Leading Ladies of Hip Hop: Roxanne Shanté

Art by Sarah Tarlin
Art by Sarah Tarlin

During Women's History Month, ERS-Plus is turning up the volume on female MC's across 50 years of Hip Hop. We're kicking it off with Roxanne Shanté. Want more Hip-Hop and R&B? Check out ERS-Plus on HD2 Radio, and online.

By Breanna Nesbeth, WERS Music Coordinator

Biography

Roxanne Shanté is one of the first female super stars in Hip Hop. She paved the way for much of what the culture and genre is today. Ironically, Shanté has rarely been discussed as a serious player in Hip Hop’s 50 year history until recently. 

Shanté, birth name Lolita Shanté Gooden, established herself through a distinctive style of solely freestyle-rapping, and it’s in Queens, Queensbridge to be exact-- where we see the start of the prodigy’s journey. 

Roxanne Shanté honed her rapping skills at the early age of eight.  She developed her interest in rap through watching the game show “Hollywood Squares”. During the show, Shanté would watch comedian Nipsey Russell answer questions back in the form of a rhyme.  In an interview with Ailsa Chang for NPR, Shanté shared “... people would ask him [Russell] questions, and he would answer them in a rhyming form. So I sat in front of the TV and was like, I like Nipsey Russell. I like to hustle. So what it did was it started a whole rhyming effect. And I would rhyme the entire day.” 

By the time Shanté turned nine, she was participating in and winning local rap battles. At ten years old, she earned her first $50 in a rap battle contest. By fourteen, Shanté, still a young lady with a ponytail and braces from humble beginnings, was a respected force during Hip Hop’s infancy. 

By the time Shanté turned 15, she went through significant life altering challenges. She was in an abusive relationship with an older boyfriend, which produced her son Kareem. The very same year she became officially  recognized as the first female battle rapper. This title was bestowed when she took on MC KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions in what became known as “The Bridge Wars” - a rap battle between rappers from Queens and the Bronx. 

Over the course of her career, Shanté had been cheated out of money by managers and others whom she trusted. By age 25, Shanté made a decision to take a step back from the Hip Hop scene and for the most part retired from the recording industry. She continued to make motion picture appearances and book live performances, however. Shanté had acting roles in the movies Colors (1988), Lean On Me (1989), and Girls Town (1996).

Rise to Fame

After developing her freestyling skills, Shanté would take on older male competitors in rap battles, winning with her lyricism that incorporated her sharp tongue and wit. At age fourteen, Shanté was approached by neighbor and producer Marlon “Marley Marl” Williams to rhyme on an ‘answer track’ he was working on. The answer track’s beat came from the Hip Hop song “Roxanne Roxanne” by the Brooklyn rap group U.T.F.O. The resulting countersong - “Roxanne’s Revenge” - was released in 1984. It’s considered hip-hop's first diss record, leading to dozens of response records.

In the aforementioned NPR interview, Shanté shares “‘Roxanne's Revenge’ was a freestyle, a seven-minute freestyle where the story I was telling was the fact that when men approach you and they're trying to heckle and - you need to be able to turn around and answer them. So if they were rappers, you just proved that you were a better rapper. And you turned around and you responded in a rhyming form.”

“Roxanne’s Revenge” hit number 22 on the R&B/Hip Hop charts, and would eventually spark The Roxanne Wars, a series of tracks that were responses to the hit song. Gooden would then go on to join The Juice Crew, a rapping crew of all male rappers and Shanté.  The roster of the Juice Crew included rap pioneers, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, MC Shan, and Kool G Rap. She began to tour with the crew and in 1985 released a single with another female rapper, Brooklyn’s Sparky D, “Round One, Roxanne Shanté vs Sparky Dee,” on Spin Records.

Influences

There aren’t many known artists who’ve been influential in Shanté's career, seeing the genre itself was so young when she emerged. And of all the artists on the scene who were experimenting with Hip Hop at the time, almost all were men. Her closest contemporaries who approximate Shanté’s attitude and bravado would be R&B’s Millie Jackson and Linda Clifford.

However, she has influenced many. At the height of her career, Shanté was referred to as the "Queen of Rap" by The New York Times. She’s been credited for popularizing “the diss track,” and been called "rap's first female star." She’s been considered a pioneer for the first generation of female MCs, all while advocating for female empowerment.

Additionally, because of the newness of the genre at the time, Shanté had not received any awards for her music.

Spotlight Tracks

The success of "Roxanne's Revenge" also led to a string of other hits by Roxanne Shanté including, "Have a Nice Day," and "Bite This.”

Her pioneering 1984 single, "Roxanne's Revenge," is now eligible for platinum certification in the U.S. This song-- a true freestyle--is especially amazing because 39 years ago, a 15-year-old girl was able to encapsulate commentary about sexism and catcalling into a song and these are discussions society is still grappling with today.

As the only female member of Marley Marl's Juice Crew, Shanté entered yet another hip hop beef— “The Bridge Wars”, between Queensbridge, Queens and the South Bronx. After an initial diss from KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions,  Shanté clapped back onhe 1987 track "Have a Nice Day" with "Now KRS One, you should go on vacation/With that name sounding like a wack radio station." KRS-One responded directly to Shanté’s diss with the infamous reply track, "The Bridge Is Over" the same year.

Shanté displayed an image of strong confidence with little reverence to her male counterparts who outnumbered her significantly in all her songs, which was a rarity amongst rappers - male and especially female - at the time. On "Bite This,” she calls out top-ranking acts like Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow, and L.L. Cool J. Calling out artists by name became a signature trademark of hers. "I'm talkin' to all you MC's out there / I'll say your name cause I don't care."

In Conclusion

Roxanne Shanté is undoubtedly the blueprint for female MCs today. She was not just a pioneer for female Hip Hop artists, but a pioneer for Hip Hop on the whole. Although few music historians have given her props, she deserves her flowers.

Luckily, she’s now receiving them. Netflix has recently released the biopic
"Roxanne Roxanne'', which tells the story of the beginning of her career. Shanté, who now lives in New Jersey, co-leads an education nonprofit. She is also known to occasionally perform, and has done a series of press events where she comments on Hip Hop and rap artists of today.  You can currently hear her unique voice on L.L. Cool J’s SiriusXM channel, ‘Rock the Bells Radio’ with a show called “Have a Nice Day with Roxanne Shanté featuring DJ Sylk”.  


When recently asked, Roxanne shared what she thought her legacy and status in Hip Hop was, and it’s complicated at best.  She said, “I’m not the female Hip Hop artist people talk about. I’m not invited to the awards. I’m the person who people would assume would be angry at home. And I’m the total opposite of that. I love life so much. I’m a breast cancer survivor. I know what it’s like to go through lumpectomies, through everything. Life is amazing to me. I enjoy every minute of it.” Roxanne’s legacy of true inspiration and independent thought have few rivals, if any. In the pioneering worlds of Roxanne Shanté and Hip Hop, no imitating biters can or ever will be allowed. There is and will only be one queen of the diss track, Roxanne Shanté!


So to queen Shanté, there’s only one thing to say: thank you and have a nice day. 

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