This Time Just the Girls
A hip-hop scene report from Austin's better half
It started when Jean Grae said these magic words:
"Ask me bastard if I'm signed, I rhyme sick
But niggas is quick to turn they back on spitters with clits
Hit 'em with this, and ridiculous phrase flow that exit my lips
Hey, yo, I mean my face, though
They still want chicks with tits and ass out
My respect is worth more than your advance cash-out."
I was listening to her song "Knock," from 2002's Attack of the Attacking Things, which I pulled out again shortly after her gig at the Scoot Inn in April. It somehow got me thinking about our city's hip-hop scene and the women involved in it. There's a fair number of ladies in punk and rock bands here, so who are the females in rap and R&B who have the same womanhood to channel, the same need to express themselves through music, the same wreck to bring? Not just the lone girl in the crew, but women looking to spread a positive message on their own terms. I approached this story not in the hope of finding the next big thing, but rather of starting dialogue. A snapshot of what's going on, right now. With that in mind, I sought out a few MCs in the game, plus two promoters and champions of female talent, to shed some light.
"A lot of female rappers in the game are coming at it from a different perspective," says Lauren Lavezzari, who promotes under the name YellaStudNDaSouth and goes by LoLo. "Sex sells, definitely, but I think what everyone's waiting for is for female MCs to come out and not have to sell sex and still kill it onstage. Missy Elliott, number one example. She's dope on the mic and onstage. Rappers coming to the stage today got to bring something different, original.
"Still, so many gifted rappers are getting squashed by songs with a good beat, that makes the people in the club bob their head. Y'know, the 'jump to the right, push ya leg out.' Or people rappin' about stuff they don't even know about. It's like, yo, for real? You live on the other side of town, and you ain't got no car."
After years working for other people in the industry, and coming up under the mentorship of Will Hustle of Set for Life Records, the 27-year-old graphic designer started throwing her own shows about a year ago, learning by observation. "I watch a lot of guys in the hip-hop scene, see what they do, but I wanted to be different with my shows."
One of those shows was April's Ladies Night at the Scoot Inn, co-organized with AustinSurreal's Matt Sonzala and featuring Jean Grae, Invincible, and locals Staci Russell, Latasha Lee, and Eyeris. Grae, of course, spit an insanely good set, and Invincible, a young MC from Detroit, lived up to the buzz around her whip-smart LP, Shapeshifters. But it was native Austinite Russell who seemed to come out of nowhere, all gospel voice and swagger. Lavezzari remembers randomly seeing her perform a year ago.
"The song I heard her do was 'Holla,' and I looked 'round, and there are niggas and girls dancin' to this song," she laughs. "So I asked Gerald G, 'How can I get a hold of her?' Then I put her on a show. I compare her to Mary J. Blige, y'know? She's got this beautiful, soulful voice, but she puts a hood twist on it. She can do R&B, flip it, do rap."
The 21-year-old Russell just released a mixtape, The Diary Part 1: In the Spotlight, a CD/DVD combo out via Houston's Game 101 Magazine, and Houston's Z-Ro is about to remix one of her tracks, "Spotlight." There's a certain hood charm to Russell, who started singing in church at age 4. Take her single "Holla," a pro-ladies night ode to the brush off: "Doin' my own thing, don't get me wrong, baby. Don't bother running games, 'cause I don't need you buying me drinks." Then "Hang It Up" brings more of that Blige soul, showcasing her church-bred voice, which easily lends itself to country and blues as well.
"I would equate my style to gumbo because I have a little bit of this and a little bit of that from all around the world," she says. "Now, myflow is Staci muthafucking Russell. I approach everything like a beast."
Then she points to something essential for all ladies if this scene is going to move forward: "My message, it's me expressing the negatives I've encountered in life and still being able to live positive."
It's essential for all women in the genre, since females have the double duty of trying to fit in with the men and transcending that role, and it doesn't help that an increasing number of rap songs have become Seinfeldian in nature: The ones about cars and cash and ass are essentially about nothing.
"You gotta be lyrically inclined to do this," Lavezzari relates, rolling off a list of other Austin talents, including Latasha Lee, who works with Carnival Beats; Miss Prissy; Raphina Austin; and Queen Deelah. "I go out to see a lot of hip-hop, and if there's a woman on the bill, I'll stay just to see what she's about. We've definitely got some females here. They just need to be seen and heard."
In light of the Spiros shooting this past spring, Lavezzari is quite aware of the reputation hip-hop has developed. Still, that's not stopping promoters like Mary McIlravy, who runs the production company Nerds With Black Glasses and is also involved with girl gang Sublime Stitching. She's started booking hip-hop at nontraditional places like Creekside Lounge, which hosted MCs Lady Legacy, Steph Salvo, Jen Womble, b-girl/comedian Misa, and comedian Maggie Mae last Thursday.
"Hip-hop has come a long way in Austin, but females by and large don't get any encouragement to go into this sausage fest of an industry, financially or otherwise," she laments. "So the women out here are truly here for the love of the music and culture and because they're strong enough to follow their heart. If guys are standing around rapping and their boy comes up and spits something, they'll give him some love and encouragement even though he might not be that great yet. If a girl steps into that circle, those guys are really gonna be watching intensely, thinking it's sexy, but judging harshly. Women are a little nervous to go out when they are just beginning, and so they promote their boyfriend or homeboy instead of themselves. A lot of us are more comfortable in the supporting role, being a part of our nature as women, but where are we gonna get back from?"
She cites younger groups like the Cipher and Public Offenders, boy-girl teen hip-hop collectives promoting social change and positivity from East Austin, as another factor in changing the way the music is viewed. "I just feel right now like it's really up to us as women to encourage each other to perform and that it's okay to learn on the stage. ... My current mission is to just make the space for women to get on the stage, and I think they'll start to come out of the woodwork."
"Last show I did in Houston, I wore a black cocktail dress on stage. People were looking at me, ya know, 'Who's this blonde white girl?' So I was like, 'Hi, I'm KB the Boo Bonic, and yes I'm wearing a dress, and yes I'm about to rap my ass off."
24-year-old Kara Bowers, who performs as the aforementioned KB the Boo Bonic, grew up around Houston rap, and UGK became her stepping stone. She started freestyling when she was 16, out of boredom with guy friends, and realized she was good at it, which led to a hobby of battle-rapping guys at parties during college and finally to a style of her own. Her rapid-fire flow onstage reflects her talent for wordplay – it's easy to believe her when she drawls, "I'm a little Pimp C and a little Cyndi Lauper." (Full disclosure: KB rapped in my living room a few months ago, an on-the-spot freestyle between her and a male partygoer. I remember who came out on top, and she did it wearing a studded eyepatch.)
"I'm a crazy person," she laughs. "I've got lyrics written on CD covers, napkins, receipts, and I carry a notebook around with me. It might be a verse or a couple of lines that I want to build on or a song title. I write about stuff that pisses me off, guys who've done me wrong, but even if a situation is serious, I try to at least make fun of the situation, have a sense of humor."
Bowers' style steps somewhere between dirty South and Grae's oddly punctuated missives, which should lend itself nicely to a fall full-length debut. She also sees being a female rapper in this scene as an advantage, in that she immediately stands out from the sea of guys, adding, "and then if you're good and smart and confident and stay true to yourself, it doesn't matter if you're a woman. You are an entertainer. ... Content is important, but it's also about delivery, how smooth it is, how you say it, where you add emphasis."
Yolanda McRae, who performs under the name Lady Legacy, has been adding emphasis in Austin for more than a decade and therefore has a broader view of the scene. She also works with artists through Positivity for Purpose, a group she started in 2004 that educates kids in the urban community, using hip-hop as the guide. I asked her for some wisdom, and via e-mail, she held forth:
What are your honest thoughts on the scene right now?
Austin's hip-hop/rap scene has always been diverse.Right now there is a major rise in female artistscoming in from other cities and states.Some are singing and rapping, somehave sex appeal, and some carry a more tomboy appeal.It's all good and all needed sincefor the past ten years or so the scene has consisted of males getting most of the general public's attention by way of mediafocus.We're missing female DJs though, who can actually mix and blend rap music.
What could change?
As far as the ladies in Austin's black music scene are concerned, I've been working with other R&B singers creating family-friendly singles and putting those singles specifically to radio. If our local radio stations would play more of Austin's hip-hop artists, music that is professionally recorded instead of playing favorites, that would help us out a lot.That would change the hip-hop scene for the better, providing us artists with residual income and the means to fill the demand for new music.You see what it did for Houston's hip-hop community.
What's your message now?
Don't let others dictate who you are. Be you.Keep your image in line with who you are and nevermind what others think.Write whatever you feel like and serve it HOT!
Which brings us back to Lavezzari, who is currently serving several projects hot. The biggest is the release of the mixtape Excuse Me Miss Volume 1, the Texas first in a series of all-female compilations, featuring a heavy H-town lineup – Tiffkno, Candi Redd, Killa Kel – plus Russell and more off-the-radar ladies from places like San Angelo and Odessa. Lavezzari, who considers herself a stud (a lesbian who identifies as masculine), wanted to reach out to all females for the mixtape, gay and straight, so this Texas collection is not your typical macho mixtape fare. It's a sampling of what this state's got tucked in its back pocket.
"I'm not just putting anyone on these mixtapes," Lavezzari states. "Females have to be represented correctly, and it's hard to get in this game. You gotta know what you're doing. You gotta be the best, period. This is just gonna prove that females can do it too. Take it seriously."
Check out the mixtape at www.myspace.com/yellastudndasouth .