MORE

New + Improved

It was more than just black and Puerto Rican B-boys in hip-hop's early days. Women have been an integral part of the breakin', writin' and rappin' (r)evolution since hip-hop's genesis in the late 1970s. But involvement and visibility are two different things; while women MCs have historically been a vibrant segment of the hip-hop community, they've fought for their place from the margins.

Few people know about this slight as well as Zenobia Simmons, a longtime fixture on L.A.'s hip-hop scene (now relocated to NYC). A music-industry heavy-hitter with a B-girl sensibility, Simmons worked with Rhino Records to document the contributions of hip-hop's forgotten pioneers. Her mission was simple: "I wanted to make sure there was a collection of music that explored the full spectrum of female MCs and all the different types of music they've created through the years." The result of her work is Fat Beats & Bra Straps, an expansive compilation that maps 15-plus years of female hip-hop history in three volumes, "The Classics," "Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts" and "The New MCs."

Women rappers' early history (best captured in the first two volumes of FB&BS) was often one of conflicted accomplishments - they often built their careers by partnering with better-known male stars or by dissing their female peers. "The Classics" features several women rap artists who got their start as "creations" of male producers, such as Dimples D, who had a hit with 1983's "Sucka DJs," written and produced by DJ Marley Marl. Among those who followed the formula were Real Roxanne ("Romeo Pt. 1 & 2"), Roxanne Shante ("Have a Nice Day," "Runaway") and Antoinette ("I Got an Attitude"), inverting the folk adage: Behind every good woman rapper was often a more visible man. High-profile producers like Marley Marl, Hurby Luv Bug and Howie Tee often wrote the lyrics for their rhyme divas, but Simmons argues, "Even though they didn't write the rhymes, they definitely made the words their own with their delivery and passion . . . with all the coaching in the world, I don't think anyone but Real Roxanne could have delivered her classic lines."

"Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts" highlights one of the main forebears of women MCs: "battle records." Their history goes back to UTFO's 1984 B-side "Roxanne, Roxanne," about a fictional floozy named Roxanne. Affronted by their sexist portrayal, Roxanne Shante shot back with the blistering "Roxanne's Revenge." This was only the beginning, though - Shante's song led to a rash of reply records cut to trash her, J.J. Fad's "It's Goin' Down" being the harshest. As fertile as the battle record was in inspiring female MCs, the fact remains that many of these women sparked their careers by attacking struggling peers. Simmons' critique is to the point: "Economically, catfights always sell [e.g., Jerry Springer, Melrose Place, Players Club], so I'm sure the male execs were constantly pushing it."

It wasn't until the late '80s that women MCs were able to establish more independent identities. Fueled by the national emergence of artists like Brooklyn's MC Lyte, L.A.'s Yo Yo and especially New Jersey's Queen Latifah ("Inside Out," "Wrath of My Madness"), women began creating a space of their own without having to continually define themselves in opposition to male or female rappers. This success helped lay the foundation for the artists featured on "The New MCs," a diverse set representing all corners of the hip-hop nation. From the West Coast come Vallejo's Suga T and L.A.'s T-Love ("Heavyweights Round 2," "Nobody Knows My Name"). Southern slanguistics are displayed by Mia X on "Payback II," and Philly's Bahamadia unleashes her sultry rhyme patterns on "Da Jawn." The most outstanding MC is Brooklyn's What What ("Bum Deal," "New+Improved"), who rhymes with a ferocious confidence that'd make many an MC - male or female - think twice.

As with almost all historical surveys of this kind, FB&BS has notable absences, the most grievous being MC Lyte. Ironically (or perhaps not so), Simmons had made arrangements to feature some of her work, but Lyte's label refused to license the material, proving, once again, that the road to good intentions is paved with record-industry hellishness. However, in a possible future volume of the series, Simmons plans to give equal due to pioneers like Lyte, and new break-out artists such as Lauryn Hill and femme fatale Lil' Kim.

No doubt, the playing field is still far from level - in all areas of the industry - but with new gamers like the Conscious Daughters, What What and T-Love at the plate, women MCs are building a league of their own.