An Atlanta hip-hop cipher 

Transcript: A roundtable between the indie scene's female MCs

On May 22, indie hip-hop artists staHHr, Lyric Jones, Khalilah Ali, Sa-Roc, Adrift da Belle, Boog Brown and roundtable moderator Ms. Dia, of "The Show" on 89.3 (WRFG-FM), gathered at the invitation of Creative Loafing to discuss how their emergence disproves the industry perpetuated myth that female MCs are a dying breed. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

On falling in love with hip-hop and becoming an MC ...

staHHr: I fell in love on the southside of Chicago at a basement party in 1989 when I heard The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, the "Pocahontas" song, and I was like, "It's a wrap. I'm listening to this music forever. He's incredible." And when I decided to pursue it as a career was after seeing a Redman video. And that young man, he did a great service to humanity by letting me find out that he existed. Because I saw him and I was like, that's it. I'm going to do what he's doing, but in this body. 'Cause to me he's a perfect MC. He's a lyricist, he's a storyteller, he freestyles, he produces, he has personality, and he does that conceptual thing. He made me want to rhyme. It wasn't Queen Latifah and it wasn't [any other woman], it was Redman.

Sa-Roc: For me, it was recent because I was into Bjork, I was into Jimi Hendrix, I was into Lenny Kravitz — all that. So actually after I met Sol Messiah, he showed me this movie called Style Wars, which had all the facets of hip-hop in there, and I was just enthralled at the beauty and the whole culture that we created. And that had to be the moment that I said, "I love this." When I said I wanna do this, that took years of being confident enough to actually want to spit something that I had on my mind or wrote. So it literally was like two years ago that I said, "OK, it's time for me to do this."

Lyric Jones: Me falling in love with hip-hop I think started with my dad. I was really big into soul and jazz. I play drums so I was really into singing first. So when I started really getting in love with hip-hop, it was A Tribe Called Quest — my dad would bump them all the time. I would hear those Herbie [Hancock] samples and everything, and then it all just kinda happened. Then there was that, I know I'm about to date myself, but that whole era where all the young artists were coming out, like Bow Wow and Sammie and B2K and all them cats. And I was just around the same age; I was 12. And I was like, "I wanna do that, too. I wanna rap." But when I wanted to start doing it was pretty much my sophomore year in college.

Boog: I fell in love gradually over three albums. Those albums are [Raekwon's] Only Built 4 Cuban Links, [OutKast's] ATLiens, and [Nas'] It Was Written. Those three albums changed my perspective on how to write and how to connect with people over music. I decided I was going to make this my career when I lost my job in 2009. And then I said, "Ok, I need to have some sort of income coming in, and I need something to occupy my time before I drink myself into a stupor." And that's what happened.

Khalilah: I fell in love with hip-hop with Eric B & Rakim, "Microphone Fiend." And I think that was probably the first video I saw when my parents finally got cable. I would say when I started saying I wanted to be an MC, as far as taking it seriously, was when my nephew got killed. 'Cause I don't need this shit, I'm eating well. It's not about eating or paying your bills, I don't give a fuck about that. But we're all going to leave this planet and if this is something that I can do and I can affect some kind of change and have my voice out there and be blessed, it's a duty.

Adrift: I've always been in love with hip-hop. My older cousins always listened to it, so I literally grew up with it. And I would say when I said "Fuck it" was my last job. My boss bought a Porsche, like I had a stellar year and this bitch bought a Porsche. I said, "Oh OK, I've got something else to do." So that's what did it.

On positive male influences and supportive peers within the local scene ...

Boog: When I first came here, I was wack as shit. I won't say wack as shit because I knew how to write always, I just hadn't found my voice yet. But when I got here and I started working on music, Illustrate was the first producer I ever worked with that was like, "Yeah, that shit's dope — redo it." Most of my influences are males just because that's just what I listen to. But I definitely have to credit Illustrate in helping me in my career and helping me to find my way and believing in me before anybody else was — and not trying to fuck me off that.

Sa-Roc: I didn't record anything or want to get serious about rapping until Sol Messiah. Sol Messiah, of course, Atlanta's greatest producer. He made me feel like I was ready to do it. I was like, "Um, here's something I wrote." You know, like practicing, but he was like, "This is good." And his beats and my rhymes, they just go together perfectly. So he was the one who gave me the confidence to actually do it.

But to be honest — and not to take away from any of the dudes that are in Atlanta because there are some dope, dope, dope, dope male MCs in Atlanta — but honestly, staHHr was the first one, when I became serious about rap, I heard her. I saw the "Still Dope" video and I was like, "What? She is crazy!" And then when I met all of these sisters. When I heard their music, it was like iron sharpening iron. I love Boog's voice. Her voice is so silky and crazy. And Lyric's energy and style, and the singing, too. And Khalilah, she comes with it, and Driftee, she's like all hard. When I first saw her perform, we performed at the same event together. I wasn't confident so my voice didn't carry, she didn't have her mouth on the mic and everybody heard her in the room. So every time I see these women perform in any type of way or I see their musical output, I'm always like, "OK."

Lyric: We push each other; we motivate each other.

staHHr: I don't wanna date myself, but I've been here since the early '90s, and the scene is very different now than it was then. But when I first came in and started rhyming, the only female I remember was Divinity and I didn't meet her until like four or five years in. So if it wasn't for the men that were here on this scene — I definitely give it up to people like I Self Divine from the Micronauts, Cult of Icon, Applejac, you know the history, Massinfluence. They were so supportive, that's one thing I can definitely say. During that era, my big brothers were amazing. So to the founding fathers of Atlanta [underground] hip-hop, thank you.

Adrift: I know they're a complex trio, Organized Noize, but before I got here, I was doing my thing in Jersey, doing little shows up and down the seaboard. But when I got here with Ray and I got in the studio with Rico, and we chiefed a lil' something and you sit in that Dungeon for a little while, it's like you said about performing — something takes over you.

And they don't even do the whole, "You can do that better." Whatever. They're the type of people that'll be like, "Oh, you aight with that? You just gon' be average like that?" And you in the room with a whole bunch of dudes and you the only chick, right. They ain't trying to smash, they ain't trying to do none of that. They just like, if you're running with us, you're gonna be the best.

On collaborators with not-so-hidden agendas ...

Dia: What are some of the crazy things people either ask or expect of you all as writers and MCs?

Boog Brown: The damn relationship song.

stahhr: "Oh I got this great concept. See, I'm in the club and you're this girl that's really outta my league." I'm like, I am intelligent. I can't do that. How about quantum physics or, you know, the spiritual realm. Don't put me in a box. I watch "Star Trek," too.

Boog: Or they try to holler at you. And then they get mad and don't want to work with you no more because you're not trying to hear it like that. And it really is always disguised as this: "Let's collabo. We gotta work. Let me get your number." And then you're calling me, but you're calling me on some next and not calling me on no business.

Khalilah: Or even having your music held hostage. I've had that happen, where I don't have a project 'cause my music is being held hostage right now, on some, "So, what up, ma?"

Naw, what up with the music? But you really don't think people that you're cool with and you spent hours and hours creating with are gonna go there with you. Even though it's happened a billion times, you say, "Not this dude, 'cause we've talked about this." And inevitably, it just comes out. And to some degree it has stunted me because I don't have dough to be up in the studio. Now, [I'll set aside] $500. I will pay a stranger before I go through this again because of being in these situations and you just can't get your music. And that's messed up, because they don't do that to each other.

Adrift: Sometimes I think we're kinda being hard on the fellas. I get a lot of dope tracks from dudes, and in my case they want to hear my verse first. And I know that happens to y'all, you know on some, "I don't want you to outdo me."

Khalilah: Or they'll rewrite their verse after hearing yours.

Adrift: Yeah, and that's corny. Or they won't release the song like you said and your music's hijacked.

StaHHr and Sa-Roc - JOEFF DAVIS

On the creative process ...

Boog: I wrote Brown Study in like three months, and I was like, "Oh my God, I hate this album." I couldn't listen to it for six months. I hated it. I was just bitching and complaining and moaning and shit, and I actually stopped and listened to it, and I said, "This is where I'm at right now." I'm not mad at that album now. I don't have children, I've never had children, but I kinda liken it to kind of a post-partum depression.

Sa-Roc: That's deep.

Boog: After you have a child, you can't connect with it because you don't know where that connection is. I watched my sister go through that, which is why I'm using that as a point of reference. But to see it now and to feel so proud of it — I didn't think anybody would like it. I was so scared that nobody would fuck with me. I've only been rhyming for like six years. I just jumped into this shit and hoped for the best, flailing around and everything. God threw me a life raft and here I am, floating about.

Sa-Roc: My last [album], Journey of the Starseed, I really took my time with that one. It basically was a representation of my journey coming into confidence as a woman. Also my metaphysical journey of me coming from the ether and manifesting here on a physical realm, and what that process was like and what my process was like becoming an MC. Because I'm still learning, I'm still trying to be completely secure with myself and my skills. So you can hear a lot of that on the album and songs I was more personal with. It just feels weird to put out music though.

Boog: I know, right.

Sa-Roc: Like Boog said, I haven't been doing this for a long time. I've been doing this for like three years. So I have a new album coming out, Ether Wars. And this is the one I feel like, OK, I'm ready. I'm excited about it. The other two I was like, "Um, are they gonna like me? Are they gonna like what I'm saying? Do I sound good? Is my voice too heavy? Do I sound too hard? Do I need to be more soft?" — like I was questioning everything I did. But that's all the journey, and I'm still on the journey, but once I got to a certain point I'm ready to battle and that's kinda what it's about.

stahhr: I'm going through a lot of transformation just as a woman, and that has been really good for my music. Which is bittersweet 'cause its like, 'Why I gotta go through all this?' But the music's really good, so I have metamorphosed quite a good bit over the past couple of years. I am a mommy, and I do feel like this is a pregnancy/giving-birth process as well with [my new album, Mother Ntr with a Molotov]. This is a hard pregnancy. But when the baby comes it's gonna be all worth it.

On performing live and overcoming stage fright ...

Adrift: For me, it's kinda like therapy. Because you go through so much in your life, period. Then you get a chance to get on stage, you just release. So that's one part of it. The fearlessness for me comes from growing up, having all kinds of insecurities and issues and growing into myself as a woman and being comfortable with myself. So when I get on stage I'm like, "This [is] me. What?" And that's where the beast comes from. I like that word.

Khalilah: I sometimes don't feel like it's me there.

Dia: Like your Sasha Fierce?

Khalilah: It's not even as an alter ego. It's me, but maybe a higher me. I don't know, but I feel like something comes over me. I don't' know if you call it the Holy Spirit, Egun, I don't know what name you give it but something occurs and its just a spiritual experience.

Boog: I think a part of it is nerves for me, to be quite honest. The only thing I'm battling on stage is my nerves, and that's it. 'Cause I get shook every time before I hit the stage, every single time and it never fails. And it's like I have to find a way to center myself and balance. And then if I had a shitty day, it's coming out on the stage. And if I had a great day, it's coming out on the stage. It's just gonna translate the way that it needs to, however the day has been for me. It doesn't matter what the crowd is doing. I don't care who's there or what kinda energy they got or need or whatever. Because it's up to me to channel that and make it about me. 'Cause at that point, I'm there to do my job and if I don't do my job then the audience won't do theirs. That's where that comes from with me.

On the pros and cons of all-female shows ...

Dia: I know a lot of y'all can't stand getting those phone calls, because I will be the first one to call y'all like, "Hey, I wanna do an all girls show."

All: [Laughing]

Dia: But it's not to put you all in a box and, obviously, I will call y'all for other things, too. But there is something special that happens at every show that is an all-female show.

Adrift: The last one we did, that one was dope. I wasn't expecting that.

Boog: Oh yeah, ya'll did crazy that night. Everybody rocked.

Lyric: I like doing female shows, 'cause I do a lot of shows where I'm always that one token chick on the show. So I don't dislike it because I feel like we're dope. I mean, you see all-male shows, why not do an all-female show?

Boog: But it'll be so many people that focus on somebody's vagina it's like if you can stop focusing on that and just — you always wanna talk about "Oh yeah, I'm dope. I wanna be considered a dope MC because I'm a dope MC." And it's like, well, you don't wanna rock with everybody. Integrate yourself. If you wanna be considered an MC, you rock wherever they tell you to rock. And you rock that shit. And you let muthafuckas know. Not just because, "Oh yeah, I'm a girl and I'm about to be on the mic. And I like to shake my booty." Shake ya ass, cause I like shakin' my ass. So it's not about not being a woman and doing what you do. It's about you don't have to knock somebody out with that shit. We know. We see you clearly on the stage, you're a woman. So, rock the fucking show.

That's the only thing I don't like, when [sisters] try to downplay the brothers and shit. I like men being at my shows.

Sa-Roc: They buy CDs.

Boog: They buy CDs, they buy drinks, they buy T-shirts. Invite everybody, is what I'm saying.

On the topics missing from rap today ...

Dia: What are some of the topics that you all feel are necessary to rap about in these times?

Khalilah: This wicked ass capitalist system.

staHHr: Nationality and birth rights.

Lyric: Motherhood

Sa-Roc: For me, elevation, in all senses of the word, is important. In hip-hop — of course, I'm not trying to pigeonhole or make a general statement — but a lot of times we're dealing with some real base stuff. So in order for my growth, I speak about a lot of metaphysical concepts, ways to elevate yourself spiritually. 'Cause I think now is the time. We're being bogged down by so much negativity, so many distractions that keep us from rising to our higher selves. So that's one of the main themes in anything that I write.

Lyric: It's always dope when you have your perspective, when you have your story, because nobody's gonna have a Lyric Jones story. Nobody's gonna have any of these ladies' stories. So that's what sells records, storytelling. And actually being able to connect with your audience, connect with your fan base.

Boog: And I think that's where that vulnerability comes through, like I think people are so caught up in the image that they are trying to portray that they don't allow themselves to be human. That's the most important thing. I'm not listening to your music if I can't connect with you on a human level. Even if you're talking about 'Drop it like it's hot.' Sometimes with my boo I wanna drop it like its hot, you know what I'm saying.

All: [Laughs]

Boog: You gotta be honest, let yourself be vulnerable. You're a person first, you're not an image. You're not some inanimate object talking about, "I'm a rapper." And if you are, then you're a rapper. We here are MCs. And I think that's the thing that's different — because these women are women. I don't ever look at them and [think] that's not a woman walking there, that's not a person walking there. That's not a spirit that I can connect to. I know I've cried on many of these women's shoulders. I have feelings; I am a person. And I can relate to it on any level as long as it's honest.

Khalilah: But there are some folks playing characters. When you're trying to market a product, then you're gonna see these characters and caricatures. And the product is: "I'm a rapper." "This is what my image is." "I'm trying to sell this many units." Then you're a product. You're no different than anything. You're a brand. You ain't shit. But if you're an MC, it's not necessarily about the product — it is about the product, but —

Boog: It's some commodities exchanged.

Khalilah: But it's gotta be balanced. For me I have an image, right. And when people think Khalilah Ali, I want them to think certain things about me, and my music needs to reflect that. That's just defining who you are and where you fit, right? But when it gets down to [the point] where it ends and begins at the brand, and you start pulling back, and stripping, and taking off your wigs and your shiny shit, then you're nothing — you're not even a good rapper.

Adrift: But we're indie, so we can do whatever we want.

Boog Brown, Khalilah Ali, and Adrift Da Belle - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Boog Brown, Khalilah Ali, and Adrift Da Belle

On being independent versus going mainstream, and establishing an artistic identity ...

Dia: So have you all felt any pressure? Because as female MCs it seems like we either say we have the ho type or either we have the extra tough —

Boog: I just have the hardest time trying to figure out branding, because it's not something that I've thought about. It's kinda like I stumbled upon this. I lost my job and I was like, "Damn, let me see if this music shit works." And it just kinda happened from there. So the rest of it is just kinda falling into place where it may.

Adrift: I get a lotta pressure. I got a lot of people coming at me, like, "Driftee, you're so pretty. You could do this, you could do that." People don't know, but before I came [to Atlanta] I was being looked at by Def Jam [Records]. I was being looked at by [50 Cent's] G-Unit. And the trade off was, be Nicki Minaj. And I was like, "Fuck that, I got a little sister." So like I was saying, as an indie artist I'm gonna do what the fuck I want to do.

Lyric: But I want to be able to get to a mainstream level and do what the fuck I wanna do.

stahhr: When you get mainstream, you are not gonna have more control. Because if that was the case then why would all these mainstream rappers still keep doing the same regurgitated thing?

Boog: I will say as artists, like if you look at Erykah Badu, she does what the fuck she wants to do.

Khalilah: But she came out like that. That's how she started. So you've gotta figure out who you're going to be.

Boog: She started with the headwrap and the locs and everything, and then next thing you know she's walking down Houston Street with her ass out.

Lyric: She's hip-hop.

stahhr: Hip-hop eats its young and disrespects its elders. That's just my opinion. Maybe I'm a little bit older, maybe I might be a little bit bitter. I just think as an indie artist I have way more leeway than I would ever have as a mainstream artist.

Lyric: I feel like people are scared of change. I'm not really afraid of change. I'm willing to adapt to my surroundings; I can be a chameleon in that situation. What separates indie and mainstream is, I guess, the idea that you can't do what you want to do. Because I think historically female MCs have not even really pushed their side of the table, like, "Look, this is what I'm gonna do, and if you wanna sign me this is who I'm gonna be."

On thinking major as independent artists ...

Boog: The biggest separation is the thought process. That's the only thing that separates you from big and little.

Lyric: Right, you think mainstream and you think one type of thing.

Adrift: But why are we thinking mainstream artists vs. indie? Stop that. It's your thought process.

Lyric: Why can't it just be music?

Dia: And be successful, because indie artists are making money.

Boog: It's your definition of success, and your definition of what an indie artist is.

Sa-Roc: People look at you like you're a sell-out if you decide to go bigger. "Oh, you about to get a deal?" It's like automatically a deal with the devil.

Lyric: It's a deal-breaker.

Sa-Roc: And I'm like, this is love but it's also about commerce. It's also about numbers.

Lyric: All this is numbers. But it's [also] about you as the artist and when you're gonna say, "Stop. This is what I'm gonna do and what I'm not gonna do." And that just falls in the line of your creative genius.

Khalilah: But let's not be naïve about the industry we're dealing in. Its wicked, wicked, wicked, and the more you deal in it — I'm 20 years in, this is 20 years here. I've had a million different names, a million different incarnations, a million different outfits, a million different hairstyles. I've been everybody and anybody. I used to be with [Erick Sermon's] Def Squad when I was younger, so I went through all these transitions. And if anything I learned that I don't want to be with them 'cause they're wicked and they're evil. And I'm telling you, there's an evil you can't even conceive of 'cause the industry is built on "How can I manipulate people?" And as an artist, we're often at the bottom of the totem pole.

The beauty of being an independent artist is you don't have to be at the bottom of the totem pole. You can make a million dollars. I can make a million dollars, if I did the right thing, quicker than Waka Flocka, to be honest, as an unsigned MC. What we don't do is we don't look at our shit as a product, as a commodity, as a business. So in that we fail, we often fail.

Lyric: We're powerful ... nobody does split sheets, when we do shows there's no bread being broken. We're damaging ourselves sometimes.

Boog: But that's what I was saying about standards. Your mind-set has to be in the right place. You have to have your own standards set. You can't let nobody come in and be infiltrating you up here because then you'll do anything for any reason, for anybody. And that shit is not cool.

Adrift: Now what you're saying, why couldn't you as an indie artist break into the mainstream if that's your mind-set.

Boog: That is my mind-set.

Lyric: We can.

Adrift: What I'm not getting about the conversation is y'all saying it's not possible. You look at Rick Ross. Rick Ross is a liar, right. He's been rapping about the same thing since he came out.

Lyric: He used to be a cop, right.

Adrift: He was a CO [correctional officer], so he was underground before he became mainstream. It's possible. It's just, we put ourselves in this female box sometimes ourselves. We know we're not men. We know that. I'm sorry dudes, we're kinda smarter than y'all. We need to start using that. Because for me, I got people diggin' me because of me. It's like selling crack: If I got that 2-for-5 and everybody's coming back for that 2-for-5, I'm taking over every city. And then that's mainstream right there; they gotta come to you.

On marketing oneself without compromising artistic values ...

Lyric: Has everybody done a video already? 'Cause I'm actually working on my first video.

Boog: All I can say is, don't let nobody put no busted ass pictures of you out when you're putting out a project. That shit will fuck your whole shit up.

Stahhr: Right. And I agree with you a hundred percent. The visual component, for a woman, the way that you are visually represented is so important.

Dia: Now Adrift, MTV contacted you about your "Cheeba Cheeba" video. Tell us how that happened.

Adrift: They just emailed me and were like, "Would you like to be on [the show] RapFix with [show host] Sway and Waka Flocka?" And I was like, "Sure."

Dia: I got a chance to see the footage and Waka Flocka made a [suggestion] to you similar to what we were discussing earlier about [artistic] identity. How did you respond to that?

Adrift: He was absolutely right. My team and I are actually working on that. No disrespect to y'all, I love y'all, y'all don't wanna be mainstream that's cool. But I want some money, so that's what we're working on.

Boog: I want some money, too!

stahhr: I just don't wanna have to sell my soul.

Adrift: I don't' mean it like that.

stahhr: Can I be mainstream in a way that I control?

Adrift: Yeah, that's what I mean. Be mainstream and control it.

stahhr: Can I be mainstream and say, "We're all Moors, declare your Moorish nationality now!" If the mainstream will let me do that, I'm with it. If I can be like, 'Be a vegan, don't eat meat.' I'll do that. Absolutely, all day.

More: Beats, rhymes and rap's gender gap
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