Photo by Raymond Colon
As Nadirah Simmons was writing and researching for her upcoming book First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed the Game, she found inspiration watching many of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop celebrations last year on BET and MTV. She loved seeing rap pioneers be honored, but she had a major critique: most of them were solely focused on music. She remembered watching Living Single as a child and relishing in fellow New Jersey native Queen Latifah’s comedic chops. Or being in her dad’s clothing store in South Jersey, which incited her love for Hip-Hop fashion. For her, that’s Hip-Hop history, too.
She wanted her book to encompass all that the culture has offered throughout the years and how women have been at the forefront of its evolution.
“I just think so many of the things that I love and enjoy really intersect with this culture,” she tells Teen Vogue over Zoom. “There’s so much overlap, and I wanted to highlight all of these different spaces, from TV and film to the music, to the awards and the accolades to fashion, to show all of these women who’ve impacted this space [but] either don’t get their credit, we don’t talk about [them] or we just want to know more.”
Women in rap aren’t only making Hip-Hop more interesting, Simmons says. They are and have been the overlooked touchstones for pushing each phase of the culture forward without even fully realizing it — or being appreciated for it. Her debut book First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed the Game does just that. Released January 30 via Twelve, First Things First honors the literal and figurative firsts of women who’ve shaped Hip-Hop history. It celebrates the most obvious choices and the outliers, from the rappers to the rap critics.The fashion stylists and the savants.
Her book features conversational essays on artists like Georgia soul singer Millie Jackson, whose spoken word performances on her earlier tracks made many consider her as “rap’s first mother.” There are also chapters dedicated to the likes of Lil’ Kim, April Walker, Dee Barnes and more. And no, this is not your typical history book that caters to esoteric tastes. It includes handy crossword puzzles, text message threads, and fun suggestions about different subjects, like Simmons’ list of Megan Thee Stallion songs that could be made into films (the comedy Plan B would star Megan and Regina Hall as they compete for the highest grade in a graduate class).
The depths of Simmons’ love for women in rap knows no limits. She can tell you just why and how Mary J. Blige and Lil Kim are Hip-Hop pioneers with the cadence of a longtime fan and a devoted student. It’s that fervor that inspired the South Jersey native to create The Gumbo, a social club and blog for uplifting Black women in rap, in 2018. Simmons previously served on the social media team for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where her love for blending Internet savvy trends and pop culture bloomed. All roads in Simmons’ journey brought her to First Things First.
Teen Vogue talked to Simmons about her new book, rap beefs, the pantheon of women in rap, and the significance of preserving these stories.
First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed the Game
Teen Vogue: How did you transition from learning about women in Hip-Hop to documenting them?
Nadirah Simmons: I definitely think it went from loving it to wanting to preserve it in college [at Rutgers]. When I was writing my thesis [on female rappers and sexuality] and doing research, I would get mad because I'm like, “How do I not know about this person, and they're so important?” For me, doing that research for that thesis, I was like, “Hey, if I love this culture so much, and I didn't hear this person before I research my book, I can guarantee that I'm not the only one out there.” Especially when it comes to women in hip hop, and specifically Black women in Hip-Hop, our contributions often get forgotten or they get ignored entirely either because somebody didn't think it was worth documenting, somebody didn't know any better, or because there's just no documentation of it, period.
TV: In the intro, you mention Missy Elliott’s “Pussycat” piqued your interest in learning more about women in rap. What was it about that song that made you want to do that?
NS: I discovered it in middle school. My parents were very cool. We listened to a lot of the same music together. I’d go through [Foxy Brown’s] Ill Na Na booklet in the house. I'd go through [Lil’ Kim’s] Hard Core booklet. They had me tapped in. But it was something about being able to listen to “Pussycat.” I had downloaded it myself. Being able to listen to that in my own headphones alone, it kind of clicked [for me]. I think a lot of the Missy songs and a lot of the ways people talk about Missy, [people] kind of forget that she made songs that are sexual. Even for me, I was like, Oh, this is not “Pass That Dutch.” This is a very sexual song. I think all of those things in my head kind of just clicked for me, especially because it was such a singular experience where it was really just me alone, jamming and playing it over and over and over. I just wanted to know more.
TV: In the book, you don’t just honor the literal firsts, but the figurative firsts. What influenced that decision?
NS: Yeah, I think the idea of being first sometimes can be a little disheartening, especially when we're in the midst of awards season. They're like, this is the first Black woman to do this in this many year, and I'll be like, “Dang, like, that's kind of trash.” When you think about somebody like Dee Barnes and the fact that she paved the way for a lot of the Hip-Hop shows that we have today, and especially for Black women to be in the position to do that, I think you got to tell that story. The idea of what someone has contributed goes beyond simply them just being the first person in line, but the fact that hey, this person has an influence.
TV: Is there a certain chapter that was the hardest to write?
NS: The Lil’ Kim chapter was the hardest one to write, which is crazy. I think she's so important and so influential. It was so hard. And I think it was so hard because I know so much about her. Because I read so much about her. I'm like, How can I contribute? Part of that chapter is [styled as] a text message conversation now, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. I don't even know how many times I wrote that chapter. I wrote an entire 10 to 15 pages and then just deleted it all and then wrote like 12 pages and deleted it. That one was so hard because I just couldn't couldn't hone in on what I was trying to say about her being the first blueprint for the modern woman rappers.
TV: Were there women in the book whom you really wanted to include but couldn’t?
NS: If I get support for the first book, I can write one that includes some of those women because I didn't want to force some of the ideas, and I also wanted the book to remain in line with the concept of the firsts. There are a lot of first ladies [of labels], so we’re going to have 25 first lady chapters? I really wanted to do something on Mia X, but I was like how can you stretch what you're trying to talk about beyond her just being the first lady of No Limit [Records] — because it is extremely important, but there’s something else there. I tried for months, and it just wasn't coming. She’s still highlighted in the book, though.
TV: What do you hope that this book provides for readers?
NS: I want them to leave reading this book, knowing women in Hip-Hop are not just the rappers. There are so many different realms and spaces that they have touched. And the woman who rapped that you do know about you might not know this, and you might not understand why that meme or whatever someone tweeted on the anniversary of Hard Core and about Lil’ Kim’s fashion, you might not understand why it's more important than just this tweet you saw with thousands of retweets and likes. You might not get why Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation is so important, until you maybe have read this or heard it talked about in a different way.
TV: If you had to name this chapter of today’s female rappers, what would it be?
NS: I would call it a gumbo, honestly, because there are so many different women from so many different places. Everyone doesn't look the same. There's so much representation. It's great to kind of see the influence of those pioneers on a lot of the women today and just see people try different things. You get the drill rap with the girls and get the dirty south rap with the girls and get the West Coast style.
TV: Do you think the current rap beefs between female rappers hurt or help them?
NS: I think the Internet plays a very nasty role. I say this in the book, when you think about beef in Hip-Hop, when it stays “safe,” — and when I say safe, I mean obviously not getting to a point where somebody is no longer here — I think can bring out a lot of great lyricism. When I was researching the book, I watched a clip of Roxanne Shanté. She was talking about rap beef. She was like when you're shooting at somebody, you got to put a name on that. You have to let everybody know what it is. Rap beef gives us a lot of great music, but I think sometimes we see people arguing over stan-created lines and stan-created stories and fabricated stuff. That is the stuff to me where I’m just like, no… after a certain point, if no one’s going to name a name, then I’m just like I don’t know (about that). But I do hope that we kind of remove ourselves from letting stan and Internet culture create this chaos.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue
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