Nuthin' But a She Thing

Various Artists
Fat Beats and Bra Straps
(Rhino)

Angela Davis
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism
(Pantheon)

Between the glare of the Gucci-flashing sample-ocracy that currently rules mainstream hip hop and the haze of the gat-blunt-40 rhymes that dominate the gangsta fringe, it's easy, sometimes, to forget that rap is about art. It's something we're encouraged to do: Black music -- black art -- is almost always only begrudgingly awarded artistic status.

The near-simultaneous release of the first hip-hop women compilation series, Fat Beats and Bra Straps, and Angela Davis' new scholarly tract, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, facilitates a historical and aesthetic consideration of both rap and its female practitioners. In considering the work of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday -- women who "did not typically affirm female resignation and powerlessness" -- the UC Santa Cruz prof lays the groundwork for a critical understanding of female rappers. The giddily named, three-CD survey Fat Beats and Bra Straps puts a whole range of recordings by just such hip-hop women within reach.

Not surprisingly, women MCs have never received equal time or ample due, despite the current chart-busting of Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, and Missy Elliott. Rhino Records, in its never-ending quest to reissue every piece of music it can get its hands on, has attempted to remedy this with the well-intentioned but spotty Fat Beats. What I assume are the usual licensing restrictions and too high royalties result in some nagging questions, like, where the hell is "It's a Man's World," Yo-Yo's definitive snapfest with Ice Cube? What about "Shoop" or "Push It" or anything from Salt-N-Pepa besides "The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)," their goofy 15-year-old answer-record to Doug E. Fresh's fundamental "The Show"? What about MC Lyte, Monie Love, Digable Planets, the Fugees? The holes are massive. But what fills them in is enlightening and, often, great hip hop.

Series producer Zenobia Simmons organizes Fat Beats both chronologically and categorically, attempting to create a broad sampler of music from all over the country. Disc 1, Classics, brings together several out-of-print and hard-to-find goodies, including Roxanne Shante's "Have a Nice Day" and 2 Much's "Wild Thang" (with LeShaun) -- which LeShaun later leased out to LL Cool J for his 1995 hit "Doin' It." Disc 2, Battle Rhymes and Posse Cuts, draws on the numerous answer-records and dis-fests that characterized the '80s, as well as the back-and-forth rap "duets" and group tracks that studded the early '90s. The most famous of these, of course, was started by UTFO with 1984's "Roxanne, Roxanne," a catchily plodding ditty that slammed an uppity teen-age girl who wouldn't give UTFO the time of day. Up-and-coming rapper Shante, all of 14, took it upon herself to answer with the snappy "Roxanne's Revenge," which was quickly followed by the UTFO-orchestrated comeback "The Real Roxanne." It's great to have the two answers back to back, as well as the whole Sparky "D"-Roxanne Shante rivalry in one place. (Sparky "D": "Her name is Shante and she is a dog/ She lives underwater and leaps like a frog"; Shante: "You live in Brooklyn/ You ain't good-lookin'/ And, yeah, I heard about your cookin' ") But again, there are big gaps, like LeShaun's soul-baring "Mama, I'm in Love Wit a Gangsta" with Coolio, and Lil' Kim's defiant she-said-he-said "Get Money" with Biggie Smalls. New MCs, the third disc, is the strongest of the three, bringing together recent hits and little-heard gems like Nonchalant's potent streetside analysis "5 O'Clock" and Bahamadia's lilting "Da Jawn."

The missing pieces make Fat Beats far less relevant as a definitive collection than as an unearthed cultural document. Simmons' three-CD set explains the significance of female rappers. Davis' slightly jargon-heavy examination in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism provides theoretical structure. Though Davis only mentions rap in passing, her arguments resonate almost as strongly with hip hop and women rappers as they do with blues and the women who sung them.

Chronicling blues women's comfortable sexuality, assumption of equality with men, and dedication to truth-telling about black working people's lives, Davis makes a convincing case that women's blues were more than just entertainment. Rainey's, Smith's, and Holiday's songs also succeeded as consolation, inspiration, and political protest. Despite the decades of time and oceans of cultural changes separating the artists involved, the same can be said of hip-hop women, whose around-the-way subject matter often evokes similar responses from their listeners.

"The blues idiom," Davis argues, "requires absolute honesty in the portrayal of black life. It is an idiom that does not recognize taboos: whatever figures into the larger picture of working-class African American realities -- however morally repugnant it may be to the dominant culture or to the black bourgeoisie -- is an appropriate subject of blues discourse." Domestic violence, drug use, jail time -- all figure as frequently in blues as they do in rap. But neither blues nor rap is a mere litany of complaint. Detailing reality as they saw it, blues singers, like rappers, affirmed the experiences of their listeners and belied the lies of white society. Chuck D's famous riff about rap being CNN for black America flows right into Davis' description of blues as "[reflecting] a cultural consciousness that was capable of transforming ... tragedies into catalytic events, rather than consigning them to historical memory as merely private misfortunes." She credits the blues with "transforming individual emotions into collective responses to adversity, [which] transcend the particular circumstances that inspired them and become metaphors about oppression," and of course the same is true of rap.

Where women singers were among the biggest stars of the early blues era, the majority of female rappers are more like moons and satellites, recording impressive records that often go unsold and unacknowledged (Nonchalant, Bahamadia). Despite the barriers, they continue the blues woman tradition -- providing, as Davis phrases it, "emphatic examples of black female independence" -- from Roxanne Shante's sharp-tongued wit to Salt-N-Pepa's sexy self-esteem to Nonchalant's critical compassion to Lil' Kim's unabashed go-for-yours to Missy Elliott's dada worldview. As much if not more than celebrated white artists like Liz Phair, women rappers have looked at their relationship with men with eyes wide open. "The classic blues women," Davis writes, "sang of female aspiration for happiness and frequently associated these aspirations with sexual desire, but they rarely ignored the attendant ambiguities and contradictions."

It's this same lack of happy-ever-after lies that may be the female MC's greatest gift to her female fans. When artists let everything hang out, they invite their listeners to open themselves up and affirm what's inside. If LeShaun can talk about what it means to try to raise her kids while her mate's in jail for murder, or how it feels to have a lover who truly pleases her, as she did in "Wild Thang" and later with LL Cool J in "Doin' It," she clears mental room for other women to consider their own circumstances in a radically bullshit-free way. The century of work that blues women, soul women, and now rap women have accomplished has radically undermined the message America sends black women, and women in general, about how they and their lives should be. Talk about inciting a riot. As '20s blues diva Ida Cox taught, "You never get nothing by being an angel child/ You'd better change your ways and get real wild.

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