Trailer for My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop (2010)
While making the documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip Hop, which premieres on BET tonight at 10pm, what surprised director Ava DuVernay most was "the vulnerability of the women," citing one in particular, the Lady of Rage. "You think of emcees as invincible on the mic and my view of Lady of Rage is always in "Afro Puffs" [video below] and she's got her leather jacket, and she's grabbing the mic, and she's killing it, and Snoop's to the right and Dre's to the left," said the LA based director, who herself started out as an emcee. "But then when you sit down with her [Lady of Rage] she's just, she's a woman. She's a sweet, kind of vulnerable artist who talks about her journey in a really transparent, beautiful way. And I found that again and again and again, whether it was Salt n Pepa or [MC] Lyte or YoYo or Rah Digga, that they are emcees but they are also women. So it was really just sitting down woman to woman and having some really great conversations and I think I was surprised by that. I was more prepared for the emcee side but I saw more of the sister side."
As a filmmaker, DuVernay came to critical acclaim with her 2008 feature debut, the documentary about the Good Life cafe in LA where coincidentally she began her own hip-hop career on the mic. Titled This is the Life, the excellent documentary won a slew of awards at various film festivals, was released theatrically, played on Showtime, and was one of the featured films in last year's Amoeba Music Monday Movies series at Space 15Twenty near the LA Amoeba store. The success of This is the Life led to many things for DuVernay, including her two-hour concert documentary on New Orleans' Essence Music Festival that aired on TV One over the weekend, and tonight's BET documentary, which includes interviews with such artists as Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, Trina, The Poetess, Roxanne Shante, Salt n Pepa, Eve, YoYo, Lady of Rage, Jean Grae, and Rah Digga.
For My Mic Sounds Nice the director also interviewed numerous academics, executives and industry insiders including Russell Simmons, Questlove, Kevin Liles, Swizz Beatz, Joan Morgan, Smokey Fontaine, and Aliya King. "I shot 45 hours of footage and literally had to fit it all into 41 minutes of a network special, so there is a lot more of the story there to tell. But we tried to basically give an overview to the people that watch BET and other folks too," said DuVernay. BET will also be streaming a lot of the extra footage in video clips on their website, starting at the same time My Mic Sounds Nice premieres tonight (10pm, August 30th).
"It's like a reminder that female emcees were here, that they're not extinct, and kind of a trajectory," said DuVernay of the goal of her documentary. "I mean, we go all the way through from Mercedes Ladies [Bronx female rap trio that formed in 1976, are widely recognized as the original female rap crew and had many gigs but didn't record] to [contemporary Young Money artist] Nicki Minaj. And we talk about the most commercially successful women like Missy Elliot or Lauryn Hill to the sisters who are on the underground right now like Tiye Phoenix or Jean Grae. So we try to give an overview of female emcees but it is in no way the end all, be all and I really hope that other people and other documentarians find it interesting and really dig a little deeper."
When I caught up with DuVernay by phone the other day she told me that the decision to make this documentary came about as a sort of continuation of her Good Life documentary and also due to the fact that she herself, as a female hip-hop artist, is an example of the subject matter of My Mic Sounds Nice. "Once a female emcee, always a female emcee," she laughed. "So I had always had the idea in my head to do something kind of documenting the culture and the realities of sisters on the mic. BET had actually approached me about developing something for them and so it became kind of a nice marriage of them wanting to do this first original music documentary and me being interested in this whole world of the female emcee."
Note that in their 30 year history My Mic Sounds Nice will be the network's very first original music documentary. For a relatively short documentary the film still manages to examine many important aspects of its subject such as gender-specific differences in artistry, marketing, promotion and economics, and why there are (and always have been) far fewer female than male emcees.
One of the areas explored in the making of tonight's documentary is the lyrical content of female emcees' music. "One thing we asked was what do men want to hear lyrically? What does a woman have to say in her lyrical content that men are interested in listening to?" said DuVernay. "That was a discussion and that was a debate and different people had different answers and conclusions about that. For example a Lauryn Hill album is not for men. A Lauryn Hill album [1998's number one LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] is for women but it was so unmistakably good that men started to pick it up and listen to it too because it was so remarkable. But the lyrical content was directed towards other women. And that was the most successful female rap album. So the question arises, should women try to cater to men in their lyrics or should they just speak what's on their mind?" While this question was explored and recorded for the documentary, due to time restrictions, it will not be in the final cut tonight. However, like a lot of other key out-takes, it will be streamed on bet.com. "There's a lot of stuff that's gonna be on bet.com that did not make it into the main broadcast."
An artist who did make the final broadcast cut of tonight's documentary is Roxanne Shante. "This [documentary] was a long time coming and I felt so comfortable sitting across from Ava, having her ask me questions, and feeling the need to be so truthful and so open with her. She just made it so comfortable to get the truth out there," said Roxanne Shante about DuVernay in an interview I did with her on WFMU a few days ago.
The artist, who came to fame at the young age of 14 with the Marley Marl produced "Roxanne's Revenge," also talked about the type of person it takes to be a female in the male dominated rap world. "It's a special breed of woman who can become a female emcee," she said. "And ... that is the reason why we don't have so many, because it's not something you can become automatically. I think it has a lot to do with your calling. It has a lot to do with your strength and your background, and the fact of whether or not you are cut out for it as a woman."
One of key differences in the industry's treatment of women is in marketing dollars. "There is just more money put into male artists it seems and while we couldn't get anyone to go on record with that, our research showed that [for] an album or a record that's being pushed by a label there are more dollars allocated to the marketing of that record for men than [for] women," said DuVernay, adding that generally speaking the prevalent imaging of women is a decidedly sexual one. "They put women out as these hyper-sexual beings and then in order to create that hyper-sexual being, a lot of money has to go into that. Those images are not real images of everyday women. They are fantasy and it takes money to create that hair, that makeup, that body, that outfit, that whatever, and it is a cyclical kind of evil cycle," she said. "There is nothing necessarily wrong with a hyper-sexual image of a woman but we just need some balance and I look forward to the day when we regain some balance, like in the 90's when you would have a hyper-sexual [Lil] Kim or Foxy [Brown] but then you would also have a Lauryn [Hill] or a Bahamadia or a Conscious Daughters or a Queen Pen. There was just more balance. And I think that's what we're missing now."
Another thing missing nowadays is the amount of female emcees signed to major labels. "There were about 45 women hip-hop artists signed to major labels in the early nineties who were touring, making videos, and recording, compared to now, 2010, when there are only three women signed to major labels," noted DuVernay. "That's a huge drop off but it is indicative of the change in the industry. But those ratios and percentages married over to the number of drop offs in men. It's just that there were more of them to begin with."
But DuVernay did not come away feeling negative after making this documentary. She said that her extensive research showed that the underground female hip-hop world is very much in a healthy state. "We have a section in the documentary about underground emcees and we found scores of women in almost every major market that are really grinding it out, really doing it, really have a name for themselves in their city -- some that are known nationally, some that tour. There was a big female emcee showcase at South by Southwest this year that was packed and hugely successful," she said.
"We found that [underground female hip-hop] was thriving. And from being an underground emcee back in the nineties I couldn't think how many emcees were out there doing it in the different cities because we weren't connected like now. The Internet wasn't as prevalent. People didn't know about each other unless you happened to cross each other in a show. But these sisters today are really connected. It is a really vibrant community of women on the underground." And as with good hip-hop made by males, the key to finding good female hip-hop is similar, said DuVernay. "The answer to where are the good female emcees today? They're there. You just have to look for them. They're not on the radio but they're still on the mic!"
If you miss watching the film on its original airdate, click here to watch on BET.com or look for reairing times.
Lady of Rage "Afro Puffs" (1994)