Although women have always had a presence in the hip-hop scene and rap music, they've found it hard to get a real toehold in a genre heavily based on boastful macho toughness. From Roxanne Shanté to MC Lyte to Missy Elliott, they've had to fight to make their voices heard. And local artists also face the barrier of lack of venues to sharpen their skills and outlets to expose their music.
Here in Cleveland, where only a handful of rap artists have made a lasting mark, George Goins has kept his Kings of the Iron Mic showcase series going for an incredible ten years, averaging three to four a year. And each March, he devotes that showcase to the ladies, with Queens of the Iron Mic. He recalls that the spring of 1999 when he started the series, "There wasn't a ton of hip-hop stuff going on. I was in this band, Erie Division, and we put out a full-length CD. It was like this would be a good opportunity to promote ourselves and other artists in a city going through the same thing we was. It would give local artists an outlet."
Presented at the old Peabody's DownUnder in the Flats, the first show drew about 400 people, says Goins, even though he admits he barely knew what he was doing. He learned from his mistakes, developing a following via heavy flyering and word of mouth. Now, the shows have ended up semi-permanently at the Grog Shop, although he's also done them at the Beachland, the Phantasy and even Pat's in the Flats. And his network of artists has expanded so that he's able to put new performers on each show, mixed in with the most impressive of the previous performers. He's also diversified the performers, mixing in singers and spoken-word artists such as Tache', whom he discovered at the B-Side's monthly open mics, with the rappers.
The Queens show at the Grog Shop on March 21 features both diversity and a mix of old and new. Columbus' Dominique Larue performed last year, and neo-soul singer Nginafayola and MC Indica each performed on previous shows. Chevy Blue, Carma, Tache', Mami La Fema Lyricist, the Real Skittlez and Latina pop/R&B vocalist Melissa "Cha Cha" Figueroa are newer discoveries.
Perhaps the most impressive is the Guyana-born, Lakewood-based Nginafayola, a singer-songwriter-guitarist whose tunes incorporate elements of folk, jazz, rock, pop, soul, techno and world music. Although she's working similar territory as performers like Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello and India.Arie, she's got a unique style and voice, like a startling cross between Nina Simone and Siouxsie Sioux. Deftly jugging electronic and acoustic elements, her earthy alto gives the tunes backbone and dark, alluring gravity. Those tunes range from the techno-influenced dream-buzz of "Superficial" to the almost goth-like rocker "Downfall" to the sensual, sophisticated jazz-cabaret vibe of "Cry Like a Baby." Goins says she'll perform with a live band.
Figueroa, on the other hand, layers her smooth, sexy vocals over slickly produced tracks of romantic dance-pop tunes. "Crush" and "Love4U" wouldn't be out of place amidst Mariah Carey and Rihanna, while "Click Grind" is an engaging come-on, with its Latin/hip-hop vibe enhancing her cooing vocals. The confident Larue cites such performers as Lauryn Hill, Outkast and a Tribe Called Quest as influences. She displays a biting but musical flow in her smart tracks that often feed off soul vocals. Tracks like "The Best" and "Grammy Family" show off her strong, crisp projection. Other rappers on the show, like Mami La Fema Lyricist and Chevy Blue, also display distinctive personalities. Mami is flirty, flinty and sassy on catchy tracks like "Snap Take My Picture," while Chevy is swaggering and more than a little gangsta as she throws down her won't-back-down challenge on "Battle Me." Goins says he discovered her last September when he promoted a "Kings vs. Queens" battle. "She was really dope, so we wanted to bring her back," says Goins.
"These shows are fun," says Goins. "It's a lot harder [to find female talent]. Even in mainstream music there's no real female MCs. But they're definitely around; you have to keep your ear to the street."
Queens of the Iron Mic 9 p.m. Saturday, March 21 Grog Shop 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd. 216.321.5588 Tickets: $10 grogshop.gs