Lolita Shanté Gooden grew up in the notorious Queensbridge “The Bridge” Projects of New York. As legend has it, she overheard local DJs and fellow Queensbridgians Marley Marl, Mr. Magic, and “Fly” Tyrone Williams complaining about rap were-thens UTFO skipping out on a show that the three of them had been promoting. A 14-or-16-year-old Gooden offered to cut a diss track for the promoters. Having had previous luck with an answer track to Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.s” by Marl’s ex-girlfriend called “Sucker DJs,” they were game to record one with Gooden. Marley Marl queued up the instrumental for UTFO B-side “Roxanne, Roxanne,” Gooden laid down her fierce verses (freestyling off the top of her head, or so the story goes) from the point-of-view of the titular girl, and they called the track “Roxanne’s Revenge.1” Roxanne Shante was born, and with her, the legendary Juice Crew.
By 1984, when Roxanne’s Revenge was released, Marley Marl, Mr. Magic, and Fly Ty had already established themselves with a regionally popular radio show called “Rap Attack,” the first all-rap program on a major radio station (which, yes, you might recognize from the lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy -- it was a big deal). Marl DJed, Mr. Magic hosted, and Fly Ty produced. In the wake of Roxanne’s Revenge’s success, a scene began to form around them. Eventually, the posse they dubbed the “Juice Crew” (after Sir Juice, one of Mr. Magic’s many aliases) grew to envelop luminaries like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, MC Shan, Masta Ace, and, of course, Shante herself. Marley Marl made the beats and Williams released their recordings, which would become part of the very fabric of hip-hop, on his Warner-distributed Cold Chillin’ Records.
And Roxanne’s Revenge sure was successful. It sold over 250,000 copies in the New York area. Diss tracks will almost always attract some attention, but this was special. It’s no wonder: I have listened to more than my share of rap, and there are few performances from her era or otherwise as mind-boggling as the one Shante laid down on this track. She barely takes a breath. There’s barely a hook. It’s just five ceaseless minutes of downright incredible, prodigious, and (for its time) filthy rapping.
Listening to it now, you’d think that “Revenge” would have left them speechless. But in fact, the track launched an all-out melee of diss tracks and answer records that collectively became known as the “Roxanne Wars.” First, Shante’s track inspired UTFO to enlist Elease Jack as “The Real Roxanne” and fire back with a track of the same name, which was another hit. Then, Sparky D got in on the action with her song “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne You’re Through).” Soon enough, just about everyone with some kind of access to two turntables and a microphone was getting in on the action. There were songs about this Roxanne character from all points-of-view: brothers, sisters, parents. I would hazard a guess that The Police were sampled heavily.
The Roxanne Wars raged on. Her next single, the equally impressive Queen of Rox, alluded to them, and an official battle between Shante and Sparky D was even released. But the public’s enthusiasm for Roxanne records, as it will, faded pretty quickly -- especially as another (and, admittedly, much more significant) feud flared up between Queensbridge and the Bronx over hip-hop’s birthplace2. Luckily for Shante, she had hitched her wagon to some of the brightest rap stars of her time. She spent the better part of the ‘80s continuing her damn near impeccable run of singles within the Warner Bros. sphere, including collaborations with the diabolical Biz Markie (Def Fresh Crew, 1985), Steady B (I’m Fly Shante, 1985), the, uh, National Center for Runaway and Missing Exploited Children (Runaway, 1985), and an appearance on the soundtrack for Dennis Hopper’s Colors (Go On Girl, 1988). She even appeared to drop a few bars on Rick James’ 1988 hit, Loosey’s Rap. In 1989, Cold Chillin’ released her debut album, Bad Sister, which was a minor success. On the follow-up, 1992’s the Bitch is Back, she dropped the Roxanne (but not her flow with it: Allmusic actually picks this album as her best.3)
It’s easy to lose sight of the real people behind mystical, mythical scenes like the Juice Crew in the mid-’80s and conflate them with their legendary personas. The inspiring fact of the matter is that Gooden was a teenage mother by the age of 14. She retired from the recording industry at age 25 to pursue her education and, in 1995, received a degree from Marymount Manhattan College. She is still active in the Queensbridge community. Of course, you can drop the Roxanne from the Shante, but you can’t drop the Shante from the Roxanne (something like that). While she doesn’t record, she has continued to pop up every once in awhile, making occasional appearances and performances for stuff like VH1’s Ms. Rap Supreme and those ever-rappin’ Sprite commercials.
I struggled for a long time over whether or not to qualify Roxanne Shante as a “female” rapper. Does it matter, I wondered, that she’s a woman and a hip-hop artist, or just that she’s a hip-hop artist? It’s a delicate line to walk. Rap fans and artists alike have an unfortunately long history of marginalizing and sexualizing female rappers, and dwelling on her gender has the potential to be part of the problem. But it’s important. Whether speaking out against domestic violence, directly responding to the indefatigable come-ons of her male peers, or successfully navigating her way out of the projects, she provided a positive woman’s voice in a culture that drastically needed one. Ignoring Shante’s gender in the name of mature discourse would be dishonest. She was a pioneer. As a female, she blazed a trail for everyone from MC Lyte to Nicki Minaj. 4 As a rapper, she could go tete-a-tete with the best of them. Everyone knows it’s her: The R-O-X-A-N-N-E.
1 UTFO was understandably salty that Marl had used a version of their beat for the track. The version that got popular had a different one.
2 Today’s hip-hop historians and KRS-ONE tend to agree: It’s the Bronx.
4 Minaj, for what it’s worth, released her own diss track entitled “Roman’s Revenge.” A tribute to Shante? Perhaps: http://www.vibe.com/article/roxanne-shant%C3%A9-compares-romans-revenge-roxannes-revenge-im-honored