends of mine, you know, that had went to junior high school with me. You know, they taught me how to break dance. They taught me what it was to, you know, up rock, what it was to, you know, just hit the beats, you know, whenever you hear that certain breakbeat.

CARMICHAEL: Sha traveled all over the Bronx - every park jam, every house party, anywhere DJs were spinning breakbeats.

SHA-ROCK: The circles was always male-dominated when it came to B-boys. And to me, you know, as a B-girl, I was sort of like a tomboy, you know, growing up. And so, you know, when you seen - I mean, it's just, like, a feeling that you knew that you had to be a part of.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, something big was happening in the Bronx. And B-girling, that was Sha's way in.

SHA-ROCK: You know, it just gave you, like, a feeling. Like, you - I mean, like, you could just, like, take on the world, you know, because it was - I don't know. It was just, like, a crazy feeling where it was like it just empowered you as a woman. I know it did for me as a young teenager. And I'm quite sure it did it, you know, for, you know, the young guys that was out there at the time.

MADDEN: At the time, she had also been dabbling in poetry. But Sha wanted to do something bigger with it. She wanted to rap.


MADDEN: And in Sha's day, being a rapper meant being part of a crew. And one day, Sha was stopped by a young man passing out flyers.

SHA-ROCK: He said, listen; you know, we're having an audition. Would you want to come and audition for MC? I said, sure enough. Why not?

CARMICHAEL: Sha had to take a bus uptown to the basement of a three-story house where a dude named DJ Breakout and a manager named Jazzy Dee (ph) were conducting the audition. On the bus ride there, she wrote her first rap ever and recited it over and over. And then, standing in front of the manager, Sha-Rock went in.

SHA-ROCK: (Rapping) I'm Sha-Rock, and I can't be stopped. For all the fly guys who want to hit the top, I could do it for the ones that are weak, strong. And I could do it for the ones that are right or wrong. When I'm listed on the column, that's classified. And I could be your nurse, and I'm qualified to talk about respect. I won't neglect. My strategy is for you to see. So don't turn away by what I say 'cause I'm on, I'm bad when I'm talking to you.

And the manager loved me, you know? He was like, yo, you spit fire.

CARMICHAEL: The crew liked how she rocked around so much, they named her Sha-Rock right on the spot.

MADDEN: Sha officially joined up with the Funky 4 in 1978. She was the only girl in the crew. And her presence was felt immediately.

CARMICHAEL: What did the - your male counterparts think of your early raps?

SHA-ROCK: I was always they secret weapon. A lot of other groups were scrambling, trying to find female MCs that can be able to deal with Sha-Rock.

RAHIEM: There was really no competition during that time, especially for Sha-Rock.

CARMICHAEL: That's Rahiem, another original member of the Funky 4. Rahiem auditioned for the group after Sha had already joined. And with Rahiem joining the crew, the Funky 4 were locked in. It was K.K. Rockwell, Keith Keith, Rahiem and MC Sha-Rock. Rahiem says he always looked at Sha-Rock like a sister. And from Day 1, he respected her technique.

RAHIEM: Her style. Her poise. Her delivery. You knew immediately when you heard her as soon as you heard her, that this is Sha-Rock. And she made sure that you knew, whether you were a man or a woman, if you were an MC, that you couldn't get with her.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but peep this - he also says she served a very specific purpose to the group.

RAHIEM: With a female in the group, you know, obviously that's to calm the wolves down. And we needed that during that time period because if we didn't keep the audiences that we entertained in the in the Bronx during the '70s, there was going to be a problem. There was going to be a shootout. There was going to be a stabbing. Somebody was going to get robbed.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, the Bronx was hip-hop's birthplace for a reason. The earliest rap crews originated from gang culture, and sometimes, those ties bled over into the party.

MADDEN: So basically, Sha was seen as a dope MC but also seen as a token, even by members of her own group. And that was really spelled out when the group had some lineup changes and rebranded as the Funky 4 + 1 More. And guess who was the plus one? So why did they call it Funky 4 + 1 instead of Funky Five? Like, what was the plus one? Because that seemed to differentiate you as, you know, as being, like, the woman on there.

SHA-ROCK: I think the reason why my manager did do it is because, you know, he didn't want to have, like, the Furious Five or the Furious - or the Funky Five or whatever. He just wanted, you know, me to be standout. So when they say the plus one, you know, it's like, OK, we have the Funky 4, but we got somebody else, the plus one.

CARMICHAEL: Plus one could mean you're the most important member, but it could also mean you're a footnote. But it was Sha-Rock whose innovations helped the Funky 4 stand out and lay the foundation for where rap was going next. You got to understand, rap, it had been around for a minute but still sounded damn near prehistoric at the time.

SHA-ROCK: '78 was the critical and the most important year of MCs within hip-hop culture because that was the year that the MCs set the example of how you may see an MC rhyming today because the MCs were not rhyming like that. They were not rhyming in the format, you know? And I was a part of the MCs that made that format for future MCs. And I should say that I was the female MC that helped make that format for the future MCs.

MADDEN: People were bumping these tapes, listening to the blueprint of rap. It must have been like stumbling upon a new language, one that was made just for you, discovering new pathways for sound. With every breakbeat and 16-bar verse, these originators were laying down a new framework for music. The possibilities were endless, and Sha played with all of them.

SHA-ROCK: My manager, he went and found out how to buy this instrument, and it was called the echo chamber. And so whenever I used to say a rhyme or I would say like Sha rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, he would put the echo on it - rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock. Or when I'll say yes, yes, y'all, yes, y'all, yes, y'all, yes, y'all, yes, y'all - it would repeat every last word of my rhyme that I would say.


FUNKY FOUR PLUS ONE: (Rapping) Now, this is the way we wine and dine and, at the same time, mess with your mind. With the same identical beat one time, as we possess the beat that'll make you want to rock.

SHA-ROCK: And I became so synonymous within New York City on cassette tapes when I was rhyming in an echo chamber, people was like, OK, let me run out and get this echo chamber.

CARMICHAEL: People all throughout the city caught wind of what Sha was doing, even guys who would eventually pop up all over those all-time GOAT lists.

DMC: So I heard of Funky 4 + 1. I heard that. And then on that record was this girl.

CARMICHAEL: And that's DMC of Run-DMC, one of the most influential rap groups of all time.

DMC: 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 and rapping. But when it got to the part where they said (rapping) Sha-Rock, don't stop, just turn on your mic and you're ready to rock...

And this person - I don't want to just say girl - this person just went off - (rapping) when the sun don't shine, the rain don't stop and we got sound, they call it punk rock, just get up out your chair just to have some fun, we're two DJs, Funky 4 + 1.


FUNKY FOUR PLUS ONE: (Rapping) To the people out there, we want you to know we are the ones with the magic show. We're two DJs and five MCs.

DMC: I heard her rhyming over the breakbeat "Seven Minutes Of Funk" and 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. She was already dominant. The echo chamber just made her invincible.

MADDEN: Sha's influence can be heard all over those Run-DMC records, like "Run's House" from their album "Tougher Than Leather."


RUN-DMC: (Rapping) My name is DMC, the all-time great. I bust the most rhymes in New York state. Reporters clock, producers jock, they want to be down with the kids.

MADDEN: So Sha-Rock has real influence on the art and science of MCing. But as the Funky 4 + 1 More were about to get their big break and introduce hip-hop to the rest of America, she was about to see how being that plus one could be a minus.


SHA-ROCK: By '80, we were signed to Sugar Hill Records, you know, in June of '80. And with that said, you know, our first song that we put out with Sugar Hill Records was called "That's The Joint."


FUNKY FOUR PLUS ONE: (Rapping) Keith, help me rock, we're singing harmony.

Because Jeff is the rhythm.

And K is the bass.

Sha-Rock rock, shocking the whole darn place.

Now here's...

CARMICHAEL: So Sha-Rock was the Funky 4 + 1's secret weapon. And when Sugar Hill Records got hip to them, the CEO of the label, Sylvia Robinson, latched on to Sha-Rock's talents and her innocence.

SHA-ROCK: I was 17 going on 18. But the crazy thing about it is that my mother didn't even sign, you know, my contract for me. My sister - she wasn't my legal guardian, but she signed my contract for me, you know, because I wanted to do it so bad. But yeah, I was 17. I was 17 at the time - 17 going on 18 at the time that I signed to Sugar Hill Records.

CARMICHAEL: Since Sha was underage, she had her sister sign 'cause she didn't want her mom to talk her out of it.

So wait a minute. Was your sister signing - was that legal (laughter)?

SHA-ROCK: No. They didn't care.


MADDEN: Off the strength of "That's The Joint," Sylvia Robinson sent the group out on their first tour. They were each promised to make $500 a show.

SHA-ROCK: What Sylvia Robinson did with this first Sugar Hill tour is that she wanted everybody, you know, that was under her label at the time - she wanted to take us on, like, this major tour around the world, you know, to be able to, you know, let people see what Sugar Hill Records was doing. And so the idea was great. I mean, we hit every major city that you could imagine. Every arena, every place that we played at was sold out. When you're going to places like Wisconsin, you're going to places like Chicago, Florida, you know, places that we never even been before, accepted, you know, rap within hip-hop like it was something new to them - they were going crazy. You know, it's like they treated us like we were, like, the Jacksons. I was like, listen, you know what? We made it. People are loving what we do, something that we created.

MADDEN: And as the tour was coming to a close, the Funky 4 + 1 got another call from Sylvia Robinson.

SHA-ROCK: Ms. Robinson called us out, you know, on tour to say "Saturday Night Live" want y'all to come and perform.

MADDEN: Debbie Harry of Blondie was set to host and perform on the show, and she wanted to feature a special guest.

SHA-ROCK: And we were told the reason why she wanted us as opposed to Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five or the Sugarhill Gang is because they had a female and the fact that we were young and innocent-looking.

CARMICHAEL: Now, this was the secret weapon in action. Having Sha in the group was opening the door for the Funky 4. But if being Sugar Hill's first lady was paying off for her group, it was low-key pissing off the label's other acts.

SHA-ROCK: Everybody and their mamas was mad with us on that tour bus. Groups were mad. The other groups was mad. They was furious because they were not the ones that got chosen to appear on "Saturday Night Live."

CARMICHAEL: That's why when the tour ended and the tour bus pulled up to Sugar Hills' parking lot...

SHA-ROCK: Fights broke out. You know, it just went crazy and left after that.

MADDEN: Yup. The Funky 4 + 1 and the Furious Five threw hands.

CARMICHAEL: You remember that fight?

RAHIEM: Yeah. Yep - vividly.

CARMICHAEL: By this time, Rahiem had left the Funky 4 + 1 and joined their rivals, the Furious Five. He was in the parking lot that day, too, just like Sha.

RAHIEM: I had nothing to do with the beef between the Funky 4 + 1 and Furious Five. The person from the Furious Five who was physically aggressive towards the Funky 4 + 1 was Cowboy. Rest in peace.

CARMICHAEL: Do you remember what Cowboy said in the moment? How did he spark it off?

RAHIEM: I don't remember what was said. I just remember he went after Lil Rodney Cee physically, and he, you know, punched him in the head or the face or something.

SHA-ROCK: It's - so much stuff happened within those last couple of days as far as animosity, you know, and fights and arguments and all that stuff that went down. And so it came to head, you know, in the parking lot of Sugar Hill Records.

MADDEN: And you might be thinking, what does this have to do with Sha? Well, nothing and everything. To all the other groups, she wasn't just seen as competition. She was now a threat just by being there. But the Funky 4 + 1 More couldn't dwell on that rap beef 'cause a few days later their big night on "SNL" arrived.

Take us back to, like, walking into that studio for the first time. What did it look like? What did it feel like?

SHA-ROCK: It was like, OK, we're going to be on TV. We still don't know the impact of being the first authentic hip-hop group to ever, you know, be on TV. All we know is that you're going to see us on TV, and that's it.

CARMICHAEL: And while the Funky 4 sat in the green room waiting for their performance, they watched the show live, the Valentine's Day special, as "SNL's" newest Black cast member, Eddie Murphy, popped out in a Cupid costume during Debbie Harry's monologue.


HARRY: Don't you just love him?

EDDIE MURPHY: They love me.

CARMICHAEL: Towards the end of the show, Debbie Harry introduces the Funky 4.

SHA-ROCK: What she said was, I got the best street rappers from the Bronx.


HARRY: Please welcome my friends from the Bronx, the Funky 4 + 1 More.

CARMICHAEL: Onstage, you can see the crew's arms locked around Sha-Rock like she's in a cage or a cocoon almost. Then the guys - they roll off to the left and right, revealing their star. Now, Sha's dressed differently than the guys, who've got on tight maroon cardigans and Kangols. She's rocking a side ponytail, jeans stuffed in her white cowboy boots and a pink blouse.


FUNKY FOUR PLUS ONE: (Rapping) Sugar hill. Ooh. You know, that's the joint.

CARMICHAEL: Standing side by side, the Funky 4 + 1 kick off their smash hit. Sha weaves in and out of the other verses perfectly.


FUNKY FOUR PLUS ONE: (Rapping) We got rhymes on our mind. We got rocking in the heart. A lot of things we do, you can call it art. We're bad. We're slick. We're doing it hip. We're going to rock this record, and don't you forget. Ah, that's the joint. Because Li'l Rodney C is the melody, Keith, help me rock. We're singing harmony.

DMC: You got to understand, you're hearing the records, you're hearing the tapes and stuff like that. And then you wake up, and somebody says, yo, they was on TV last night. That was the life-changing moment. So I can imagine the older folks seeing that, going, OK, what the hell is this? We're not sure. We don't hate it. And then there's the people that just hated it. That's the No. 1 iconic moment in hip-hop.

MADDEN: This was one of the first times a hip-hop group was nationally televised. "SNL" was likely the biggest stage rap had ever been on at that point. But DMC and all the SNL viewers at home - they didn't realize that that night Sha was carrying her own plus-one.

SHA-ROCK: I was pregnant at the time. I think I was, like, about four or five, six months pregnant, something like that. And so I was, like, hurting. I was feeling kind of crazy and all of that stuff. My stomach was hurting.

MADDEN: And listen, this is nothing like Rihanna doing her big reveal of her baby bump at the Super Bowl. Sha was doing her best to try and hide her bump and how she was feeling. As she gave her best effort, you could tell from the recording she's stiff and slow with her movements.

SHA-ROCK: That's why you would see I was standing in a certain way, you know, and just look forward and focus out, you know? And so I was like, let me - Lord, let me just get through this, you know, and I'll tell them tomorrow.

MADDEN: This was the highest point of the group's career so far, and she didn't want to blow it.

SHA-ROCK: 'Cause I just wanted to get through the television show. I didn't want, you know, them to feel a certain kind of way, you know? So I waited until the next day, and I told them one by one. I told Rodney because I was closer to him first. I told him first. And of course he went, and he told the other guys, you know, within the group. And it was like crickets after that.

CARMICHAEL: Nobody in the group had Sha's back.

SHA-ROCK: They was like, really fall back. I mean, there was really no conversation, but, like, why would you do that, Sha-Rock, you know? And then it was like they were distant.

CARMICHAEL: The way Sha tells it, the guys felt her pregnancy would hold them all back.

SHA-ROCK: They felt like it would hinder everything that we had moving forward. Sha-Rock's pregnant - it's going to slow us down. And so they were very upset.

CARMICHAEL: Even though Rahiem wasn't a member of the group anymore, he says he relates to how the rest of the Funky 4 reacted to Sha's pregnancy at the time.

RAHIEM: They were concerned about their livelihoods, you know, at that time, and I could certainly understand that. If I were a member of their group at that time, I probably would have voiced the same concern, or maybe not.

CARMICHAEL: At this point, the other members of her crew were treating Sha more like a liability than an asset. Her pregnancy was clearly a problem in their eyes.

SHA-ROCK: So they were very protective of me. And I think when it's all said and done, they probably felt like, now, if I covered you, then you cover us - you know, make sure that we are good. Make sure that, you know, we ready to, you know, take the whole world by storm.

MADDEN: Like you betrayed them or something?

SHA-ROCK: You could say that. You could say that.

MADDEN: But do you ever think about the double standard of that, like how you're choosing to do something with your own body could be a betrayal to them? Like, how could that be?

SHA-ROCK: I didn't look at it at that time. At the time, you know, as far as, like, betrayal, I kind of got it, you know, because - not the fact that I betrayed them, but the fact that I love hip-hop so much that I could have, you know, thought about - you know, there could have been other ways, you know, to do it or other ways that I could have made sure that that wasn't the right timing. That was a decision that I made. I mean, it was upon me. I wasn't going to do anything else to terminate, you know, the situation. And I just had to deal with it. But after the pregnancy, that's when things went downhill for the Funky 4 + 1.

MADDEN: How did it feel to have, like, have such little support from them, from your crew members, from Rodney and everybody once you told them?

SHA-ROCK: You know what, I've never really blamed them for it, you know, because I look at it like this. You know, we were all young. We were in our teenage years. And so where you expect for somebody, you know, maybe much older, you know, to be understanding, I think that they were dealing with their own feelings as well, especially being young.

MADDEN: So that gives the guys a lot of grace in hindsight, maybe more than they even deserve. Because even if Sha won't say it, what her group members did was messed up. They iced her out, and things wouldn't ever be the same after that. Sha was scared too. She didn't know where to go from here.

SHA-ROCK: I felt like, for me, I was at the height of my career as well, you know? And I was more so nervous, not because I didn't have the support of my family, but so much nervous to know that it would, you know, put a damper on me moving forward.

CARMICHAEL: Even though Sha was struggling to balance everything and get right with the guys, the Funky 4 + 1 was still up. That "SNL" performance had gone so well that Debbie Harry wanted them to sign to the same label her group, Blondie, was on. Only one problem - Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill, they weren't having it, and it would be years before Sha could take control of her own career.


CARMICHAEL: By 1983, just two years after the big "SNL" debut, the Funky 4 + 1 had split up. Some members joined up with other crews, but Sha-Rock - she had different responsibilities.

SHA-ROCK: There were times - right? - you know, where there was no income, no money coming in, no money coming in nowhere.

CARMICHAEL: So once you had your daughter, like, how were you able to take care of her?

SHA-ROCK: My mom, my mom. And it was so crazy about it - right? - because here it is. We in New York City. People are hearing our songs. They're looking at us like, yo, what's going on? You know, y'all Sugar Hill records, you know, out of the Bronx. Where your money at?

CARMICHAEL: After "SNL" and the success of "That's The Joint," you'd think she'd be getting paid. But after the Funky 4 + 1 disbanded, Sha was struggling to even see a dime of her royalties. At the time, she couldn't figure out why 'cause she thought her label boss, Sylvia Robinson, had her back.

SHA-ROCK: Ms. Robinson promised me that she was going to look out, you know, for me, especially for the fact that she became the godmother of my daughter. You know, she christened my daughter at two months old. You know, she came up to the Bronx in her Rolls-Royce and christened my daughter at two months old. So I believed that she was going to look out for me, you know? For all the money of the songs and all of the songs that I made, I honestly believed that if she didn't look out for nobody else, she was going to look out for me because she christened my daughter as her goddaughter. And so with that said, I just thought about - yeah, I just thought about the ways...

MADDEN: This goes deep.

SHA-ROCK: ...That I could get back into it. Yeah. It's really deep.

MADDEN: Sha trusted Sylvia to do right by her.

SHA-ROCK: She promised us that she was going to pay us. She promised that she was going to allow us to record as many songs as we want, and she was going to ensure that all our fruits of labor would come to fruition where we would be able to monetize off the culture that we created. And she promised us that, but it didn't happen.

MADDEN: And unfortunately, this wasn't nothing new to Sha. Like, remember how they were supposed to get paid $500 each per show?

SHA-ROCK: So when she came out there on tour, we was like, you know, what's going on? Our money is short. You know what I'm saying? And she gave us this whole story. And so everything erupted. You know, she gave us - one time we had to ask her for an advancement, and she gave us, like - we thought we was going to get, like, 5-, 6-, $7,000. You know what I'm saying? She gave us, like, $1,500, you know? And we never seen no money again.

MADDEN: Black musicians have been getting robbed by the record industry since the beginning of time. But it hits different when the label owner stealing your money is family.

CARMICHAEL: And her being your daughter's godmom, I mean, did - she had to see you struggling.

SHA-ROCK: I lived in the Bronx, and she lived in a mansion in New Jersey in Englewood. She didn't see it. She might have known, but she didn't see it because she didn't come to the Bronx.

CARMICHAEL: Sylvia Robinson passed in 2011, so we weren't able to talk to her for this story.

HOPE: Sylvia Robinson had this reputation for just kind of like really screwing over these groups financially.

MADDEN: That's Clover Hope again.

HOPE: Women can be vultures and also play a role in misogyny or play a role in this larger capitalist system and downplay other women. And so it's not limited to just men doing it.

MADDEN: Sha-Rock did everything she could to steer clear of Sugar Hill Records. She formed a new group called Us Girls, hoping the label wouldn't get its hands on whatever money came in. Her new crew even appeared in the classic film, "Beat Street."


SHA-ROCK: (Rapping) Always let you know Debbie D is best. Sha-Rock is the woman with the magical touch. I'm like burning fire, you know I'm just too much. I want to treat you like a...

MADDEN: But at every turn, Sha was bound by her contract with Sylvia. Basically, she was in a 360 deal before those were even a thing.

SHA-ROCK: This is the reason why, like, in 1983, I said, I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to allow no one to pimp me and take everything away from me that I love. So I fell back, and I never recorded again 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 record. I don't do anything that anybody can take anything away from me again.

MADDEN: But even then, there wasn't a road map for an unsigned woman MC in hip-hop trying to turn a passion into a profitable, long-term career.

CARMICHAEL: Sha's career hit a glass ceiling. Eventually, hip-hop's memory of the first female MC started to fade, too.


CARMICHAEL: Sha moved on with her life.

MADDEN: Until 10 years later, when she was in a record store and spotted a Sugar Hill compilation on sale for $100.

SHA-ROCK: I'm talking to myself, I say, wow, this is - they selling a song, and I ain't getting paid from it? And I went on this rampage to try to find an attorney, you know, to recoup my money.

CARMICHAEL: Sha wasn't making money, but clearly somebody was.

MADDEN: Sheesh. I would have gone on a rampage, too.

CARMICHAEL: She decided not to take it lying down. So she rounded up all her old labelmates.

SHA-ROCK: I went to the Furious Five. Me and Rahiem was very close. I said, get all the members together, you know, and come in with me on this lawsuit. He got them together. I got the Funky 4 together. And later on, a group named the Crash Crew, you know, came on. And so we filed against Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill Records.

MADDEN: In 1997, Sha and her former labelmates filed the suit. They were seeking royalties as well as other fees from Sylvia, her husband Joe Robinson and their next of kin, who were now running the company.

CARMICHAEL: And this fight dragged on for decades. The Robinsons were uncooperative, and eventually, both Joe and Sylvia died before a final settlement was reached.

SHA-ROCK: And finally, you know, to make a long story short, after all these years, we finally, you know, were able to revert everything back to us.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Sha and Rahiem wouldn't disclose to us how much money they got. But for Sha, it was never just about the money. This was about fighting for herself, for her fellow artists and really, for her own legacy.

MADDEN: What does it feel like to get your royalties back, get - literally get the credit for your craft back after all this time, after all this time of being doubted and robbed?

SHA-ROCK: It feels like I've been vindicated, you know? It feels like - that I am still here, you know, in flesh, to be able to see the outcome, you know? And my kids - you know, and it's so crazy about it because I think that my kids know that I am a strong woman, you know, and they saw everything that I went through, you know, after giving birth. They heard it over the years. They heard me on the telephone talking to the attorneys. They heard my passion to other MCs. You know, they know how I feel about hip-hop culture. And to be vindicated - right? - and to allow my kids to see that no matter what you believe in, whether or not somebody do you wrong or not, if you believe that what you're doing is right, then you go the distance.

CARMICHAEL: Other artists had tried to file against Sugar Hill, but Sha-Rock - she was the first to successfully get everybody paid.

MADDEN: Yeah, and that's a fight that's just as historic as being the first female MC. It's a claim to fame nobody else can make.

Do you feel like there's been times when you weren't respected for your craft, and do you feel respected for your craft now?

SHA-ROCK: I used to, you know, think about, you know, not being respected in the beginning, you know, and - till I learned not to take it personal. And so instead of me, you know, feeling like I was disrespected because people didn't know who Sha-Rock was, I took a different approach. I started telling people my story and will continue to tell people my story. And the more that I tell a person this story and they say, oh, wait, that didn't happen - then prove it didn't. I can prove that it did. And so, no, I learned to not take it personal but to be personal and let people know who I am and what I meant and how I was instrumental in helping to move this culture forward.

MADDEN: In spaces like the Bronx Music Heritage Center, Sha gets to define her own legacy.

SHA-ROCK: But I just want to say, before I get started about Sha-Rock, I just want to say, y'all, we are the Bronx. We created a multibillion-dollar business back in the 1970s. You know what I'm saying? A multibillion-dollar business - I'm proud of that. Even though I have never received or recouped the money as well as Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel and Grand Wizzard Theodore, we are still proud to have created this billion-dollar business because - you know what? - when it's all said and done, it was never about the money for us. It was about the heart and soul of the culture - the B-girl, the B-boy, the MC, the graffiti artist, the DJ right here in the Bronx. So let's give a round of applause to the Bronx and everybody that represents hip-hop culture to the fullest.

MADDEN: At the end of her talk, Sha-Rock starts answering questions from fans in the crowd.

BROTHER NORTH OF DIVISION X: Thank you for your contribution...

SHA-ROCK: Thank you.

BROTHER NORTH OF DIVISION X: ...To the culture. Because of your voice, at an early age, it planted a seed that women were equal with men right on the mic. So hearing you as a child told me women could do it too. And that has helped me develop as a man...

SHA-ROCK: Thank you so much.

BROTHER NORTH OF DIVISION X: ...And be in those spaces with women because if Sha-Rock was in spaces with the Funky 4 + 1 More, women...

SHA-ROCK: Thank you so much.

BROTHER NORTH OF DIVISION X: ...Can be in any spaces. So I'd like to thank you for that and (inaudible).

SHA-ROCK: Thank you so much.

MADDEN: We talked more to this guy after. He calls himself Brother North of Division X, and he says he was one of the people who stayed up late to watch Sha-Rock on "SNL."

BROTHER NORTH OF DIVISION X: I had never been up past, like, 11 o'clock. When the news came on, it was time to go to sleep. And I begged if I - you know, to be able to see it. And my moms let me stay up. And somehow I was able to catch it at the beginning and fell asleep. But it was the...

MADDEN: The event was a small crowd, but Sha's fans just keep giving her flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like she said, I never knew - realized there was a - I was like, yo, one for the girl. We never even saw it as, like, yo, she's a girl MC-ing it. And it was never even a question 'cause she rapped harder than a dude. You know what I'm saying? And her crew was hard. You know, her crew back then - her crew was hard. They was tough. They was dope. They was well-respected.

MADDEN: One woman in the crowd named Keena became an instant fan of Sha that night.

So did you know anything about Sha-Rock before tonight?

KEENA: Absolutely nothing.

MADDEN: OK. And what did the talk teach you?

KEENA: So that she was the first female MC coming out of the Bronx, or in general. And that was interesting. I never heard her name before. And for her to have such an influence on what hip-hop is today and for me to never know who she is, you know, says a lot about storytelling and why it's important. So I am very happy I came out tonight.

MADDEN: Yeah. When you say, says a lot, what do you mean?

KEENA: Well, you know, the narrative that goes in the media is, like, whoever shouts loudest gets heard. And I think she's now starting to get the props that she's due, right? And it's not because she didn't do the right things. It's just people didn't know who she was, so, you know, you have to go to events like this to start finding out the history and the truth and, you know, reading up on things and digging deep to not just accept what's being told in, you know, mainstream media.

MADDEN: And then something happens that wasn't on the schedule. Grandmaster Caz throws on a funky beat. Sha hypes up the crowd.

SHA-ROCK: Do you all remember this?

MADDEN: Out of nowhere, she breaks into a verse.

SHA-ROCK: (Rapping) Yo, Sha-Rock is your own, well known. Rock for the high. Get down for the low. Never heard the word they called the whack 'cause I was one of the best. I'm on the right track. When you hear a rhyme from the other females, push it to the top to get clientele. Sha-Rock and I aim to please. You know I did it for the fellas and the young ladies. I keep my hands in the air...

MADDEN: Then Sha invites random fans on stage to rap with her. It's a whole cipher.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #1: (Rapping) Even on the a capella, I bring the sun out here (inaudible) 'cause I'm making off with the best thing to put up. If you think not, I think you should reconsider.

MADDEN: Everybody's swarming the stage.

SHA-ROCK: Let's go, brother. Are you ready? Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) The boy from the Bronx is in the house...


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) ...So this party going to rock without a doubt.


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) Caz definitely is in the house...


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) ...So this party going to rock without a doubt.


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) I say the lady from the Bronx is in the house...


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) ...So this party going to rock without a doubt. Sha-Rock definitely is in the house...


UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) ...So this party going to rock without a doubt.

SHA-ROCK: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) And you're rising from the shadows...

MADDEN: In this room, in the birthplace of hip-hop, Sha-Rock is remembered.

UNIDENTIFIED FAN #2: (Rapping) ...Crushing on Monopoly. I am woman (ph). They can call me Super Brother Socrates (ph), radiant emission in the center of the telescope, poisonous conditions like two creatures from...

CARMICHAEL: But legacy isn't just about being seen. It's about how you're seen and ultimately whose lens the world is looking through.

DREAMDOLL: Someone always has something to say. Everybody has a comment on your body. It's like, if you're natural, they're talking about it. If you have surgery done, they have something to say. It's just always something to say.

BABY TATE: People think it's fun. It's like, woo hoo, let's all join in and bash on the Black woman - kiki, kiki, ki (ph)

DOECHII: It's something about the woman's body specifically that really triggers people.

MADDEN: Rappers DreamDoll, Baby Tate and Doechii take us through Rule No. 3 next time on LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

CARMICHAEL: LOUDER THAN A RIOT is hosted by me, Rodney Carmichael, and Sidney Madden. This episode was written by myself, Sidney and Mano Sundaresan.

MADDEN: And it was produced by Mano Sundaresan. Our senior producer is Gabby Bulgarelli.

CARMICHAEL: And our producers are Sam J. Leeds and Mano Sundaresan. Our editor is Soraya Shockley, and our engineer is Gilly Moon. Our senior supervising producer is Cher Vincent. Our interns are Jose Sandoval, Teresa Xie and Pilar Galvan.

MADDEN: And the NPR execs are Keith Jenkins, Yolanda Sangweni and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original theme by Kassa Overall, remix by Suzi Analogue. And the scoring for this episode was provided by Suzi Analogue and Kassa Overall.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact-checkers are Sarah Knight and Jane Gilvin. If you want to learn more about MC Sha-Rock's story, check out her autobiography, "Luminary Icon... The Story Of The Beginning And End Of Hip Hop's First Female MC."

If you like this episode and you want to talk back, hit us up on Twitter. We're @LouderThanARiot. And if you want to email us, it's From NPR Music, I'm Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: And I'm Rodney Carmichael. This is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.


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