Thursday, December 1, 2011

Queens of Civilization are On the Mic.

Since the very beginning, hip-hop has had its share of strong sisters. From Invincible today to Lady B back in 1979 - hell, we can take it back even before hip-hop was recorded music, with the likes of Sha Rock and the Mercedes Ladies - forward-thinking females MCs have been spitting hard enough that I believe they can take genuine credit for advancing the feminist movement in the global culture. But interestingly, when you say "feminist rap song," the exact same rap will immediately come to everybody's mind. It's not the first, and it's not the most recent, it's just... the one.

"Ladies First" dropped in 1989, and it's as terrific now as it ever was. It made the careers of both its MCs, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Eleven years later, Latifah even titled her book Ladies First. Latifah showed us a whole other side to her from her previous, clubby dance tracks, proving she could be the lead vocalist on a rap song equal to the genre's all-time greats. And while "Monie In the Middle" is a fun crossover record with a brilliant instrumental, this is easily Monie Love's best performance of her career.

But as much, if not more, credit needs to go to the DJ Mark the 45 King for laying down one his best, all-time instrumentals. In many ways, it's right out of the King's playbook: a funky break with random, dusty horn samples he unearths and brings to the table over and over again, always to the our delight. But here he takes different horn samples, from different records of different styles, and together they form something even stronger than most of his other records. Some are blaring, turning the hook into a rallying cry, and others are funky loops that couch the vocals. All that paired with a live, thumping bassline played by engineer Shane Faber, adds up to one of hip-hop's all-time great instrumentals. And then it's really no surprise to see the great Paul C's name turn up in the credits for this one as well, since he seemed to have a hand in nearly every true classic from this period.

Now, I've heard it said a few times, on the internet, that "Ladies First" was written by Apache. This is usually pointed out by a male making the bigger point that: ha ha, these women needed a man to write their big, feminist anthem. I don't know if that's true or not, but there are writing credits on this 12", which credit several people, not including Apache. Specifically, they credit Latifah, Monie, The 45 King and Shane Faber. So, I would assume Latifah and Monie wrote their own lyrics, and 45 King and Faber are getting credit for the instrumental, and dismiss the Apache thing as internet rumor, except I was able to find something to support it. According to discogs, two pretty random compilation albums* credit Apache as a writer, alongside Latifah, Love and 45 King (but, interestingly, not Shane Faber). Of course even in those cases, Monie and Latifah are still credited as writers, but it does lend some credibility to the notion that he at least had a hand in it.

Still, there's at least one lyrical moment Apache night not have wanted to take credit for even if the ladies were willing to give it to him. That's because this song is one of those rare, infamous examples of misspelling in a rap song, ranking right alongside Warren G's "What's Next," when he famously asked, "what's N-X-E-T?" In this case, Monie Love ends her final verse by saying, "And next up is me, the M-O-N-I-E L-O-V-E; and I'm first 'cause I'm a L-A-D-I-E." I hope nobody reading this actually needs me to point it out, but the singular of "ladies" is in fact "lady."

That embarrassing gaff aside, this is one of hip-hop's purest, most perfect song. I mean, how could anyone ever hope to improve on it? What more could you ask for, a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix? Oh shit. The 12" has a Crazy Extended 45 King Remix on it!

Wisely, this 12" doesn't replace the already ideal 12"... it just adds a few things. Stab scratches, Malcolm X vocal samples, an extended opening (the famous "muuuusic 45 King, muuuuusic Latifah and the King, muuusic from a nation supreme" acapella that King would re-use regularly), all just help make the proceedings even hyper. It's over a minute and a half longer, and while it may seem a bit excessive during the opening - the chorus repeats and the beat rides for almost too long before the MCing kicks in. But you'll be glad for the extra length at the end of the song, when it allows for an extra, all-new verse by Latifah:

"Step out into the night;
Queens of civilization are on the mic.
The scene is ripe; the crowd is hype.
I expel the wack and those who bite.
Why? 'Cause I'm that type.
Swaying with beats 45 King style;
He wants me to sing but I'll swing, so meanwhile,
A footnote for the opposite sex:
Monie ripped the mic; I rock it next.
Flex - you'll never catch me at my worst.
You catch the drift? It's ladies first!"

Latifah's debut album was already a crate staple thanks to songs like this; but the remix makes this an essential 12" as well (plus, picture covers never hurt). And what else is on here? Well, there's the LP and a slightly tightened Radio Version. The Instrumental is on here, and if you care about instrumentals at all, this is definitely one to own. And finally, there's the Queen Latifah - Monie Love Bonus Beat, which has the pair shouting out the top female MCs of the day over the break, with Latifah using her silly French accent from her cameo on De La Soul's record. It's short, and they could've just edited into the ending of the Remix, to make it even more Crazy and Extended. But whatever - this is definitely one of those 12"s you just can't complain about.

*1990's Tanz House 2 on BCM Records from Germany and 2004's All That Urban on Warner Bros from Australia.

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