Female hip-hop artists have – arguably – had a much harder time commanding the respect they deserve in hip-hop. It’s no fault of their own, but rather that of the old boys club structure that, although accommodating, was somewhat slanted towards male counterparts. Indeed, it’s impossible not to argue that the golden era of hip-hop only had a small handful of notable female voices. Names like Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Salt-N-Pepa, and Mc Lyte all saw success in the early 90’s. However, as hip-hop grew, [some] female rappers started to become less artistic, and more strategic (marketing wise).
Although still solid pillars of the culture, they relied on sexuality (and behind the scenes influence) to stand out as the prominent female member of their click — as if merely being a woman wasn’t enough. Not all artists prescribed to this recipe, though. One notable name that went against the grain was Bahamadia, straight out of the city of brotherly love, which has a long history of churning out successful hip-hop figures.
Discovered by the late Guru, Bahamadia was an MC in the purest form — all bars, and doing what she was born to do. She’s not a female MC; she’s an MC, period. Her classic album, Kollage, which featured production credits from the likes of DJ Premier and Erick Sermon (amongst others), is celebrating 20 years this month — and it holds up. We recently spoke with Bahamadia, who shared some background on her classic debut, lessons learned from Guru and more. Check out the interview below.
So, you were part of the Gang Starr foundation, right?
Yeah, I was under Guru’s Tutelage…
Okay, so that’s interesting. You’re under Guru’s tutelage. How did he guide you, or how did he help influence Kollage? How’d you connect with him?
Well, I had a [regional] hit out in ’93 called Funk Vibe that me and another producer out here at the time, named DJ Randy, who was one of the leading DJs on Philadelphia commercial radio. Through a friend, I found out he was searching for a female vocalist at the time. He reached out over the phone, I got with him, and the next thing you know I’m in the studio. Funk Vibe was released on a label called IQ Records and began to chart. From there, the who’s who of people, names like Dr. Dre, were all interested in signing me — based on this one single.
It just happened that a friend of my sister was dating Guru at the time. I found out about it, and got this friend to take a tape to the girl; she passed it along — and he liked it. I was already a fan of Gang Starr and felt that would be the best fit for me at the time. The rest has been what it has been.
What was the process like, putting together Kollage?
You know people go in the studio, and they do songs for an album, and they might do 50 to 100 songs. They pick the best out and narrow it down to what will be considered for the project. Well, every song I did for Kollage, I never had any surplus material, so everything that I did went on the record. Guru and I got in the studio and recorded, and I thought that was going to be a batch of songs, but the next thing I know it had led to a video and all this kind of stuff. It snowballed into touring with the Fugees and… you know, so that’s how that happened.
I felt like I was at home when I met Premier and everybody that was in the studio — we just gelled, and it unfolded on its own. You know how sometimes you may be a part of something and, in hindsight, it wound up being something monumental?
You know, I think every great thing that ever happened to someone was like that. I don’t think people ever stop and say, hmm, this is monumental!
I’ve been in a dream state ever since l started professionally, honestly. Haha. It’s crazy. And you never, like, you’re never not famous to somebody — you think you’re under the radar for years, somebody at the supermarket, somebody at the airport, somebody’s on you, like “Yo!”
Absolutely. And you had a lot of features too like you popped up on a lot of records randomly. The first time I heard you as an artist was the record “Ladies in the House.”
That was real dope. It was dope. That was a fun record. I experienced first hand in the early days that a lot of stuff used to be staged — it was all political, like marketing you know? Strategies and things like that; but, all my stuff ended up being organic. I only work with people that I have a connection with, and I’m natural with, you know, so, that’s the way I approach my music [even today].
I don’t create unless I’m inspired by something. I’m disciplined to write and create on the spot, but, I prefer to do it organically, you know? Because that makes it art, to me.
Did you find any pressure around that? In you early days, a lot of female MCs were using their sexuality to sell records. Did you have any label pressure to keep up?
First of all, I don’t consider myself to be a female MC. I’m an artist number one. Secondly, I don’t feel pressure about something I was built to do. I didn’t have any restraints and was afforded the luxury of navigating my path regarding what I do, and who I collaborate with. When it comes to me feeling pressured about something that I was born to do—no.
Never pressure, because I don’t measure my performance by any standards except for the one I’ve been given, but that’s the way I look at things.
I love that, because female MCs became such a focal point in rap crews, and it just got…I was like they wanted people to be hyper-aware that they were women. I never felt that about you. You were just a lyricist.
My approach had never been that because when I came out, I mean of course you knew I was a woman — and you can look at me when I show up and know that I’m African-American, too.
Let’s get down to the bottom line which is the talent, the art, and the message in the music. I’m not even concerned about reaching a target audience, just reaching people that get what I’m doing, and that gravitate towards what I do. That’s the way it is for me. I mean the female thing, though, I guess that’s a business in music. That’s not the culture in hip hop. I’m an organic, authentic hip-hopper so…
Absolutely. I mean that era was right on the cusp, you know what I’m saying? Hip-hop got bigger and reached extreme heights, so business took over.
Everything was still developing at that time. When I came on as a solo artist, a solo female, I didn’t even know that the majority of women that were in the music industry at that time, especially from the traditional hip-hop standpoint, didn’t pen lyrics. I thought that everybody wrote their lyrics … all the men did their lyrics, all the women did their lyrics. You know, I didn’t know that. When I realized it was structured as a business like R&B and all the other genres, I was like wow, okay.
So that being said, I didn’t have any influence because Guru and them, they gave me knowledge regarding the business I was doing and taught me not to compromise my art. He taught me things like not letting anybody put a time restraint on when I should put music out. He told me all that stuff about publishing; making sure my publishing was straight. All those things.
Just being afforded the opportunity to express me in an organic place is just… I don’t have a lot of words for it. A lot of women were used as a novelty in this game; you know what I mean? A majority of them had men behind them, and they were using them just to articulate a vision or an idea or concept they had [as men], having them express themselves the way they think women ‘should’ express themselves. My experience came from a different place—I was talking about parenting, a lot of different things that was like…people weren’t really in touch with those topics at that time. And again, that was just me doing me; art is an expression of life — and I feel like that’s why I was just talking about the things that I know from my heart, you know? So that’s how that happened.
So what are you working on now?
I’m into app development a little bit, and I have a series that I do strictly on my phone. As well, the 20-year anniversary thing is coming up; and [at the universal hip hop museum] we’re having our first event celebrating women’s contribution to hip hop, in the industry, and in the culture. That’s starting June 3rd.