Tuesday March 8th marked the 100th celebration of International Women’s Day. It’s a global day where we can recognize and celebrate the achievements of women, past, present, and future, It started back in 1911 and here we are 2011, one hundred years later.
Women have been involved in hip-hop since its very inception in the early 1970s. We have females doing all aspects of hip-hop culture. We have female deejays who are amazing on the turntables. We have female breakdancers who can display very impressive moves on the dance floor. We have female graffiti artists, and of course, we’ve have female emcees.
When it comes to MCs, we need to remember that hip-hop didn’t start as recorded music. It wasn’t something that you just recorded and released commercially. It wasn’t a business when it first started out, it was more of a community event. It started out with DJs just bringing out their turntables and having block parties. These weren’t club parties. You didn’t have to pay very much to get in. A lot of them were free community events.
Back in the early 1970s, hip-hop wasn’t just about making money. It was about having fun, having a party, and making it a community event.
Certainly, there are a lot of issues when it comes to women in hip-hop and we are going to cover those in this, and future, episodes of Know Your History. But today, I just want to celebrate women in hip-hop culture and I want to go back to 1976 for us to start that.
1976 saw the formation of the first all-female crew, The Mercedes Ladies. They weren’t a group like we think of rap groups today. They were a crew. They weren’t so interested in recording music and putting it out. There wasn’t much money to be had doing that back in 1976. People who were doing hip-hop were doing it out of the love. After all, the first rap record didn’t even come up three years later.
The Mercedes Ladies were a hip-hop crew that had female MC,s DJs, breakdancers, and graffiti artists. They were quite popular and even shared the same manager as Grand Wizard Theodore. Grand Wizard Theodore is credited as the inventor of the scratch and that started the whole culture of turntablism – using the turntable as an instrument to manipulate sounds instead of just extending breakbeats.
The Mercedes Ladies did shows with the biggest names at the time such as Afrika Bambaataa, Red Alert, Kool Herc, Busy B, Kevy Kev, The Cold Crush Brothers, The Furious Five, and more. They were quite an amazing group and they paved the way for what was to come in hip-hop culture.
One of the best things about them is that they were just seen as equals to everyone they shared the stage with. They weren’t sexualized. They just got up and did their thing and were respected and treated as peers.
Unfortunately, this group was so interested in producing music. They were more interested in promoting parties, performing music, and being active in the community. However, you can find some bootleg cassette recordings of some of the live parties they did back in the 1970s. If you can find some of those, you will be amazed.
I found this old school hip-hop tape. It’s credited as Mercedes Ladies / Inner City Disco but these are two different crews. I’m not sure if both of those crews are on this tape or if it is just the Inner City Disco. Either way though, we get to hear some old school women pioneers of hip-hop in this clip.
That bootleg takes us back in time like we were actually at that party listening to female emcees totally destroying it. The coolest thing about it was that they didn’t have to rely on their feminine wiles. They were just up there, rocking the mic, and having a good time. They were just accepted as peers. Very cool to see!
The next group I want to focus on is The Funky Four Plus One. They formed in the same year, 1976, and had a female member in their crew. I guess they called attention to this fact with the later half of their name, “Plus One More.” MC Sha Rock was a full fledged member of the group. She wasn’t simply a figurehead. They even say in their lyrics that, “She’s the best female in this town.”
The Funky Four Plus One put out some amazing records. Unfortunately they disbanded in 1983. Sha Rock went on to form an all female group with Lisa D, Debbie D, and herself. They were known as Us Girls and they performed in the movie Beat Street in 1984.
We can see how hip-hop was totally involved with women in the early days.
Let’s play The Funky Four Plus One song that you are probably familiar with. It’s called “That’s The Joint.” It’s really nice to see how Sha Rock gets a lot of time and a lot of shine on the mic in all of the songs this group did and in this song in particular.
We’ll be back to continue our celebration of the women in hip-hop for this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.
Not only did the Funky Four Plus One pave the way for female emcees because we could hear her on recorded music. It is one of the first recorded songs that has a female MC prominent in the track. The Mercedes Ladies were featured on Don’s Groove by Donald D but they didn’t have prominent role on the microphone. They were doing back up vocals.
So the song we just played was one of the first times we heard a female on a track and she wasn’t a figurehead. She was carrying equal weight in that group.
Another interesting thing is that The Funky Four Plus One were the first group to appear on national television. I know a lot of us think Run-DMC was. Run-DMC were the first group to have a music video played on MTV but The Funky Four Plus one beat them to the screen when they appeared on a Season 6 episode of Saturday Night Live that was hosted by Blondie’s Debbie Harry.
We are going to look at one more female hip-hop pioneer in this episode.
Lady B is one of the earliest female rappers to put out a studio album. She began her career in radio and released he first single “To The Beat Ya’ll” in 1979. In 1984, she started a legendary program called The Street Beat that could be heard on Philadelphia’s Power 99 fm and the show ran for 5 years.
She is now on Sirius Satellite Radio and on 107.9 WRNB, still in Philadelphia. She had been celebrating hip-hop since the 1970s and is still actively involved today. Very cool to see!
Let’s listen to her song right now. This is “To The Beat Y’all” from 1979.
Lady B is a hip-hop pioneer and continues to rule the airwaves with her radio shows. In fact, she’s going to be doing it long after she’s dead, as you can hear in the lyrics of the song we just played. She said, “When I die, bury me deep. plant two turntables near my feet. Put the mixes near my head so I can rock the dead.”
That is what hip-hop is about right there. Hip-hop for life. It’s a culture and a way of life and women have been involved in it since its very inception.
I only touched on the first decade of hip-hop. There is a lot more history to be talked about for sure. The next two episodes of Know Your History will continue this look of female pioneers in hip-hop. Please stay tuned to this blog for more.
And for more Women in Hip-Hop, make sure you go download the 8 hour special we did for International Women’s Day on our overnight radio show, DOPEfm.
Let’s continue to celebrate Women in Hip-Hop each and every day!