Hip hop is growing up before our eyes, and who better to give birth to this growth than 40-year-old women of color? On primetime network television, Queens pays homage to the golden era of hip hop while at the same time nodding at the popularity and qualities of contemporary hip hop. The show depicts the bravery, innovation, tenacity, and talent that players in hip hop’s industry had to possess for success. Addressing important issues like ageism and sexism, the show is grounded in the political landscape of today. Though the stakes the “Queens” aka “Nasty Bitches” face are real, the very thought of a female hip hop group dominating the culture in the 1990s is fantastical.
The 90s, also known as the golden era of hip hop, was a magical time. The biggest hip hop artists back then were humble enough to perform in intimate night club settings where crowds packed venues and jumped up and down in unison to the music’s bass. After a performance, you could pass P. Diddy in the crowd or walk up to the Notorious B.I.G. standing at the bar sipping on a drink. I was even fortunate enough to grab Redman’s jacket as he walked by me and tell him that I love him, for which I received a big hug.
I was in high school and probably shouldn’t have been in many of the spots I was at, but I can’t imagine missing this transformative time in our culture. The thing about it, though, is it was primarily a boys’ club. I made male friends through our connection with hip hop. Women were an anomaly and were expected to have crushes on the male MCs who dominated the field. We weren’t taken seriously. Not until my freshman year in college did Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown enter the sphere and blow up, especially as female MCs by being sponsored by the biggest male MCs of the time — Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z respectively. Before them, were Yo-Yo, who was Ice Cube’s protégé, and MCs like Bahamadia, Lady of Rage, and of course, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. But they were always harder than I wanted to be, appealing to the machismo in hip hop.
I would get home in time to watch Rap City before doing my homework. I could find myself in heated conversations debating whether east coast group, Rough House Survivors stacked up against west coast group, Souls of Mischief. I can say I lost that debate, as Souls of Mischief’s music is featured in a 2017 Gatorade commercial and Rough House Survivors is lost on YouTube. Though I was growing up in Atlanta, I was hard core east coast rap. But in none of these conversations were women a factor.
Queens portrays an all-female hip hop group, something that rarely happened in the 1990s. Popular girl groups in the 90s were R&B singers like SWV, TLC and Xscape, progressive with the narratives in their songs, but they couldn’t be MCs. Even Lauryn Hill of the Fugees and Lady Bug of Digable Planets had to be fronted by male MCs.The outlier and probably one of the most popular female hip hop groups of all time is Salt-N-Pepa. But they started their careers in the 1980s, which was a very different time than the ‘90s. And they were produced by Hurby “Love Bug” Azor, who is largely credited with their sound.
The 2021 BET Hip Hop Awards featured Latto, whose song “Big Energy” and Bia whose song “Whole Lotta Money” are carrying us into 2022. Last year, big names like Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and Meghan Thee Stallion weren’t at the BET Hip Hop Awards (could be for many reasons). But the ladies still represented. In the 90s, shows like the Source Awards built hip hop with establishment endorsements that met hip hop on its terms. The Source Awards made memorable moments where the biggest names in hip hop stood their ground, and it was also where the biggest rap battle in history started.
Queens portrays violence known to dramatic television, but in the 90s, after a night at the club, you might be caught in a shootout and forced to hide behind a vehicle until the scene ceased. This type of situation came into the limelight when two of the biggest names in hip hop were gunned down. The deaths of both Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. highlighted the type of violence that plagued our generation daily. In Queens, the group’s manager, Eric portrays a hip hop insider when he refuses to name any names he might know in association with the shooting that injured him and Eve’s character, Professor Sex. “Snitches get stitches” is the saying.
Hip hop wasn’t only in the music, though. It was in the films like Juice, New Jack City, Belly, Fresh, Boyz in the Hood and Above the Rim that portrayed the type of violence happening in black communities at the time. Queens and shows like it, exist in a lineage of television dramas surrounding hip hop like NY Undercover and Dangerous Minds. Though these shows portray violence and hardship, they were and still are reflective of adversity in black communities and they brought racial disparities to national platforms. Though Lee Daniels’ Empire was a dip into the hip hop drama series pool, Zahir McGhee’s Queens wades deeper in the hip hop waters with appearances from actual MCs and music and storylines that are reflective of the depths of the culture. Each episode of Queens is like an opera as the lyrics in songs reflect the attitudes of the characters in the narratives to move the stories along.
Every episode, so far, is drenched in extreme drama, but hip hop isn’t always so dramatic. Songs like Tupac’s “California Love”and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Going Back to Cali” come to mind when thinking of the upside of hip hop. So, maybe, to expand the show, they can lighten up a bit. Hip hop is not all about guns and grime. It really is about a beautiful part of black culture that is resilient and makes do with the little it started out with.
The show gives hip hop a lot of credit retroactively. Women were not the biggest, most popular groups in the 90s. Today, Nicki Minaj is among the best-selling hip hop artists of all time. Cardi B won best rap album at the Grammy’s. And Meghan Thee Stallion had a number one hit on Billboard. Now is a very different time than the 90s when the fictional group “Nasty Bitches” were slated to have received their initial success.
Several older male MCs independently produce and distribute their music today. OGs like Method Man and Redman are not charting, and they are not in regular rotation on radio stations, because hip hop is still a young man’s game. Hip hop is made up of a new generation, but thankfully women are now part of the larger conversation around hip hop. As the #metoo movement and black feminism hit the mainstream, female MCs are being given a chance to express their perspectives. Of course, the narratives they share can be raunchy and appeal to the sex crazed, money hungry culture of hip hop, but at least they exist alongside the dominant male narratives and not behind them.
Being aired by a major network like ABC, Queens has a lot of potential. If they continue to address the agist and sexist disparities in hip hop, it can discuss these issues in innovative ways.