At just before 2 a.m. one December night in 1984, the voice of a young but tenacious-sounding girl broke across the New York airwaves on Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, one of just two radio shows devoted to rap in the city. There was nothing slick about it: no hook or melody over the crunchy boom-bap beat -- just four straight minutes of rhyming from an MC who called herself Roxanne. “I hope you got that on tape,” said host Mr. Magic, “because you might never hear it again.”
He couldn't have been more wrong. "Roxanne Speaks Out," the debut single from 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden -- soon to become known as Roxanne Shanté -- would ignite both the career of rap’s first female star and hip-hop’s first recorded beef: the Roxanne Wars, a yearlong saga that would follow Shanté and her rivals from 12-inch records traded around New York to opening slots on arena tours. A new biopic, Roxanne, Roxanne, co-produced by Pharrell Williams and debuting March 23 on Netflix, explores the now-48-year-old MC’s improbable story, including the abuses she had to overcome as a precocious teenager growing up in Queensbridge, the largest housing project in America, and as a child in a ruthless industry.
What’s only implied in the film, though, is how Shanté’s overnight success marked a turning point in the early days of hip-hop -- the first time a woman forced the male-dominated genre to listen up and pay respect. Before Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, Eve and Lil’ Kim, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa, Shanté battled her way to the top of the game by fearlessly going toe to toe with men onstage and on wax, all while moving hip-hop further toward the mainstream.
"It was the inciting incident for popular attention [to focus] on a female MC not as some decorated add-on chick, but as the main attraction," says Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. But despite their impact, the Roxanne Wars -- and Shanté’s pivotal role -- began underground and have since receded from all but the most dedicated hip-hop fans’ memories, partially because the genre itself was so young when she emerged.
On a recent afternoon, Shanté is seated inside New York’s genteel London hotel, ready to go deep on her personal chapter of rap history. "Even before they decided to call it 'hip-hop,' I think I’ve always been a rapper," she says, halfheartedly stirring Splenda into a cup of green tea before confessing that she prefers the real thing. Her hair is in a polished pouf echoing her formerly signature ponytail, and she wears a pink floral sweater and black leather leggings -- a sophisticated look punctuated with one hint at her heyday: a gold chain with a pendant of a man performing cunnilingus.
Growing up in Queensbridge -- the Long Island City home to later hip-hop legends like Nas and Mobb Deep -- was about "being able to rhyme all the time about anything," she says. "Hearing other people battling from the window and thinking, 'Just wait until my turn comes.'"
It didn't take long: Shanté's natural flair for freestyling and competitive edge quickly became apparent in battles on the block, and family and friends started taking her around the city to compete for money at other housing projects, community centers and clubs. These supporters would front the entry fee, and her mother would give them a commission after she inevitably won. "I'd almost become this prizefighter," says Shanté. She was still in middle school, and regularly winning against older boys -- and men.
"The fact that she was a woman was great and exciting. No one had done that on record before," says author and filmmaker Nelson George, who was then Billboard’s R&B columnist. Some even insist that no beef -- on wax or off -- has since matched the Roxanne Wars. "Nobody could touch Shanté," says Tyrone "Fly Ty" Williams, Mr. Magic’s producer at the time. "As excellent a performer as [pioneering Brooklyn rapper] Big Daddy Kane was and is, he’s not Shanté."
But as far as Shanté was concerned, resting on her laurels was never an option. "Even after I started making records, I still had such a battle mentality," says Shanté -- who now lives in New Jersey, co-running an education nonprofit, and occasionally performs. "I didn't want to be second best, I didn't want to be the best girl -- I wanted to be the best."
While Shanté was becoming one of New York’s most feared freestylers, her lifelong neighbor from across the way, Marlon Williams, aka DJ Marley Marl, was learning to mix records, scratch and make beats on his Roland TR-808 drum machine, DJ'ing for Rap Attack on WHBI.
Though "you had to put a hanger on top of the antenna and make sure that it pointed the right way" to hear the show, according to producer Tyrone Williams (no relation), Mr. Magic’s pay-to-play show was a must-listen. "They talk about Kool Herc and [Afrika Bambaataa]," says Williams, referencing the Bronx DJs most often associated with hip-hop’s genesis. "Yeah, they gave parties. But Magic took it to the airwaves and put it where everybody could hear it. Suddenly, it wasn't just a block or neighborhood thing anymore."
As such, Mr. Magic, Williams and Marley Marl wielded remarkable influence. When the fledgling Brooklyn rap group UTFO came with its first single, "Hangin' Out," just before Thanksgiving in 1984, the Rap Attack crew decided they would rather play the B-side -- a song called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” about a fictional woman who had somehow resisted all four members' advances, and which Mr. Magic thought had hit potential.
"It blew up," says UTFO’s Kangol Kid, aka Shaun Shiller Fequiere. "While everyone else was talking about how much money they had and how many cars they owned, we said that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't get this young lady. That was keeping it real -- everyone had a Roxanne in their world."
UTFO offered to do a Harlem concert promoted by Mr. Magic, which, given the song’s success, promised to be a much-needed financial boon to Magic, Williams and Marley Marl, who were still barely making ends meet. But when the city’s other on-air destination for rap, Kool DJ Red Alert’s show on the former WRKS (Kiss-FM), added "Roxanne, Roxanne," UTFO backed out -- the point at which the story becomes legend.
"We were expecting this Christmas money, and now we ain’t got it," says Williams. "We’re discussing this problem in front of Marley’s building, and some little girl says, 'Why don’t you let me make a tape dissing them?' I say, 'Go away, little girl, we got bigger problems.'" The girl, of course, was Shanté. The next day, Marley Marl recorded her freestyling over the "Roxanne, Roxanne" beat in his apartment, in exchange for jeans from his then-employer Sergio Valente.
"Since it wasn't a battle, I didn't think that anything was going to come of it,” Shanté says now. "In battles, I was rhyming for 30 to 40 minutes, so four minutes was nothing for me. I stuck with the storyline, and the next morning I was 'Roxanne.'" She never needed the jeans: After Mr. Magic’s crew played "Roxanne Speaks Out" -- soon officially renamed "Roxanne’s Revenge" -- on their show, all four of them instantly became local celebrities.
As Shanté systematically dissed each UTFO member in turn, raunchy lines like "All he want to do is just-a bust a cherry" helped camouflage her youth. Within weeks, the scratchy tape that still had Mr. Magic’s signature on-air tags was pressed into a 12-inch by Philadelphia’s Pop Art Records -- one that eventually had to be rerecorded with a new beat after UTFO’s label, Select, sent a cease-and-desist letter. But there wasn't time to get clearances: The combination of "Roxanne, Roxanne" and "Roxanne’s Revenge" proved irresistible.
"Male rappers felt like I was throwing things off," says Shanté. "If the best in the game is a little girl, then rap is no longer going to be seen as this masculine thing." She wasn't just subverting the hierarchy of hip-hop, but the genre’s gender norms as well. Men felt threatened; fans loved the novelty of hearing a girl take such an aggressive stance. "That’s what made it," adds Williams. "If it was some guy dissing another guy, it would not have had the same effect -- but nobody had ever heard a girl rap like that before."
Roxanne Shanté performed her first show under her new name that December, at a grungy Brooklyn club called Bee’s Castle. She was on enemy turf: This was UTFO’s borough. "There were so many people who I felt didn't like me," Shanté recalls now. "But somebody was like, 'Oh, she’s pretty,' and I was like, 'OK, that’s one person.' I opened up my mouth, and after that I never looked back."
By January 1985, Shanté was getting booked alongside UTFO. "We’re saying to ourselves, 'You’re not even the girl we’re talking about -- she doesn't exist!'" says Fequiere, laughing. "But she called us out by name on the record, and we do exist. We took that personally." The group plotted its own answer record, finding another female MC, Adelaida Martinez, to cosign as "The Real Roxanne." Meanwhile, Brooklyn rapper Doreen "Sparky D" Broadnaux decided to come to bat for her friends in UTFO with a song called "Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne You’re Through)": "It’s good you stood them up, or they’d be in jail/’Cause you sound like you’re fresh out of junior high school." But even Broadnaux was a Shanté fan. "We just heard this little squeaky, crackly voice, and we were like, 'What in the world?'" she recalls of hearing "Roxanne’s Revenge" for the first time. "But it was very catchy."
At a moment when it was next to impossible to even get rap on the radio -- and when the industry still lumped it in the category of "black" music -- UTFO’s "Roxanne, Roxanne" managed to break through to the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 79 in March 1985. That same month, "Roxanne’s Revenge" peaked at No. 22 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (then called Hot Black Singles). At around the same time, the sales-driven Hot Dance/Disco 12-inch chart debuted, with "Roxanne’s Revenge," "Roxanne, Roxanne" and "The Real Roxanne" all in the top 10. The feud was a sensation, and new answer records flooded in from around the country: "The Parents of Roxanne," "Yo, My Little Sister (Roxanne’s Brothers)," "Roxy (Roxanne’s Sister)" and "The Final Word -- No More Roxanne (Please)."
"It became a hip-hop soap opera -- everyone had an episode," says Fequiere. Of the responses, which some estimates put at nearly 100, Shanté has a soft spot for "Do It Ricardo (Roxanne’s Man)" by Ricardo & Chocolate Boogie. "It was one of the first records that defended me," she says. (To Sparky D, Ricardo rapped: "Compared to Roxanne, you’re a dragon queen.") "So what that the other 85 were against me? There was one that was for me."
During the course of the year, the hit led to national tours featuring Shanté, first in skating rinks, and then, within months, in arenas: Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack meets New Edition, and Fresh Fest, one of hip-hop’s first major festivals. Shanté, UTFO, The Real Roxanne and Sparky D were often a package deal, and soon, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane and MC Shan would join what became known as The Juice Crew. The Roxanne feud, though, remained the initial draw, one that both Shanté and Fequiere compare to wrestling. "Like the WWE: That’s all fake, but it’s entertainment," says Fequiere, though he clarifies that during the Roxanne Wars, much of the offstage tension was real. "There was no conversation, nothing between us. Just a lot of glares and snarls."
Whether because of her proclivity for dissing anyone and everyone or her status as the lone girl among a crew of older men, Shanté emerged as the heel of the tour, but she embraced the role. "For some reason, the bad guy’s entrance is always better," she says. "If I’m the villain in this, then yeah, I’m the motherfucking villain! That was the only way to overcome that feeling of being a little girl, of feeling like it was me against the world." And it was, often literally: An LP called The Complete Story of Roxanne...The Album included a "Rap Your Own Roxanne" track, fodder for citywide contests to find the local Roxanne. The winner was awarded the unpleasant task of battling Shanté onstage. "Shanté would tear them apart," recalls Williams.
Shanté returned to what was then known as the Hot Black Singles chart in 1988 with a guest verse on Rick James' "Loosey's Rap," and she released two studio albums on Warner Music. But by the mid-’90s, her star had faded. Mainstream hip-hop expanded beyond interborough scrapping, and Shanté’s style -- coming out swinging every single time, dissing just about everyone in the business -- isolated her, while outside the studio, the pressures of being a young mother in an abusive relationship (as detailed in the movie) weighed heavily. "Considering how good she was, I’m sad she didn't have a bigger career," says George.
But today, as hip-hop’s canonical recordings and trailblazers get the academic and pop-culture treatment, Shanté is finally receiving some long-overdue recognition. At a time when rap was just getting started, her imagination, spontaneity and seemingly unbreakable confidence made her the ideal MC -- and the blueprint for any woman who would come after. For Shanté, the ultimate prize was never chart position, but pride. "I wanted to be able to rhyme about anything, at any time," she says. "To be the perfect hip-hop soldier."