Here at BUST HQ, we're super psyched for the return of The Get Down on Netfllix. But since that show is 80% about dudes, it made us think back to an amazing article we ran in 2007 about hip-hop's founding mothers, all of whom deserve to be celebrated and recognized, too. In 'Behind The Music,' writer Sabrina Ford interviewed five women who all helped bring the beat to the street.
Enjoy this longread from the Aug/Sept '07 issue of BUST, and let us know what you think!
Behind The Music
Often decried as hopelessly sexist, hip-hop actually has women to thank for much of its early success. Here, the fierce foremothers who worked behind the scenes reveal how they brought the beat to every street in America.
Monica Lynch knows a hip-hop star when she sees one. There is an indefinable quality, she says, something that just makes people stop and pay attention. “I’ll give you an example,” says the 50-year-old former president of Tommy Boy Records. She goes on to tell the story of a teenager she invited to her office at the suggestion of friends who’d seen the girl perform. “She came in with jeans and a T-shirt and this cute bubble-top hairdo, with no makeup. She had so much presence. She was very smart—she hadn’t traveled outside the tri-state area, but she seemed worldly,” says Lynch. “It was one of those things where you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it.” That was 20 years ago. The girl was Queen Latifah.
Lynch may not be able to pinpoint how she does it, but she has a proven track record of finding and developing talent. Like many of the young hip-hop acts she helped turn into stars in the ’80s and ’90s, Lynch started out in the business with nothing more than a strong work ethic and a love of music, eventually becoming one of hip-hop’s most powerful women. In the 19 years she spent at Tommy Boy, an influential early hip-hop label, Lynch helped launch the careers of major acts, including Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Naughty by Nature, and Biz Markie. And though it might seem counterintuitive to a music genre known for its machismo, Lynch is part of a group of women who were instrumental in catapulting hip-hop from inner-city ethos to pop-culture phenomenon.
Even though the male/female power struggle in rap music has always been present, Lynch and her peers say that the early days of hip-hop were magical times for women looking to make it in the record business. Julie Greenwald, Sylvia Robinson, DJ Jazzy Joyce, Mona Scott, and Claudine Joseph also made their mark on different areas of hip-hop. Greenwald and Robinson, like Lynch, became powerful music executives. For more than 25 years, DJ Jazzy Joyce has been one of the most visible and in-demand female turntablists. And Scott and Joseph have managed the careers of some of the biggest names in hip-hop. “Hip-hop provided a tremendous amount of opportunities for women, which might seem antithetical because of the association that many people have with misogyny and hip-hop,” says Lynch. “There has been a lot of attention paid to misogynist lyrics in hip-hop over the years, and I’m not going to defend or damn it. I think it exists, but some of the people who helped put those records out were women.”
In fact, it was a female record executive, Sylvia Robinson, who was behind the first commercially successful hip-hop release. The story goes that she was looking for the next big thing when she stumbled upon hip-hop. Robinson was already a successful singer and music producer by the time hip-hop appeared. In 1957, as half of Mickey & Sylvia, the R&B duo she formed with her guitar instructor, she had a hit with “Love Is Strange.” By the late ’70s, she had cofounded her second record label with her husband when, looking for something new and different for it, she got her first taste of hip-hop at a Harlem club. That inspired her to put together a rap trio, and one studio session later she had a hit. Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records released the eternal classic “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979.
As the genre took off, many women, some with experience in the business and a lot without, contributed significantly to what would quickly become a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps the most dramatic success story comes from Julie Greenwald, who began working in the industry 15 years ago at the age of 22, just as the movement was exploding. When she got her first job in hip-hop, assisting then-president of Def Jam Lyor Cohen, she thought it would be a summer gig. Greenwald says a couple of months in, she and Cohen “really clicked,” and she knew she’d be sticking around. Cohen promoted her. “Next thing you know,” she says, “he’s like, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a piece of my company if you stay and never leave me.’” It’s the stuff that music industry legends are made of, and it all happened to Greenwald by the age of 25. Greenwald doesn’t discuss specifics, but published reports say she became a millionaire in 1999, when Universal bought Def Jam for 130 million.
Part of the reason women have been more successful in hip-hop than in other genres, says Lynch, has to do with hip-hop’s outsider status. When hip-hop started to evolve, many established record labels and executives chose to ignore it “because hip-hop was sort of a bastard child in terms of the industry at large,” she says. As a result, independent hip-hop labels emerged, and they didn’t have the same old boys’ network as the rock industry. “There wasn’t a template or a precedent for how things were supposed to be,” says Lynch, “so you had a lot of guys who had right-hand people who were women. We didn’t have to go up through the ranks of the rock scene at the major labels, where if you weren’t sitting at the desk outside someone’s office there wasn’t a space for you.”
Greenwald agrees, attributing her rise to the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants spirit that guided the early days of hip-hop. “Anything went—there were no rules, and ignorance was bliss,” she says. “We were all about independent thinking and just attacking the streets with the Def Jam brand.” Greenwald and Cohen were so committed that they would spend whole nights calling The Box, the pay-per-request video network that brought hip-hop videos into homes long before MTV deemed them worthy. They would get the numbers of all local Box stations across the country and spend hours dialing in to request Def Jam videos. “We were the first to jack The Box,” says Greenwald proudly. “We would sit in front of [Cohen’s] television on different phone lines from 10 at night til, like, 3 in the morning.” Within a couple of years, Greenwald was running promotions at Def Jam.
But the way women promoted the music expanded beyond the confines of corporate conference rooms. In 1981, long before hip-hop would be recognized as a cultural force, then-13-year-old Jazzy Joyce was bringing hip-hop to the downtown club-hopping masses. “I was skinny,” recalls the Bronx-bred DJ, “with one-and-a-half milk crates full of records.” She would later spin at legendary clubs the Roxy, Club Cheetah, and Tunnel. At the same time, she was making a name for herself as a mix-tape hawker before the music went digital, spreading the new sound of hip-hop by selling her own collections of popular songs. “Technology wasn’t what it is now,” explains Joyce. “When I was doing the mix-tape thing, it would take me 45 minutes to make one tape, so respect my hustle.” Joyce learned to DJ from a male cousin, which, she says, spared her the hassle of trying to deal with guys who wanted more than a shout-out in return for lessons. She related to the energy of hip-hop. “It was the Reagan era—crack was killing the community like crazy,” she says. “Things were wild. The sights and sounds of hip-hop were so fresh and so incredible.” Joyce, who is now 39 but still looks like a teenager, says she’s proudest of feeling that in some way she has touched the lives of the people who connected with her early spinning and mix-tape productions.
Aside from promoting and producing, some women got their foot in the door helping hip-hop artists gain mainstream appeal, then stayed in the industry to expand the culture even further. Mona Scott, 40, began her career in the late ’80s, working with a firm called Duntori & Company that helped artists develop their performance skills. “It was all about standing on stage and projecting, holding your mic so your voice isn’t muffled, and learning how to stand there without looking petrified,” she says. Through this work she met several hip-hop acts that “didn’t really have any representation,” says Scott. “They were just floating in the label system without any real direction.” Labels began asking Scott to come on board and help manage these acts. She soon became president of Violator Management, where she now oversees the careers of megastars Missy Elliott, LL Cool J, and 50 Cent. Violator also manages many of its clients’ fashion, film, and television projects.
While Scott spends a great deal of her time developing artists’ film and television work (including an upcoming Missy Elliott biopic), her colleague Claudine Joseph, a manager, takes particular pleasure in helping artists develop their look. “Just what you are wearing and how you look is such a big part of the bigger picture,” says Joseph, 32. Joseph graduated from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology 10 years ago and went to work as an assistant for the Wu Tang Clan, which was in the process of launching its clothing line, Wu Wear, at the peak of its success. “The Wu Tang phenomenon was everywhere. [Even] white kids were wearing the W on their shirts,” says Joseph.
Joseph worked with Wu Tang for a year, but once she began working more closely with the group in other ways, like adding creative input to their videos, she realized she’d outgrown her position and the “wack” salary they were paying her. Her next job was as personal assistant to Pras of the Fugees. Joseph brought her love of fashion to that role as well, often styling him for performances and appearances. When she decided to move on seven years ago, she landed at Violator.
Since then, she’s worked with artists like Elliott and LL Cool J. “Working with somebody like LL, whom I hold so much respect for, is like, ‘Wow, I was jamming to your music when I was in college—this is hot!’” says Joseph. Scott says the most exciting part of her job is seeing the impact of her contributions. “I remember the feedback from Missy’s ‘Get Your Freak On’—we hit worldwide with that song,” she recalls. “I remember being in the studio with her, and her saying, ‘What do you think of this?’ and me saying, ‘Oh, I love that—that’s the first single.’”
All the work these women put into the early days of the industry has paid off. Joyce, who now cohosts ladies’ night on New York’s hip-hop station HOT 97, says she didn’t believe DJing would evolve into a career. “I never really thought it out,” she says. “I just compare it to a crackhead and his crack. You never really think about the fact that you’re addicted, you just know you have to keep coming back for that high. The music is my crack.” And Lynch says that when she started in the industry, the idea that hip-hop would go mainstream was unimaginable. “I used to joke around with people like Fab Five Freddy and Russell [Simmons] saying, ‘Oh, my God, can you imagine if in 20 years Run DMC was playing Atlantic City?’ Now that’s a reality.”
By Sabrina Ford
Portraits By Elizabeth Perrin
This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, August/September 2007.
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