Saturday, December 08, 2012

Self-Discography #17: "Hot, Cool & Vicious" by Salt 'N' Pepa

I am not a black female rapper.

The fact that I physically couldn't be was only luck of the draw. Happenstance. It was simply a technicality. If I was supposed to be anything I wanted, this was something I was going to leave on the table, genetics be damned.

I banished the thought.

In retrospect, I know why, at the age of 13, this was my vision for myself. A childhood diet of sweet radio-friendly pop and disco, gloomy rock that was little more than a D&D soundtrack, and male MC-fronted rap that did nothing but boast about its importance and a desire to be indomitable created a palate that needed something else. Add to the mix two other details: my closest friends were all female; my school more black than white. Drop something like the irresistible "Push It" into the middle of that and suddenly ambition was everywhere--from simply wanting to dance better than your classmate to trying your hand at scratching out rhymes in your notebook.

I had a personal phenomenon on my hands in 1986, but not yet the brain to see what it meant: an acute mix of feminism, upward mobility desire, and the freedom to identify on a public level with two African-American women who were not dressed in low-cut dresses and playing the role of lover/girlfriend to any number of the world's Keith Sweats. These were gender roles turned on their heads. This was a reflection of the girls I knew--strong, funny, already their own people. And this flew in the face of all that was expected of me.

Gay boy in training. Posse of female friends. Salt 'N' Pepa. Yeah, it all makes sense. In fact, it's become a cliche now that pop culture nostalgia is something we consume on a daily basis. But when you first experience it, when you are so strongly drawn to something, you only know how you feel.
And what I felt was that I could play my cassette copy on my fake Walkman for hours on end, memorizing and mouthing phrases that would become part of my vocabulary--and often shouted/sung--for the next 25 years:

"You ain't gettin' paid, you ain't knockin' boots, you ain't treatin' me like no prostitute."
"Your mouth is gettin' sassy, don't make me have to hit it."
"And another thing? Please take off my gold ring."
"You ain't Alice, this ain't Wonderland."
"Have you ever been to jams where people just stand? They pay to come in and they don't even dance."

I knew then as I know now that "Hot, Cool & Vicious" is a bit of a mess: a murky mix of pop-leaning hip-hop with often-simple but still catchy rhymes, sometimes even repeating the same word to make sure it hangs together. But the simple, stuttering drum beats, hand claps, and deft sampling of classic R&B and soul kicks it into a category of its own. Salt 'N' Pepa were not the first female MCs, but their interplay, their attitudes, and the playfulness--the feeling of being in on a very serious joke--is still necessary, a reminder that your can define "femininity" (and by extension "masculinity") the way you want.

And I just realized.

If it's all about word choice, delivery, attitude, self-respect, and creating sex appeal based on your talent and brains as much as your body ...

maybe I really am a black female rapper.

From 1986.