Crackin' Nutz 

Women MCs struggle for a place of their own amid the misogyny and violence of gangsta rap.

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The Daughters garnered fans through sheer force of personality. "Tenacity" would be a gross understatement. They were notorious mic hoggers, freestyling at every open-mic event in the Bay Area, standing in the front of the crowd at every Fresh Fest, and always saddled up with pockets full of tapes, ready to give them to anyone they saw. One day CMG saw the West Coast kingpin Paris at a show, and thrust a demo tape in his hands.

"He was like, 'Hmmmmm ... Conscious Daughters,'" she recalls, "I guess the 'Conscious' part got him. He called us the next day and said 'I love your raps. Let me lay some beats for you. '"

Paris recalls, "Of course the name intrigued me. But it was that aggressive style, the emotion and sincerity that came across in their delivery, that attracted me to them. A lot of times people get it twisted and think they're gangsta rap artists, but they're not." He adds that the Daughters' preoccupation with female empowerment "makes their music more than just dope rhymes that talk about boasting."

The result of that love connection was the Daughters' debut album Ear to the Street, part Ice Cube, part Big Mama Thornton, released on Priority in 1993. That year, the album sold more than 200,000 copies, hitting Billboard charts and allowing the Daughters to appear on Soul Train and MTV -- in fact, Special One says the two battled Ice Cube on KMEL's "Make It or Break It," and won. Their slick single, "Something to Ride to (Fonky Expedition)" -- which Paris describes as a G-rated answer to Dr. Dre's "Ain't Nothin' But a G Thang" -- hit national airwaves hard, and soon there was nary a car speaker on the West Coast that didn't reverberate with the song's whomping beat. Although the Daughters congratulate themselves for being harder and more street- oriented than many of their peers in hip-hop, the joint that actually made them famous featured a more positive tip. Void of bullets or sexual references, "Fonky Expedition" was a chilled-out West Coast anthem about rolling through the 'hood, directed more to club DJs than to mobb music audiences, who liked it anyway.

But in 1994, it was easier to be a cool, androgynous homegirl and make it big: Rappers such as Da Brat, MC Lyte, and Conscious Daughters are proof positive that a soft-butch style was marketable back then. Even TLC hadn't yet traded in their backwards baseball caps for satin nighties. "The male rappers we knew treated other women like groupies, but we were never hated on," CMG recalls. "Besides, the fact that someone else was sexist didn't make or break what we were trying to do." Today, artists like Missy Elliot, Rah Digga, and Eve are still working that tough-girl angle, except they tend to be a lot more sexual. The ubiquity of furs, catsuits, and beautiful booty girls in their videos distinguishes these new bombshells from old-school artists like Conscious Daughters, who grounded their image in the fact that they drove nice cars and could kill you -- metaphorically -- on the basketball court. Paris says that image "is not allowed to work anymore. We live in an era where so-called stars like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears are made based on how they look, first."

In other words, these days it's a little harder to pimp your lyrics if you're not also pimping your ass.

Conscious Daughters' tenacity wouldn't have lasted without Paris, who this fall will push them into the limelight again with a new CD, eight years since their last and more than a decade after that mainstream heyday. It's nearly impossible to break into hip-hop without the right connections, and the paucity of resources for female artists usually makes them beholden to an already-established entity -- what some call a male "enabler." The pattern is consistent for virtually all the female MCs who've emerged in the Bay Area in the past two decades. "Often a guy will release a couple albums, get some money, and then decide to put out a female artist as one of his projects," says Robin Harris, who spent 24 years working at Jones and Harris Records in Richmond. "I don't know any women who've come out on their own."

Thus, Oaktown 357 were MC Hammer's "sidekicks." Marvaless came up under C-Bo. Suga T rode on the heels of her brother, E-40. Sonia C is best known as the wife of rapper Master P. And ironically, Female Fonk led the way as protégées of Too $hort, an infamously misogynist rapper responsible for, among other things, popularizing the word Biiiiiiiitch.

This doesn't make the enabler's role necessarily evil or predatory: Conscious Daughters -- hounded for years by Cheshire-cat "investors" who promised success but never followed through -- have nothing but kind words for Paris. "We were a street group that was able to go mainstream because we had the money put behind us," CMG says. "If Marvaless had the money, she would have probably been bigger than us. We had the break, basically."

It's often the case, however, that women who coattail a male rapper end up with little creative control over their own sound or image. Dean, who manages the rising East Bay hip-hop duo the Mamaz, recalls that when the group performed at a female MC showcase at the Oakland Box in March, many of the other participants "looked really hoochied out, which made it obvious that there was a man telling them how to present themselves. Artists who have a female team behind them don't have to come across that way."

The other main shortcoming of relying on a male "enabler" is that all the vicissitudes of his career affect his protégées, too. In 1995, Paris severed his ties with Priority, with which he had merged his own label, Scarface, in 1993, a deal that allowed him to produce records by several artists, including the Daughters. Since the Daughters still had a two-year contract with Priority, they released their sophomore album, Gamers, in 1996, but ended their major distribution deal shortly thereafter because of creative differences: The label wanted to record another album, while the rappers wanted to spend more money on Gamers and release more singles. Special One says they got a comfy five-figure compensation from the label, which lasted three years between the two of them. But then they fell off the map. Paris speculates that after he left the label, the employees who felt passionate about putting out the Daughters were replaced by people who didn't care. "When the Scarface situation dissolved, it was really a result of Priority wanting to exclusively have artists that represented the gangsta mentality, so they weren't equipped to handle the Daughters the way they needed to be presented," he explains. "When you talk about misogyny in hip-hop, it exists on a label level as well."


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