How Roxanne Shante paved the way for Cardi B and Nicki Minaj

New Netflix film Roxanne Roxanne dramatises the life of a rapper who influenced every female MC since the 1980s. It’s about time her story got heard

On the surface, Roxanne Shanté, whose recording career effectively ended in her mid-20s, might not seem like an obvious choice for a hip-hop biopic. The reality, however, is that, as its first female superstar, Shanté’s influence was seismic and everlasting. Without Shanté, there would be no Nicki, no Cardi, no Iggy. And so it has come to pass that Netflix is looking to arrest its horrendous run of self-produced turkeys with Roxanne Roxanne, depicting her early life story. “She influenced pretty much every female MC after her,” is UK hip-hop DJ Jaguar Skills’s assessment, “whether they know it or not.”

In 1984, at the age of 14, Shanté became the only female member of a 10-strong DJ and MC crew in Queensbridge, New York, called the Juice Crew, ostensibly headed by producer Marley Marl and radio DJ Mr Magic. When Brooklyn quartet UTFO scored a radio hit with Roxanne Roxanne – a B-side bemoaning the group’s unsuccessful attempts to woo the titular woman – Shanté, real name Lolita Shanté Gooden, suggested changing her name to Roxanne and rebutting them.

Roxanne’s Revenge, in which she goes in on every UTFO member, was a monster hit, selling 250,000 copies in New York City alone. But it was what followed that was remarkable: “answer records” like Roxanne’s Revenge were not entirely new, but over the next year the answers to her answer came in what seemed like weekly instalments. The “Roxanne wars” even spawned a No 11 hit in the UK – the Real Roxanne’s gimmicky, Looney Toons-sampling Bang Zoom (Let’s Go-Go).

The actual real Roxanne went on to lend her pugnacious, profane flow to 15 more singles over seven years, the best of them – the snarky Bite This; the absurd beatbox tomfoolery of Def Fresh Crew; and club bangers Go On, Girl and Have a Nice Day – effortlessly sidestepping the ravages of age. In her time, she managed to irk Juice Crew’s chief Bronx nemesis KRS One, who dismissed her as “only good for steady fucking” on his track The Bridge Is Over, and getting the high hat from KRS-One is as effective a reference as any.

The early struggle for female rappers to be taken seriously was mainly hers alone, and Roxanne Roxanne outlines that her battle for recognition began outside the industry. The film plays much like a hip-hop I, Tonya: an unloving mother and an abusive partner, played by Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali, do their best to quash Shanté’s microphone gymnastics. She kept going until she was 25, and then, barring a couple of chart near-misses with UK electronica artist Mekon in the early 00s, she was gone. A life less ordinary, a career trajectory that avoided an embarrassing arthritic dotage … Very much the Real Roxanne.

Roxanne Roxanne is on Netflix now


Pete Cashmore

The GuardianTramp

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