Dickslingers, Do-Gooders, and Good Misogyny in Hip Hop

Longing To Tell: Tricia Rose Spars with Rachel Swan over Misogyny in Hip Hop

Real Pac Dime
Notorious B.I.G.
Bleed Lovely
Interview with Tricia Rose
Conscious Daughters and Goldee the Murderess



Raised in Harlem and the Bronx, Tricia Rose is a professor of American Studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz. She is the author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan University Press, 1994) and Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy (Picador, 2003). You can find out more about her at www.triciarose.com.


Tricia Rose: Okay Rachel, so your main concerns are:

1)      the fact that there are female emcees but not many recorded females

2)      the issue that women’s careers are attached to men’s careers

3)      the question of hard women, and whether the gangsta female genre limits or frees black women –or women emcees.


I have thoughts on all three of these. Do you want to hear all three?


Rachel: Yeah, I want to hear all three.


Tricia Rose: Well, the technology issue is very important. Not just the technology itself, but the spatial issues around ownership, and the male homosocial world that the studio is. In Black Noise –which is already ten years old- I talk a lot about that, and how women learn the craft of emceeing, when it is such a male social space that creates the expertise. And the technology in studios is the more extreme version of that. So I do think that the absence of women is partly related to that lack of technical knowledge: the fact that they’re not tracked to learn about that. Women are tracked to learn about poetry, right? That’s not uncommon. But to translate that into recording ones’ self requires that you have a certain kind of technical know-how. I do think that’s a very important point. I think that remains true.


I also think there’s less recorded material because there’s less of a market (for female emcees). It’s not just that they can’t get in the studio, because if there were some big record companies out there with a lot of money to make, they would make sure the studio was comfortable. I mean, that wouldn’t stop them. There’s not that big of a market for female emcees: it’s a very male-dominated genre. Particularly women in the more hardcore style are either going to have to be highly sexualized at this moment, to be hardcore, or they’re going to find themselves less of a market space. So hardcore women who are not hyper-sexually self-exploitative are not very accessible or market-profitable, right now.


I think there’s a paucity of female recorded emcees both for the social and cultural-spatial reasons of the studio, and also for market reasons. I’m not sure that there are lots and lots of female emcees performing live all over the country –I think the Bay Area might be an exception to the rule—although there are female emcees everywhere, I think the Bay Area is a little more of a progressive space for that.


You know, a lot of emcees come up under another emcee. It’s not uncommon for most of the artists we know to be affiliated with someone else –either because that older artist found them and wanted to profit from them, or because (the older artist) actually knew them. Artists who are trying to make it often try to get in touch with artists who have already made it, and make connections that way. Going to a record company or some other market avenue cold is very difficult, and it’s almost impossible to break through –you pretty much have to break through (with the help of) another emcee. So it’s not just that women emcees are pegged to male emcees, it’s that the industry is saturated with this particular form of artistry, so that makes it more difficult.


I do think that for women who attach themselves to male emcees, it’s much harder to not become a female subsidiary. There is a kind of gender hierarchy that gets set up. So for example, you have very few female emcees coming up under other female emcees. You have male emcees coming up under male emcees, and you have female emcees coming up under male emcees, but, you know, there’s no protégé for Queen Latifah, there’s no protégé for Salt ‘n Peppa, there’s no protégé for Lauryn Hill, there’s no protégé that Eve’s nurturing. So there’s a way in which female emcees only make it when they’re exceptional –they can’t really have a posse of emcees that they can hang out with and get credibility with.


Rachel: What’s exceptional about those four emcees that you just named?


Tricia Rose: There’s nothing exceptional about them to me, but it’s a phrase called ‘exceptionalism,’ which is the idea that there’s only a select, special group. Like you have (a female) in each camp –like Lil’ Kim was in Biggie’s camp, and Foxy Brown was in –I forgot, maybe Rocafella- so you have your one super-extra-good female who’s bad enough to join. Well, if we have several then she’s not the exceptional one –there’s lot’s of them. That changes the formula; it changes the attitude. So there’s a sense in which women are still kind of the rare, exceptional emcee inside of the genre. They’re not the norm. So if you have too many, it takes the dynamic away –it takes the power away from males being centered. So I think that you just don’t have the tendency of women to nurture of women up through the ranks in hip hop. Because of the way women are marginalized, it serves them better to be individual.


As for hard women –you know, I’m both bored and disappointed with hardcore hip hop in general. You know, I think it’s just silly, and it’s showing a lack of maturity. I mean, the genre’s not growing as fast as it should in my mind, given how long it’s been around. If you look at other musical and cultural genres, I feel that twenty-five or thirty years in, you have very substantial interventions that go on in the music. So hardcore in general to me is very exaggerated, and hyper-masculine in a negative way –meaning the aggressive and simple-minded component of hip hop. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have songs that are hardcore here and there, but people who fashion whole images on being the hardest of the hard, and the streetest of the street, feel to me like a capitulation to the market. You know, the harder and so-called ‘street’ and ‘ghetto’ you are, the more profitable you are to white America. This illusion that it’s the sign of authenticity –that being hard makes you authentic- is another fantasy about black authenticity, poverty, and criminality.


So, hardcore doesn’t move me, as a genre. Women who choose to be in the hardcore subfield are in a particularly difficult position. Hardcore, in general, relies on very traditional masculine and male notions of toughness, hardness, impenetrability, invulnerability, power, and dominance. It’s very difficult for women to take up a profile like that, and sustain it –partly because it always raises the question of (whether they’re) soft underneath, or could they really be this hard. They have to perform it much more constantly in order to be believed: they have to push harder and stronger. I think –particularly for hardcore women who come up under hardcore men- it raises the question of what are the sexual connections, and all those credibility issues become even more of a concern.


I think (hardcore) is a fairly limiting genre for all hip hop emcees, but I think it’s particularly limiting for women, because of the constraints that it requires. So I’m just bored with it. I think it’s a sign of closure; it’s not a sign of complexity. I think the more complex space you have, as a lyricist, and the more openness and freedom you have to move, discuss things differently, and reflect, the more creative you are. There might be hardcore moments, right? But the reason you limit yourself that way is the marketing.


Rachel: The Conscious Daughters –which is one group that I’m focusing on in this article- have a song called “Kill My Nigga.” It’s about turning the tables on abusive husbands and boyfriends. I was wondering –given what you’ve said about hardcore being a push for authenticity, or whatever-


Tricia Rose: I don’t see that theme as a hardcore theme.


Rachel: I mean, the hook for this song is “Bleed ‘im, Stab’im, Slash ‘im, Burn ‘im –you know? Goldee the Murderess also has a song that’s directed at the guy who murders her sister. It goes: “Off with his head, I want him dead, I’ll put seventeen glock shots worth of bullents in your fuckin head.” Do you see this as –


Tricia Rose: Empowering?


Rachel: Yeah.


Tricia Rose: If you’re talking about songs like the one you just described, that specifically respond to violence that was done to you or a family member, and you’re trying to empower yourself by some form of retribution –in very specific contexts like that, I see (the lyrics) as potentially empowering, at least as one step. It’s not the end of the step, because you know, that’s saturated with rage, and that’s not empowering in the long run. But it is empowering in the short run. But the generalized affect of rage –just the across-the-board domination of others- which is what hardcore is really about isn’t about saying “I’m gonna get back at this person who harmed a relative,” or “I’m gonna respond to domestic violence, or being raped or abused. Yeah, a response to that is empowering, but that’s different than a general hardcore response. Take a song like the Conscious Daughters’ “Shitty Situation”: that’s sort of like, things are bad, I’m in a bad situation, and you know, that type of vibe –I’ve got more problems, and I’m just gonna respond with a hardcore temperament.


Rachel: So that song would be different?


Tricia: I don’t know it that well, but I do know it’s more of an attitude than a response to a specific situation. I’m not criticizing them, I’m saying hardcore, in general, has a limited emotional range. It’s basically rage. I think it’s great to respond that way when you have a specific situation like the ones you described –you know, to have at least that kind of response as one of freedom and relief, in the sense of getting your feelings out. But, as a genre, I think that at some point you have to grow out of it. If you don’t, where do you go?


Rachel: I would think that, conventionally, we tend to regard Biggie Smalls and Tupac as the most romantic gangsta rappers, in history, you know?


Tricia Rose: (laughs).


Rachel: But some of their lyrics are very misogynist. Is it just that we’re willing to overlook the misogyny, or is there something appealing about misogyny?


Tricia Rose: Who is willing to overlook these lyrics?


Rachel: Women who like Biggie and Tupac.


Tricia Rose: Well, what’s your answer?


Rachel: My answer is that there’s something kind of sexy, and there’s even something kind of romantic about misogyny.


Tricia Rose: What part of the songs would you feel were misogynistic, but also sexy? Could you give me a lyric that you have in mind?


Rachel: I’m thinking about the song “Me and My Bitch”, by Biggie Smalls, which is a song that’s very classically like a romance. And yet, at the same time, it’s misogynist at its core.


Tricia Rose: Okay, so what’s romantic about it to you -the tone of his voice, the words he uses, the way he describes her- I mean, what is it that makes it romantic to you?


Rachel: I feel like this song uses all the classical tropes of romance, where someone dies –you know, it’s a melodrama. It’s kind of a love song, but it’s also a song that shows how much (Biggie) can’t get past the term “bitch.”


Tricia Rose: So if you took the word “bitch” out, what’s the (appeal)? I don’t know the lyrics that well, I’m just trying to pull them up now.

All right, here are the lyrics:

When I met you, I admit my first thought was to trick

You looked so good, I’d suck on your daddy’s dick

I never felt that way in my life, that’s right

Didn’t take long before I made you my wife

Got no rings and shit, just my main squeeze

Come to the crib, even had a set of keys

During my days you helped me bag up my nickels

In the process I admit I tricked a little

But you was my bitch, the one who never snitched

Love me when I’m broke, or when I’m filthy fuckin’ rich

And I admit when the time is right, the wine is right, I’ll treat you right

You talk slick, I’ll beat you right.


Rachel: Right, so why is that song so popular, and why do women listen to music like that?


Tricia Rose: I mean, you’re gonna have to ask somebody else, because I’m not really feeling it, I don’t listen that. So I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, you might want to think and reflect on what it is it’s doing for you. I find it really unpleasant.


Rachel: Uh huh.


Tricia Rose: I do think that a lot of songs I do like certainly have misogynistic elements. It’s not the misogynistic elements that I like –it’s the comfort of style and attitude in the voice, a certain kind of confidence in the way they rap, it’s the tone of their voice, the creativity of their rhymes. When they have a misogynistic moment, because I’m so seduced by those other things, I might just let a couple words go here and there.


But songs that are that focused –with the chorus Just me and my bitch/Me and my bitch- I’m not really feeling all that. It’s a real street fantasy, you know –almost like a pimp and a prostitute type of profile.


Rachel: This particular song?


Tricia: Um hmmm. Where you have a lot of loyalty, and a lot of domination that’s somehow slightly romantic. It doesn’t really move me, personally. I know there are people who do, but it’s not unreasonable to think that women are being seduced by these kinds of narratives because it’s one of the only ways they get affirmation. You know, if women were to say “we don’t want to hear this junk,” they would find other ways to be affirmative, romantic, sexy, or whatever else.


I think there’s a certain kind of white fantasy about black behavior –I mean, I don’t know if that romanticism would be (there) if it were a white rapper, or a white emcee- a certain kind of racial fantasy around black masculinity that happens with desire here. But I also think that there’s a tragedy of women feeling like this is how they get affirmed: This is where their freedom will lie. To be honest, I’m not really all that enamored of it. It’s a little depressing to me.


Rachel: No, but I think that’s really interesting –what you’ve said about affirmation and black masculinity.


I wanted to read you one more set of lyrics from Mak Diddy –and I’m quoting from memory here- I leave dimples in niggas’ temples, rippin through their tissue/ Fuckin with me is suicide, you’re beggin’ me to push you. Do you think that that reflects the kind of hardness that you were talking about earlier –that’ limiting?


Tricia Rose: I don’t think you can read so literally any one lyric to a theory. I think one of the things you have to ask yourself is more conceptually what you think these narratives are providing. What song is that from?


Rachel: That’s from her song, “The Fam” that she does with her brother. Her verse is: With these two 2s can’t no bra fit me


Tricia Rose: Say that again?


Rachel: With these two 2s, can’t no bra fit me …


Tricia Rose: You know, what do you get out of those lyrics? What do they do for you?


Rachel: What I get is anger, and I actually think that she comes out better than her brother on that song. But her lyrics are very much about appropriating the violent persona of the guys, basically.


Tricia Rose: Okay, that’s a descriptive: You think it’s anger that’s appropriates from another. But what value and significance does it have, what does it do in your mind. Do you understand what I’m asking?


Rachel: I guess so –like, how do I react to it?


Tricia Rose: Yeah, how do you react to it, but also what significance does it have? To say that she’s you know, imitating a kind of general anger that’s in hardcore –I mean, that would be descriptive of every single hardcore female  or male hip hop emcee, alive or dead. What specifically are you trying to say about it that you think makes it worth mentioning?


Rachel: I guess what I like about the lyrics is the visceral nature of her description, and her metaphors. She says, “I’ll leave your brain all soupy, like Campbell’s chicken broth.” Meeting this person, she really is quite angry. I don’ think it’s all connected to rap, or anything. I think her character really comes through, so the effect on me is more visceral.


Tricia Rose: Yeah, well I think it is really important to have a venue for the expression of rage –creative expression for rage. I think that a lot of young people have a lot of good reasons to be angry –both from individual personal experiences, and because of larger issues. I do also think, though –and this has happened as I get older- that rage by itself doesn’t get you all the places you need to go. It gets you out of the box, it’s a good motivator, it’s very helpful, and it can be very cathartic in small bits and pieces. But I get a little bit concerned around the ease with which the expression of rage is associated with something that’s gonna be productive in the long run. You understand what I mean by that? I do think though, up front, it’s incredibly important to have a creative place to express rage about violence, about frustration over being dominated –whatever it is you’re enraged about. It’s very important to have that venue, and I wouldn’t want to reject it.


But I’d want to be careful celebrating it as if it’s the pinnacle of response. You know, as if it’s like the height of what you can do, and where you can go. Because really, it’s just the beginning. You know, now what are you going to do with that? Are you gonna tear shit down, are you gonna put something up? Are you gonna build something? Now, musically speaking, some unbridled rage can be incredibly empowering for a period of time, so that’s why I’d want to affirm that. But I’d also want to raise the larger question (of) how can we create situations in which these circumstances are not happening? Rage is not something we want people to have a lot of. We don’t to say great, the more rage you are, the better off you are. That’s not something we aspire to; that’s something we have to learn to deal with.


You know, women’s rage is the result of not being heard, of not being listened to, of being mistreated, of being underrepresented, of economic oppression, of our creativity being limited, and our aspirations being denied. Those are the reasons that people are enraged. We clearly don’t want those circumstances, right?


Rachel: Right.


Tricia Rose: So rage is something that I have an affirmative, and very cautious response to –not because I don’t think rage should happen, but because it’s not the goal.


Rachel: The other thing I wanted to know is, Conscious Daughters are now in their late thirties, and are releasing another album.


Tricia Rose: Wow.


Rachel: Yeah, exactly. So one of the issues that came up –partly when I was interviewing them, and also when I was talking to other people about the trajectory of their career- is do you think this is going to be an added hindrance?


Tricia Rose: Being thirty-eight? Being in their late thirties?


Rachel: Being in their late thirties, and the fact that –in my observation- they’re not marketing to a late thirties crowd.


Tricia Rose: So your question is what do I think is a liability of them being in their late thirties?


Rachel: Yeah.


Tricia Rose: It depends on how they rap, and what they rap about, entirely. I mean, I think it depends on if they’re trying to pretend that they’re basically twenty, or twenty-two, talking about issues that twenty-two year olds find interesting.


Rachel: I mean, do you think they’re going to have to do that, though?


Tricia Rose: I don’t have any idea; that’s up to them. I mean, they don’t have to do anything. You know, it depends on who’s releasing their album. I mean, is it independent, are they gonna self-distribute it on the web? It depends on what their sense of self is about. I think it’s completely possible to do it, because I think there are enough adults who are interested –I mean, enough people in their mid-thirties listen to someone like Lauryn Hill, or some adult-style hip hop emcee. I mean, she’s mostly singer, but there are others -it’s harder to think of a female- but I think there are a lot of adults who listen to Mos Def Common, or Talib Kweli, who would be a similar audience for something like the Conscious Daughters. It depends on their material –it’s not their age that is the biggest issue to me, it’s how they choose to understand themselves, as artists. So until you’ve seen the record –have you heard it?


Rachel: I’ve heard songs off it.


Tricia Rose: What did you think of it?


Rachel: I like it; but I’m twenty-four.


Tricia Rose: You know, it’s possible; it’s certainly possible. You know, I can’t say unless I’ve heard the material. I don’t know how to answer that. I think it’s certainly possible for them to be somewhat successful.


I think what’s interesting about what you’re trying to do here is to try to ask the question of how can women emcees –particularly, in these cases, black women emcees- create a voice for themselves in a world where their voices are not heard? You know, what are the limits on black women’s self-articulation? That’s a lot of what my book, Longing to Tell, is about: How do we create spaces of freedom of expression –of hearing your story. You know, because one of the most powerful things you can do is really hear someone’s story and be a good listener for it –you know, be an affirming listener for someone’s story. That’s a very important part of affirmation, and of empowerment. That’s a fundamental question your asking.


I guess the issue becomes: Can hardcore really be an affirming and valuable space? For anybody, but then especially for black women. What do you lose and what do you gain in the hardcore context?


Rachel: Can I ask you one more question?


Tricia Rose: Uh huh.


Rachel: This just popped into my mind, so I’m trying to figure out a way to articulate it. While this is a form of feminism, none of the emcees that I interviewed really identifies with (the movement). Well, in a way they do, and in a way they don’t –is the sense I’ve gotten.


Tricia Rose: Who? The women, or the men?


Rachel: The women I’m interviewing. I was just wondering if I could get your thoughts on that.


Tricia Rose: I talk about this in Black Noise, too –the whole chapter on women emcees from ten years ago was that they identified with some of the ideals and beliefs of feminism, but they don’t want to use the label. They don’t want to be associated with the term, and they’re afraid of being labeled that way. But if you say “Well, do you believe that women should be treated equally, they should have equal opportunities, and just be empowered to make their full life choices?” they would all say yes. But if you ask them do they understand themselves as feminists, they often say no.


Rachel: Right.


Tricia Rose: Some of that has to do with the way feminism has been beaten up in the media –that it’s treated as some kind of shrill, crazy fringe female concept. Some of it has to do with race –that feminism itself seems like a white concept. Many black women don’t really see it as a black thing, and they don’t want to be separated from that. So there’s a lot of reasons why the term makes no sense, but most women agree with what the principles are. It’s kind of got more of a bad label than it is a bad idea.


Rachel: Thank you.


Tricia Rose: Your welcome. Sounds interesting. It’s a tough piece to do.


Rachel: It’s a very tough piece to do.


Tricia Rose: Yeah. I think you want to get to the heart of this question of intense emotional responses, the value of rage, the marketing of rage versus the expression of rage, and how difficult those tensions are. That’s gonna be an important part of framing it.


Rachel: Do you feel like these female emcees are gonna be able to open up a space for femininity within this medium?


Tricia Rose: Femininity? In hardcore?


Rachel: Yeah.


Tricia Rose: Why would you think that femininity would come out of hardcore?


Rachel: Or do you think that they’re going to be willing to stretch the genre as more women enter this medium –or do you think it’s totally limited? That’s kind of one of the fundamental questions of this article, I guess.


Tricia Rose: Honestly, I don’t see women dominating, or taking up a substantial space in hip hop, period. I don’t see it –particularly the direction it’s moved in over the last five to eight years, toward more hyper-exploitative sexuality, presumption of male privilege, lack of reflective consciousness, the fact that “conscious” rappers have been pushed underground, and politically salient rappers are also pushed underground, for the most part –there are some exceptions, but you’re not gonna become a multi-platinum selling hip hop artist by acting like Common or Mos Def. It’s not gonna happen –or not now, it hasn’t.


My sense of the genre is that it thrives on a certain kind of hyper-misogynistic masculinity. It strives on that; that’s where it makes its living. So I would be hard-pressed to make an argument that women are gonna rise up and dominate that medium, given all the ways that it’s shaped already. I think, quite frankly, these sistas who you’re talking about should do what they want to do, but I would also recommend that they do their own thing, and maybe think of new genres, and new formations –because I just don’t see the genre doing that. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t participate –I’m all for it, but I think we need to be more realistic in hip hop. I think a lot of people have a lot of fantasies about hip hop –that they want to think it’s gonna change the world, that people are all of a sudden gonna leap up and fight racism through it, that it’s gonna be this big movment all by itself, and that women are going to be empowered. There’s virtually no evidence for any of that. I mean, I’ve been following it for twenty-five years –it’s not like I just showed up yesterday- and it’s just not happening like that.


Will it? Yeah, sure, maybe. Is there any evidence that it’s gonna happen soon? No. Now, hip hop is benefiting some political movements with certain issues –they tend to be male issues like police brutality, the drug laws, unjust racial profiling. When it comes to certain male issues in the black community, I’d say yeah, there might be a little bit of activism here and there. Is it gonna be a progressive movement that’s gonna put women on equal footing with men, and understand these larger community concerns that we have to address collectively? Is it gonna be the core of that kind of movement? Highly unlikely.


Rachel: For the women.


Tricia Rose: For the community as a whole. In other words, it’s very unlikely that hip hop is gonna be the primary voice for that kind of a progressive movement that I was describing. You know, because it’s not cultivating that kind of consciousness. I mean, do you think it is?


Rachel: Not in the mainstream.


Tricia Rose: Right, well that’s where most people tend to be.


Rachel: Not in the platinum world.


Tricia Rose: Yeah, if you’re deep into the underground, sure, but then there’s a much smaller percentage –which means you’re not the basis of a movement, in that sense. The underground could be, but it would have to get itself together really hard, even to do it itself. But the commercial realm is a commercial form. It’s like asking rock and roll to be the center of a movement. Well, why? You know, I think people should enjoy it if they enjoy it, they should critique it when they should critique it, but they don’t have to turn it into the platform of a major social protest in order to say it’s valuable, or that they want to listen to it.


So no, I don’t think female emcees are gonna take over hip hop. Do you?


Rachel: No, I guess I was just wondering if, while they working in this medium, they’d be able to change it and stretch the limits of what can be said. In a way, it feels like they’re still working within a genre that has certain attributes, and a certain form, unfortunately.


Tricia Rose: Yeah, I think some individual artists can push on those boundaries.


Rachel: Yeah.


Tricia Rose: But do I think that women will be the cutting edge of the genre? I’d say no.


But they have completely transformed soul music, for example. So if you’re looking for women artists who’ve really staked out a lot of independent territory, and have really made a claim on changing both the content and tenor of what’s happening, in soul music you’ve got several women who’ve done an enormously interesting job. They’re also a hip hop generation group of women, and they’ve had a huge impact on what women can sing about, and think about, as artists. But not in hip hop –on the fringe of hip hop.