Since rap music emerged from the South Bronx in the 1960s, the music has branched out into a worldwide hip-hop culture that's been linked to everything from social activist movements to gang violence, from spiritual consciousness to moral obscenity.
Though it would be impossible to pigeonhole rap's many cultural roles, one thing is certain: Rap music has been dominated from its beginnings by men.
The genre has its roots in the generally aggressive and macho competitive style of Jamaican party music called "toasting," where DJs would talk or "rap" over the songs and "battle" each other to prove who was the best.
"The competition boiled down to who had the loudest system and the most original records and technique," says Henry A. Rhodes, a fellow at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute who developed a curriculum to help teach hip-hop culture to middle-school and high-school students in American history classes.
"It was not uncommon for things to get out of hand and for fighting to erupt during these DJ battles once the crowds got caught up in this frenzy."
After the Sugar Hill Gang released the seminal commercial-radio-friendly hit song "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, rap began to crossover from the ghettos and into white, middle-class culture. Hip-hop culture, however, continued to be dominated by male producers and artists.
Many of the complex sub-genres like dirty rap and gangster rap -- which brought the sometimes morally outrageous and criminal aspects of the music into the national spotlight -- often objectified and denigrated women, further emphasizing rap as a male dominion.
"What in society isn't dominated by men?" said Joel Aigner, owner of Mole 33 Records, a downtown store that specializes in hip-hop and electronic music in Colorado Springs. "Hip-hop is a part of society and therefore its value systems are going to run parallel to society's."
Though men still constitute and control the vast majority of the commercial industry, women rappers are emerging as a force.
There is not necessarily much difference in the topics women rap about; rather the perspective usually reflects where the individual artist is coming from.
And, much like some male rappers denigrate or objectify women, some female rappers slap right back about men.
Several often-overlooked female hip-hop pioneers and innovators set the stage for women's emergence in hip-hop. The suavely confident group ESG, for example, carved a positive niche for women who weren't content to watch from the sidelines in the late '70s and early '80s. Roxanne Shant (whose records are out of print) could rhyme, brag and talk trash just as ruthlessly as any male master of ceremonies.
The femme phenomenon Salt 'N Pepa broke into commercial party rap with their hit "Push It." And more recently, commercial all-stars like bad-girl diva Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and potty-mouthed gangster Lil' Kim have dared to claim the same kind of authority as male MCs.
Enter Princess Superstar (aka Concetta Kirschner), a half-Jewish half-Italian white girl from the burbs of Philadelphia who came of age during the New York indie-rock scene of the '90s when many musicians were producing their own music or releasing their albums on smaller independent labels.
Armed with a guitar, hip-hop beats, a do-it-yourself approach to production, and an erotic post-feminist stage persona, Princess Superstar began to do what no other female MC had ever done: invade commercial hip-hop while retaining total control over her own music.
On her first two albums, Strictly Platinum (1995) and CEO (1997), Superstar combined all her interests and influences, blending frantic punk and metal riffs with DJed hip-hop beats and her bitingly quick wordsmithing (she was in the Latin club in high school) in a great big cultural Cuisinart. Evading categorization, Princess Superstar has baffled the record industry.
Determined to be entirely self-produced, Superstar held down a day job at the Women's Financial Association (WFA) doing web work to support her own label (with the ironic moniker A Big Rich Major Label). Though she had no corporate aspirations, working for the WFA taught her a lot about running her own business. For Superstar, it was the only way to avoid having her dignity and creative control swallowed by the record industry.
On her third album, Princess Superstar Is ... released in 2001, her Highness has polished her persona, talent and business savvy and focused all of it into one laser beam of sexy, witty irreverence. She raps about everything from lusty love to babysitting, the latter, called "Bad Babysitter" recently made it to No. 11 on the charts in the U.K. -- a major achievement for an independent label.
Though she hasn't gotten much radio play outside the college stations stateside, her new European fame and the growing support and recognition she's getting in the U.S. have allowed her to finally quit her day job -- and signals the rise of a new hip-hop underground.
The Independent caught up with the Princess, who recently performed in Boulder, to talk about gender, sex, the record industry and the many years of dedication it takes to make it on your own.
Indy: You run your own label. You do your own production. You tour, etc. So what's an average day like for you?
PS: Fortunately I'm now officially a working musician, thank God! My day usually starts out with about 100 e-mails I have to answer. And that's everything from business deals to fans to friends. After that I try to go to the gym, which barely happens. Then I'll either be working on music or just going to tons of meetings. It's crazy.
Indy: You must have had so many offers from major labels.
PS: I did have a lot of offers in the beginning, but they either wanted to change me, or they promised me a lot of money but never came through with anything. And then there was a period where nobody wanted anything to do with me because they just didn't know what to do with me. They couldn't figure out what I was doing because sometimes I would rhyme and sometimes I'd play guitar and rock out and sometimes I'd do drum and bass. I think they were a bit scared. At that point I just took things into my own hands and started my own label.
Indy: Do you feel like you got to sidestep a lot of the discrimination in the music industry?
PS: Yeah, definitely. When you take things into your own hands, then you can avoid a lot of the bullshit that goes on in the music industry. Especially now in Europe where I have a really big hit with "Bad Babysitter."
Indy: What or who do you feel like gave you the green light to talk about sex so freely?
PS: It wasn't any one thing, but I think I was influenced a lot by people like Prince, and I also just had a super sexual imagination. There was a point I started wondering why men like Prince can talk about sex so freely while it's so scandalous when a woman does it!
Indy: But you don't seem to be pushing sexual politics. It just sounds like you're having a good time.
PS: I actually do like to push buttons, but in a subtle, comedic way. And I think that's more effective than hitting you over the head with a hammer and trying to be all in-your-face about it. I think comedy is a strong political tool.
Indy: So what's next?
PS: I'm just touring a lot. My latest fantasy is to have Dolly Parton singing on a hook and me and Ghostface Killah going back and forth. [I'm] trying to write the next album ... a musical about cloning. The song with Dolly Parton all fits in -- you know how the first cloned sheep was called Dolly.
Local Scene Set to Blow Up If it doesn't implode
By Noel Black
Thanks in part to a huge military presence of 18- to 24-year-olds, Colorado Springs is one of the hottest urban markets for hip-hop in the western United States.
But the silence of the music on local, commercially-owned radio stations and in local clubs is deafening, especially as a growing number of talented hip-hop acts emerge from our own back yard.
In a broad sense, hip-hop generally encompasses a culture that includes break dancing, graffiti-writing and rap music. Originally a black and Latin American phenomenon, hip-hop has spread to white America and throughout the world, drawing people of all ages who are interested in urban culture.
Though it had its roots in what was often considered criminal behavior, the genre now encompasses a broad variety of artists who adopt nicknames, rather than use their real names, to further their stage persona and self-determination.
"Colorado Springs is the most-overlooked market for urban music," said Jaime Crockett, advertising coordinator for Independent Records, a local music store.
For example, Crockett cited the recent sales of one particular CD, the work of the hip-hop/soul group NB Ridaz. Over the past three weeks, Independent Records has sold between 100 and 120 copies per week -- while their Denver store sold a total of two over the entire three weeks, he said. When the Colorado Springs group Accumen released their album in April 2000, Independent sold 109 copies in six months.
But, local rappers and aficionados have a difficult time getting their message out. In part because of the reputation that rap begets violence (though most local rappers say that's not part of their disposition), many venues shy away from showcasing rap acts. The Underground, downtown at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street, and the Party Zone, at 3958 N. Academy Blvd., are currently the only places that offer live local hip-hop.
And there is no local radio station that caters to that crowd. Kevin Callahan, the operations manager and program director of the alternative radio station KVUU, says he won't rule out the possibility of airing rap. However, the genre is not really what the station is all about, he said. KKMG Magic FM is another potential avenue for locally produced rap. Music director Rob Ryan declined to comment on their choice of music offerings, but Crockett, of Independent Records, is more critical of the radio station.
"They're afraid to step out and do anything on their own," he said.
Judy Negley, one of the owners of Independent Records, describes sales of underground and street-oriented music as their "forte."
"Hip-hop and urban music are our primary category. That's what we sell more than any other kind of music," she said. "We're the top urban account for most of the majors. If you take the per capita sales we sell more [hip-hop and urban music] than anyone else in the western United States including Los Angeles."
Negley attributes much of the huge local interest in hip-hop -- which translates to big sales -- to the influence of the military. "People from all around the United States come together in this market, and the hip-hop community and the urban music community are far and away some of the most well-informed music-buying public."
Because of this large market, it's also surprising to Negley that more local venues and radio stations don't cater to the hip-hop community.
"We've never really had a truly alternative urban radio station. I think there's a built-in stigma to the music. People are wholly convinced that if you cater to hip-hop, then you cater to trouble and drive-by shootings."
Because of the lack of a forum in Colorado Springs, many local hip-hop groups are far better known in Denver and Boulder where there are a slew of venues and plenty of alternative radio slots to showcase emerging talent.
Nevertheless, many of these groups are devoutly committed to Colorado Springs and would like nothing more than to see the music scene here grow and support their talents. Until that happens, however, much of Colorado Springs' homegrown talent will, most likely, continue to disperse toward greener cultural pastures.
The following are just a few of the groups that call Colorado Springs home:
Blending jazz, melodic flow, and an old-school lyrical simplicity, The Procussions wax the positive shine back onto the bumper of hip-hop with lyrics like "Life is a test til there's no time left/ I'm livin' the life I'm livin' til the very last breath/ Love is a blessin' though sometimes it hurts/ And since birth I've come to expect the worst."
Members Stro, Res and Mr.J (from Sierra, Mitchell and Wasson High Schools) got some big breaks when they opened for the national phenomenon Run D.M.C. to 5,000 people in Laramie, Wyoming.
"Colorado Springs is like a silent terror. People are amazed when they find out we're from here," said Mr.J.
After three years together and having just signed a distribution deal with ABB records, for business reasons the group is headed for Los Angeles this coming August.
"We've made a lot of connections on the West Coast," said Stro. A lot of people want to help us out. So we'll go out to California for a little while. Once business is in order we will most likely come back here to home base."
Fusion of Syllables:
A son of a military man, Black Pegasus moved to the Springs in 1992 when he was 11. At 19 he started making music and rhyming at house parties and eventually started recording. Since then, Pegasus and fellow F.O.S. members Tommy Wreck, MC Strife and DJ Andirexit have opened for the Canadian crew Swollen Members, Seattle's Oldominion, and New York City's Aesop Rock in Denver.
"The scene in Colorado Springs is growing," said Pegasus. "I've seen show sizes double. Kids are coming out, supporting, buying our CDs. But it's hard when you don't have a radio station that supports local hip-hop. It makes it rough. I'd like to stay here because my parents are here. It's the prime city to do it, but you've just gotta work hard and do it."
F.O.S. plays at The Underground about once a month with Accumen.
Accumen, (composed of musicians Samir, Theory and DJ Skip) released their first album Pure Elements in April 2000. Frequently touring with F.O.S., the group has traveled twice to Austin, Texas to perform at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
"The scene is growing nicely [in Colorado Springs]," said Samir. "People are hearing more and more about it. Now when we throw shows at The Underground, we get around 300 kids. It's still growing." Pure Elements is available at Independent Records, and the group's latest CD, Accumen1, should be out in August.
Damage has the kind of flow only a jazz lover could have cultivated. The otherwise soft-spoken Damage isn't that pleased with the general cultural apathy in Colorado Springs and wouldn't mind leaving, but agrees with his peers that things are beginning to take off for the underground scene. "Truly, I'm thinking that the talent here is far beyond anywhere else."
Favorites of basement performances in the North End, the group Idiolectic Conception isn't quite sure what the future holds for them. With some members already scattering to other parts of the country and others dropping out, this crew may be regrouping or evolving into future manifestations of diverse talents.
The basement of producers Terrorist and Tazzreena's nondescript suburban house in southeast Colorado Springs contains the bare-walled and equipment-riddled studio of DarkWarrior Productions and Cry$i$ Records.
Terrorist, a former bail bondsman, recalls with clarity the moment he became a rapper: "I got hit by lightning in 1994. Before that, I didn't make music."
Terrorist is the beat perfectionist and musical mastermind behind several groups of emerging hip-hop artists like Buttermilk, a solo performer who's just finishing off his first album, Harsh Realities, a decidedly nongangster compilation.
"Everyone's been through some hard times and that's what I write about. It comes from the soul," Buttermilk said.
Other DarkWarrior Production artists include: solo rapper Peso, and Known Affiliates, who are old friends from Sierra High School.
The whole point, Tazzreena says is to promote a "positive force." "You can be hard as you wanna be, but you don't have to get into a fight," he said.
Hip-Hop in the House
Will perform at Westword's Music Showcase in Denver on June 9 at Market 41, at 21st and Market St. Show starts at 8 p.m. and cost is $10. Call 303/435-7540 for more info.
Fusion of Syllables and Accumen
Perform approximately once a month at The Underground, at the corner of Nevada Avenue and Kiowa Street. Their next appearance is June 5. Doors open at 9 p.m. and cost $3 for 21 and older, and $4 for under 21. The two groups will also perform at Round Midnight in Boulder on June 14. Call 229-4181 for more info.
Affiliates perform on Tuesday nights at the Party Zone, 3958 N. Academy Blvd. Tickets are $6 at the door. Call 380-1900 for more info.
Appears every other Sunday night at H.W. Briggs, at the corner of Tejon and Boulder. No cover. For more info, call 632-5136.
Performs periodically at The Underground. For a schedule of upcoming appearances, call 667-1158