Saturday, October 15, 2011

October 15: Roxanne Shanté, "Roxanne's Revenge"

Artist: Roxanne Shanté
Song: "Roxanne's Revenge"
Album: Roxanne's Revenge (single)
Year: 1984

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Though many may wish to think it different, the fact of the matter is that throughout nearly every genre of music, across the entire history of recorded music, women have been largely seen as a lesser talent than their male counterparts.  Whether it was an instrumentalist or a vocalist, this bias can be easily argued, and yet it most cases, it is the contributions from female performers that push genre forward and open new musical avenues.  However, in the case of hip-hop music, there was an entirely different gender issue that in many ways still exists to this day, as a handful of male emcees put together some rather disparaging recordings in reference to women in the early days of rap music.  As the genre itself was still relatively young, and one would be hard pressed to argue any performer as a "superstar" in that era, these recordings lived largely within a "closed community," and yet the impact of these songs play a vital role within the overall history of women in music.  All of this came to a head following the release of the song, "Roxanne, Roxanne" by U.T.F.O., when a young New York City woman named Lolita Shanté Gooden took on the stage name, "Roxanne Shanté," and found a group of talented young producers to create beats.  The resulting single remains one of the most pivotal and controversial ever recorded; and one can easily argue that hip-hop music would not have progressed as it has if not for Roxanne Shanté's devastating 1984 single, "Roxanne's Revenge."

As the legend goes, following the release of the U.T.F.O. track, Shanté was speaking with a group of friends that were concert promoters that had recently been stood up by U.T.F.O.  This led to Shanté stating that she could write a "response" rap to their rather disparaging "Roxanne, Roxanne," and the group set to work, quickly creating and recording the track.  The overall quality of the track is "vintage" of the era, and yet it has a fantastic break-beat, courtesy of none other than hip-hop icon, Marley Marl.  The backing music found on "Roxanne's Revenge" is as stripped down as one can find anywhere, and the original version has a slight echo and scratch that proves the "raw" environment in which the track was recorded.  Perhaps purposefully, the break-beat in question is the exact same as that found on the U.T.F.O. "inspiration," and following the success of Shanté's response, the group sued her for its use, leading to "Roxanne's Revenge" being completely re-recorded with a different beat a few years later.  However, it is the way that Marley Marl keeps the beat so succinct, letting Shanté's rhymes remain in the spotlight, that makes the track such a classic, and the scratching and other DJ "tricks" from DJ Mr. Magic serve as an ideal finishing touch to the overall sound.  Though it is rather sparse in nature, it is the musical arrangement across "Roxanne's Revenge" that not only embody the entire early hip-hop scene, but also prove that the style can be just as powerful without over-bearing bass and other more modern trends.

Yet while the beat and bits of music are as "standard" for the era as one can find, both in the content as well as the way that she rhymes, Roxanne Shanté completely rewrote the rules on what could be achieved and said within the realm of hip-hop music.  Throughout the entire track, Shanté's voice is clear and focused, as she ensures that every word she delivers will hit with maximum impact.  However, it is the various ways that she manipulates the words, as well as the passages where she "flips" words and gives seemingly breathless flows which easily ranks her as one of the most talented emcees in all of hip-hop history.  Once one listens to the original take of "Roxanne's Revenge" in its entirely, there is no question that even within the modern field of emcees, the rhymes found all across this track still easily hold their own.  It is also impossible to overlook the fact that "Roxanne's Revenge" is in reality a four-minute verse, as Shanté does not stop rhyming at any point, and a "chorus" section is completely unnecessary.  While in most cases, this would work against the artist, the original rhymes that Roxanne Shanté brings at every turn works in the opposite manner, drawing the listener in further and further.  In both the way that she fearlessly "strikes back" a the male-dominated world of hip-hop, as well as the somewhat revolutionary song structure, there is no question that Roxanne Shanté's performance here is anything short of groundbreaking.

Within a short time of its release, "Roxanne's Revenge" was making massive waves within the hip-hop community, selling more than a quarter-of-a-million units in New York City alone.  Furthermore, the fact that this was a powerful, direct female on a rap record would serve as the inspiration for an entirely new sub-genre of hip-hop, and even the current field of female emcees owe their careers to the pioneering efforts of Roxanne Shanté.  However, while it was impossible to call into question the rhyming or writing talent of Shanté, scores of male emcees did not take kindly to the "message" within "Roxanne's Revenge."  This spawned more than one hundred "response" songs aimed at Roxanne's track, and this helps to make the argument that "Roxanne's Revenge" stands as the most powerful and contentious track in the entire history of hip-hop.  The fact that so many emcees took this track so seriously is a testament to the exceptional talent that Shanté deploys all across it, and the myriad of ways that she "disses" the men around her stands today as some of the most pointed and damaging in music history.  From nearly every angle, "Roxanne's Revenge" is nothing short of a historical moment in music history, as the world around it was simply not the same following its release.  Not only due to the "classic" sound of the break-beat, but the absolutely unapologetic and direct way that she delivers every line is what makes Roxanne Shanté's 1984 single, "Roxanne's Revenge" one of the most important songs ever recorded.

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