There is a scene in Roxanne Roxanne--Netflix’s uncompromising biopic detailing the triumphant and at times painful rise of hip-hop’s first high-profile female emcee, Roxanne Shanté--that perfectly captures the ferocity and brilliance of the then 14-year-old rhyme prodigy. It’s 1984, and the fearless native of the infamous Queensbridge, New York, projects demolishes a disrespectful, pestering young boy in a battle rap, in braces and rocking a ponytail. The trouncing cleverly segues into a showdown against a bewildered, older male emcee whose face looks like he has just heard the voice of a goddess.
“I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you/You ain’t sh-t around the way, I’m fly global/Another hard rap, you all on my bra strap/You step to me and all you get is a hard slap…” rips Shanté, who collects $250 in winnings after another lyrical slaying. The film stars transformative newcomer Chanté Adams as the first pioneering solo Queen of Rap, whose 1985 gold debut single, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a response record to UTFO’s classic “Roxanne Roxanne” (1984), paved the way for a legion of female rappers from Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah and Yo-Yo to the Da Brat, Gangsta Boo, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.
Backed by future super producer Marley Marl, Lolita Shanté Gooden found herself at the center of the “Roxanne wars,” spawning a string of more than 50 answer-back records highlighted by “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne, You’re Through),” “The Real Roxanne” and “Do The Roxanne.” Critics labeled the craze as pure novelty, an undeserving tag that hip-hop constantly fought early on in its commercial development.
Indeed, Roxanne Shanté would go on to have a seismic-shifting effect, not only laying the foundation for the influential Cold Chillin’ Records, but setting the stage for the Juice Crew rhyme collective that also included Marley, MC Shan, Master Ace, Biz Markie, Craig G., Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. Hip-hop, as it is today, was a testosterone-driven game throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And yet Roxanne Shanté managed to more than have her say, taking on everyone from Boogie Down Productions (Shanté was singled out on KRS-One’s landmark 1987 diss track “The Bridge Is Over”), Kurtis Blow, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J.
Of course, don’t take our word for it. Here are five songs that personify the witty, cocky and at times profane rhyme presence of a woman who single-handedly changed the culture. All hail Roxanne Shanté.
“Rhymes are hand made/Black man made/Coming out of a war with just a Band-Aid/Fans make me number 1 so I get in reverse/Try to rehearse every verse, my rhymes are cursed…”
Shanté takes the mic and beats down opposing emcees over a club-ready track that samples a glorious riff and drum break from Booker T & The M.G.’s 1971 instrumental “Melting Pot.” That year her Juice Crew cohort Big Daddy Kane used the same groove for his lyrical assault “Another Victory.” Not bad company, huh?
“Matter of fact, yo, I'mma start calling off names/First up is Latifah/ You roll up, and I’mma smoke that a-- like reefer/’Cause you ain’t never in life been a star to me/Sold the f--- out trying to go R&B/Now that shit is shady/You say ladies first, well I’m the first lady.”
In the age of gangsta rap, it made perfect sense that Shanté would name her 1992 album The Bitch Is Back. The provocative title also signaled a harder, more explicit turn for an artist who was already cursing on record before she turned 16 a decade before Lil Kim shocked the world. Who has time for subliminal lyrics when you can just snatch wigs and worry about the fallout later? Not only does Shanté go after Queen Latifah, but she launches savage verbal grenades at Monie Love, MC Lyte, and Yo-Yo, saving a more respectful glancing blow at Salt-N-Pepa. Hey, she is a lady after all.
“Now I’m not out to diss the whole Boogie Down/Just a featherweight crew from that part of town/You made a little record and then you start fronting/Tried to diss the Juice Crew, but ain’t hurt nothing/No KRS-One, you should go on vacation/With that name sound like a wack radio station.”
Roxanne Shanté finally answers BDP, complete with laugh-inducing punchlines. While most fans saw the retort at the Blast Master as way too fashionably late, the rhyme mistress also managed to put female emcees on notice: “So when it comes around to the month of May send me your royalty check for Mother’s Day.”
“While you were over here perpetrating the fraud, I was oversees on the charts with Boy George/You’re the beginner, Shante's the winner/Having all the competition for dinner/Sit you on a table with a plate and cup, say Grace…and then eat you’re a-- up.”
A comeback record of sorts for the “Roxanne Roxanne” empress, “Go On Girl” increases the beats per minute and gets down to business. And for her chest-beating return, Shanté could not have asked for a more high profile platform, garnering a spot on the gold-selling soundtrack for the Los Angeles gang film Colors, which also featured Ice T’s monumental title track.
“So don't honk your horn keep rolling/No I don't wanna ride cause the shit might be stolen/Anyway, I know your number/You got a Gas, grass, or ass” sticker on your bumper/Go ahead and say I'm stuck up/Cause I ain't doing nothing that'll make my rep f---ed up.”
Roxanne Shanté was more than just a battle rapper, as she shows on his cautionary statement that warns young women to stay empowered and watch out for dudes up to no good. Sure “Brothers Ain’t Sh-t’s” scathing lyrics would give nightmares to any radio programmer and He-Man Woman Hating Club members. But that’s the point. Shanté was simply turning the tables on her male peers. Bravo, sis.