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By Ericka Basile
In the late 1970s and 80s, during hip hop’s humble beginnings, female rappers developed carefully costumed persona’s found in concert flyers, album covers, and vividly articulated rap lyrics-unforgettable looks that helped define the rap genre- now itself a worldwide cultural force, originally created by youth of the African Diaspora in New York City.
On November 21, 1979 the New Zoo Discotheque in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was to host a hip hop battle amid some 10,000 square feet of raw dance floors and under 15,000 watts of colourful lights. In a setting such as this, pulsating with light and shadow, the “Battle of the Sexes” would firmly root female MCs into the world of hip hop where they would lyrically spar with the men—as equals.
As early as 1977, women’s crews and stars began to gain ground amidst a world of hip hop that consisted mostly of male artists. The Zulu Queens, DJ Wanda Dee, the Mercedes Ladies, B-Girl Crew, as well as MCs Little Lee, Sweet and Sour, and Pebblee Poo were just a few of the women that initially set the gold standard, laying a ground-work for the celebrated female hip hop personas familiar in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.
As a gender minority in an arts culture dominated by men, struggle already existed for women, who, as Christopher “Kid” Reid from the 1980s duo Kid-N-Play notes, “have to work twice as hard to get half the credit.” This struggle for relevancy in the culture created a number of powerful female personas and fashioned identities that attempted to hold their own among the men with lyrical and sartorial style.
As long as female MCs have expressed themselves on the mic, they have provided for the listener and viewer a bevy of illustrious personal introductions, like macho championship fighters thrown into the ring and ready for battle. As prized fighters in their own right, female artists put a spotlight on their stylish looks in addition to their lyrical skills, describing their bodily measurements and extolling the virtues of their brown skinned beauty as factors in the fight for lyrical supremacy. Blondie from the crew The Sequence initiates the rhyming on the group’s biggest hit of 1979, “Funk You Up,” with “I’m 5 ft. 2 built so fine / 36-26-36 down,” while on the 1983 track “Sucker DJs (I Will Survive)” Dimples D says “I got big brown eyes, holes in my cheeks […] now I’m 5 ft. 5 stayin’ alive / In this world Dimples D will sure ‘nuff survive.” And, another member of The Sequence, Angie B. who is “dressed to a tee” describes the skin underneath her stylish clothes as irresistibly palatable, declaring, “I got chocolate hips and a milky way.”
Within hip hop culture, a fly girl’s fashioned presence was a vital component of her identity, situating her as a member of that artistic community. This was especially evident to male rappers and flyer artists, who drew upon imagery of ideal females—in many cases stock illustrations of fashion models—to enliven the look of party posters. Many event invitations prominently displayed the rear vantage points of ladies in skintight jeans and demanded that female attendees wear designer denim, indicating preferred brands like Jordache, Calvin Klein, Sasson, Cacharel and Ferrari. Accordingly, admission was discounted for properly adorned lower halves. This display proved successful, as flyer models akin to those in fashion catalogues clued in to the desire for mainstream legitimacy on the part of female hip hop artists.
Although they were part of an underground movement, ideals of beauty were still informed by popular fashion imagery, and one’s clothed image on the streets was an important aspect of one’s reputation as a rapper. As Lisa Lee, a female MC with Cosmic Force made clear in an interview for a 1983 hip hop exposé published in Time magazine, “If you don’t have the right clothes it can give you a bad name. Nobody wants to be with you.”
Even as female artists battle rapped alongside male artists, garnering acclaim and legitimacy within the culture, the imagery of women found on flyer art of the period points to female attractiveness as one of the major driving forces in the social atmosphere of the hip hop party or concert. From cinematic vixens to disco divas, images of girly sex pots were the focal point of many early flyer compositions, which often enticed female partygoers with reduced admission simply for being a woman, or for adhering to the dress code with a particular sexy garment. For event organizers the sight of gorgeous gams and bodies in fitted textiles made for a better social gathering, as phrases on flyers circa 1980 exclaimed, “Ladies wearing shorts $2.00!” or “First 100 ladies free wearing terry cloth suits!” Via party flyer representations of a stylishly clothed female sexuality, hip hop culture set the stage for the emergence of the “Fly Girl,” a distinguished title which crowned the queens of rap during the 1980s.
Cheryl L. Keyes’ theory of social constructions related to females in the hip hop community divides them into four categories in rap music performance: “Queen Mother,” “Fly Girl,” “Sista with Attitude” and “Lesbian.” Naturally, artists within these categorizations often visually distinguish their personas through dress. The rapper Queen Latifah’s regal demeanor, wearing of African textiles, somber colors and modest silhouettes situates her in one of the various roles of Queen Mother, clarifying a message of female primacy with her famously powerful lyrics.
Likewise, for women artists whose lyrical message was less politicized, the alluring distinction of “Fly Girl” was adopted; a title that more explicitly related to a woman whose aim was to beautify the world of hip hop with her well-groomed and modish exterior. Keyes’ defining “fly” characteristics include female rappers in chic clothing, fashionable hairstyles, jewelry and cosmetics, going further to describe “short skirts, sequined fabric, high heeled shoes and prominent makeup,” oftentimes paired with more masculine sportswear elements such as baseball jackets, jogging suit pullovers and hoodies. Keye’s also cites the portrayal of fly girls as powerful, independent, party-goers that existed as “erotic subjects, rather than objectified ones.” Artists creating music in the late 70s and 80s such as Sha Rock of the Funky Four Plus One, Roxanne Shante, Sparky Dee and the ladies of Salt ‘N’ Pepa fit the fly girl persona.
Above all, it was the bright hues, slick styling and intricately decorated exterior of the fly girl in the rap world that was most often represented in early hip hop’s underground marketing. Party flyers, album covers and various other promotional materials used these images to enhance the still developing image of women in hip hop. Every sequin, gold accessory, pair of designer denim, slouchy sports jacket, intricate hairstyle and creative color combination was of critical significance to every performer, on every stage, in every club. It was the battle for style supremacy. Lyrical victory was already a given; the costumes were the thing to make every ladies’ performance perfectly complete.
Cocks, Jay, and Koepp, Stephen. “Chilling Out on Rap Flash: New City Music Brings Out the Last Word in Wild Style.” Time, March 21, 1983, 72-73.
D, Dimples. “Sucker DJs (I Will Survive).” Sucker DJs (I Will Survive). Partytime Records, PT-101, Vinyl, 12″, 1983.
Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female
Identity Via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore, no. 449, 2000, p. 256-260.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.
Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
Sequence. “Funk You Up.” Funk You Up. Sugar Hill Records, SH543, 12” LP, 1979.