'No One Can Banish the Queen': A Conversation with Hip-Hop Pioneer Roxanne Shanté

Illustration for article titled 'No One Can Banish the Queen': A Conversation with Hip-Hop Pioneer Roxanne Shanté

For the first time in its 16-year history, tonight’s VH1 Hip Hop Honors will be devoted entirely to women in rap. Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, and Lil’ Kim will be honored. Roxanne Shanté, the first woman rapper to score a bonafide hit single, will not be. In fact, as of late last week, Shanté wasn’t even invited to the ceremony (though VH1 invited her this weekend at the last minute). Shanté’s skill and story, though, deserve to be recognized.


Before she was Roxanne, she was Lolita Shanté Gooden. A 14-year-old living in the Queensbridge Projects and known locally for her battle-rapping prowess, she was tapped by up-and-coming DJ/producer Marley Marl to record an answer to UTFO’s popular “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The resulting fit of squeaky-voiced brutality, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” was an instant sensation, popularizing the medium of the dis track, spawning up to 100 answer records (“The Real Roxanne,” “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne, You’re Through),” “The Parents of Roxanne,” “Do the Roxanne,” “Roxanne’s a Man (The Untold Story—Final Chapter),” and “The Final Word - No More Roxanne (Please),” among them), and selling a reported 250,000 copies in New York alone. It also made Roxanne Shanté—her recording moniker—a household name. She spent much of the ‘80s on the road and recorded two albums, retiring shortly after 1992's The Bitch Is Back. She says that for most of her career, she didn’t receive royalty payments.

It’s not totally surprising that VH1 isn’t recognizing Shanté’s contribution to hip-hop—she never crossed over to Top 40 radio, and even the most ardent millennial hip-hop enthusiast could go by without ever having heard her work. But that’s also a shame, so I reached out to Shanté to talk about Hip Hop Honors and her career. Though she now lives in Jersey, she happened to be in Queens this week to oversee the filming of Roxanne, Roxanne, a biopic about her life she’s producing alongside Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker, as well as Dope producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Mimi Valdes. A major motion picture biopic is a hell of a consolation prize after a VH1 snub.

Shanté courted controversy over the years—her 1992 single “Big Mama” brutally dissed virtually every prominent female rapper at the time, including Yo Yo, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love. In 2009, she told the New York Daily News that she had received a PhD from Cornell, only to have this exposed by Slate as a lie. Though she hasn’t recorded in over two decades, Shanté says she works every weekend—she emcees various hip-hop related events and and hosts an old-school hip-hop radio show on Memphis’s 98.9 The Vibe. Over a Thai lunch in Long Island City, Shanté and I discussed her career, Hip Hop Honors, and the state of women in hip-hop for about 90 minutes. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.

What did you think when you heard that this Hip Hop Honors would be celebrating women in hip-hop? Did you think you’d be honored, and were you then disappointed to find out that you weren’t among the honorees?

I really did not expect it. I don’t get a chance to be disappointed when I’m not looking toward that. There’s been many years, there’s been many awards shows, there’s been many things. I took it like, “OK, they’re having another awards show and that’s fine.”

That’s just something you’ve gotten used to?

I have. Maybe some people feel like, “Shanté, you’ve done so much for the industry, you shouldn’t feel that way,” but in all reality, life has been really good to me. I’ve had a hell of a roller coaster and I’ve been able to ride the ride without getting sick. I take that blessing and I walk humbly with it.
I don’t want to take away from any of my sisters that are participating. I don’t want to take away from the production company that put it together. I want it to be a great show because it is still representing my sisters in hip-hop.


This response is surprising coming from someone who demanded respect by cutting down her peers in “Big Mama.” Was there anything in that song that was grounded in reality or was it all spectacle?

“Big Mama” came along at a time when I was frustrated not only with where I thought the female rappers were going in hip-hop, but I was frustrated with hip-hop, period. I came into the industry and I didn’t necessarily want to be a rapper. I was just a very good battle rapper. I didn’t ever want to be a commercial, make-records rapper. I did [“Roxanne’s Revenge”] while doing my laundry. That shows you how committed I was. I did it within 10 minutes, went back to doing my laundry, and then it blew up. I was pushed into a situation I may not have been ready for.

With “Big Mama,” I know I hurt a few feelings along the way, but for me that was hip-hop. Hip-hop was about being the best. In order to show you were the best, you were supposed to take on all challengers. You were supposed to make sure that anyone who came at you, you were ready, whether male or female. If you were considered the best, I felt the need to prove that I was better than you or at least up there with you. And this is before they came up with the term “female rapper.” I was just a great rapper. And then, they were like, “Well, listen Shanté—we understand that you’re a great rapper, but why don’t you do this: Why don’t you settle for being the best female rapper ever?” I felt that just wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be the greatest rapper, not just the greatest female rapper. If you’re a great doctor, you’re a great doctor.


But did you mean the things you said in “Big Mama?”

There is a big difference between 17-year-old Roxanne Shanté and almost 50-year-old Roxanne Shanté. Anyone can go back and say some of the things they said at 17, they would not say now at 50, ‘cause they’ve lived, and they’ve experienced more. To take up for the 17-year-old Shanté, everything she said then she meant because she was 17-years-old and I can’t take away from what I’ve done and how I’ve been. Would the Shanté of now do that? Nah, she wouldn’t do that. She’d be a little more politically correct with her choices of words. She’d still use a lot of profanity, but her choices of words would definitely be different.


People always assume that Roxanne Shanté is very standoffish, but that’s not it. I had my sisters, I had my son [at 15], I had responsibilities. I had a total grown-up life besides this. So when I come in and do this, I come in and do this and then I forget about it and keep it going. I’ve been able to survive because I’ve always stayed the same—the same person I was then is the same person I am now. The only thing that has taken place is that I’m not as angry as I was then. I’ve finally achieved a certain amount of peacefulness and happiness because I have been through so much that now I feel like: OK, there’s really nothing else left.

Can you put you finger on the moment when you became less angry?

I became less angry when I gave birth to my daughter—she’s 20 years old now. She was born 1 lb. 15 oz., so with her being considered a micro-preemie, I looked and was like, “Wow. Is this a result of my anger or my meanness or my Roxanne Shanté-ishness? What is happening to me right now?” I swore up and down that if everything worked out with her, I’d change. And I did.


After that: “Hi, how are you, how’s everything?” People were like, “What happened to Shanté? I think she done lost her mind. She became so sweet.” I knew I needed to let go of that anger. I was no longer in a bad relationship. I was no longer in a bad contract. They stole what they stole. I wasn’t the first they stole from and I wasn’t the last the industry was going to do that to. I wasn’t going to walk with that bitterness, but what I was going to do was to make sure that anyone who came in contact with me, I would tell them how important it was to keep their publishing, know how important your archives are, know how important it is to have your name on your work, know what your worth is.


On Wikipedia, most of the songs on Bad Sister are not credited to you. Did you not write them?

I was co-writer on most of those songs. That was at a time when I would go into the studio, lay down a freestyle, someone would come in, rewrite it, and then the next thing you know, this one is a writer, that one is getting credit on it. The way the industry was...let’s just use one song, for instance. “Def Fresh Crew” with Biz Markie. Only me and Biz was there.

He was on the beatbox...

...And I’m on the rhyme. That’s it. How are 12 other people given credit for writing this when it’s a freestyle and he’s on the beatbox? No samples, no instruments, only his mouth. How did they have 12 other people on there? It was a time when I didn’t know anything about paperwork. I didn’t know that you’re supposed to register things with ASCAP or how you’re supposed to be a writer.


And nobody was helping you.

And nobody was helping me.

Is that to say that Marley Marl was taking advantage of you?

That’s to say Marley may have done what was common in the industry, and still is today, that a lot of producers and management and record companies still do. I was still very young, very hardheaded and didn’t want to listen. Even if someone said it to me, I may not have seen the importance of it then. I can’t walk around and place the blame: “You should have did this,” or, “You should have said that.” I’m coming straight from the projects, straight outta the group home. All I care about is buying nice clothes, having food for my sisters and my son, making sure we had someplace decent to live, and buying new sneakers. Writers and being part of a publishing company wasn’t a high priority on my list, though someone should have been looking out because of my age. I’m not gonna sit here and point fingers, but I am gonna say there could have been more of a watchful eye or maybe an appreciation or maybe some gratitude shown: “Let me at least do this for her.”


Do you feel you were taking advantage of in other ways? You were a young girl in an industry full of men. There were basically no women around anywhere, right?

Not the kind to follow [laughs]. There was women everywhere, they just weren’t the ones you wanted to ask anything. I was protected to an extent. I never drank. I never smoked. I never used drugs. That was never pushed on me. You hear so many horror stories about those things. I think they still saw me as that little sister or that daughter, but certain aspects of greed allowed them to also see me as a commodity. It could have been a lot worse. I think that’s how I’m able to keep my sanity about the whole circumstance. Being blessed with things that money can’t buy—I’m a breast cancer survivor—I look at my losses as payment for those things. I just feel like the whole first part of my career made it so that I can live the rest of my life. I know people who would give millions of dollars to feel the way I feel today. And then look: They coulda got me in a whole lot of tax trouble. They never paid me, so there’s money to take away.


How soon after recording “Roxanne’s Revenge” was it on the radio?

The next night, or the one after. I was inside the house with my mom and my phone rang at about maybe 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning because Marley had a radio show that played in the middle of the night. I had just recently returned home and so I was walking on eggshells with my mom. The last thing I wanted was her phone to ring in the middle of the night. I remember picking up the phone and somebody yelling, “You on the radio right now!” I hung the phone up, hoping that my mom didn’t hear it ring. Then it rang again. “Right now, Shanté, right now!” I remember sitting there thinking, “Wow, I wonder what I sound like on the radio. That must be incredible.” I remember smiling to myself, but it was also a sad moment because I would never be able to relive that—the moment that I became Roxanne Shanté. I could only speculate what my voice sounded like that day, but I didn’t have to speculate long because after that, it was played every hour on the hour forever.


A lot of people’s careers catapulted from that point. Maybe even from them listening to me and saying, “That’s horrible! Her voice is horrible!” I had this cracky wacky voice—which my octave is still not low now. I have a lot of people who come up to me and tell me I’m the reason they’re in hip-hop and I know the reason is because when they heard that, they were like, “That’s it—they lowered the bar. Anybody can make a record now. I’ve been in here trying to sing, I’ve been taking voice lessons and she winds up with a hit? Oh no. We gon’ now as is.”

It’s funny to listen to the record because there are words you just drop the ends of as you’re saying them.


And to make words that didn’t even rhyme. Just put an A on the end: “This-a,” “miss-a.”

When Marley approached you, you were already established as a battle rapper. When did you know you were good at rapping?


I don’t know. Around the house when I was really little. I think I had my first battle when I was about 10 years old. My mom took me and it was for $50. It just grew from there. People would come from other projects, come to my projects to battle me for money. I was already a great battle rapper. I had what they called at that time Nipsey Russell Syndrome. I would rhyme all day. We would be sitting down playing skelly, and I would rhyme about shooting skelly. We’d go to the pool and I’d rhyme about the pool. I’d rhyme all the way to the pool. I was just known for that. When this whole thing started with battle rapping, a lot of people wanted to use me as the secret weapon. You’d have guys 17, 18 years old, and they’d be like, “Yeah, I got somebody for you: 10 years old. A little girl.” They’d be like, “I don’t wanna rap against some little girl.” “Yeah? She gon’ make you. Watch what she say.”

I know that you were against objectifying yourself sexually, but did you ever feel objectified as the rare, young, girl in hip-hop?


No, I actually didn’t. What I did feel was empowerment for women. It wasn’t always girls who wanted to battle me. Sometimes young guys would show up at a concert, like, “Listen Roxanne, I know I’m better than you.” It wasn’t like oil wrestling. You didn’t know who my opponent was going to be at the time. It was a matter of being able to handle whoever came.

The reason I always chose not to be objectified by wearing scanty clothes and everything else was that ever since I was 14 years old, every man I met, no matter how old they were, the first thing that came out they mouth was, “Roxanne, Roxanne / I wanna be your man.” To constantly hear that, you didn’t want to necessarily fit into that mold. You still wanted to be off-limits to them. You couldn’t come with your boobs all out because now they feel like there’s that possibility of doing that.


What do you think about the persistent lack of women in rap? It was insane that five, maybe seven years, prior to Nicki Minaj exploding, there were barely any female rappers making any waves. And then Nicki came and I thought, “Here’s the rebirth.” But over five years later, she’s basically the only one who has real mainstream presence. Dej Loaf pops up sometimes, I guess.


There’s a lot of pressure that comes from record companies, PR people, that make female rappers feel they need to do whatever is in. You need to do whatever is poppin’ or now. They don’t do that to the male rappers. They can come in and just... come in. I was a female rapper who would just come in and come in. Whatever I wore on the street is what I wore on stage. Sometimes straight from the street to the stage. Still today: No makeup, no glam squad. People will say, “Do you have your makeup artist?” I say, “Yeah, hold on,” and pull out one tube of lipstick.

I always felt that for female rappers, you don’t have to do that. I created my crew. I was Roxanne Shanté first, and then every Juice Crew member was my DJ first. Kane, Shan. That’s why they call me the Queen of the Crew of the Juice. I was that entity for them and they created the crew. Then along came other female rappers who felt that in order to have the same things, they had to be part of a crew, but they didn’t check the history and realize that you create your own crew and then you never have to worry about having to fit in. No one can banish the queen.


For those five to seven years [referred to above], the most popular figure for young girls in hip-hop was whoever the video girl was. That put the pressure on a whole generation of young girls to do sit-ups, which you see I don’t do any. Implants, which you see I have none. It put a lot of pressure on them to stand in this hip-hop thing, which is such a part of our culture, so embedded in our lives. To be the main factor you needed to be the video girl. She held more power than the female rapper because she’s in more videos, getting paid more money, driving a nicer car, living in a bigger house, regardless of what she’s subjected to. No one sees what she’s subjected to. They’re only seeing how nice she looks in the video, how nice her clothes and shoes are.

Why do you think it’s still so hard for women to achieve prominence in this industry?


People no longer listen with their ears. They listen with their eyes. Only if it was appealing and looked good would it then be associated to be good. You have some dope female rappers that come in, but if she does not have that look that’s still embedded from that video model in hip-hop, they don’t want to give her a second ear because they’re listening with their eyes. I think that’s a reflection of society, period.

Has Nicki Minaj ever given you proper respect? Do you know her?

I don’t know her, I haven’t met her. There has been a few positive things she’s said, which most female rappers do. I don’t seek accolades. I see them all as my little sisters or nieces. I have a genuine love for all of them, and for everything they have contributed to females in hip-hop. That’s why I’m not angry. I don’t feel like anyone owes me anything.


When I go see my grandmother, she never says I owe her anything. It’s just something that I know. You don’t look at it like, “If it weren’t for my grandmother, I wouldn’t be this...” You don’t look at it that way when you’re proud of what has become. You just sit back with pride, like: You know what? [Nicki’s] really doing it. And I’m sure her contracts are excellent. I know she has a great lawyer! To see her cross over and participate in all these huge events, I’m like, “Wow. That’s what I did all these battles for.” I don’t seek anything for it. I never wanted to be filthy rich for a year, but I will be comfortable for my entire life.


What do you think when you look back on the Cornell controversy?

When I look back on that, I say to myself, “That wasn’t easy.” It wasn’t easy. It had a lot to do with broken promises from the record company and already being in the process of it. When the record company’s checks started bouncing, you get called into the bursar’s office, and you’re sitting there like, “What do I do now?” This was my next plan. You mean they stole everything and this also?


You get one invite to come and speak and then you just continue on with it. If someone says to me do I regret motivating my sisters to want to go to college? Do I regret people looking at the fact that Roxanne Shanté has done this so now I know I can do this also? Do I regret being that inspiration for people to go get their PhDs because they felt like they could outdo me? Do I regret people identifying hip-hop with education? Do I regret being articulate and being one of the most excellent orators that I personally know? Do I regret being a phenomenal interview? Do I regret pushing my kids to further their education and my sisters to do what they’re supposed to do, and my nieces, and my extended family?

No. I don’t hold any regrets whatsoever. This was at a time when they were trying to tell our young sisters that they needed to swing on a pole, and I was trying to tell everybody that they need to get PhDs. When they was telling everybody to get a bigger booty, I was telling them to get a stronger brain. So no, I don’t regret that. Maybe I’m just a person who does not hold regrets. Maybe I’m a person who touches a fire, looks at the burn, and sees it as a beauty mark.


It doesn’t seem like people hold it against you anyway.

They don’t. You know why? They sit back and say, “Damn, no student loans, I shoulda did that.”


You seem like you’re in a really good place.

I am. It took a long time to get here. It wasn’t an easy place to stay in. I’ve survived it all, and I’m still standing.


Image via Getty

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.


Rich Juzwiak

DELETED SCENE ALERT: I know this interview is lengthy so I didn’t want to bog it down with more “Big Mama” talk, but I did ask Shanté about the homophobia in the song and the specific feelings that she hurt. That portion of our discussion is below.

In “Big Mama” you said some homophobic stuff about MC Lyte... [ “To me a butch don’t deserve a mic in hand / Somebody tell her to stop acting like a man / She needs something real thick to help her out quick / (What?) And that’s a good piece of dick...”]

Yes it is...if you listen to the context, it wasn’t me being homophobic, it was me being challenging and saying, “I’m gonna touch on this, because this might be a serious topic for you.”

You were trying to touch a nerve.

You try to provoke. Sometimes when we provoke, we provoke with things that are true, we provoke with things that are not true. Either way, we do what it takes to provoke. That’s what I was doing. People attack from all sides. Hip-hop was a war, and in war, there is no limit, there are no secrets, there isn’t anything you cannot use. Everything is a weapon. I would attack whatever it was to get you to come out to fight.

Did you reconcile with Lyte, Latifah, Yo Yo...?

Me and Yo Yo are the best of friends. We call each other, talk all the time, love her, that’s my girl. If anyone should have been feeling any type of way regarding “Big Mama,” it would have been Yo Yo. The day before, we were ice-skating and hanging out and everything else. And then “Big Mama” hit the next day, and she was like, “Why’d you do that? I thought we were friends.” I was like, “This is hip-hop! Don’t take that serious! This is hip-hop!” Hip-hop is like two boxers. We’re gonna train together, we might even spar together, but when it’s time to go for the belt, we’re going for the belt. And then after these 12 rounds is over, let’s go get something to eat! I’ve always felt that way, but people who say that the one who’s victorious always wants to push the battle aside. Like, “That was nothing!” It’s like having a fight with one of your little friends. If you win, you still want them to spend the night! They wanna go home and you’re like, “Come on, let’s play!” That’s how I’ve always been, but everyone took it so personal because maybe I never really took it as serious as I should have. My life behind the scenes was so serious. You’re upset about a record, and I done pushed out a 10-lb. baby. I got higher priorities than you do. You guys are getting ready to go to the after party, but there are no after parties for me.

The line, “To me a butch don’t deserve a mic in hand,” always struck me as strange. There have been so many female rappers that could easily be described as “butch.”

A lot of female rappers, and this is how I felt at the time, thought that in order to be hip-hop, they needed to be hard, they needed to be boys. That wasn’t it. They wanted to be rougher, tougher. They wanted to change their voices and everything else. I was like, “You don’t have to do that.” If that’s you, come be you, but don’t think that’s a necessity. It’s because it was, and still is today, such a male-dominated business.