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[Originally published earlier this year in Re/action magazine]

In a 1997 interview for British television, rapper Ma$e was asked by a female interviewer why his (and many other hip-hop artists') videos contained so much booty-wiggling. He replied in a lazy drawl: "Well if you don't like the song, then at least you've got something to look at." The song he was promoting at the time, "Feel So Good", featured many recognisable hip-hop tropes: a big shiny car, sparkling jewellery, dazzling lights and a large number of scantily-clad women shaking their derrieres in slow motion, for the benefit of a man wearing sunglasses in the dark. Ma$e's comments may have been charmingly self-deprecating in terms of his music, but with one sentence he confirmed a long-suspected view of American hip-hop videos: they are a feminist's nightmare.

Hip-hop videos weren't always so blinging and bootylicious. In the '80s and early '90s, most hip-hop artists didn't have the budgets or the clout to hire top video directors. Instead the focus was on showing off young talent in an everyday setting -- kids spinning around on their backs on pavements, executing tremendous dance routines or bumping their car suspension up and down on the street. Given the racial tensions in LA and other American cities at the time, artists often had a political message and were keen to show an accurate depiction of ordinary life for poor black people. It was only once hip-hop gained mainstream acceptance in the mid-90s that huge record sales, chart success and major label signings translated into a demand for MTV-friendly videos.

Step forward Harold 'Hype' Williams, director of over 100 hip-hop and R'n'B videos between 1995 and 1999, including Ma$e's "Feel So Good". He has made videos for LL Cool J, Nas, Blackstreet, Notorious B.I.G., Montell Jordan and P Diddy -- nearly every big hip-hop artist that crossed over into the pop charts in the '90s had at least one Hype video. A former graffiti artist, Hype's distinctive shooting style used a fish eye lens to focus in on the central rapper and distort the dimensions of any nubile ladies that happened to be passing, and there were plenty of those. It's safe to say that Hype was a bit of a randy old bugger.

Although Hype was responsible for some memorable videos not entirely centered around bums (such as Dr Dre's __Mad Max__ epic "California Love" and Faith Evans' colourful roller disco "Love Like This"), the vast majority followed the same tried-and-tested formula. Usually set at night, the subject would swig champagne in VIP club or drive around a brightly-lit city, showing off their newly-acquired wealth and power. Male rappers would have several fawning ladies slowly gyrating around them, making absolutely sure that their heterosexuality was not in doubt. Their fame and wealth could not only buy bottles of Kristal and VIP club access, but the affection of beautiful young women, who were just another a status symbol.

From 1999 onwards Hype dropped the fish eye lens in favour of solid colour backgrounds and widescreen envelopes (see Ja Rule's "Holla Holla" and Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin"), but the booty was here to stay, and Hype's female dancers started wearing fewer and fewer clothes in order to outdo his previous efforts. In 1995, Montell Jordan's backing dancers in "This Is How We Do It" are wearing hoodies and tracksuit bottoms. By the time we get to Kanye West's "Gold Digger" (2005) the ladies can barely keep their underwear on.

Other directors feel they have little choice but to follow in Hype's footsteps. It's an unusual hip-hop video these days that doesn't feature at least one of the following: a) an expensive club b) an expensive car c) women's bums. The tropes have easily spread to dance music videos too, thanks to the success of anonymous producers like Benny Benassi and Eric Prydz, who required a 'strong visual image' to make up for their own lack of visibility.

While American hip-hop was celebrating its new found success, British rappers were still mostly caught up in the dance, reggae and electronica scenes that had a very different culture. Without major label support, most British hip-hop artists weren't even able to afford to get clearance for their samples, let alone make high-budget videos bragging about non-existent material wealth and status. Instead they used humour and technical tricks to make interesting videos. Mr Scruff produced his own films featuring animated Cornish pasties, while Roots Manuva brilliantly sent himself up in "Witness (One Hope)" by returning to his primary school sports day and taking great pleasure in winning the egg and spoon race, ahead of a class of eight-year-old kids. It's only in the last few years that UK rappers like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Tinchy Stryder have gained enough commercial success and household notoriety that they feel the need to have buxom wenches draped over themselves like their American equivalents. Compare their mainstream success with that of the female MCs who came from the same grime background in the early 2000s: Stush, Lady Sovereign and Ms Dynamite (to name but a few) have all but disappeared from the UK consciousness.

American female rappers have fared much better. The big exception in Hype's tits-and-ass videography is obviously Missy Elliott. The pair made six videos together, and although most of them still feature a set of good-looking backing dancers jogging around in their pants, they are merely a sideline to Elliott's futuristic bin-liner costumes, day-glo missions to the moon and waterproof cyborg armour. It made a welcome change from boring old nightclubs and flashy cars.

Elliott was also the exception when it came to her female contemporaries. Foxy Brown, Eve and Lil' Kim were conventionally prettier (read: thinner) and took full advantage of their looks when it came to furthering their careers. It's hard to criticise their choices: if you are rapping about sex, it makes sense to include sex as a theme in your videos. However if sex is the __only__ thing women are rapping about or visually portraying, it becomes increasingly difficult to break the stereotype that women are either obsessed with sex or should be willing to submit to male objectification. Hip-hop culture has contributed more than its fair share to the saturation of sexualised imagery in the wider world, and the repercussions of this should not be underestimated -- from 'harmless' adverts for beauty products to domestic violence at the other extreme. Is it fair to ask female rappers to take responsibility for this? Can we really blame them for trying to be successful in a male-dominated industry, by any means that they can? Should we be more worried about how __boring__ hip-hop videos have become? How did rap manage before the advent of booty?

Before Hype Williams was out of short trousers, Salt N Pepa became the first female rap group to go platinum, selling over 15 million records over their career while maintaining a strong feminist message. Cheryl "Salt" James, Sandra "Pepa" Denton and Deidra "Spinderella" Roper also made a run of excellent music videos. "Everybody Get Up" sees James round up a gang of streetwise girls to out-dance some young hoodlums who have dissed her ("on the mic like a pitbull terrier - but I'm scarier!"). It's done in a very confrontational, tense manner, each side sizing each other up before making a move. In "Tramp", James and Denton fend off unwanted male attention with a roll of their eyes, unimpressed with being chatted up while they're just trying to have a nice quiet drink. In their cover of "Twist & Shout" the band spoof the Beatles and the Supremes while dressed as 60s bobbysockers, dragging the terrified boys onto the prom dancefloor. "Ain't Nuthin But A She Thang" (1995) was directed by Ellen Von Unwerth, and features James, Denton and Roper dressed as police officers, firefighters and astronauts -- as well as PVC-clad dominatrices leading a women's rally (of course). James yells out her feminist call-to-arms:

Now let me break it down to the marrow of the bone
I'm a female, and I got it goin' on
Don't be fooled by my S-E-X
It ain't that simple, I'm more complex
We've come a long way, and baby that's a fact
Let's keep moving forward, girls, never look back


Has feminist hip-hop moved forward? Salt'N'Pepa have long since disbanded, Foxy Brown is more known for her legal troubles than her music, and both Lil'Kim's and Missy Elliott's last studio albums were released in 2005. Where have the female rappers gone? Well, they're out there if you know where to look. Yo! Majesty are Shunda K and Jwl B: two foul-mouthed, lesbian, born-again Christian rappers from Florida who have collaborated with Peaches and toured with the Gossip. They may not be the band most suited to mainstream success, but if anyone is going to step into Salt N Pepa's shoes with regards to awesome feminist music videos, Yo! Majesty have already put their socks on. The video for the Booka Shade-sampling "Don't Let Go" follows the exploits of an ordinary office worker who has nodded off at her desk. Upon waking, she decides to sod work and go out dancing in a bright pink PVC jumpsuit. At first it looks like just another booty-wiggling session, but our heroine only visits female environments: a beauty salon, a yoga class, a solarium, a wedding dress shop and a life drawing class. She encourages everyone to join in and shake their moneymaker, just for the hell of it.

Yo! Majesty have a small, loyal following in the UK by aiming themselves at a certain subset of indie fans, but as a niche band their ideas aren't going to turn the tide of sexualised imagery in hip-hop. The dance-orientated 'jerk' scene is proving more successful in America. Jerk is proving to be a fantastic breeding ground for young female MC groups like The Bangz and Pink Dollaz (it's apparently mandatory for all jerk acts to end their name with a 'Z'). The low-budget jerk videos are eerily similar to the graffiti-and-breakdancing backdrop of 80s hip-hop, letting the talent do the talking. The Baby Dollz (Ana Lou & Bebe, both 16 years old) shot their video for "My Cookie" in an incredibly expensive chocolate shop in Beverly Hills, but the emphasis remained firmly on assembling as many teenagers as possible for a big dance party, gender being largely irrelevant. The sparse, home-made beats of jerk may be a bit harsh for non-American ears, but these young, smart rappers will be a force to be reckoned with once they're old enough to sign a proper record deal.

Only one woman is really grabbing global hip-hop by the balls in 2010. 26-year-old American-Trinidadian rapper Nicki Minaj is loud, aggressive and funny, and she has a reputation for running tongue-twisting rings around her male counterparts when guesting on their tracks. Standing 5'4" tall, Minaj's nickname for herself is "Barbie" and she's notafraid to wear tiny dresses with plenty of cleavage showing. She has been criticised for her sexual image by music journalists, despite recently stating that she has tried to tone it down: "I want people —- especially young girls -— to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal." However earlier this year, for her debut single "Massive Attack", Minaj enlisted (guess who!) Hype Williams to direct the video in his usual style. Minaj crawls through jungle undergrowth and shakes her booty as if her career depended in it, but closer inspection reveals a few key differences. The men in the video are body-popping freaks who are kept well away from Minaj, who is shown as a deadly force with a fierce army of pink-haired women and poisonous animals under her command. Her sexy poses are usually accompanied by exaggerated cartoon face-pulling and silly voices. It's a small step in the right direction: Minaj is attempting to make the balance of sex and female empowerment tip in her favour.

Women don't necessarily need to be aggressive to beat the system, but they'll have a far harder job doing it without aping the swagger of hip-hop's alpha males. Chicago rapper Kid Sister (aka 30-year-old Melisa Young) has a far less confrontational image than Minaj. She shies away from sexualised imagery while still remaining feminine (her best single to date is about nail varnish), but not a single one of her six singles has charted in the UK Top 40 or the US Hot 100, despite star guests like Kanye West and Cee-Lo Green. Kid Sister's fast-paced material is club-friendly and funny, but her record label seems unsure how to market her to the masses.

From a label's point of view, hip-hop will always be a business, and the point of a music video is to promote and sell records -- usually to men. If a political or non-sexual message doesn't fit in with the album's marketing campaign (or purchasing demographic) then it gets rewritten, or the artist gets quietly dropped. Independent labels are more likely to allow artistic freedom when it comes to videos, but their budgets and ability to acquire high profile directors is limited. So how can mainstream rappers go about changing the established norm to make their videos more female-friendly?

In 2010, more and more rappers are co-operating on each other's tracks. Nearly every big chart hip-hop tune has a 'featured' guest, usually of the opposite gender to the main artist to provide some sonic contrast or some sexual chemistry. Now the women are edging closer to getting equal billing, is their depiction in videos changing? It's hard to tell from Nicki Minaj's guest spot on Ludacris' "My Chick Bad", where she is restrained on a psychiatrist's couch wearing a pink wig and a Freddie Kruger razor blade glove. The female dancers grind around Ludacris in their bras as normal, while Minaj is deemed 'crazy' as she's a strong woman who's not interested in him. On the remix version though, Ludacris steps back and lets Eve, Trina and Diamond dominate his entire song. The three women sneer at the camera, like they're doing the viewer a favour by just turning up. It's great to watch, until you realise Eve is talking about her boob job, Diamond is worrying about how her arse looks and Trina is so sex-crazed they've had to bleep out half her verse. There's still a long way to go, and hip-hop's sex culture is still as complex as when Salt N Pepa were rapping about it 20 years ago.

Further watching:

Salt-N-Pepa - Everybody Get Up
Salt-N-Pepa - Ain't Nuthin' But A She Thang
Faith Evans - Love Like This
Roots Manuva - Witness (One Hope)
Mr Scruff - Get A Move On
Kid Sister - Daydreaming
Ludacris ft Nicki Minaj - My Chick Bad
Nicki Minaj - Massive Attack
Missy Elliott - Sock It 2 Me
Yo Majesty - Don't Let Go
Baby Dollz - My Cookie

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