I had a chance to sit down with the legendary Roxanne Shante years ago, and in this interview we covered everything from how it all began to the downside of the industry. Check out the full interview below. -Kira Ming
G: Let’s start off with where it all began. Such a cliché question but inquiring minds wanna know...how did you first start rhyming?
R: I would have to say that I come from Queens bridge public housing which is one of the largest housing projects in the world basically with 30,000 tenants. DJ Marley Marl happened to live in the building across from me and he worked at the Sergio Valente jean factory and he said, "Uh listen I heard that you could freestyle really well." And I said, "Yeah that’s what they say." He said well I'm willing to lay a beat down if you're willing to say a few rhymes and I said yeah I'll say a few rhymes, but can I get some Sergio Valente jeans? He said OK, and so I actually did my first record which was Roxanne's Revenge for a pair of Sergio Valente jeans.
G: That’s what I’m talking about bargaining! So what was the Hip Hop scene like in Queens when you first began? People always associate the earlier stages of Hip Hop with the Bronx so tell me what name Queens was making for itself at that point in Hip Hop.
R: Well at that point in Hip Hop I mean I know that they say that a lot of Hip Hop had its start in the Bronx but some of your greatest Hip Hop artists come from Queens. So during that time you know you had your LL Cool Js, you had your Run DMCs and you know we’re not even gonna come to your new point in time, the 50 Cents and your Nas and Mobb Deeps and so forth and so on.
G: How did you first meet Marley Marl?
R: I actually knew Marlon all my life because he was my neighbor and he lived right across the building from me. So he was already known for dejaaying, having his speakers in the window and you know, blasting music so that’s pretty much how that went.
G: Let’s get into the Real Roxanne and the well known Roxanne Wars.
R: The main thing with the whole Roxanne thing is I think people took it that I had made this record and had literally created these Roxanne wars when in all reality it was a fact of him laying down the beat which was big beat which happened to be the underground beat for UTFO’s Roxanne Roxanne. So basically it was really all about a freestyle and I didn’t like the way the guys were talking about the girl on the record so I just felt like OK, well I'm gonna take it up and I'm gonna become this Roxanne character and once they saw the success of it then they decided to come up with their own Roxanne but you know I stand strong on the fact that since I was the first Roxanne to stand up and the only Roxanne to stand out that I will always be the last Roxanne standing.
G: There you go! Can’t say it any better than that. Tell us about the Juice Crew.
R: Those are my brothers. The name Juice Crew came from Sir Juice Mr Magic who happened to be a WBLS radio personality and he happened to be called Juice. And we wanted to be the Juice Crew because we had the juice meaning like the power and the connections to have our own records on the radio. We were you know known in the streets; we all had lives before Hip Hop that made us neighborhood superstars. So we kinda considered ourselves the ones with the juice so therefore we became the Juice Crew.
G: I know you had the pleasure of working with Rick James on Loosey’s Rap. What was that like?
R: Not only did I get a chance to work with Rick I actually got a chance to stay at Rick’s home for a few months and it was eye opening. People truly have the wrong concept of Rick James and who he really was. You know yeah he was Mr. Super Freak, you know there's some things that took place in Rick’s house that will never be talked about. But overall Rick was definitely a true inspiration to me wanting to leave the industry. He was one of the reasons why. He told me he said listen they're really trying to see if you’re going to get on drugs. You know this is what he told me - he said listen the company (and I guess he might have been talking about Warner Brothers or he mighta been talking about my own parent company which was Cold Chillen), but he was like listen why else would you think they would let a 17 year old girl come and live with me. They're trynna see if you would get on drugs or if there was any way that you could be turned out. And I was taken aback by that because at that time I didn’t see myself as a commodity. I thought that we were like really a family. And for someone who was outside of that circle to say to me like look you're 17 years old and they got you livin' with Rick James what you think they think? And he said I done told them every day, she's not gonna get high, she does not use drugs. I done laid the [explicit] around everywhere and she won't touch it. You know because that just wasn’t for me. I was already a mom and I was already focused. I was already street smart so you know some people have desires for other things. That just was never for me so to have him say that to me it just gave me a whole different outlook on what the industry really, really wanted from us.
G: Which leads me to my next question. What for you is the best part of being in the music industry and the worst?
R: The best part is the traveling and being able to reach and meet so many people and have so many experiences. The worst thing is the way they use people until the point of when they feel they can't use them no more and they don’t value their artists. How they don’t value their legends? And this is not with all genres of music because you don’t find this with rock and roll artists you know you find this usually with your R&B artists. You find this with your Hip Hop artists you know but you don’t find this with your country artists or your rock and roll artists. You know they are put on certain pedestals and they are kept on those pedestals. They will have fundraisers to make sure that they get to live a certain way and make sure they're OK but they don’t do that for R&B and Hip Hop; it's like they wanna see how low you can go or how far you will fall. I think that's what really stirred the industry up because I'm like a cat I just always landed on my feet and I think that bothered people moreso than anything else because with the whole Roxanne Roxanne I wanna be your man, I'm 14 years old and every man that I bump into automatically says that. You would think that that would have some type of damage to have to deal with that every day everything being so sexual. Like you know I couldn’t walk down the street without someone saying hey I wanna be your man. I mean just like now here it is like years later you know and you have somebody saying like yo where's your husband and I'm like babe he's home. And they was like baby just divorce him and come and be with me. For a weak minded woman it might have been a horrible outcome if I was a person who would have turned to drugs or anything like that but instead you know I've always had a very very strong belief in a higher power. You know and I have an even better relationship with God now more than I've ever had you know. And I think I was just supposed to be one of those that just didn’t go that route. But those are the ups and downs of the industry and it can be very cruel.
G: You are considered by many to be a pioneer in the game. After you came many. What was your relationship like with other female rappers as you moved along in your career?
R: Well in the beginning of my career we really weren’t allowed to socialize. Really. Like we just weren’t. Our crews kept us very separate, it was almost like being a pitbull in a dog fighting organization because as much as you would wanna see her as much would wanna get along with her you know you were told look you can't do that. You can't socialize with her - we're here and they're there. You know it wont be no getting together you know unless it’s a battle. So I found myself being someone who was constantly sicked on people like get em Shaunnie, you know, get em Shaunnie get em Shaunie. And growing up with seven sisters of my own I really wasn’t in no desire for a lot of female friends and company. So I was pretty good with that you know my mom was one of those that even though she had daughters she actually taught us how to play very well by ourselves. Like look you know you want friends I made you a whole bunch of friends you don’t need to have friends outside. So I think I came along with that oh its OK for me to be by myself.
G: Nothing wrong with that especially with all the drama that goes on within the industry.
R: It's so fake and phony you know if you don’t wanna sit through the fake and phony don’t even go through it.
G: Let’s get to the nitty gritty. In your opinion how hard is it for a female MC to make it in this industry especially without selling sex?
R: Umm without selling sex it seems like it's virtually impossible because the industry now is no longer based on talent. It doesn’t go that way anymore unfortunately people now listen with their eyes they no longer listen with their ears. So when it comes to a point of people just listening with their eyes if you don’t look a certain way or if you're not portraying a certain thing then automatically they feel like you're not marketable. I think it's very hard for a female in the industry today to make it without having to try to sell sex. Not saying that I condone them doing so because you shouldn’t - your talent should speak for itself if you are truly talented and you stand strongly on your ground then yeah you're gonna make it. I don’t know if you're gonna become that top 5 that so many desire or so many say they wanna be but overall I know that if you stay true to yourself you will find success.
G: I wish more MCs period followed suite on that. OK so now let’s get into the controversy...
R: I'm gonna take it that you're trying to be politically correct in addressing the fact of the PhD story. Well during the time when that came out I was fighting for my life. I'm a breast cancer survivor. I participate in walks and events and everything else. But people were wondering why I wouldn’t come out and why I wouldn’t defend it and I told them that I just had a bigger fight going on at the time. I had been Dr. Roxanne Shante for over ten years, I had spoken at over 150 universities and quite a few of them were Ivy League universities that I went to repeatedly. I was a honorable mention on Cornell’s site for graduates I was also a honorable mention for Marymount University which means Dr. Roxanne Shante was a great addition to their university and establishment for as long as they needed her to be. The industry embraced the story and loved it. Did I attend school? Yes. Did I refuse to give up my name? Yes I did because I'm entitled to a private life and at the end of the day should I decide to do something else with myself which usually I do, I can leave the whole Roxanne Shante thing to the side. Now people say oh no you owe the public you owe the public. I never even got a royalty check so in all reality I don’t eat from the public so therefore I don’t owe them anything. They would like for me to give them something but then again I would like for a lot of people to give me a lot of things. And I don’t say that to be rude or anything like that but people took the story and then expect me to walk with my head down but I cant, I'm a queen I have a crown on my head and if I put my head down it's gonna fall off and I'm just not gonna let it fall off so I'm still gonna walk with my head high. And I have encouraged and influenced so many young women of all colors to go and pursue their education. I have encouraged so many single moms, I've had students reach out to me and do their public dissertations and dedicate their dissertation to me. I attend so many graduations every year because these young ladies feel like, "If it wasn’t for you're coming here I was ready to quit. I was ready to leave. I was ready to walk away and then you walked through those doors Shante and you made me stay." You know I told them listen it was OK to have ramen noodles on the brain and know for a fact that you would be able to afford caviar and filet mignon later on if you just pursue your education. And the industry was OK with that up until the point of when I decided that artists need to go independent, artists need to get their own money. So when you start to speak out against the industry then all of a sudden you become this enemy so the only way that people get people to not follow what you’re saying or to get them to lead away from what is the truth is to either discredit you or drive you insane and I was already crazy when they met me so I guess they just tried the discredit thing.
G: I can dig it. I’m glad that you’re past that.
R: I was past it the day it happened, when it came out you know people said to me you know Shante how do you feel and I said I'm not no less Shante how do you feel? The New York Times said shes an entertainer. It was an entertaining story. Were we not entertained? You know so people look at it like oh I can't believe this is what's going on with her but in all reality I'm still out there doing great things. I still have programs like the Who I Am program, The Type 2 Sweet program which is for our people who have type 2 diabetes. I found out I had type 2 diabetes with a number of 212 and they were like I needed to be able to reverse that so I wanted to get our people out and get them healthy and get them involved. I'm a part of all of these different foundations that you know, I do great things - I don’t just do good things I do great things. I've never received a royalty check but I give more than most rappers. I think when it comes down to my philanthropy it just can't be questioned whether it's monetary or whether it's with my time. And I take a lot of pride in that and no one can shake that. I've started a career on not being liked, I'm a person that people love to hate and I'm OK with that. Because as with every really really good story you have to have a villain and if I have to be that villain in order to make someone stand up and act like a hero then that’s cool with me.
G: That’s awesome and so true. Let’s get into the question of what’s your take is on Hip Hop today?
R: They make a lot of money. I had the pleasure of being able to check into someone's finances and I just said oh my goodness they really make a lot of money. I just cant wait to see what they do in ten years because a ten year fall from grace for an old school rapper is kinda rough you know if you're not humble, if you don’t stay humble then the same people you meet up is the same people you meet on your way going down and you know how you treat them is what happens. I still sit ringside - I still get a lot of perks. And it's because the way that you treat people when your records are hot is the way people are gonna treat you when they're not. So if you're good to them then they're good to you. And a lot of these rappers don’t posses people skills. They don’t even posses lyrical skills but were not even gonna talk about that. But they really don’t have people skills. To not have people skills is a sad situation because I wonder in ten years what are they gonna do. Whose gonna be willing to help them in ten years?
G: That’s a very valid point. So where is Roxanne Shante today? What are you doing nowdays? What are you working on?
R: I have my Type 2 Sweet diabetes walk which is coming up in September. I'm doing a large launch on it on June 13th. I have the Who I Am program which is a youth etiquette program where we actually teach young ladies everything from how to use the proper utensils and silverware when they're eating to how to hold the doors when someone is coming through the door. We also teach them how to use a telephone voice when it comes to talking on their cell phones. And how to limit their conversations in the street. You know just certain things that we were taught growing up. We just give them some home training! We hand out manners. I had to tell em' I have some extra manners in case you left yours at home. Cuz' I'm quick to do that, I'm quick to go up to someone who blows their nose at the dinner table if I happen to be in a restaurant like listen you know what I paid a lot of money to eat here today you just blew your nose and you messed up my whole meal. Now look, I have some extra manners since you left yours at home let me lend you some - you should get up and blow your nose. And I have yet to have someone stand up and defend themselves against that, they pretty much sit there like I'm sorry I didn’t realize. What you didn’t realize that that was nasty? You know what it’s the motherless child - a lot of them have never been hugged and if they were hugged they were lured in for horrible things. You know there's been a time of my life when I had went through the foster care system so in my spare time I'm also a CASA. I feel comfortable being able to go and speak to them and advocate for them because I was once that child I know whats it's like for someone to see something cute and pretty and take it home and think that it’s a toy or something that they can play with. My time is spent helping people and I enjoy that.
G: Before we get outta here there's a movie about you coming up where Keke Palmer is set to portray in the Vapors?
R: I talked to KeKe Palmer and I had a wonderful conversation with her mom. You know it’s a project that’s still up in the air but she told me how thrilled she was and you know I think no one could play it better.
G: She’s an amazing actress shes young shes fresh.
R: And she's brown skin with chinky eyes.
G: Well Roxanne its been a pleasure. You're such a down to earth person and for those that got to know you even better than I have over the past couple of hours I'm sure it’s been an honor for them! GOTW thanks you and we wish you the best! We can’t wait to see what else you have in store.