Rock and Roll Book Club: 'God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop'

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Kathy Iandoli's 'God Save the Queens.'
Kathy Iandoli's 'God Save the Queens.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

A genre that women helped to invent, but that persistently excludes them from narratives of its history. A genre where women have been standout performers at every juncture, but where they rarely achieve the commercial or critical attention men to. A genre where women are constantly breaking the mold, only to find the industry squeezing them back into stereotypes. A genre where many tracks regarded as classics traffic in rampant misogyny. A genre where female artists are abused and marginalized by peers and producers, and where women of color are particularly vulnerable despite being particularly accomplished.

But enough about rock and roll, let's talk about hip-hop.

In God Save the Queens (buy now), veteran hip-hop journalist Kathy Iandoli walks through the history of what is, by some measures, today's dominant music genre. In every era, there are iconic women, advancing the art while straining against men's attempts to define what they can be, do, and say. In an important sense, God Save the Queens is a hip-hop history through the looking glass: instead of lionizing the men, Iandoli celebrates the women, describing their triumphs and their struggles. Like all the best music books, this one will have you building a playlist before you even finish the first chapter.

The book actually starts with Iandoli's own story, working in 2009 at an internet radio station that had a male host she describes only as "a hip-hop legend." When she told the interns that for safety reasons, they couldn't let the hosts send them on errands outside the building any more, the host used a misogynistic slur live on air. She pushed a button to drop the signal, turned, and walked out. When she complained to her boss, he said, "You're a white woman. You work in black music. Who will ever respect you?"

Iandoli wrote God Save the Queens, she suggests, not because she thinks her story is somehow paradigmatic — she knows that as a journalist, and a white woman, her story as a woman in hip-hop has followed a course different from the largely black artists she covers — but because she knows every woman in the genre has heard some version of that question, either to her face or in her head. "Who will ever respect you?"

The result is an inspiring celebration of female artists, but it's also a walk through the history of a genre rising from house-party sparkplug to globe-spanning entertainment colossus. Iandoli reminds us that the party canonized as the place where hip-hop was born, DJ Kool Herc's rec room throw-down in the South Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973, was the brainchild of his sister, Cindy C. There's her name under "special guests" on the flyer, which now resides in the archives of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard University.

From that party, Iandoli takes us to the set of the 1984 hip-hop movie Beat Street, with a trio of female rappers known as Us Girls featured in a scene after they talked their way onto the set and convinced producer Harry Belafonte to put them in the film.

Perhaps the book's most fascinating story — and that's saying a lot — features Roxanne Shanté, who was just a teenager when she jumped into a studio to record "Roxanne's Revenge," a withering clapback to the incel-flavored U.T.F.O. hit "Roxanne, Roxanne." The answer track became such a success in its own right, it made Shanté a star and inspired literally dozens of back-and-forth responses that became known as "the Roxanne Wars."

Shanté struggled to find her place in the burgeoning genre, though, and essentially retired from rapping after a 1989 LP and a 1992 track called "Big Mama," responding to Queen Latifah's "Ladies First" with characteristically nimble rhymes reminding MCs who the real first lady was...but to what end? By that point, it was Latifah who was moving the form forward. Still, the episode demonstrates that beef among women artists has been just as much a part of hip-hop history as beef among male artists, and no one's ever dished the disses quite like the legendary Roxanne Shanté.

By the late '80s, with hip-hop a regular Top 40 fixture, brightly-clad women with something to say claimed their positions on the charts alongside the Fresh Prince. That included "Supersonic" hitmakers J.J. Fad; Salt-N-Pepa with their sultry "Push It" (they were the first artists to successfully blend rap with choreographed dance routines); and of course Latifah, who partnered with Monie Love for the empowering "Ladies First."

"It was so much fun," remembered Monie about trading verses with Latifah. "We didn't realize that we were making a song that was going to be so socially packed and such an anthem for women. We did not realize the seriousness of what we were doing. We were having so much fun, but we were also so proud of what we were saying."

By the '90s, hip-hop was in a golden age, surging in popularity as artists across the spectrum dropped mature album-length statements. It was the age of Tupac and Biggie, of Nas, of the emerging Jay-Z...and, of course, of TLC. Their early promoters encouraged them to dress colorfully as "the female answer to groups like Kris Kross," writes Iandoli, but the artists had a lot more to say than just "jump, jump." Left Eye was the towering genius of the group, but she struggled with a "bad girl" image. When she burned her boyfriend's house after he slapped her for asking why he got new sneakers and she didn't, Left Eye became a new kind of icon.

On page 200 of the book, a photo depicts Lil' Kim and Lauryn Hill smiling, arm in arm, in 1999. Iandoli calls them "two sides of the female hip-hop paradigm," which she later identifies (following Rah Digga) as a "rift amongst the Sex Kittens and the Nubian Goddesses." To an extent, of course, that rift was just as manufactured as anything else in pop music: Lil' Kim's raunchy image was shaped by the Notorious B.I.G., while Hill famously had to leak her solo masterpiece Miseducation to prove to skeptical execs that she didn't have to sound like the Fugees to have a hit.

Still, it spoke to a real fork in the road, as Hill followed her own muse while Kim and Foxy Brown (a Jay-Z protegé) famously beefed their way up the charts, their would-be collaborative album Thelma & Louise never to become a reality. The next major female force in hip-hop was already well on her way to a string of indelible hits: Missy Elliott, who started collaborating with her friend Timbaland to fuse dance beats (including the innovative bhangra beats of "Get Ur Freak On") with scintillating bars.

"Missy introduced a new standard of hip-hop that delved into the abstract," writes Iandoli, "experimenting with rhyming patterns and sounds." Recruited to bring a hip-hop flavor to Lilith Fair, Elliott was more akin to Hill than to the mainstream...until, of course, Miss E became the mainstream.

For Iandoli, 2005 found hip-hop at a crossroads, exemplified by M.I.A. Instead of American rappers grabbing bhangra beats, here was a U.K. rapper/producer of Sri Lankan descent taking South Asian rhythms and working them into head-twisting yet unmistakably catchy compositions that turned the heads of everyone from Kanye West to Judd Apatow.

Enter Nicki Minaj, who emerged in 2007 and rapidly became an inescapable voice on the world's hottest tracks — including her own as well as innumerable guest spots on songs like Kanye's "Monster," where she raps circles around the biggest male MCs in the game. When Cardi B broke out with a whole new definition of realness, there was the inevitable beef, but both women were among the most popular artists in the world, no qualifiers, bar none.

In just 298 pages, there are lots of artists Iandoli can't get to, but she nonetheless touches on names like Remy Ma, Eve, Azealia Banks (not so much Iggy Azalea), Sister Souljah, Da Brat, Gangsta Boo, Bahamadia, and Yo-Yo. "There is no blueprint," says Trina, as quoted by Iandoli. "We are the blueprint."

"Every little bit," writes Iandoli, "every diss track, every major single, every questionable fashion choice, and every big budget music video or grainy flip-cam freestyle has proven that when women want something, they go get it. They've pushed on through hip-hop and survived, and no matter how they did it, we salute them."

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March 4: Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant (buy now)

March 11: Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale (buy now)

March 18: Loud Fast Words: The Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics by Dave Pirner (buy now)

March 25: The 33⅓ B-Sides: New Essays by 33⅓ Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums edited by Ann Stockton and D. Gilson (buy now)

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