"I'm not the average girl from your video/And I ain't built like a super model/But I've learned to love myself unconditionally because I am a queen."
— "Video" by india.arie
A woman rocking dreadlocks, preppy gear and boots is not the image the video age has force fed us of what a Hip Hop queen really is. And a rapper living a simple life for the benefit of others? Forget about it.
Check Makeba Mooncycle. She has found one way to simultaneously do the two things she loves most.
Through Hip Hop, the Atlanta-born and Queens-based rapper/activist helps New York City's youth find jobs, do volunteer work and go to college. She drops rhymes that move their bodies and, when they're not looking, she feeds their heads. Her years on the road touring with, in the studio writing or rhyming for or managing such Hip Hop nameplates as The Fugees, Kriss Kross, MC Lyte, Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu have schooled her in the ways of the street and the mind. And all along she's been smashing the video-clipped stereotype of a female rapper.
"When a woman rapper comes out, people always want to know who's she with, who's her crew?
Why can't I just come out by myself?" she asks half rhetorically. "There's no balance in Hip Hop. Lil' Kim can do her thing. Foxy can do her thing. But for every Kim, there should be a Lauryn (Hill). For every Foxy there should be a me. It's so male-dominated. I think the Women's Right thing messed it up.
"We strayed from teaching our little girls to be women," she adds.
That is where Mooncycle comes in. In her work she teaches young people — especially women — that there are possibilities, that life doesn't begin or end on the corner.
"I had plenty of bad experiences, but I had plenty of good experiences with the kids I've worked with," Mooncycle says by phone from New York. She's in the offices of the firm where she works as a field manager in a youth-based program. "I've always wanted to be a philanthropist ever since I was a little girl, and the only way I could figure out how to do that was through music."
Mooncycle, who considers herself "ageless," is on her way here to perform a week of dates with formidable rhyme and beat titans IsWhat? Although she won't divulge her exact age, you can do the math once she starts reminiscing about her early years doing grunt work at grunt labels and the pioneers and the not-so-hots she ran into in the process.
Mooncycle started rhyming at the age of 13 or 14 years old in the cafeteria at school. She had a crew she rhymed with and, like any kid sister, she looked up to an older sister who also could rap. When her sister died, she got serious about rapping.
Later she began managing Isis, a New York rapper who wanted to rap with MC Lyte, who was then on the cusp of bling-bling with her B-Boy anthem, "Ruffneck," about to drop. Isis and Mooncycle showed up at a Lyte release party and introduced themselves.
"I met Lyte and told her I wanted her and Isis to rhyme together," Mooncycle says in her thick-as-Giuliani accent. The next week they were in the studio and the song came out in the underground and made some noise. Lyte invited Mooncycle to rhyme and the result was 1993's "Hard Copy" off the Ain't No Other disc that also gave the world "Ruffneck."
"It was crazy experience. It was a lot of pressure," she says. "I told (the producer) if I sound stupid, take me off," she says of the "Hard Copy" session. "The song got such a good response from overseas. We performed it on BET, and it became number five of the top performances."
Soon after, Mooncycle, Isis and Lyte together formed Duke the Moon Management and Production where Mooncycle managed Bamboo, the Rose Family, Phenomenal Funk, Problem Child and Kweli before he hooked up with Mos Def to form Black Star. While her rhyming jets cooled, she also booked artists for a year through ECI Booking, owned by Robert "Kool" Bell of Kool & the Gang. Working around all that Hip Hop inspired her to again take up her pen.
"I was hustling with the management thing and still trying to get my stuff out," she says. "It was a really small Hip Hop community then. I was performing with The Fugees. I was performing with Erykah Badu. (Fugee Wyclef Jean's cousin) John Forte was A&R at Rawkus (Records) at the time. I had a small party showcasing my groups at my apartment for Rawkus. and they took two of my acts — the Rose Family and Kweli."
"Lunchroom Classics" by Mooncycle and Kweli remains a hit in Japan. The singles "Aaah" and "High Plains Drifter" whetted musical appetites in the underground for the female MC who could flow and rhyme as deftly as Da Brat with the heft of Queen Latifah. Then "Judgement Day" and "Food for Thought," both produced by Columbus' own Jay Rawls, cemented Mooncycle's cult status. By 1995, she was a product manager for Island, Jamaica and Gee Street Records, working with the Jungle Brothers, Luciano, Beenie Man and PM Dawn, among others.
"I started putting out my own records, my own singles," she says. At this time, Mooncycle met Cincinnati's Mood through Kweli. "They had a nice video and a nice release they put out themselves, and I sent it over to my friend at Blunt Records."
Besides her more recent affiliation with locals Maddox and Iswhat?, born from gigs at New York's Knitting Factory and Black Betty in Brooklyn, Mooncycle's ties to Cincinnati are extensive.
"I can call up people in Cincinnati and tell them when I'm coming," she says. "I try to pass on the blessings that I've been blessed with. We're all kind of connected, because we were all struggling artists at one time."
Mooncycle calls Iswhat? "extraordinary" and is impressed by the group's way with the rhythm and the rhyme. She also thinks it's the responsibility of groups like Iswhat? to continue creating Hip Hop for the love of it.
"When you're at an underground level, the music business doesn't really pay the bills," she says.
MAKEBA MOONCYCLE performs Tuesday at Starbuck's (with Napoleon and John Doe) in Clifton and Wednesday at Top Cat's, with Iswhat? and John Doe. On April 21, she's at Top Cat's with Iswhat?