There’s a time for women in hip-hop, and that time is now. While the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early part of the new millennium harbored tons of talent with females on the mic, 2012 has created an open road where anyone and everyone can win. When producer 9th Wonder found Rapsody in the halls of North Carolina State, he knew he unearthed a diamond. Focusing on lyrics-driven hip-hop (a la Lauryn Hill and her predecessors), Rapsody is one artist striking a creative balance in an often-unbalanced industry. Life+Times caught up with Rapsody before her tour, to discuss her upcoming album The Idea Of Beautiful, and how being a great rapper trumps being a great female rapper.
Life+Times: This is the first time in a long time that hip-hop has such an influx of female artists. Are you feeling that the other girls in the game are helping your cause?
Rapsody: I think with me, what I’ve noticed is the girls have always been around, especially with the rise of Nicki Minaj. So it’s kind of heightened – everybody else’s awareness of it. It’s definitely a good movement. I’m glad people are noticing it and taking interest and asking where are the female emcees. But you know the thing I have to do now is get out and search for them, because there are so many out there. It’s not just the girls that drive me, though, personally. There’s like a movement of good music really going on with Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick [Lamar], Mac Miller and recently Joey Bada$$. It’s just like the sound is changing and people are getting more into lyrics. So that drives me more I think, because that’s really what I focus on is the music and lyrics above anything.
L+T: When you’re writing your rhymes, what kind of lyrics do you aim to deliver?
Rapsody: Usually, early on before I really understood what song making was, it was just me trying to be as lyrical and just say some fly stuff and play with words and metaphors. I still like to do that, but I’m learning more how to make songs and talk about my life more and tell a story about what’s happening around me. What I’m doing now – especially with the album – is drawing on experiences whether they’re stories growing up or love stories. You know, anything that an everyday person or anybody could relate to that really touches you. You understand and feel what I’m saying and the story behind it. So that’s the focus now as far as my lyrics go. I still tell a story in a different way and play with the words at the same time so that’s the focus now. Just making better songs and continuing to grow.
L+T: When it comes to women in hip-hop, it seems like men have a really short attention span when it comes to female rappers actually discussing being a woman or anything that revolves around acknowledging that you have a uterus. How do you combine writing songs that are still lyrical exercises, which it seems like most of the male audience wants, with actual story telling which it seems like a lot of the female audience wants?
Rapsody: You know, it’s a good combination. I think the thing that really hits home with the guys is speaking slowly. Like if you have a dope cadence, that goes a long way too, because that’s the main thing is having a dope cadence and riding the beat. That’s one thing that 9th [Wonder] taught me that I had to learn. Like it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. If you can flow and say something dope at the same time and you know, throw some metaphors in there…then you won. That’s kind of how you win, so that’s how you win with the guys and with the girls in a sense. You could tell a story and throw metaphors in there where it’s lyrical but it’s not too hard to get at the same time, so that’s the kind of line I’m trying to walk and really perfect that. I think that’s been working the most for me because like whether it’s Ab-Soul or Big K.R.I.T or Kendrick, I met a lot of them and they always say, “You’re a spitter! You could really spit!” and that humbles me! It’s hard like you said to get a guy’s attention and not look at you as just a girl trying to rap, like to look at you as a MC rather than a female MC. So I’m just trying to focus on doing that and bettering myself.
L+T: Where do you stand on the “femcee” title? Some women hate it; some women are like whatever.
Rapsody: I’ve gone back and forth with it so much. Early on, it didn’t bother me as much, because I guess I always looked at it as they really weren’t using it in a negative way but it was more like, “We’re really glad we have someone to represent us.” But as I grew in my career, now I see people would say comments like, “Oh she’s dope for a female MC,” and I saw the box that it puts you in, and that’s what I didn’t like about it. So I guess with me, it’s depending on how you use it. Like if you use it just to compare me to other female emcees or “She’s dope for a girl,” I think that’s the negative part of using the term. But I also see the other side of it. It’s like a movement for women. Like they want someone to represent them. Like me growing up loving Lauryn Hill, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Kim and Foxy…I respected them all as emcees. The fact that they were women and I was a woman too, that took it to another level. So I get that side of it. It’s a thin line with me, but I’d rather be referred to as a MC first above everything. That’s what I would prefer. That’s just my take on it.
L+T: Outside of the females in hip-hop that you listened to coming up, who are some of the men that you took your cues from musically?
Rapsody: Well, first is JAY Z! Him and Lauryn Hill are my greatest influences above everybody. When I first met 9th back in the middle of 2005, I’d just started writing. He loved it but he was like, “You have some things that you have to work on,” so he gave me The Black Album. Like, I’d already listened to it but he was just like, “Memorize it front to back, but don’t listen to what he’s saying. Listen to how he’s saying it.” So, Jay’s one of the biggest influences. I love Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, Common, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes…kind of anybody from that Golden Age of hip-hop I was really, really into. Newer cats of course, K.R.I.T and Kendrick, Joey Bada$$…I really, really like him a lot. So you know, those are just a really good mixture of people I grew up on.
L+T: How did you link up with 9th Wonder?
Rapsody: I went to NC State in Raleigh, and me and a couple of friends started a hip-hop organization. One of the guys interned with 9th, and he had 9th come to a meeting. We had done this mixtape. Those were the first two songs I ever did on the mixtape. This was right before The Minstrel Show came out. So 9th came, he was talking about The Minstrel Show and he was giving us advice on the business and about anything that he could tell us that would help us in the long-run. Then we played the mixtape, and when it got to my songs, he kept saying, “Take it back, take it back!” These are my first two songs ever so I’m in the back, I’m sweating, I’m nervous, I’m like oh my God. But it turned out to be the opposite; he loved it. He said, “You’re a star! You just have to work on [like I said, a, b and c].” You know I was very humble so he took me under his wing and in 2008, I signed with him and we’ve been going hard ever since. So that’s how I met him, in college.
L+T: You’ve often been referred to as his like, “secret weapon” in his artillery and whatnot. Outside of discussing cadence and how you deliver your rhymes on top of writing them and stuff, what else has 9th taught you?
Rapsody: He teaches me a lot about the business. You know, indie versus label, radio and how that works, just how to move in your career but at the same time, have control of your career and what you want to do. So he teaches me a lot about the business. He teaches me the importance of being on time, connecting with people. He always told me: “Always talk to your fans and show them you appreciate them. You know, after a show when you get off stage, go out in the crowd and talk to people.” So I’ve done that. He’s like, “You never know who you’re talking to!” And like the last few times, I’ll meet somebody and a few months later… Like with Hot 97, this girl named Karlie, she hit me on Twitter when I was up in New York and she’s like, “Come by the station.” And I came by, met Enuff for the second time, he played the record and we were talking and she’s like, “Yeah, I met you at SXSW,” and I was like oh wow because I didn’t even remember! So those are just little things that he’s taught me that have turned out to help me a lot. Even about shows, how to put on a good show and look at the crowd and move and don’t yell and don’t cuff the mic. He teaches me everything from the music to the business to even about life. Like I could talk to 9th about relationship problems, that’s just the kind of guy he is.
L+T: You were mentioning Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte and then Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, and they’re the opposite approaches to hip-hop I guess you could say. Do you feel that discussing sexuality in lyrics helps or hinders the cause for women in rap?
Rapsody: With me, I didn’t think it hurt so much. I think the thing with me was, as long as there was a balance, it was okay because I think that’s where people mess up. When there’s too much, like that’s all you see is women talking about sex in their lyrics and sexuality, then it kind of tips the scale. But if you have a balance, kind of like we did in the ‘90s when we had MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill and Missy and Foxy. They’re all these emcees that are females that rap, but they’re all different. So it’s just a balance because I like Lil Kim too, but I happen to lean more toward the Lauryn Hill/MC Lyte side. So I think that’s what we need more than anything: balance. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of I guess how you look, but you definitely need something else to balance it out with.
L+T: Would you be opposed to somebody telling you that you had to wear a bikini top and a short skirt in order to perform and do this, that and the other on stage?
Rapsody: Oh, yeah! That’s not really my lane, that’s not my image so I definitely wouldn’t do that because that takes away from my brand and what I represent. Right now I’m usually rocking jeans and sneakers but I think as my career progresses, it’s entertainment in a sense like how Lauryn Hill did. With the Fugees, she was real sneaker and jeans’ed out but when Miseducation came, you saw a sexier side, but it wasn’t over the top sexy. So there’s a kind of balance in that too, but I definitely wouldn’t do the bra and short skirt. It takes away from my brand and what my fans know me for.
L+T: So what’s next for you?
Rapsody: Right now I’m working on my album, The Idea of Beautiful. That comes out August 28th. I’m touring in August. I’m going out of the country for the first time. I have a show in South Africa in Johannesburg in Cape Town, so I’m really looking forward to that. The main focus is getting this album out and doing videos and pushing it and setting up some tour dates for it, so that’s the big thing now.
L+T: So what is your idea of beautiful?
Rapsody: It comes in different forms. With the album, I kind of set it up where as far as hip-hip goes, like lately with the radio, the masses only kind of get one side of hip-hop. But there’s a whole other side that they don’t get to see a lot that’s more focused on lyrics and story telling and that’s the beautiful side to me. That’s one way you could look at it. I think other than that, following your dreams and just being yourself and creating, that’s the beautiful thing I find in people. Where they’re themselves and they’re following their dreams and doing things that they’re passionate about. That’s what I find beautiful.