13 Dec

Neneh Cherry: ‘Rap is a kind of freedom’

British female rappers, left to right: Estelle, Ms Dynamite, Neneh Cherry, Flohio, Cassie Rytz. Composite: Atlantic Records, Redferns, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Lillie Eiger

Thirty years after her debut, the singer recalls how hip-hop broke the mould for British women – and we chart the rappers that followed in her path, from Cookie Crew to Cassie Rytz

by Jude Rogers | The Guardian/Observer

One of BBC Four’s recent Top of the Pops reruns from the late 1980s features a performance that many of us who were young girls at the time vividly remember. It was the debut in 1988 of an exhilarating, in-your-face artist, slotted between the soft seasonal balms of Freiheit’s Keeping the Dream Alive and Kylie and Jason’s Especially for You. She was 24, visibly pregnant, dancing in a gold bra, gold jacket and huge medallion, and doing something else that felt revolutionary: rapping.

The next day, our school playground filled with little girls delivering words into one another’s faces that they didn’t quite understand, trying to get the rhythms right. It didn’t matter: Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance, and its attitude, had entered our world. Cherry was by no means the first female rapper with a distinctly British style – there had been several female duos and groups before her – but that uncompromising, joyous, performance can be seen now as the moment mainstream pop opened up to artists like her, and laid the groundwork for the next three decades of solo female MCs.

Raw Like Sushi, Cherry’s debut album, went platinum the following summer; a long-overdue glossy reissue arrives this month to mark, belatedly, its 30th anniversary. “Rap was freedom,” Cherry says today. You could find your own way within it, your own form of expression, and that felt like a big thing as a woman. There’s something very powerful within rap, anyway. You’re not dependent on the words working with the melody. You can just pour out what you really want to say in an unrestricted way.”

The next day, our school playground filled with little girls delivering words into one another’s faces that they didn’t quite understand, trying to get the rhythms right. It didn’t matter: Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance, and its attitude, had entered our world. Cherry was by no means the first female rapper with a distinctly British style – there had been several female duos and groups before her – but that uncompromising, joyous, performance can be seen now as the moment mainstream pop opened up to artists like her, and laid the groundwork for the next three decades of solo female MCs.

Neneh Cherry.
‘It felt natural that girls were part of the early rap culture’: Neneh Cherry.Photograph: Clare Shilland

To discover where British rap began, it’s useful to first take a trip to America: specifically to Long Island, New York, in the late 1970s, where the teenage Neneh was living in a loft with her artist mother, Moki, and her adoptive father, jazz trumpeter Don. Cherry had a boyfriend who lived nearby, in the Queensbridge Houses public housing development, where the early roots of hip-hop were stirring. “He was a DJ, but there were also guys whose job was to announce the DJs, and it quickly became about these people introducing themselves, too. Saying: ‘This is my name, my street, where I come from.’ This was long before freestyling, but it was interesting even then: it became about talking about who you were.”

Cherry left that scene behind (“me and my boyfriend broke up, and I got into punk”) but then in 1980, she heard a record that made her “see the light”. This was Vicious Rap by Sweet Tee – New Yorker Tanya Winley, whose father, Paul, ran a label that had formerly released doo-wop, but now released Malcolm X speeches (these were later sampled by Public Enemy). “As a record, it was raw – it felt like she had delivered her words in two takes, on fire. It had a quality like Aretha Franklin had, or Patti Smith had. Sweet Tee had power and independence: total ownership of the space she was in as she was doing it.”Advertisement

When Cherry moved to Britain a few years later (she was in Rip, Rig + Panic, and also had a daughter, Naima, with her first husband, the Pop Group’s Bruce Smith), the directness of rap remained a big part of how she wanted to present herself as a woman. “Because there’s something in the speaking of words that helps change the conversation, you know? You see it in the power to record history and social commentary that came from artists during the civil rights movement – in people like the Last Poets, and performance poets like Jayne Cortez. You can track it back to the culture of west African griots [storytellers], the keepers of history and oral traditions in their tribes.” She met a griot in Sierra Leone when she was younger, she adds, from the nomadic tribe that her late birth father, the musician Ahmadu Jah, comes from.

“But when you hear those words and delivery from a woman, it’s something else. A male voice can prompt many feelings, sure: love, longing, even anger sometimes, when you’re female. But when a woman hears a woman like that…” She exhales. “It’s a ticket to somewhere else. It’s an experience.”

In the 1980s music industry, it felt to her that women needed to change the conversation. Cherry had always noticed powerful, creative women in music, but saw that other stereotypes persisted, like the over-sexualised girl, or the “nice girl writing sweet lyrics about how life is bitter and painful, longing for babies and love. I felt all the same stuff, but I loved how rap took those lyrical ideas in a different direction. It was less about ‘I’m sitting here waiting for you, where are you?’ It was more: ‘I’m here. This is how it is. What the fuck?’

Buffalo Stance took this attitude and ran with it. It began life as a B-side and alternative version to pop duo Morgan McVey’s single Looking Good Diving(Cameron McVey has been Cherry’s partner since then, and is father to her two daughters: Tyson, the baby in the Buffalo Stance bump, born in 1989; and pop star Mabel, born in 1996). Its genesis is sweetly ordinary. Cherry wrote the line “who’s that gigolo on the street?” walking out of a corner shop near Earl’s Court. Its famous middle-eight line “What’s he like? What’s he like, anyway?” is Cherry doing an impression of Fat Tony, the main DJ at London’s underground Wag Club.

“They was a playfulness there: it was totally from the heart, and totally from my life,” Cherry says, “but it was also from this fearless space.” The other rap tracks on Raw Like Sushi were similarly bold. So Here I Come slams a first kiss “hit and miss/He wasn’t impressed ’cos I wouldn’t get undressed”. The Next Generation asks men “to love us/ Through thick and thin with your heart and your soul/ not the size of your dick”. My Bitch’s berating of a man for wanting to make a girl could also be British female rap’s manifesto. “I ain’t playing; I’m to be taken seriously/ You know what I’m saying?”

Rap records featuring women had started to break out in Britain before Cherry, however. Sheryl Garratt, a journalist for the Face before becoming editor in 1989, saw first-hand how rap was influenced by reggae soundsystems in cities like her native Birmingham. There, toasting (lyrical chanting over reggae rhythms) was an obvious, close relative to rap. “This also meant people were rapping in their own accents from the start. It was about people trying to stand out from each other in their own peer groups. Hearing something half in Jamaican patois, half in pure Brummie, where I was from, felt very natural.” Cherry herself got involved in soundsystems when she moved to the UK, being a regular at Bali Hai in Streatham, and meeting the Wild Bunch in Bristol, who she mentions on Buffalo Stance: they later morphed into Massive Attack.

Women were a visible, welcoming presence in the US early rap scene too, Garratt adds. She recalls going to New York, aged 18, to interview Sugar Hill Records’ CEO and Rapper Delight’s producer Sylvia Robinson (“she was good fun, really friendly”). Hip-hop gigs at Manhattan’s Roxy Roller Rink were also full of young women, and many performed, like Angie Stone’s early rap group, the Sequence, Roxanne Shante and MC Sha Rock of the Funky 4+1. “Being at a roller-skating rink, of course, that world was full of girls. It felt natural that they were part of the early rap culture.”

An equivalent culture was building in Britain. In Clapham, south London, in 1983, schoolgirls Debbie “Cookie” Pryce and Suzie Banfield formed an all-girl gang with friends and cousins called the Warm Milk and Cookie Crew (they eventually became Cookie Crew, stripped back to the original pair). “Access to black music was limited for us [in the mainstream],” Pryce says today (she’s now a senior label manager for the Orchard, a subsidiary of Sony Music). “Pirate radio stations were mainly how we were able to access the music we loved.”Advertisement

They rapped over electro and hip-hop, practised in their bedrooms, front rooms, and for free at the Battersea Arts Centre, and slowly became aware of other hip-hop communities in London; they’d join other rappers and breakdancers for jams in Covent Garden, which became a crucial meeting point for the culture. Women were always at these jams as crowd members, but not as participants, Pryce remembers. “Being the only female on a line-up was the norm to us, but we loved the challenge.”

Tim Westwood’s 1987 documentary Bad Meaning Good chronicles this scene, interviewing Cookie Crew and another female duo, the Wee Papa Girl Rappers; a year later, both had top five hits (Cookie Crew’s was Rok Da House with the Beatmasters). Pryce says she was constantly asked if they were as good at rapping as men. “We never understood why – we would often end up turning the interview on the journalist and asked them what they thought.” This antagonism played a pivotal role, though, she says, in the growing confidence of female rappers. “These experiences only inspired us to be better and stronger.”

Other British women emerged, like the She Rockers, featuring a young Betty Boo (raw footage exists online of them rapping with Public Enemy in a London McDonald’s), and Monie Love, who eventually had a global smash, It’s A Shame (My Sister). After them, the 90s was a quiet time for women, with movements like daisy age hip-hop being superseded by gangster rap in the mainstream. Garratt noticed bikini-wearing or halter-necked women increasingly used as window-dressing in videos for men: “In the 90s, rap started to turn into a business.” The British music industry was also more interested in post-rave dance music and Britpop as profitable genres.

The mechanics of touring – which helped embed and sustain a longer career –was not set up to help women starting to have families either, Garratt says (“although that’s not a rap issue, it’s just a music industry issue”). Cherry’s career continued because she had a supportive family and management team around her; Garratt remembers interviewing Cherry for The Face in 1996, when both women had babies. “We were breastfeeding them in a hotel garden in the South of France while we spoke – it was amazing. But that rarely happens. It usually takes a village, a soundsystem culture or a family, to help a woman keep going with their career when they’ve had kids.”

Debbie Pryce and Suzie Banfield of Cookie Crew in 1989.
Debbie Pryce and Suzie Banfield of Cookie Crew in 1989. Photograph: David O’Neil/ANL/Shutterstock

The 2000s saw British female rappers return to the charts, but having short-lived bursts of mainstream success. The most prominent, Ms Dynamite, first attracted attention for her quickfire patois-heavy style on two huge 2001 garage hits – DJ Sticky’s Booo! and So Solid Crew’s Envy – but she’d ditched rapping entirely on her Mercury prize-winning debut album, A Little Deeper, for palatable soul. She also had a son, Shavaar, in 2003, and her mainstream career died down. Interestingly, she returned to her original love after that, rapping on Katy B’s 2010 single, Lights On, and a solo single, 2011’s Neva Soft; she continues rapping in the underground today, with a huge fanbase.

Estelle also hit big with her single 1980, in 2004, before becoming part of a wave of British female rappers criticising the industry for a lack of support. “The record labels just don’t know where to go with us,” she told the Guardian’s Alex Macpherson in 2008, after she’d decamped, successfully, to America. 2009 Mercury winner Speech Debelle also highlighted a lack of openness to different styles within rap, after releasing Speech Therapy, full of woodwind-soaked narratives about her experiences with homelessness and an absent father, more in line with the 2010s spoken-word world of Kate Tempest. “I’m not black enough for certain black radio stations,” she said.

Grime perhaps provided the better launchpad for female MCs, and still does. One of the first to emerge from this scene was Shystie in 2004, who was taught to rap by male friends in Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm Community Centre. Being female helped in her early days, she believes. “It helped me get more focus and attention because I was different, and I grabbed it. I couldn’t believe I was this little black girl from Hackney, controlling the audience.”

Her debut single, One Wish, was a pirate radio hit, and the No 1 video on satellite urban music TV channel Channel U, but mainstream radio had other ideas – as Estelle’s 1980 was also being released at the time. “I was told several times that there was only one space for a woman. It was disheartening and upsetting, but there was nothing else I could do: my mainstream career was dependent on the few gatekeepers who decided the playlists.” One Wish got to No 40; Shystie’s career went back to the underground.

But a few years later, something happened that changed the rules of success. “Social media meant that British female rappers suddenly weren’t dependent on anyone any more. Everything’s there at the girl’s hands through YouTube, Twitter and Instagram: creativity, an instant platform, people that could help you, and an audience.” Shystie herself has a project being announced later this month that couldn’t have happened without it; the last decade of British female rappers also shows women defying the industry, unapologetically saying what they want to say, running their own worlds.

Lady Leshurr.
Lady Leshurr. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

British female rap is arguably in ruder health now than it has ever been, though much of it still operates outside the mainstream. Take Birmingham’s Lady Leshurr, who turned down a deal with Atlantic Records in 2013, after they offered her $250,000 to start a feud with Nicky Minaj: she produced and edited seven brilliant Queen’s Speeches on YouTube instead, full of quick-witted, Brummie-inflected freestyles about relationships and society. There’s Ms Banks, who supported US rap megastar Cardi B while still unsigned, and Little Simz, who released her third album, the Mercury-nominated Grey Area, on Age 101, a label that helps distribute artists’ music, without them giving up ownership. On 2015’s Persons, she’d rapped about how people would say: “The industry will break you, Simbi”. On Grey Area’s Venom, she was more direct: “Fuck those who don’t believe/They would never wanna admit I’m the best here/From the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries.”

A broader range of experiences are being expressed by this new generation of British of women, too. Take Peckham’s Flohio, rapping about Grenfell against heavier, darker electronics, or Poetic Pilgrimage, using rap to explore their Muslim beliefs. Or Lioness, back rapping after taking six years working a normal job in London, finding her voice again. The brilliant Ffsytho, who raps (and tweets, often hilariously) about her identity as a gay woman and the world around her, also finds rap a useful tool (she spent her teens learning rap, she explains, enthusiastically, by playing DJ Sticky and Ms Dynamite’s Booo! on repeat). “I suffer with my mental health, so I put a lot of my rage into my lyrics. It feels like a weight has been lifted every time I spit venom.” Ffsytho’s been told she reminds people of Neneh Cherry too. “She’s proper legendary, like the British Queen Latifah. I love her old school flow, a bit like storytelling. I want to work on something like her style, and bring that old school to the new school.”

In 2020, it feels like rap for British women is about confidence in one’s own identity above anything else. They are proudly visible and audible – and will be even more so if the music business supports them as it should. When Cassie Rytz, the 17-year-old star of recent BBC3 grime documentary Galdem Sugar, describes the rush of experiencing rap, for example, she does so with the same joy that Neneh Cherry felt 40 years ago. “I get an adrenaline rush whenever I start spitting. It’s being opinionated with a beat behind me. My story gets told to an audience, and it gets taken more seriously.” She’s seen things changing in her short time in the business too, she says, with stations like Rinse FM having much more gender equality in programmes and line-ups. “More people are beginning to wake up and become more aware of the barriers females face within this industry.”

Neneh Cherry, turning 56 in March and still making brilliant music, remains excited as well: “There are so many women today doing beautiful things and beautiful work. And what excites me most, to be honest, is women realising that being strong is not about being aggressive for the sake of it. It’s about expressing yourself boldly and with humour, but also showing your vulnerabilities, and asking for help, without overexposing yourself.”

I’m 10 again, watching Cherry on TV in her gold medallion, giving birth to a new feeling, helping us girls all become something else. “That is strength. That is power. That’s being a woman.”

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