The Realness B-Side: Roxanne Shanté
ROXANNE: Hi - I’m Roxanne Shante, and I am one of hip hop’s first game changers.
CHRISTOPHER: I can’t believe I’m in the same room with Roxanne Shante right now!
CHRISTOPHER: I can’t front: I was pretty geeked to meet Roxanne Shante when she came through WNYC. See, Roxanne comes from a long line of Queensbridge hip hop artists stretching all the way back to the 1980s. In rap years, that’s at least a generation or 2 before Mobb Deep made it big. She was in her mid teens when she teamed up with Queensbridge DJ and super producer Marley Marl - who had recruited her to record this classic, “Roxanne’s Revenge”, in 1984. Listen to how young she is on this record.
CHRISTOPHER: This is the queen of Queensbridge MCs. So today - Roxanne Shante gets her own episode. This is "A Realness - B Side”. Aight so Mobb Deep’s got this song called “Right Back At You,” and on it, Havoc has this line - it goes like this: “Fuck where you at, kid / it’s where you from.”
CHRISTOPHER: Listening to their music, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Havoc and Prodigy are both FROM this place called Queensbridge. It’s the biggest public housing development in North America. It’s in Queens, New York, just across the river from Manhattan. Just like Roxanne Shante, Havoc grew up in Queensbridge. Prodigy didn’t. He’s from out in Long Island. But Mobb Deep - without a doubt, no question, 100% FROM The Bridge. The cover of Mobb Deep’s album, The Infamous - was shot on the rooftops of Queensbridge. They called it “Pebble Beach”.
ROXANNE: Queensbridge has a million dollar view - and has always had a million dollar view. We can stand on the rooftop of any project building - and you would see that beautiful 59th street bridge, those lights twinklin’ at night - you were able to see the entire skyline of Manhattan - you were able to see the river - you were able to see the parks - you were able to see the trees, so when you go up to the roof - you can just dream. You can automatically see okay I’m going to have this - I’m going to have that. This is mine! That’s mine! Wait till I live over there! I’m gonna live in that building; I’m gonna live on that floor. You know, you were able to do those things in Queensbridge. And I don’t think you were able to do that in any other project.
CHRISTOPHER: This place turned out some incredible rappers. Nas is from Queensbridge. Marley Marl and The Juice Crew: Queensbridge. To hear Roxanne describe it, babies from these 12 square blocks were born to rock the mic.
ROXANNE: So you know, it was our own little city. Even the first signs of hip hop which would be a song like - ‘Name game’ - which is that banana fanna fo banna - so we grew up with that - like so that right there was like - we already started with that, so we already had a jumpstart with - you know - with the name game - and we would sing it everyday on our way to nursery school, which was also located in Queensbridge. And so, you would have a lot of - it’s no surprise that you’d have so many great artists come out of Queensbridge because everything there was - everything was there - the fundamentals were there. The - it was there.
CHRISTOPHER: When she was a kid, Roxanne says people didn’t always have a lot of money. But somehow, some way - they still got by.
ROXANNE: There was so much for us to see! You know, we weren’t shut down at all. You know, if you were hungry, you could go right to the Ronzoni Factory. The Ronzoni Factory gave out noodles every night. The Mayflower Ice Cream Factory gave out ice cream all summer. Toys - the tennis ball factory was right there - and we were hitting tennis balls everyday all day long throwing ‘em up on the roof, so everything that you needed and wanted was right there and so - and having that push and support of the community, behind you, was just incredible. So if you were going to be the best at anything, you were gonna do it from Queensbridge. You know you were and you know some people say, “Oh yeah you know it’s in the water” and we used to laugh and say that - you know - because the - energy plant is located right there. And you know who knows maybe years from now they’ll probably find out that you know something was leaking in the water and made everybody super heroes. Who knows maybe it was, but whatever the case may be - you know - it was definitely in the water and I wouldn’t change a thing about Queensbridge. I just wouldn’t.
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne Shante, are you saying you have superpowers?
ROXANNE: I don’t know. I mean I’m still here, and God knows I don’t even know how. So yeah, that has to be a superpower. ‘Cause I survived hip hop in the 80s -
CHRISTOPHER: - Yeah, that’s real.
ROXANNE: - and I’m happy!
CHRISTOPHER: Right right.
ROXANNE: That’s a super power!
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne and Mobb Deep go way back.
ROXANNE: I did do some recordings on the QB album…
CHRISTOPHER: The track is called “We Live This”. And even though it came out fifteen years after Roxanne Shante was Roxanne Shante - just listen to this - she is still killin’ it.
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne Shante first made her name in the 1980s as a battle rapper. That’s how she earned her respect on the mic. And years later, guys like Mobb Deep and their crew, they looked up to her, even though she lived a very different kind of life.
ROXANNE: ‘Cause you know they be in the studio all night… they do 4-5 in the morning. You know they bring girls. You know sometimes some people bring girls. Some people wanna smoke. Some people wanna drink and all that other stuff.
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne doesn’t do any of that.
ROXANNE: And they’re like ugh Shante’s coming. You know and so what do they do? Clean up the stu - well they have somebody come in - clean up the studio, spray all the air fresheners, open up the windows, do all of this other stuff - set up some fruit. Make everything - ‘cause here comes you know. So it’s like so when I come in the door, they’re like - and you see ‘em all sitting up there like this - like hey Shante! I’m like hey! They was like of you coming in to do your - and they just can’t wait for me to leave so they can relax and breathe I think.
CHRISTOPHER: Younger rappers call her Auntie Roxanne. She’s always taking calls, and giving advice.
ROXANNE: I remember the first time when Havoc said to me that he was - you know he was getting ready to make records - and he’s getting ready to do this and what do I think and I was like yeah absolutely- and he was like you know, I’ve got my partner you know and he’s from Long Island, but he’s here with us -
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne actually remembers saying to Havoc - well, you could go solo -
ROXANNE: Be a solo act. Because this way you know if you mess up can’t nobody say you messed up but you. That was one of the things I said to him. You know and he was like ‘yeah, but me and my man you watch and see’ - I said alright and then I remember when - hearing their songs and was saying to myself like ‘wow - Queensbridge is taking it to another level again’ - you know - and they had everybody you know scared to look. You know aint no such thing as halfway crooks, you know that’s just - that’s just a Queensbridge motto.
CHRISTOPHER: Oh that’s a Queensbridge thing?
CHRISTOPHER: “Ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks”. It’s Mobb Deep’s catch phrase from the chorus of “Shook Ones Part 2” - the song that would propel the group to stardom. And that phrase - at least, according to Roxanne - was Queensbridge slang.
ROXANNE: - OK you can’t halfway hustle. Like either you gon’ be on this block and you gon’ hustle, or you not! But you can’t do this halfway. It’s - it’s just no such thing. You know, so I was surprised when I heard it on the record. And I was like OK. And the world was able to embrace that thought. I think it’s one of their most - familiar lines. You figure if you’re a halfway crook you’re gonna be - you’re gonna be nervous all the time - you gon’ be scared. So either you are one or you’re not.
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne remembers the first time she met Prodigy.
ROXANNE: My first meeting interaction with him was actually in the studio - and he was like you know “it’s so good to meet you, queen - you don’t know - you one of the inspirations of this, and one of the reasons why we do this”. And I was like ‘thank you’, and he was like “yeah you know, it’s going to be great you watch and see” - And I was like ‘oh ok’ and I said ‘but um, let me ask you a question’ - he said yes - and I said, ‘Don’t you come from a good family? Why would you want to pretend like you don’t?’
CHRISTOPHER: Roxanne was touching on a major part of Prodigy’s identity. The world he’s from - he’s got a grandmother, who’s a successful dance teacher. She had a lot of resources, and she shared those resources with her grandson. But Prodigy chose something else. As a teenager, he was enchanted by Queensbridge. The drug game, all the action and the hustlers and the characters. To him, it was all so exciting. Prodigy called Queensbridge “addictive”. But this was also the height of the war on crack cocaine. Many of the people in Queensbridge were in a fight for their lives. Roxanne and her family were trying to get out of the bridge, so her question to Prodigy was - why are you picking this life, when you don’t have to?
ROXANNE: I said, don’t you see we’re out here struggling because we want what it is you have. We want to be able to be that for our children, but you already have that, like you already got a leg up what you doin’ here? And he was like ‘nah this is in me this is in my blood - I’m gon’ do this’. And I said okay, alright. But you know it ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks. And he said - yeah you right ma, you right - and then that was it. What it was was the fact of seeing someone who had such a great opportunity in front of them - to be able to do other things - why not choose that? And then me wanting to understand - just so that if I provide these things for my children, I need to know whether or not they gonna be a waste. Because if I’m going to provide all of these things and we’re going to move and we’re gonna live in these different places, and I’m going to make it structured like this, I need to know what is the attraction to this. Because this is not an easy life, this is not something that we chose. This was something that chose us. This wasn’t an easy life, so what would make someone want to do that?
CHRISTOPHER: How you feel about his answer?
ROXANNE: Um - I understood his answer as a young black man wanting to stand up, wanting to be part of the struggle in order to identify with things you need to be right there in order to see it - in order to experience it, you need to be part of it.
CHRISTOPHER: Comin’ up: Why Roxanne Shante says, in my house? We don’t play hip hop.
ROXANNE: Hip hop was a music that had an expiration date. Like they said that hip hop wasn’t going to be around long and that’s what they would tell - you know - the early artists of the 80s. Like listen, you know go ahead and sell your publishing, go ahead and sell your writers. You know because - please - it’s not going to be worth nothing in 10 years, so you might as well get all you can get for it now.
CHRISTOPHER: Somebody got that all wrong. I mean, just look at rap today: together, Jay Z and Diddy are worth more than a billion and a half dollars. Hip hop studies is a thing, and Kendrick Lamar just won a Pulitzer - for a rap album. And then - there are those countless other artists who are making what is, today, the American soundtrack. But when Roxanne Shante was coming up - not so much.
ROXANNE: It was considered immature music. Like if you listened to that, you couldn’t listen to it at your job. You know, there were certain people who would listen to hop hop all the until they pull into the parking lot of their job and then would turn to jazz because they didn’t want anyone to know that they really listen to hip hop. You know they would thank God for the walkman, so that no one knew what you were really listening to when you were at your job or when you was someplace because this way you could have your headphones on and no one would know that in your ears was some Run DMC or LL Cool J or you know you had - that’s what it was.
CHRISTOPHER: When she first grabbed the mic, rap was still just considered street music.
ROXANNE: - part of hip hop that has that reminder - as to why it started and what it’s about. You know, and it was to give young people a voice that did not have one - it was to have our own party language that was different from disco, you know, different from R&B - it wasn’t about making babies, it was about making a change, it was about making a difference, it was about standing out - even being rebellious. You know, and so yeah. And that's just me!
CHRISTOPHER: Can I tell you a story?
CHRISTOPHER: So when I was little coming up in the DC area , and I just started to get into hip hop music, this was right around the time when Yo MTV Raps was just getting started and rap city was just getting started. And so, my mother didn’t really know what to do with hip hop music. This was not her music and we weren’t in a place like even Queensbridge where you might hear it around. It wasn’t around, so for my mom she tried to strike this bargain. She said - if you’re going to listen to hip hop music - if you’re going to listen to this. And it was her money that I was spending, so if I’m going to buy with my hard earned money hip hop for you, - ’cause she wanted it to be clean - so in her mind, clean hip hop music was Run DMC and female rappers. So to this day, I still have - I was just showing a friend of mine - I have MC Lyte Lyte as a Rock on cassette, Finesse and Synquis, Antoinette, Sweet T and all these female MCs on tape. My mother thought - Salt and Pepper - I know all of hot cool and vicious from the first to the last.
ROXANNE: I could just imagine! I could just imagine!
CHRISTOPHER: What do you mean?
ROXANNE: No, because I’m saying - ‘cause I’m just imagining a little boy singing hot cool and vicious - whole album...
CHRISTOPHER: But it had a song called ‘I’ll take your man’ - and I knew this whole song.
ROXANNE: Absolutely! Absolutely!
CHRISTOPHER: And this is what my mother thought that I should - you know was right for her -
ROXANNE: Well you know what? Ima tell you. I understand where your mom was coming from - and the reason why I understand where she was coming from is because of the fact that hip hop was starting to take such a turn at the time where you didn’t want your sons to be as angry as rappers were. You didn’t want them to feel that way. You didn’t want them to feel like throw your hands up if you got a - you - you just didn’t want - because you just didn’t want your son walking through the house talking like that. So, I agree with her. I do. I totally agree with her. It’s like, I don’t play hip hop in the house. Like I never did. Never. You know like I had my first child when I was 15 years old, and so you would think like okay I would be a hell of an influence for some type of super gangster rapper second generation - superhero - project water drinking child. You know, you would’ve thought that. But in all reality - we listened to stuff like Bach, Beethoven, slow R&B. You know, I think I always wanted him to have this calm demeanor because the world was so angry, and I just didn’t want to incite his anger earlier than needed. And even though, you know, his uncles Kool G Rap - Talk Like Sex - you know what I’m sayin’ all these different things you know, so he’s exposed to all of that because he would go to the shows, but he also understood that - you don’t hear them talk to their wives like that. You don’t hear them talk to their daughters like that. You don’t hear them talk to women that they love and respect like that. So yeah, so you know kudos to your mom. I think she brought absolute balance.
CHRISTOPHER: In the next episode of The Realness: As Mobb Deep was reaching the height of its fame in the mid 90s, Prodigy was facing prison time. We take you inside that case and look at what it tells us about how Prodigy’s sickle cell clashed head on with the criminal justice system.
RISCO: I can't say it was racism. It could have just been ageism right. You know I'm old. You’re a rapper and I don't like rap.
CHRISTOPHER: The Realness is a production of WNYC Studios - hosted by me, Christopher Johnson, and my co-host, Mary Harris.
CHRISTOPHER: Our editor is Christopher Werth. We also had help from Consulting Producer Kathy Iandoli and Associate Producer Eryn Mathewson. Celia Muller makes sure we’re legally in the right. Michelle Harris is our fact checker.
CHRISTOPHER: Jared Paul is our engineer, Cayce Means is our technical director. Our team includes Merritt Jacob, Amanda Aronczyk and Audrey Quinn along with Steven Reneau, Kaitlin Sullivan, Arianna Jones, and Nikki Galteland. WNYC’s Vice President of News is Jim Schachter.
CHRISTOPHER: Trumpeter Christian Scott wrote our theme song, and composed a lot of the music in this series.
CHRISTOPHER: We also want to show love to Prodigy’s friends and family who gave us their time, welcomed us into their homes, and shared their memories of a man they treasure.