Every movement throughout history has a foundation. For Hip-Hop culture, that foundation has always been women. Veteran journalist Kathy Iandoli, whose pen has covered the culture’s biggest stars and stories for over 15 years within outlets like AllHipHop.com, Playboy, and VICE, has released her most ambitious project to date with God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop (Dey St./Harper Collins).
Bringing readers back to the now almost-mythic origins of the genre at the August 11, 1973 rec center party by Kool Herc, we’re reminded that Hip-Hop birthplace started from the idea of his sister Cindy to throw a “Back-to-School” jam. From there, we learn about all-female breakdance crews who made their names embarrassing future superstars like Kurtis Blow on the dancefloor, and MC Debbie D’s pioneering skillset that enabled her to become the first solo female emcee in 1981. By the time we see Sha-Rock, Lisa Lee and Debbie D combine forces to become the supergroup dubbed the “Us Girls” in Harry Belafonte’s Beat Street, the reality of Hip-Hop being birthed from the idea of a woman begins to hold a certain poetic beauty.
Although the “Roxanne Wars” have been well-covered by writers over the last 20 years, Iandoli is still able to uncover new info and perspectives on that period’s lasting influence. She maps a parallel to Roxanne Shant’s explosive rise and bitter close of her music career beefing with the new school (Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo etc.) to what we’ve recently witnessed with Nicki Minaj against Cardi B and Remy Ma. Another significant “changing of the guard” moment Iandoli showcases is how Kurtis Blow, playing the role of the stuffy, rigid conservative, robbed Roxanne Shante of a notable career achievement. While not spoiling it for readers, it’s a moment not just rooted in Blow being a “Hip-Hop purist,” but also a sexist moment that he now regrets and discusses in detail.
The narrative becomes bigger in the 90s due to the diversity of talent. The women who held down the South get their just due as prominent time is given to the “First Lady” of Three Six Mafia Gangsta Boo, the hood empress La Chat, and Miami queen Trina. All three give first-hand accounts of their trials in not just getting lyrical respect in a male-dominated industry, but also how the challenges of janky contracts affected women who were trying to juggle careers while raising families.
The West Coast isn’t neglected either with the stories of Yo-Yo, Oaktown’s .357 and JJ Fad taking center stage. And with these ladies establishing their worth next to the emergence of gangsta rap, Iandoli deftly illuminates their own internal struggles with having to tolerate and at other times successfully fight the growing lyrical misogyny of their male peers.
Once we arrive in the mid-90s, the book really shines in bringing to life the era’s climate. Iandoli sprinkles in enough of what the male emcees were doing to give the reader an idea of the trends, but never to the point where it overshadows the ladies. The era of Lil Kim, Missy, Foxy Brown, Eve and Rah Digga is rightly viewed as a golden era for women. And even if you lived the era, Iandoli was able to unearth numerous story gems from the period to keep even the most well-read Hip-Hop aficionado engaged with anecdotes like Rah Digga chewing out Mobb Deep about Kim’s classic “Quiet Storm” verse and Questlove revealing The Root’s ill feelings toward the Fugees.
MOMENTS OF REFLECTION
With so much history to unpack, there are many times where the author has to take a generalist approach to cover as much ground as possible. To counteract this, Iandoli took the novel approach of creating chapter “Interludes” to expound on topics that warranted deeper dives. The iconic Class of ’88 photo that features the likes of MC Lyte, Shante, JJ Fad, Sparky D and others is dissected and informs the reader that women were always just as if not more competitive than the men. Other topics spark more contemplative reflection as the author has us remember the “what if” aspect of Lauryn Hill’s career post-Miseducation, and the use of the word “bitch” in Hip-Hop.
The biggest gamble made in God Save the Queens is from Kathy Iandoli herself. She holds nothing back in recounting the bittersweet reality of completing this tome while dealing with the loss of her mother to cancer. In turn, the grieving process helped her better understand one of her subjects, the irresistible force that is Megan Thee Stallion, who also lost her mother unexpectedly. Those personal interjections could have easily come off as grandstanding and self-absorbing in the hands of one less capable, but in God Save the Queens Iandoli is wholly passionate and genuine in illuminating the power of black women’s art and its impact on her life and the world.
Although Iandoli did a masterful job with condensing over 40 years of women’s Hip-Hop history, God Save the Queens should still be viewed as a foundational research guide rather than an endpoint. Acts that could have received multiple pages like Sister Souljah and MC Trouble are given cursory mention. Others that could have factored heavily into the “Nubian goddess vs. sex kitten” debates, like N-Tyce, Harmony, and Smooth, are absent from the narrative. And someone like Suga T, sister to E-40 and the only female member of The Click, feels like a glaring omission from the “First Lady” discussions.
Small criticisms aside, God Save the Queens more than lives up to its billing as an “essential guide” to understanding women’s history in Hip-Hop. From MC Debbie D and Sha-Rock to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, the read is brisk but the information profound and timely at just under 300 pages. No doubt, the book will prompt speculation and theories on how the next stage of womanhood will progress in Hip-Hop. And while none of us knows the future, it’s best to keep the words of Trina in mind.
“There is no blueprint. We are the blueprint.”
God Save the Queens by Kathy Iandoli is available starting today at all retailers.