Sha-Rock claims her place as the primary feminine MC in hip-hop historical past
Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR
This story was tailored from Episode 2 of Louder Than A Riot, Season Two: Child lady, you are solely funky as your final lower. To listen to extra about MC Sha-Rock and the struggle to situate ladies within the rap canon, stream the total episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.
Hearken to Louder Than A Riot: MC Sha-Rock
Hip-hop was born within the Bronx at a back-to-school get together in 1973, when DJ Kool Herc began scratching for the gang, however rapping did not turn into the music’s major kind till it transitioned past the get together — with report offers, singles, excursions and TV spots. The late Nineteen Seventies and early Nineteen Eighties have been a formative time for MCing with seminal acts from Sugar Hill Data main the cost: Keef Cowboy, of Grandmaster Flash and the Livid 5, is usually credited with coining the time period “hip-hop,” and, in 1979, the trio The Sugarhill Gang launched “Rapper’s Delight,” which broke the music for a nationwide viewers. These are acquainted figures in recaps of rap’s ascent into a worldwide phenomenon, however who will get to depart a legacy and who will get ignored?
The retelling of hip-hop historical past facilities males, typically excluding the ladies in the identical body, so if you have not heard about MC Sha-Rock, authentic member of Sugar Hill’s Funky 4 + 1, and the primary girl MC, you are not alone. She was such a titanic drive in early rap communities that even DMC, one third of the game-changing group Run-DMC, cites her as an affect. But she shouldn’t be given her due as a trailblazer.
However Sha-Rock has receipts. Utilizing her private mementos, Sha-Rock takes us by her entry into early hip-hop tradition as a B-girl, her emergence as a pioneering MC, her groundbreaking (pregnant!) efficiency on Saturday Evening Dwell and her long-running struggle to protect her legacy, in her personal phrases.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
The very second [I got] my style for hip-hop is 1976 as a B-girl — you recognize, being on the market, break dancing, watching younger children transfer round all through the Bronx, touring as nomadic B-girls and B-boys, simply to hit these breakbeats. The MCing got here in 1977. The primary individual that I noticed breakdance was buddies of mine that had went to junior highschool with me. They taught me what it was to uprock, what it was to only hit the beats everytime you hear that sure break beat.
From there, you recognize, I used to journey and watch the well-known twins carry out, again then have been known as the N**** Twins, now they’re known as the Legendary Brothers, Keith and Kevin. I used to journey round with them to B-girl, to each park jam, each DJ that performed, each home get together, each hip-hop venue. I traveled everywhere in the Bronx simply to be part of the entire scene.
The circle was all the time male-dominated. It was a younger male sport on the time. I used to be type of like a tomboy rising up. However there was only a feeling that you simply knew you needed to be part of. A few of us was residing in poverty, politicians all the time doing their very own factor. So after we got here inside that circle, that was our technique to get away from all the opposite unfavorable stuff. I imply, simply being on the market on the street and simply listening to a few of this, the sounds and the music and the percussion — it simply gave you a sense like you would simply tackle the world. It simply empowered you as a girl.
A younger man that was part of the group known as the Brothers Disco Work was passing out flyers. He stated, “Pay attention, you recognize, we’re having an audition. Would you wanna come and audition for MC?” I stated, “Certain, why not?” The audition was held within the basement at DJ Breakout’s home. And so I took a good friend with me uptown within the Bronx and auditioned. All people uptown knew the place he labored, the place he lived. And so it was lots of people. I needed to go house from faculty that day; I wrote the rhyme on the bus and simply recited it over and again and again heading again uptown. And I gained the half. There was no different lady MCs auditioning. However as a result of they cherished the best way that I wrote my rhyme and the way my cadence was, I grew to become the MC for the group.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
In late 1977, I grew to become the primary feminine MC, however on the time there have been solely two male MCs [in the organization] — Keith Keith and Okay.Okay. Rockwell. After which at the start of ’78, we add one other MC to the group, Rahiem. That is how we grew to become the unique Funky 4.
Then you definitely had the Livid 4, which was Grandmaster Flash’s group. That they had 4 male members. So the Funky 4 and the Livid 4 — earlier than we grew to become the Funky 4 + 1, and earlier than they grew to become the Livid 5 — we created the primary rap battles within the historical past of hip-hop tradition. Meaning teams going in opposition to one another. I used to be the primary and the one feminine MC to ever battle anyone.
I used to be all the time a secret weapon. To be able to compete with my group, a number of different teams have been scrambling looking for feminine MCs that may have the ability to cope with Sha-Rock. I by no means felt no sort of approach as a result of my group had all the time let folks know, on the market in New York Metropolis or wherever we journey — whether or not it was Connecticut, Washington, D.C., anywhere up and down the I-95 hall — that MC Sha-Rock was one of the best feminine MC, and that that they had one of the best feminine MC ever.
Sooner or later we had a battle and we come to search out out that Rahiem from our group was fascinated by going over to the Livid 4. We felt like Raheim threw the battle as a result of he stated he did not wanna sing — he was the singer and the harmonizer of the group. And so we knew that Grandmaster Flash and the Livid 4 gained due to that. We have been the one two teams in New York Metropolis at the moment that was garnering consideration and getting all people to come back to our events. So the opposite two members kicked him out of the group, and he winds up going to the Livid 5 in 1979.
Rahiem and I have been very shut, so I did not know what actually went down. And so I left the group. I got here again to the group on the power of the supervisor asking me to come back again. That they had gotten two new members, so once I got here again, that is once I grew to become the plus one.
I by no means thought of [why they called it Funky 4 + 1 and not Funky 5] on the time. I am younger — 17, 18 years previous — I am simply saying, OK, properly I am the plus one. Yeah, it is added on. I believe in the long run it was like a present and a curse. When folks hear Funky 4 + 1, they consider 1979 rap information, however they do not know the historical past earlier than 1979, of me being part of the unique Funky 4, me being on the streets in New York, taking part in at over 500 hip-hop venues, on 500 flyers versus every other feminine within the historical past of hip-hop tradition.
I by no means actually checked out it as I ought to have been the Funky 5. I believe what my supervisor most likely had in thoughts is that he wished to be completely different than the Livid 5. He simply wished me to face out, and that is why he got here up with the plus one.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
My supervisor, Jazzie D, went and discovered how one can purchase this instrument known as the Echo Chamber. So each time I used to say a rhyme, he’ll put the echo on it. It will repeat each final phrase of my rhyme. While you used to listen to my voice on cassette tapes, it could carry. And in order that’s why you’ll have folks like DMC from Run DMC [using it]. When he heard my tapes floating round within the streets, he instructed Jam Grasp J, “I need you to make me sound like Sha-Rock on the Echo Chamber.” And so whenever you hear them doing the Harder than Leather-based album, you would hear the echo of their voice.
[Editor’s Note: One of the people who noticed that distinct style was Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC. Here’s what he told the Louder team about Sha-Rock: “So I heard Funky 4 + 1. I heard that. And then on that record was this girl. And since it was a girl, the voice was so distinctive, but it sounded stronger, more grounded, more versatile, more unique, more impressive than all of the dudes that I had heard up to that point. It was just a different energy and they were all switching off from rapping. But when it got to the part where they said, “Sha-Rock, don’t stop, just turn on your mic and you’re ready to rock.” And this person, I don’t wanna just say “girl,” this person just went. I heard her rhyming over the break beat “Seven Minutes of Funk” and it was just, it was just the craziest thing that I ever heard. And I heard a lot of people do it. But there was something about the way Sha-Rock delivered her rhymes. That was just the prototype to be.”]
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
I had my first report deal beneath Get pleasure from report label, because the Funky 4 + 1. I signed it in October of 1979. And we recorded our tune three months after “Rapper’s Delight,” which was the primary breakout hit for The Sugarhill Gang off of Sugar Hill report label. The tune got here out in November. Get pleasure from had all the prime MCs that was on the streets of New York prior. For some purpose, there was a scout that got here to us and stated, “Sylvia Robinson needs y’all to come back over to Sugar Hill Data.” My supervisor was in opposition to it, however we felt like as a result of she had the No. 1 tune on this planet on the time — a rap tune — we felt like her advertising attain was higher than Get pleasure from Data. [“Rapper’s Delight” topped the charts in Canada, Spain and the Netherlands and finished Top 5 in nine other countries, but peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100.] In some way the proprietor of Get pleasure from, Bobby Robinson, labored one thing out with Sugar Hill Data, and we have been in a position to get off the label, and signal to Sugar Hill that following yr.
I used to be 17, happening 18. However the loopy factor about it’s that my mom did not even signal my contract for me. My sister, she wasn’t my authorized guardian, however she signed my contract for me as a result of I wished to do it so dangerous. When it got here to songs that we recorded, like “Rappin’ and Rocking the Home,” you recognize, we went into the studio and did that in a single take, just because we used the rhymes that we have been already rhyming to within the parks and the streets in New York earlier than report offers. “That is the Joint” — we have been all the time doing routines. That is what we have been recognized for. We simply gonna let each MC rhyme after which convey within the cadence of a rhyme to convey the subsequent particular person in.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
What Sylvia Robinson did with this primary Sugar Hill tour is she wished all people that was beneath her label on the time — Grandmaster Flash and Livid 5, The Sugarhill Gang, the Funky 4 + 1, and The Sequence — she wished to take us on like this main tour world wide to have the ability to let folks see what Sugar Hill Data was doing. I imply, we hit each main metropolis that you would think about. Each enviornment, each place that we performed at was bought out. Individuals of all ages have been coming since you’re speaking about 1981, the place rap music is hitting. She took this R&B group Sky that was on the market with us, and she or he took Charlie Wilson and the Hole Band with us, and the Rapping Dummy was on the market with us as properly. And so it was one of the best factor ever: the primary documented hip-hop tour. It was on a distinct stage. The Sequence and I have been the one females out on the foremost excursions to start with of hip-hop tradition exterior of New York Metropolis or the encircling areas.
While you going to locations like Wisconsin, you going to locations like Chicago, Florida, you recognize, locations that we by no means even been earlier than, hip-hop was one thing new to them. They handled us like we have been the Jacksons. In the case of hip-hop, I am very protecting of the tradition and its tales and its essence, particularly the reality on the subject of it.
So to be on the market on that stage and listen to the younger youngsters and their moms and dads simply roaring for one thing that we younger children dropped at them was one of the vital thrilling issues.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
Ms. Robinson known as us out on tour to say, “Saturday Evening Dwell need y’all to come back and carry out.” Once we acquired the decision, all people on that tour bus was mad however us. Quite a lot of animosity constructed up on that tour. A struggle erupted with the Livid 5. We have been the highest teams in New York Metropolis on the time. And so as soon as they discover out that we have been gonna be on Saturday Evening Dwell — a lot stuff occurred inside these final couple of days, fights and arguments, all that stuff went down.
It got here to a head within the parking zone of Sugar Hill Data. We did not know on the time the affect of being on that tv present. We have been hood stars in our personal areas. Individuals knew us in New York Metropolis. They knew who we have been from the tapes floating round, from them realizing who the Funky 4, the Funky 4 + 1 was as a result of we traveled everywhere in the 5 boroughs of New York Metropolis. However to be on Saturday Evening Dwell and have the whole world hear us rhyming was like top-of-the-line issues that ever got here our approach. You might have had, like, Kurtis Blow and Sugarhill Gang on Soul Prepare, however we have been the primary genuine hip-hop group out the streets of New York to ever carry out on nationwide tv.
They wished the Funky 4 + 1 as a result of we was a bunch that not solely performed in punk-rock golf equipment, we have been the primary group to ever go all the way down to Soho, in Manhattan, and play for a distinct style of individuals. So Blondie wished us. Debbie Harry, the lead singer of the group, wished us. And we have been instructed the rationale why she wished us, versus Grandmaster Flash [and] the Livid 5 or The Sugarhill Gang, is as a result of we had a feminine, and the truth that we have been younger and harmless wanting. So I’ve to commend Debbie Harry for bringing us on as a result of it allowed us to point out the world what we have been doing again within the Bronx. When Debbie Harry introduced us, what she stated was: “I acquired one of the best avenue rappers, one of the best avenue rappers from the Bronx, the Funky 4 +1.”
Once we walked into NBC, the Saturday Evening Dwell set it was like, OK, we’re gonna be on TV. And I used to be pregnant on the time. I believe I used to be about 4 or 5 months pregnant. So I used to be like hurting, I used to be feeling sort of loopy. However my group did not know.
We have been gonna work with Blondie and Debbie Harry. She was making an attempt to assist us get off our contract. She was like, “No matter you do, do not go re-sign. I am gonna hook you up with our attorneys and we’re gonna attempt to get you off the label and need you to tour with us.” We have been gonna begin recording along with her and every thing. However a few of us, together with me, my loopy tail, went and re-signed pondering that Sylvia Robinson was gonna do the appropriate factor by us once more, as a result of that is what she promised us. She promised us that she was gonna pay us. She promised that she was gonna enable us to report as many songs as we would like, and she or he was gonna make sure that all our fruits of labor would come to fruition — the place we might have the ability to monetize off of the tradition that we created. And she or he promised us that, however it did not occur.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
My crew was very upset at me as soon as they did discover out that I used to be pregnant. They felt like it could hinder every thing that we had shifting ahead just because I used to be the plus one. I used to be the feminine. I used to be the feminine that a number of males attempt to compete with as properly. “We’re the Funky 4, we out right here, however Sha-Rock is our secret weapon. Not solely is she a girl, however she’s additionally a dope MC.” Of their minds, they suppose that we have been on the peak of our profession, and since I used to be pregnant we most likely would not have gotten as a lot work.
They wished to have the ability to capitalize off of Saturday Evening Dwell. After we did go on tv, that is when the craziness began — throughout the group and inside Sugar Hill Data. We began being pit in opposition to one another. Li’l Rodney C was principally just like the spokesman for the group, however he had no filter and he would say what he felt was proper. That was intimidating to a few of the homeowners on the label. It is simply that we did not comply with his lead, as a result of we different members within the group felt like [Sylvia Robinson] was going to do us proper.
Rodney C and Okay.Okay. Rockwell, who have been very tight, have been allowed to depart the group as a result of she felt these two have been the outspoken ones. Me, Keith Keith, and Jazzy Jeff stayed. On the time, being pregnant was a scary factor. I used to be on the top of my profession as properly, and I used to be so nervous, not as a result of I did not have the help of my household, however nervous to know that it could put a damper on me shifting ahead. So I had to determine how I used to be gonna navigate by all of this. With the help of my mother, I used to be in a position to. After which as soon as I had my daughter, I used to be in a position to attempt to determine what’s my subsequent transfer?
So I went again into the studio and began recording as a result of Ms. Robinson promised me that she was going to look out for me, particularly for the truth that she grew to become the godmother of my daughter. She christened my daughter at two months previous. She got here as much as the Bronx in her Rolls Royce and christened my daughter. So I consider that she was going to look out for me — for all the cash of the songs that I made. I truthfully believed that if she did not look out for no person else, she was gonna look out for me, as a result of I had her goddaughter.
My daughter was born in 1981. I signed my contract along with her in 1980. So that is like the start of a superb relationship. So I felt like it doesn’t matter what she can be there to be the godmother. So if one thing occurs to me [or] my mother — she’s in a position to financially handle her. And the truth that that was my cash, created from my songs. So it wasn’t like I used to be asking you for something. That was my cash that you simply have been supposed to provide me.
After I realized that no cash was coming in — I am broke, given all I had, all my good songs, all my good lyrics to those information. I am not seeing no cash. I am not seeing no tabulations of credit, or breakdowns of what bought or what did not. In 1983, I stated, I am not gonna do that. I am not gonna enable nobody to pimp me and take every thing away from me that I really like. So I fell again and I did not report for a protracted time period, just because I felt the best way for me to deal with this was to regroup, let my contract run out. I do not do something that anyone can take away from me once more. So to ensure that me to like the tradition that I helped construct, I fell again due to Sugar Hill Data.
Courtesy of Sharon Inexperienced
After I determined to come back again on the scene and work out a technique to assault the scenario, I used to be conscious of Queen Lisa Lee that was down with Afrika Bambaataa. We have been superb buddies. And I seen Debbie D rhyming within the early ’80s. I stated to Lisa Lee, “We have to begin a lady group. I do know this lady that’ll be good to be part of the group.” And there was an audition that was occurring downtown on the Roxy for the film Beat Road that was gonna be produced by Harry Belafonte. I stated to him that day when he was at auditions, “We’re the three greatest feminine MCs out right here in New York Metropolis. We must be part of the film. Individuals know us.”
The opposite women weren’t beneath contract. I used to be the one one which was signed. As a result of I used to be beneath a recording contract and we needed to report a tune and be in a component within the film. I wind up having Harry Belafonte name Sylvia Robinson. And she or he stated OK. However there is a stipulation. Melle Mel from Grandmaster Flash the Livid 5 has to jot down the hook and the tune to Beat Road.
Once we went all the way down to Harry Belafonte’s workplace, he stated, “I’ve someone in right here that is acquired a tune. I need y’all to do that tune. It is known as “Us Women Can Boogie, Too.” And that is how we grew to become the Us Women. He had us are available, do the tune and just a little routine to it, after which we simply wrote our personal rhymes to the tune.
While you discuss in regards to the film Beat Road, for me, “Us Women Can Boogie, Too” — it made an announcement. It wasn’t like the kind of girlish rhymes. You realize, the “Sure, sure, y’all / to the beat, y’all / freak freak, y’all / Let’s rock the home, y’all.” It wasn’t that sort of rhyme. It sort of supplied a distinct sentiment to how us as ladies have been portrayed. Then it shouted it out to the world. It is not simply in regards to the males, however we will rock as properly.
Sidney Madden for NPR
I got here within the sport in 1977. So to struggle to nonetheless be even speaking about this proper now — it is such as you gotta struggle and struggle and struggle on your legacy. To say that you simply was first at doing this or the primary at doing that, comes with a value since you’re gonna all the time have someone come and say, “Pay attention, nah, it did not occur like that.” You are all the time gonna have detractors that is gonna attempt to swap the story up just a little bit to remove from what you achieved. However the best way that I see it’s: The one approach which you can share your story and go toe-to-toe with anyone that come[s] behind you to say, “No, that is not the way it occurred,” is to point out proof and to account for every thing that you simply stated you probably did.
The misperception is that it was a male-dominated discipline, and the females simply got here on the scene later. No, the males did not dominate something. We have been all the time there.