In the 1980s, as hip-hop was budding in the streets of New York City, a teenage girl from the Queens projects emerged as one of the genre's first female stars. At 14, Lolita Shanté Gooden, better known as Roxanne Shante, was a fierce, freestyling rap prodigy.
Netflix's new musical biopic Roxanne Roxanne, streaming now, tells Shante's story — from her childhood in the projects, to her first rap battle with guys twice her age, to cementing her first underground hit. The film stars Nia Long, Mahershala Ali and Chanté Adams in the title role and is executive produced by Roxanne herself as well as Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker. Though the movie starts with the young MC already winning money at rap battles to support her family, Shante says she caught the rapping bug long before that. As a child, she remembers watching comedian Nipsey Russell rhyme on TV.
"It started with what I call the Nipsey Russell syndrome," Shante says, referring to the comedian's wordplay. "It's the ability to be able to rhyme about anything at any time."
By her early teens, Shante was out-rapping guys in her neighborhood. She recorded her seven-minute freestyle over UTFO's 1984 song "Roxanne Roxanne" in one take. Her version of the track was called "Roxanne's Revenge."
"It wasn't something that was planned out," she says, remembering that producer Marley Marl asked her to record the freestyle after seeing her on the way to to do laundry. Before she knew it, "Roxanne's Revenge" was all over New York radio. The track spawned response records and created a New York rap rivalry known as the Roxanne Wars. "Everyone wanted to be a Roxanne," she says.
As a young woman, Shante had even more naysayers than her male counterparts. She remembers that practically everyone — managers, record label execs and people on the street — looked at hip-hop as a passing fad and doubted her abilities on the mic. "They had an expiration date on hip-hop," she says.
Now, seeing these early moments of her career recreated on screen is a therapeutic experience for Shante.
"It gave me a visual of the things that I survived, the things that I've been through, the things that you can overcome if you don't give up," the rapper explains. "So, going back to Queensbridge is just a sign of me not giving up, and also allowing other children who may be in that same predicament to look at me and say, 'OK, she didn't give up and look at her' ... It's a beautiful thing to smell your flowers while you're here."
Roxanne speaks to NPR's Ailsa Chang about shooting the film in her old projects and the feminist aspect to her raps . Hear the conversation at the audio link.
Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to this story.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The new Netflix biopic "Roxanne Roxanne" tells the story of one of the first female stars in hip-hop history - Roxanne Shante. The film focuses on the beginning of her career when she was a freestyling, rapping prodigy in the Queensbridge projects in the 1980s. Here was this teenage girl with a ponytail and braces, classic hoop earrings who could really rhyme. Even now, decades later, she's still got it.
So you never write down lyrics. It's always...
ROXANNE SHANTE: Never.
CHANG: ...Just freestyling.
CHANG: Can you rhyme a little bit for us right now about this NPR interview?
SHANTE: (Rapping) Well, I wake up in the morning and it's nothing new. And I had to rush here to the NPR interview. Was running late but still feeling great, and now we're going to keep doing this interview straight.
CHANG: Oh, my god.
She says this is a skill she discovered when she was 8 years old watching comedian Nipsey Russell on the TV game show "Hollywood Squares."
SHANTE: He would sit there and say, like, I'm Nipsey Russell and I don't have to hustle, don't want no tussle, don't like to fussle (ph). And people would ask him questions, and he would answer them in a rhyming form. So I sat in of the TV and was like, I like Nipsey Russell. I like to hustle. So what it did was it started a whole rhyming effect. And I would rhyme the entire day.
CHANG: Until now, Roxanne Shante was rarely discussed as a player in hip-hop history. This film is an attempt to correct that. It's a story about a difficult life in the projects. She was abused by an older boyfriend, had a child by the time she was 16, was cheated out of money by managers and others whom she trusted. It also shows during her brief career in hip-hop the joy and success and respect she got from rhyming. Her big break came when she recorded a track called "Roxanne's Revenge" at 14 years old. She was already well-known by then around her neighborhood for winning rap battles. A scene in the movie shows her walking through the Queensbridge projects when a record producer named Marley Marl called out to her to come up to his place.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROXANNE ROXANNE")
KEVIN PHILLIPS: (As Marley Marl) Yo, I got this beat I want you to rhyme over.
CHANTE ADAMS: (As Roxanne Shante) I ain't got time. I got laundry to do.
PHILLIPS: (As Marley Marl) Yo, come on, one verse. It ain't going to take long.
CHANG: All right, so you went up. You recorded the track in one take. And the next thing you knew this was all over the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROXANNE'S REVENGE")
SHANTE: (Rapping) Well, my name is Roxanne. Don't you know I just cold rock a party and I do this show? I said I met these three guys, and you know it's true, so let me tell you and explain them all to you. I met this dude with the name of a hat...
CHANG: So what were you rapping about in "Roxanne's Revenge"?
SHANTE: "Roxanne's Revenge" was a freestyle, a seven-minute freestyle where the story I was telling was the fact that when men approach you and they're trying to heckle and - you need to be able to turn around and answer them. So if they were rappers, you just proved that you were a better rapper. And you turned around and you responded in a rhyming form.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROXANNE'S REVENGE")
SHANTE: (Rapping) Girls that he's always trying to leggin' (ph). Every time that I see him, he says a rhyme. But compared to me, they're weak compared to mine. And every time that I know that...
CHANG: "Roxanne's Revenge" is famous in hip-hop history for the answer records it sparked. It created, like, this huge chain reaction. Can you explain how that worked?
SHANTE: What happened was because I had made "Roxanne's Revenge," everyone wanted to be a Roxanne because hearing my voice on the radio - because it's not one of the best voices as far as recordings go. It's not one of those, you know, super sensual, how you expect a hip-hop voice to be. So it inspired others to be, like, OK, you know what? Do you hear that little girl...
SHANTE: ...On that song, on that cassette tape? Well, come on, everybody. Get your cassette tapes. We're all going to make records. We're all going to be Roxannes. And so that's what they did.
CHANG: What it feel like at the time when you saw yourself set all of that in motion?
SHANTE: Well, honestly, I never took it as being a star or anything I think because it was not financially compensating. So I didn't really see it. And I guess because at the time you always considered stars to be these people who live in these big homes and they live somewhere and they're wealthy and they're rich. And, you know, people think that they hear you on the radio and, you know, you just didn't - I didn't really feel it. I didn't ever find that lucky feeling, unfortunately. I just never did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDEPENDENT WOMAN")
SHANTE: (Rapping) You don't need a man. All you need is to know you can. Then you can stand on your own two feet and achieve anything that you want out of life. Do for yourself...
CHANG: I want to talk about some of your lyrics. A lot of your lyrics are about you being stronger than men, about being better than men. And you were, you know, 16 at the time. Would you have called yourself a feminist back then?
SHANTE: I would call myself a feminist today (laughter). We need that. We need to hear that. Little girls needed to hear that. There are so many things that we as women would be able to do. Not that we physically can't do them, but sometimes we mentally hold ourselves back from doing these things because we are told those are man things or those things that men are only good at or those are things that men are only strong enough to handle. And that is not true. So here you come, this 16-year-old hip-hop voice that says, listen; we're better than them. We're stronger than them. We're greater than them. We can do this. And then there's some little girl who takes that advice and goes on and does something great that they felt only a man could do.
CHANG: You know, all the rappers out there when you were growing up, they were almost all men. So, I mean, as you were having this moment, you really didn't think it would last. You thought it was this fleeting thing you wouldn't be making money off of.
SHANTE: Well, that's what they told me.
CHANG: Who told you?
SHANTE: Management, record companies, you know, people you would bump into.
SHANTE: They would tell you stuff like, listen; this hip-hop thing, this is not going to be around because they felt like all you guys do is take other people's music and rhyme on top of it. You're not even playing instruments. So therefore, because there no was musicality to it, they also felt like there was no talent involved in it. So it was something that anyone could do, and therefore it was going to be a fad. They had an expiration date on hip-hop when I participated in it. They was like, listen; this is not going to be around for the next 10 years, so try to get everything you can out of it now.
CHANG: I want to talk about making this movie because, you know, you were executive producer on the film...
CHANG: ...And you were on the set, which meant that you were there when the film was shot in the Queensbridge projects. Was that difficult for you, being back there?
SHANTE: No. I actually frequent Queensbridge all the time.
SHANTE: So I never go too far from my people, my family. So, you know, to be there wasn't something new for them, to see Roxanne Shante in Queensbridge. No, they was like, oh, Shante's filming a movie. Everybody be quiet. What they did was they actually wanted to show that they were on their best behavior.
SHANTE: Like, listen; we're going to do this for Shante. And I appreciate them and I love them for that.
CHANG: But at the same time, when you're there, do you think about how much your life has changed? Because there was a time - there were many times that were pretty desperate when you were stealing clothes to make money, when you had to take care of your sisters while your mom struggled with alcoholism. Does being back kind of bring back some of those memories?
SHANTE: It's - I don't go back to those memories because I never tried to push them away. So what the movie did was it actually made it very therapeutic because it gave me a visual of the things that I survived, the things that I've been through, the things that you can overcome if you don't give up. And also allowing other children who may be in that same position or that same predicament to look at me and say, OK, you know what? She didn't give up, and look at her.
CHANG: I like that, that it was therapeutic. I mean, not many people get to be alive and watch a movie get made about their lives.
SHANTE: Absolutely. It's a beautiful thing to smell your flowers while you're here.
CHANG: Roxanne Shante - a new Netflix film out this week called "Roxanne Roxanne" details her life as a young rapper in Queens in the mid-1980s. Thank you so much for coming in. It was such a pleasure...
SHANTE: Thank you for having me.
CHANG: ...To talk to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE A NICE DAY")
SHANTE: (Rapping) Some people call me Shanie (ph), some people call me Rox (ph), and those who try to diss I just knocks them out the box 'cause I'm Shanti (ph) and y'all know the routine. And here we go again, so all hail the queen. I left you for a while, but it was worth the wait because it gave me just enough time to create a funky rhythm that's guaranteed to move the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.