With ‘Ladies First,’ filmmaker dream hampton complicates the history of women in hip-hop
For filmmaker dream hampton, the story of women in hip-hop is not one of easily packaged girl power over tight beats. It’s pioneer Roxanne Shanté primping with her girls in a ladies’ room in Manhattan’s Latin Quarter, then the nerve center of the hip-hop’s club scene, minding her business when “The Bridge Is Over” drops.
This was about two decades ago: before cellphones were a given, before a celebrity run-in had to be documented or it didn’t happen. So hampton, whose latest docuseries, “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop,” was just released on Netflix, wasn’t in fan mode. She clocked the female MC’s presence and prepared to move on. That’s when both women heard the unmistakable drum beats of KRS-One’s classic diss record and its unforgettable line, “Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady (expletive).” She was 16 when that record hit.
On the 1987 track, a then 21-year-old KRS spends two minutes hurling schoolyard insults at the Juice Crew, the Queens collective founded by DJ Marley Marl that included Mr. Magic, MC Shan and Shanté. A South Bronx rapper lyrically planting the flag in his borough, KRS calls into question the other crew’s cred, calling them boring, fake and gay. But what he said about Shanté sliced deeper, especially considering how many packed crowds screamed out the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
Because here’s the thing: The DJ that night probably knew that Shanté was in the building. They always do. J.Lo walks in, and suddenly everybody on the dance floor is subject to “Waiting for Tonight.” Will Smith rolls through, and it’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” So when Shanté, who shot to fame at 14 with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” steps in the club, the DJ knows about it. But instead of paying homage, he played a song that reduced her indisputable talent to her parts.
“I’m so sorry,” hampton told Shanté that night, with “The Bridge Is Over” playing in the background. “I remember her, like, catching my eyes and just saying, ‘Thank you.’” After that, Shanté left the club altogether, recalled hampton. The encounter, brief as it was, became emblematic. “That to me is how hip-hop treats its women,” hampton said.
It’s the erasure — that rewriting of history — that hampton and the other executive producers of “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop” sought to correct, filling the story of hip-hop with the women who have been there since Day 1. Literally. That 1973 back-to-school jam deejayed by DJ Kool Herc that marks the beginning of the genre? It was his sister Cindy’s party.
As a writer, filmmaker and producer, hampton, who first made her mark on hip-hop while writing for the still-nascent magazine the Source, has made a career of holding feet to the fire. She joined the Source as a 19-year-old photo editor, and the first opinion piece she wrote for the publication in 1991 took N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre to task for assaulting journalist Dee Barnes. (Dre pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in connection to the 1991 incident.) She told Tupac he couldn’t rap. Called Jay-Z a capitalist (and also co-wrote his memoir, “Decoded”). Then, in 2019, as executive producer of the record-breaking Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” hampton’s work ignited renewed national interest in Kelly’s crimes against young women. He is now serving nearly 30 years in prison for child sex abuse, sex trafficking and racketeering.
Yet despite hampton’s history with the music, when producers Raeshem Nijhon and Carri Twigg initially asked her to join “Ladies First,” her first answer was “no, but good luck and have fun.”
But Nijhon and Twigg persisted.
“I was just going to bring the darkness,” hampton said of how she initially saw her role. She questioned how revolutionary hip-hop could be with “broken gender politics.” Stories about abuse, prison, the mommy ceiling and forgotten credits. But, she added, there has never been a more exciting time for women in hip-hop than right now, and men weren’t going to tell their stories. “Culture House was willing to complicate it,” said hampton, who directed the third episode in the series. “When it was all said and done, I had to text Rae and Carri and thank them, because I’m so proud of what we ended up doing.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Tell me about your early days at the Source.
A: It’s been overstated. I worked at the Source for 18 months when I was 19. I wasn’t Kim Osorio (the magazine’s first female editor in chief). I was the photo editor. I was the only woman in the office. It was literally me and a bunch of guys. Later, I wrote two seminal pieces in my magazine writing career, which all happened in the last century, on Snoop and Tupac. And even then, I got those pieces because they didn’t know who they wanted to be. They were so East Coast. Just being from the Midwest, I didn’t understand how they didn’t understand, you know? That was emblematic of the whole East Coast. By the time they had lost being the center of hip-hop, they didn’t even realize it.
Q: When did you fall in love with hip-hop? Or did you ever truly love it?
A: Oh, my God. I loved hip-hop. I don’t know what I heard first, whether it was Apache at the roller-skating rink or if it was Bambaataa. But absolutely I loved it and loathed it all at once. Someone asked a question on Twitter: “When was the first time you realized or reacted to misogyny in hip-hop?” And I was like, “Slick Rick, ‘Treat Her Like a Prostitute’? A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Infamous Date Rape.’” There’s no type of hip-hop where it wasn’t problematic. It was always what it was, you know?
Q: This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, specifically the 1973 Bronx party Cindy Campbell threw with her brother DJ Kool Herc. There have been more than a few sort of revues, which folks debate over endlessly. How would you rate how the industry has commemorated the moment?
A: In fact, that makes me sad about it. Because I grew up in Detroit when the Motown revues were happening, and it could be like just one Temptation. So that already means that it’s dead. It’s already in its history phase. We’re putting it in amber. Then Dre gets the Dr. Dre award. So, you know, “What the (expletive), Grammys?!” They’re attempting to whitewash this, and they don’t need to, by the way. Our culture is consumerism. Dee Barnes was on my mind. The Mount Rushmore of hip-hop have all been accused by dozens of people of abuse. And that would be Bambaataa, Russell Simmons and Dr. Dre.
Q: Do you still believe hip-hop is revolutionary? Was it ever?
A: You can’t be a revolutionary with broken gender politics. You can’t be a revolutionary and be homophobic. And this is before we even get to capitalism. To be homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic? No, you’re not a revolutionary. You’re not even a radical. You’re actually quite status quo. What it was was a radical sound, and that’s not even true anymore.
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