One thing I’m always thankful for is that I grew into my appreciation for Hip Hop in the middle of it’s late ’80s, early ’90s “Golden Age.” Besides the dope funk samples, high tech rhymes and pure fun of the music and images of that era, one of the most valuable things the artists of that time did were strengthen my familiarity, understanding, and appreciation of Black issues. The majority of artists mentioned something in this vein at that time, but of course the most prominent were Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, X Clan, and The Native Tongue family. One of the most powerful records from the Native Tongue family was a record I discovered watching the local video music station, “California Music Channel”, with my father, Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s classic, “Ladies First.” This song hit me on several levels, from the smooth way the ladies sang the chorus, to the fresh sample based beat, the Afrocentric attractivness of the ladies rhyming, and the seriousness of it’s divestment era South African aparteid footage, which was possibly the first time in my life I’d seen those images.
After the video opens with powerful images of great Black women like Harriet Tubman, Sojurner Truth, Winnie Mandela and Angela Davis, the beat comes in. The groove is based on a funky drumbeat sample of Bahamian percussionist King Erricsons cover of The Doobie Brothers classic, “Listen to the Music.” The heavy fatback funk drumming is supplanted in this case by the prominent mix of King Erricsons hand drums. It creates a very similar effect to another prominent Hip Hop sample, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searcher’s “Ashley’s Roadclip.” Very soon after the drumbeat comes in, we’re hit by the sweet chorus, a female voice crooning “Ooooh/Ladies First/Ladies First”. The next time around another vocal comes in that harmonizes the first. After that sweet refrain, the music intensifies it’s aggressive funk, as a funky bass line comes in, which will repeat its one bar pattern for the song, and the top end is taken care of by a horn sample of five notes playing a syncopated melody. Latifah kicks in the door hard like Big Daddy Kane, “The ladies will kick it/The Rhyming is wicked/Those that don’t know/how to be pros/get evicted/A woman can bear you/break you/take you/Now its time to rhyme/can you relate to?/A sister dope enough to make you/Holler and Scream”, before she turns the mic over to the super fresh London born M.C Monie Love, one of my great crushes of that era! Monie gets on the mic and spits some super fresh, tongue twisting syncopated rhymes ending with “Let me state the position/Ladies first yes?/Yes.” After another short chorus interlude, Monie comes back rapping another verse, which she ends with “we are the ones to give birth/to a new generation of prophets/cause its Ladies First!” Queen Latifah follows her with a “lyrical freestyle” much looser than the tense rhymes of her first verse, and one of my favorite rhymes in the song is her call and response couplet, “Some think that we cant flow. Monie Love: “Cant Flow? Stereotypes they’ve got to go, Monie Love: “Got to go”. The South African Apartheid footage of the video is intersperesed with Latifah in a darkened conference room pushing giant African fist chest pieces off the map, as well as shots of Latifah’s two B-Girl dancers. Latifah and Monie go on to drop fleet lounged rhymes as the video features other female rappers of the day such as BDP’s Miss Melodie, who was KRS ONE’s wife at that time! Latifah ends the song with a freestyle lyric in a very laid back cadence where she speaks of the songs producer, DJ Mark the 45 King wanting her to “sing”, which she would go on to do later in her career in classics like “Just Another Day” and in her career as Dana Owens.
“Ladies First” made an incredible impression on me as a young dude, to see beautiful Black sisters rhyming so competently and invoking both the history of great Black women in America as well as how that connected to the struggles in South Africa. It did something to me to see all those Black people running from the Afrikaner cops in the days of Apartheid. In one of the great ironies of Hip Hop, Latifah’s rhymes were co written by a member of the Flavor Unit named Apache, who went on to have a hit with a song a few years later called “I want to Gangster Boogie with my Gangster Bitch.” That transition in itself pretty much summed up where Hip Hop went after the golden age, with the same MC who penned lyrics for this song penning “Gangster Bitch.” Apache pretty much renounced that part of his career in the later years of his life though. But no matter, I am thankful that Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First” formed a positive, strong attitude about Black women for me in my formative years. I remember my Dad, who was only impressed with Hip Hop when it was weighty or just so funny it could be enjoyed in a disposable way, enjoying this song on that video show back in 1989, and being shocked by its sophisticated potrayal of Black history and the then current struggles in South Africa. And no matter how far I or Hip Hop have strayed, I’m thankful that songs like “Ladies First” provided my foundation in the music and culture, as opposed to the negativity that often came later.