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Female Rappers Diss and Tell : Women, spearheaded by Queen Latifah, M.C. Lyte and Yo-Yo, are demanding to join the men's club

August 19, 1990|DENNIS HUNT

Yo-Yo doesn't strike one on first glance as a young woman who would swap insults with hard-core rapper Ice Cube on his volatile "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" album.

The former Los Angeles school bus driver seems more like a cheerful, easygoing teen-age member of, say, the Whitney Houston fan club than an associate of one of America's most controversial pop figures.

"Forget how I seem now," the 19-year-old said when she stopped by her manager's Crenshaw District office on a recent morning.

"I'm nice now, but I can be tough--real tough when I have to be, when I have my rap face on," she said.

Emphasizing her point, Yo-Yo--whose real name is Yolanda Whitaker--slowly replaced the smile on her face with an icy glare.

"Even if I wanted to be nice and smiling and soft I couldn't do that and be a rapper," said Yo-Yo, an East Los Angeles native. "I'd seem weak, and you can't look weak and survive--not in rap. It's a jungle--full of males. If you come across as weak, you get cut to ribbons."

But even a tough demeanor would not have gained Yo-Yo, or any other woman, acceptance during the early years of the decade-old rap revolution.

Rap was and in most ways remains a man's world. Nearly all of the field's creative personnel--the rappers, producers, writers and musicians--are men, making music geared mostly to black males in their teens and early 20s.

This domination has resulted in rap's being a veritable men's locker room, a fraternity in which the initiation rites include "dissing" (putting down) women, often referring to them in foul, cruel gutter language. In rap songs, women are portrayed either as sex objects or gold diggers. There seems to be no in-between.

But Yo-Yo is part of the new wave of female rappers--including Queen Latifah and M. C. Lyte--who have demanded the right to join the club. In some ways, their effort is a repeat of what female rockers went through in the '60s and '70s.

According to one rap artist's manager, the music's commercial success has finally led record companies, eagerly searching for new talent, to consider women.

"For years, the record companies were just signing men," said Pat Charbonnet, executive vice president and co-owner of Street Knowledge Productions, which manages Ice Cube and Yo-Yo. "That's who they could make money on. Women didn't have much of a chance to get beyond the neighborhood rap scene then."

But that's changing, she said. "As rap got bigger and started branching out in different directions, record companies saw they could make money off women rappers too. They see a market for them, so now they're signing them. If they had seen the market a few years ago, they would have started signing female rappers back then."

Yo-Yo, however, believes the women's economic role in rap is secondary. More important, she said, is the healthy new perspective they bring to the music.

"One thing men can't do is rap about things from a female point of view," she said. "What's happening now is that rap is growing to the point where more females are turning on to it. So there's an interest in the women's point of view."

Any discussion of female rappers invariably begins with a question: How can women work in a field in which they are consistently attacked--in which words such as bitch and 'ho (whore) are commonplace? It might be deemed degrading, tantamount to consorting with an enemy.

Most of the female rappers interviewed, however, said they are not offended by the men's put-downs, which, they contend, are not as sexist as they seem on records. Those women simply chalk up the put-downs to male bluster.

"That's just guys spouting off," said M. C. Lyte, who, along with Queen Latifah, is considered the best of the female rappers. "Some people call it sexist, and by some standards it is. But in the black community that's the way guys talk and, for the most part, that's what it is--just a lot of talk."

Queen Latifah agreed. "I'd be upset if I thought they were talking about all women or even about me," she said. "But a lot of what male rappers say is just their egos running wild. You can't take it all that seriously. But I'm sure most women would rather not hear that stuff at all. They'd rather hear nice things."

Some female rappers don't take the dissing so lightly.

"Some raps really dog (downgrade) women in a horrible way," Yo-Yo said, declining to name culprits. "Those guys can really make you mad. If they're just exaggerating and telling funny stories, that's OK. But some go way overboard."

Tairrie B, a white Los Angeles rapper whose debut album, "The Power of a Woman," was just released by MCA, agreed.

"Guys can be so childish and mean," she said angrily. "They don't have to talk about women like we were tramps who were only good for sex. What if women talked about men like they were dogs, would the males like it? Hell no!"

Though the outspoken Tairrie B, 25, takes some swats at men in her album, most female rappers avoid such attacks, fearing commercial backlash, Charbonnet said.

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