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The Boston Phoenix Pretty Thugs

Rah Digga, Da Brat, and Trina

By Jon Caramanica

MAY 15, 2000:  Chick rappers used to be only slightly more popular than white rappers. Or gay rappers. In the brutally macho world of hip-hop, females were seen as interlopers, illegitimate heiresses to the culture. But despite the flack, there were always a few women who braved the storm and made their presence known.

Beginning with the Sugar Hill Records group Sequence (who featured a teenage Angie Stone) and running through Dimples D, Ice Cream Tee, Sparky D and JJ Fad, women's hip-hop has always told a powerful counter-narrative to the genre's boys'-town hegemony. Never was there a more potent female voice than that of MC Lyte. Smart and sassy, her lyrics were fierce and carefully constructed, strong enough to challenge even premier male lyricists. She rhymed about sexually transmitted diseases. She rhymed about love. She rhymed about clothes. She rhymed about tearing sucker MCs into tiny little pieces. Like her male counterparts, she explored a range of topics and was never begrudged the right to do so. There was finally a female on a par with the boys, and the guys knew better than to give her a hard time.

Yet the period in which Lyte had her greatest moments -- the late '80s -- was the last time all of hip-hop lived in one house. After the turn of the decade, camps stratified: east versus west, north versus south, conscious versus gangster, mainstream versus independent, battle versus narrative. Soon enough, artists found that they couldn't be everyrapper, even if it was all in them. For women, this discovery proved especially damaging. Boss, despite her middle-class, private-school upbringing, retreated to the gangster camp, and she wasn't alone. Others, like Heather B, tried to get by on battle lyrics alone, eschewing appearance. Most often, though, sex was the main currency, as proved by the dual ascendance of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. They could rhyme (the fact that most of their lyrics were written by others notwithstanding, they sounded good), but their success was, and is, predicated more on what you could see than what you could hear.

Over the past couple of years, a small group of female rappers has begun to break free of these conventions. Most notably there's Lauryn Hill, the rapper/songstress who destroyed stereotypes in 1998 with her genre-crossing, emotionally raw solo debut. More recently there's been Eve, lone female in the Ruff Ryder camp and self-proclaimed "pitbull in a skirt." A former stripper, Eve has parlayed her good looks and unique style into a rap career, and she's been successful because she's a gifted MC as well as being compelling eye candy.

Rah Digga, to her credit, is trying to follow the Eve model of ascendance rather than enrolling in the Foxy/Kim school of bra slinging. Earning her chops through New York's Lyricist Lounge open-mike night as well as by rhyming with New Jersey's Outsidaz clique placed her in environs where her gender could easily have worked against her. Consequently, she's cultivated a vicious battle sensibility -- one blessed with a wealth of one-liners that would do even Canibus proud -- on her new Dirty Harriet (Elektra). On "Tight," she threatens, "I'll leave you twisted like a thug with blond hair" (talk about gender-identity issues!). On "Curtains," she proudly boasts, in what must be one of the most promising insults in years, "You're wack and won't even think of punch lines I don't use." On "Imperial," the album's second single, she drapes herself in dun language, taunting "Labels scared to death to let their artists rhyme with me/You could send your thuggest MC and watch me son him/The ruggedest bitch don't even rhyme about gunning."

Which isn't to say that Rah isn't grappling with her femininity. Indeed, the photos in her CD booklet look like outtakes from a Lauryn Hill photo shoot, but without the natural glow. In her lyrics as well, Rah seems unnaturally preoccupied with locating herself at the crossroads of two worlds: the grimy battle stage and the dainty dressing room. She calls herself "la crème de la gutter" and takes a moment on the album's final track to "thank God I can look this fly and still rock this hard." No dummy she, Rah knows it pays to be the ghetto diva, and if rapping in high heels is what it takes to get ears open, she'll do it.

That's a move also recently made by Chicago's Da Brat on her new Unrestricted (So So Def/Columbia). Da Brat was originally known for her jail jumpsuits and cornrows, but the last year has seen her glued to Mariah Carey's side and sporting thon-th-th-th-thongs in her videos. Even Trina, the baddest bitch to Trick Daddy's nann nigga, wears her sex-positivity so strongly it reads masculine, kicking underperforming men out of her bed and cheaters out of her life on her new Da Baddest Bitch (Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic). There's nothing coy about Trina's lust, and that's why it's not only a (potentially troubling) victory for hip-hop feminism but a perfect fit in rap's male-bravado tradition.

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