If we don’t acknowledge each other as women, then who will?
Five years ago, I told CityBeat Music Editor Mike Breen that I wanted to try to round some women together for a Hip Hop cover story, and he was very receptive to the idea because we’d never focused a Hip Hop story solely on women.
As a journalist and Hip Hop supporter, I always wanted to include more female perspectives in my writing, but finding a good mix of voices was always challenging. I discovered I only knew of a handful of women in the scene.
But during the last few years, as I’ve been getting out and networking with women at shows, I’ve discovered why Cincinnati’s Hip Hop community as a whole continues to be isolated. It’s a complicated mix of sub-communities that only intersects because of certain key people, and, not surprisingly, the connectors are women.
In January, I had the pleasure of sitting with a group of women who work in the local scene to begin conversations about the challenges of a scene that struggles to offer support, and we discovered there were many sides to the story. The women in this issue are mothers, wives, DJs, MCs, B-girls, social workers, promoters and producers. And even though there is a myriad of voices represented, everyone’s could not fit into this story.
That’s why the articles in this issue are just a seed. I hope that many more women come forth so that people can stop wondering where they are. I’ve started a group on Facebook called “Cincinnati Women of Hip Hop,” so for those interested in finding a support system, you’re welcome to start there.
Shout outs to Mike Breen for trusting my hunches on stories and to Your Negro Tour Guide author Kathy Y. Wilson, who told a sister “her writing was dope” back in 2003 and invited me to contribute work in both of CityBeat’s groundbreaking Hip Hop issues, which she edited. Thank you both for helping me realize that if I don’t contribute my voice, I contribute to the void.
These Women's Work
Women in the local Hip Hop scene share community building and conversation
The spectrum of women in Hip Hop represents more than 30 years of an ever-changing palette of perspectives beginning with early MCs like Sha Rock of Funky Four + One More in 1979, and thousands of women since.
But a curious question often asked today is, “Where are the women in Hip Hop?”
In January, 15 of Cincinnati’s local women who work in different capacities within the Hip Hop scene braved icy roads and came to Elementz Hip Hop Youth Arts Center to be interviewed for a round table interview/discussion and to meet the other women whose names they didn’t recognize from the Facebook event page. MC/producer J-Phunq and her R&B vocalist Diamond Russell were already standing outside the center in the cold before everyone arrived and, coming by later in the discussion, Tek-Labs studio manager DJ Jentel slipped and slid all the way from Dayton after having to jump her car. These were clear indicators of how important being a part of this conversation was to them — it was as if they were willing to put their lives on the line to get there. It seemed symbolic that it was for Hip Hop.
Happy that they each arrived in one piece, groups of women hugged, shook hands and quickly filled the circle of chairs DJ Apryl Reign set up in Elementz’s basement.
As they introduced themselves one by one and shared a bit about their roles, several openly embraced the idea of having a reporter in their presence interested in telling their story. The members of the group soon seemed to bond around their shared experiences.
“I’m really humbled and honored to be invited,” DJ Hershe B shared. She said she felt she was a relative newcomer to the scene.
“Girl, you here and that’s all that
matters,” reassured Abiyah, an art-rapper and singer/songwriter who
recently opened up for Louis Logic at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine.
“I kinda watch all the female DJs and try to learn new skills from them,” Hershe B said.
“Shoot. You might be the next one!” one of the other ladies exclaimed.
Though the interview was structured with questions and topics, after about a half hour it became a forum where different generations of Hispanic, African-American, white and Asian-American ethnicities engaged and learned about how their lives intersect with Cincinnati’s local Hip Hop scene and their experiences working in a male-dominated culture.
Politicizing vs. Acknowledgment
“I’m already discredited. I’m already politicized, before I get out of the gate. I can accept the labels … It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.”
— Toni Morrison
In Hip Hop’s male-dominated culture, women are often politicized as anomalies when their talent gains acceptance. They’re given labels like “female producer” or “female MC.” J-Phunq said she doesn’t mind being labeled a “female MC” because it provides distinction.
“I actually accept the label,” said J-Phunq, who has a company in Clifton called Phunq Productions.
“I’m an MC. A lyricist. I tell stories. And I bring communities together. I reach out. I’m an activist,” she continued. “Personally, when you say ‘a woman’ or ‘female’ before whatever my title is, it’s giving me power.”
“I love being titled a female MC or a female lyricist because it does separate me from the bunch of male rappers who I’m not necessarily trying to emulate,” said self-described Hip Hop artist Lionesque.
Miranda Millard, a B-girl (Hip Hop dancer) who goes by “Mira” in Cincinnati’s underground dance circles, sees positives and negatives to being given special distinction as a woman.
“I know from my experiences with dancing that you do have to prove yourself in a lot of ways, and I feel like sometimes you get undue credit,” Mira said.
“Don’t get me wrong — I don’t wanna act like sometimes if I’m the only female dancer, and they’re (yelling,) ‘Go, ’B-girl!’… not that I don’t like that shine, but I want the shine because I’m an ill dancer!
Mira observed that there are even distinctions placed when it comes to who battles whom, such as “B-girl battles.”
“Why do we have to have ‘B-girl battles?’ ” she asked rhetorically.
“It’s ’cause they’re scurred!” someone mumbled, causing laughter among the group.
The women agreed that one thing they don’t like is the “First Lady of …” title, stamped onto the only “chick” in an all-male organization.
“It’s like a diminutive term that’s meant to diminish,” Abiyah said.
“I don’t want to be your token, you know what I’m saying?” said MC Mahogany, who is one half of Hip Hop duo Mahogany Reign with Apryl Reign.
When it comes to sexism in a predominately male atmosphere, a few women shared how they handle it. Tiffany “Suriah” Harmon, Cincinnati assistant chapter head of the Hip Hop Congress and Women of Hip Hop Congress communications co-chair, observed that when she worked as a front desk assistant at Elementz she felt respected when clothed in garments that covered most of her body.
“It was a really religious state of my development, and it made it easier because they looked me in my eyes, not looking at my body,” Suriah said. “I felt the youth were very supportive of my opinions and anything I asked for, it wasn’t because they were doing it because they were flirting with me.”
“I have a friend that won’t even listen to (any of my music) just because I’m a female, and he just doesn’t think I’d have anything to offer,” Mahogany said.
One of J-Phunq’s recording artists, vocalist Diamond Russell, observed that before she started working with Phunq, she dealt with a lot of misogyny trying to network with her music.
“‘What you gonna do for me if I listen to your CD?’ ” Russell said men asked. “Or, ‘If I pass this CD along to this person or that person, what can you do for me that I will benefit from it?’ ”
Christian Hip Hop MC Atia Evans shook her head in disbelief listening to the encounters.
“Man … it sucks to hear you guys have to go through this!” she said.
Even though everyone laughed at her candid observation, the look on her face was dead serious.
“Listening to everybody and what you’re saying, I feel like I’m in a different market, because I don’t really have to go through everything that all of you are going through, for the simple fact that the music I present is such a different message,” Evans said.
While agreeing that Evans represents a different audience, Lionesque doesn’t see much difference between Christian Rap and the conscious rap she said she journals every night in her notebook for therapy and which she said brings her closer to God.
“Most females I run into are conscious female rappers — the ones that are underground — so even though we don’t say that we’re Christian rappers, we are all doing God’s work if we are giving out a positive message,” Lionesque declared.
Intersectionality is the New Networking
Pearl Rivers, who since the ’90s has promoted underground Hip Hop events as well as the 3rd Finger Record Pool for independent DJs and B Boys Underground radio show on WAIF FM, observed that, even now, some venues are reluctant to book Hip Hop because they feel it will attract a destructive crowd.
“As a promoter, I will just jump in there and say that a lot of venue owners are intimidated when they hear ‘Hip Hop,’ ” Rivers said. “They think violence; they think their club is going to be completely torn up, and that’s not the case.”
Host of WVQC FM’s Cincinnati’s Conscience Jai All Day sees the scene progressing from the benefit of looking outside the traditional venue space, such as when she hosted an artist showcase at The Mockbee arts space off Central Parkway featuring groups like Crack Sauce.
“I’ve been noticing D.I.Y. spots that will open to us just on curiosity, places that are traditionally frequented by the Punk scene or the Rock scene that already have a very loyal following and a long-standing reputation here in the city,” Jai said.
As a white woman with atypical music that crosses genres of spoken word, Rock, experimental music and Hip Hop — all music of resistance that transcends class and color in Cincinnati — Abiyah’s experiences crossing lines are somewhat unique to the group.
Abiyah, who, until recently, had worn her hair in dreadlocks since the ’90s, admits she “put some people off.” Despite that, she created networks in venues looking for eclectic entertainment.
“I networked my ass off,” Abiyah said. “That’s why I might get a call from the Contemporary Arts Center, Art Damage or Fountain Square.”
When asked if white privilege opened doors of access that women of color might be denied, she said, “Yes, white privilege did play a role because white folks here, that’s the stepping stone — like, ‘She’s safe.’ And then I would hook up everybody down the line like, ‘I got Mildred, I got Apryl, I got Jai … what’s up?’ ”
In a 1995 article, former Vibe magazine editor Danyel Smith observed that women in Hip Hop were overshadowed in the industry because they had not created spaces to tell their stories, comparing this with the way women in Alternative Rock were able to create a concert outlet that spoke directly to their audience.
“Whether it is fear or access to capital or some combination of the two, hip-hop generation women have not created our version of the Lilith Fair to support female Rap artists,” Smith wrote.
Fifteen years ago, social networking
sites like Indiebychoice.com, owned by Mercedes Brown, would’ve really
helped the scene connect.
“It’s a social networking site for independent artists,” Brown said. “It’s global, we have members from New York and Los Angeles, England and all over. Thousands of members have signed up, they sell their music on my site and it started here in Cincinnati.”
In a 2007 essay by author Yvonne Bynoe (who has written books about Hip Hop culture), she wrote that she felt “the most political first step that many women within Hip Hop can make is to create communities that nurture us.”
That first step is already happening in Cincinnati. Local writer Kathy Y. Wilson hosts a monthly all-women’s poetry showcase at The Greenwich, where Abiyah, Murray, Ophelia and DJ Apryl Reign become “Bitch’s Brew,” creating an empowering enviroment where race, class and orientation intersect.
“I think that’s why this connection (between us today) is so powerful, because this provides us with an opportunity as women to connect and build,” Mira said. “As women, we are builders; we are connectors. I think that if we can get that cohesiveness, if we get a venue, (pointing at females in the room with emphasis) you know her, and she knows her and her, then you build and say, ‘Let’s support each other and let’s build this scene.’ ”
Women Tastemakers Who Give the Local Scene a Kick
DJ Apryl Reign
DJ Apryl Reign is the perfect balance
between a battle DJ and a party DJ. That’s because she’s both. Winner of
2010’s Red Bull’s Thr3e Style Battle, Reign knows how to read her crowd
and keep them moving. In addition to playing the monthly final Friday
“Selectas Choice” at Main Event (and now Northside Tavern) with DJ Pillo
and Mista Rare Groove, she plays at Mixx and DJs as part of Kathy Y.
Wilson’s hypnotic, all-women poetry collective Bitch’s Brew at The
Greenwich. She also works part time as a DJ instructor to youth at
Elementz and as one-half of Hip Hop duo Mahogany Reign with MC Mahogany.
In terms of what she plays, she says, “If I’m down at a nightclub that plays a lot of music that you hear on the radio, it’s going to be more difficult to play some new music that no one’s ever heard before, especially at a peak hour where everyone wants to dance.”
“But if I am playing at a coffeehouse or something that’s laid back, or even in the early hours, I’ll feel more comfortable playing it,” she continues. “It also depends on the promoter. If I’m taking liberties, the fact of the matter is, in my experience, people are going to dance to what they know. When you play a song and they say, ‘Oh! That’s my jam!,’ that’s their jam because they’ve heard that and they relate to that. They heard it before. But this new record, if they got a buzz going, if I’ve heard it and I’ve seen a response from it, I’ll play it, even at a peak hour if I know it’s gonna hit.”
Fans can follow DJ Apryl Reign through Facebook and book her through www.513dj.com.
Jai All Day
Jennifer Washington, who prefers being called, “Jai All Day,” is the lively host of WVQC FM’s two-hour weekly radio show, Cincinnati’s Conscience, where “citizens are the celebrities.” The local Hip Hop scene might want to know that Jai’s show provides a balance between mixtapes and more commercial radio. If you tune in, you might hear music from area artists like Trademark Aaron, J. Skillz, Foetae and Phiyah.
As a staunch supporter of the arts scene in general, Jai gives local artists time on her show, playing their music and interviewing them as guests in the studio. “Basically a humble humanitarian is what I’m striving to be. I love my city, and there’s a reason my hometown is o-mazing!’ ” Jai says. “I’m just somebody trying to share with the rest of the world how wonderful this city is, because if you just scratch just below the surface, you’ll find the diamond.”
Catch Jai Mondays at 2 p.m. on 95.7 FM and www.wvqc.org and connect with Cincinnati’s Conscience on Facebook.
When you hear the name “DJ Spam,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the canned mystery meat. Spam’s actually a soft-spoken but soulful sister who loves digging for rare soul 45s and DJ’ing underground parties around Cincinnati.
After making connections with DJs Mike B and Nati Kid of the Animal Crackers, Optik and Top Speed (a renowned battle DJ from Indianapolis), she was introduced to the scene onstage at a Scribble Jam festival at Annie’s four years ago. Learning scratch methods from Top Speed, she immersed herself into the break-beat culture and began working toward perfecting the techniques of DJing.
“(As a woman) there’s always that stigma that you might not necessarily have any skills, you’re just up there looking cute,” Spam says. “But then it’s always the most fun to prove people wrong, that you actually can mix and you can count beats.”
Catch her catching wreck at clubs and watering holes around the city.
As studio manager of Teklabs Studios, owned by Hi-Tek, Jentel Jordan (a.k.a. DJ Jentel) is the noted DJ/producer’s personal assistant and a liaison between Cincinnati’s Hip Hop community and the music industry, helping producers and artists be more professional in their careers. With 10 years of experience pushing underground Hip Hop in Ohio, Jentel’s first love is radio. Her career began as a DJ in Dayton, hired to do noon mix shows for Dayton’s 102.9 FM.
“I wanted to be in radio, and that was an easy way to take a step into radio, especially being a white female wanting to go into urban Hip Hop radio,” Jentel says. “If you could DJ, they’d let you in the door.”
By working for TekLabs studios, she’s been able to offer producers and artists access to mainstream avenues, such as getting local Rap group Crack Sauce’s record broken on KISS 107 FM.
Push It Real Good
Since the '90s, Judy Jones' guerilla marketing has helped make indie Hip Hop impactful
Since the late ’70s when she helped promote unsigned band Midnight Star by passing out flyers and decorating the clubs where they performed, Judy Jones, co-founder of J. Jones Entertainment, has given underground urban music a nudge forward.
Having grown up with ’60s Soul and listening to WCIN and WSAI, Hip Hop wasn’t her generation’s music. Jones actually stumbled upon promoting underground Hip Hop as the only African-American at Arc Distributing, a distributor for record stores in the region.
“I worked in an environment where it was predominantly white and they didn’t know urban music,” Jones says. By default, she became Arc’s urban buyer.
“By me being the only black there, it kind of helped the company out,” she says.
At that time, most Hip Hop artists were independent or part of a major label’s black music division. Boxes of LPs, cassettes and CDs were shipped from labels to distributors like Arc. But if employees didn’t know what the music was, it sat collecting dust or was returned as unopened.
“We sold to stores everywhere across the U.S. and I could see product moving, but not necessarily independent black music,” Jones recalls. “And that was because the stores didn’t know what was hot. They really didn’t have anyone to guide them. When they came in to get their product, they just went by what was on the Billboard chart.”
“I wasn’t really listening to Rap all
like that, but I said, ‘Let me see what these young folks are talking
about,’ ” Jones adds.
Arc’s president gave her at least 10 CDs a week to which he wanted her to listen and Jones became a liaison between the streets and the music business.
“I started listening to a lot of independent music, such as Eightball & MJG when they were on Town Records and Three 6 Mafia when they were on Relativity,” Jones says. “A lot of people didn’t know what that music was. So I would listen to it and then I would direct the stores on what to buy. I even got to the point where I would tell the independent record labels, ‘If you send in 50 promo copies, I will give them to the stores, and they can play it in advance and sell the music.’ ”
Jones made a name for herself in part by promoting local underground Hip Hop group O.T.R. Clique and its 1995 CD Streets Deeper than the Grave on local label All Net Records.
“(In Cincinnati,) O.T.R Clique was a familiar name and a lot of people were anticipating their CD,” Jones says. “Thompkins Marketing out of Houston was doing a lot of sales for them and I got in touch and ordered 2,500 of their CDs right off the top. I helped to sell them, not only in Cincinnati, but everywhere in the United States.”
Once O.T.R. Clique’s singles “Back of the Club” and “Life Goes On” charted on Billboard, Jones says other artists came seeking consultation.
Bringing together young people with energy and fresh ideas is how Jones built a brand and a staff. She co-founded J. Jones Entertainment in 1995 with friend Jamar Hocker and promoter Dorian “Lil’ D” Washington, who oversaw the company’s Indianapolis market as it branched out from Cincinnati. Jones’ nieces and nephews became her street team, and through their efforts one of her first accounts, Cash Money Records, catapulted from obscurity to landing a deal with Universal. She remembers driving Juvenile and the rest of the Cash Money camp to performances and signings in Cincinnati to build awareness about the label.
By 2000, Jones had opened an urban mom-and-pop record store in Forest Park, Flava CD’s & Apparel, with a business partner. Framed gold and platinum records of artists promoted by her company hung in the back office. Among her clients were urban artists on Arista, Sony and Capitol Records.
There were also challenges working in retail at the turn of the millennium.
“In order to be a smart business person,” she says, “you have to pay attention (to trends) and you have to research. My partner had old ideas in a new setting. Because of that, we would always clash. I feel like I got smarter because I hired younger people coming up during a time of change. I used their ideas, which helped to make my business successful.”
Some experiences have led to her feeling disrespected, and overall she believes that women in the music industry are misunderstood by men.
“A lot of men in the music industry are intimidated by us because they think that we’re pushy,” Jones says. “And it’s not that we’re pushy, we’re determined to get the job done.”
Jones sold her store and focused on J. Jones Entertainment, providing artist development, consultation, CD and magazine distribution for independent labels and artists that have a do-it-yourself ethic. One of them is Cincinnati rapper Mz. Nicky, who Jones says is a pleasure to work with because she is willing to travel outside of the city to gain exposure.
Today, Jones encounters 18-year-olds that know her reputation, to which she says, “I think it’s amazing that J. Jones Entertainment has gone through three generations helping artists set up their business, brand their labels and then we brand the artists. That’s what the major (labels) used to do.”