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Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Life as a Shorty Shouldn’t Be So Rough: Economic Influence on Gender Roles in Hip-Hop Music


by Adrianna E. Frick

Hip-Hop music is renowned for objectifying and degrading women, especially black women, while glorifying hyper-sexualized men willing to do anything to get money. While the allowable roles for women in rap music have never been very diverse or three-dimensional, assuming that all representations of women in rap are the same ignores subtle variances over time. This “historicization of hoes” reveals underlying economic pressures that have caused extreme rifts between genders. Only recently has the community begun to decide enough is enough, and two of the many reasons for this sudden backlash by female fans support the historical nature of Hip-Hop misogyny and the economic contributors: the treatment of women had subtly changed over time from bad to intolerable; the simultaneous sexual objectification and revulsion for women became a multi-billion dollar industry. Early gangster rap images of men and women were based in economic struggle as an attempt to expose mass culture to the dehumanizing effects of poverty. Major artists were men who rapped about personal experiences and women were represented as satellites in their orbits. While this early image is certainly an objectification of women in comparison to the three-dimensional male subject, it is not necessarily degrading. While the word “ho,” an abbreviation for “whore,” might be used, the women were usually prostitutes in the employ of the main speaker who was their pimp and/or occasionally a customer. Certainly, the ho is a sexual object, but the word is in reference to an occupation, not an identity. As the gangster rap became an industry, the gangster changed from a representation of the marginalized into a self-affirming hero of the lower class, the ghetto kid made millionaire. This hero required a monster, leading to the increased degradation and more vague classification of “ho,” shifting in meaning from prostitute to any sexually active female, at the expense of other more positive gender roles for women. Recently several particularly vocal protests have suggested boycotting artists with undesirable messages and using purchasing power to promote more positive messages. Recent Hip-Hop entries have thus attempted to retain market share and have begun to re-link the economic situations of the “ho” to the “gangster,” differentiate the experiences of women in Hip-Hop culture, and attempt to recreate emotional connections between genders. It must be noted, however, that these entries are still based in an underground “gangster and ho” economy.

Ice-T’s 1987 album Rhyme Pays brought gangster rap into the mainstream following political acts such as Public Enemy. In “ 6 ‘N the Mornin’,” Ice-T uses the word “ho” rarely and as a job title, without particular insult. At one point a ho is disrespectful and is beaten, but this treatment is due to her disrespect not gender; later a group of young men are shot for the same offense with two casualties. He refers to a sexually active woman who is not necessarily a prostitute as a “freak” and to his preferred sex partner as his “old lady”; the “ho” is a “bitch” only because she is disrespectful, not because the words are synonymous. His old “freak,” a frequent sex partner and possibly his old lady, “is a ho,” emphasizing that the word is an occupation rather than an identity. Rhyme Pays also features “I Love Ladies” and “Sex,” both talking about enjoying a variety of vulgar sexual acts with women. “Sex” is especially explicit and while the woman is an active participant, the sex in the last verse is violently active on the part of the male and passive on the part of the female, making it comparable to the objectification of females in later rap music. “I Love Ladies” features sex measured in financial worth, a nameless one-night stand worth a million dollars. While both tracks are about nothing more than rapping to get girls for the purpose of having “nasty” sex, neither song contains the word “freak” or “bitch” or uses the word “ho” to mean a sexually active female. The songs, while still considering women on a purely sexual level as orbiting the subject, are about encouraging women to be “nasty” rather than disrespecting them for it.

Just as female roles are not yet lumped into one repulsive sexual female image, male roles have not yet been elevated. In “ 6 ‘N the Mornin’,” Ice-T is not glorifying the pimp lifestyle but explaining the emotional toll life on the street takes. The speaker refers to himself as a “self-made monster” and implies desperation by saying “just livin’ in the city is a serious task.” The speaker’s day starts at 6 a.m. with him running out the back door of his residence to avoid the cops, and the theme of running, escaping, and short time is repeated throughout. Each verse repetitively emphasizes that no one asks questions throughout the song, whether it is the punks killed, the hoes beaten, the cops questioning, or the pimps running: they are all machines going through their programs. Time is at a premium for a gangster because his life is filled with the threat of death and prison. Ice-T sums up the gangster experience by saying: “Life has no meaning and money is king.” The gangster of Ice-T’s song devalues life and physical wellbeing, but does not completely lack emotional connection despite being “hard from the joint.” He is motivated by a need for money, but doesn’t disrespect the hoes he pimps for the same. There are two primary values in this world: respect and cash.

In “Pain,” also on Rhyme Pays, Ice-T expresses regret that his girlfriend gets caught up in his lifestyle:

And then they gave my girl
Ten years for hangin’ out with a crook
She played the game herself, fast lane quick wealth
No respect for the law or the city’s health
The sweat of hustlers greed is not reserved for men

At this time, the gangster and the female figure are connected by economic struggle and attempts to live outside of the law. “Bitch” and “ho” are rarely used (in fact, in “Pain,” the FBI calls Ice-T’s girlfriend a whore to anger him), and “freak” is usually a compliment. Even 1988’s release “Girls LGNAF” uses words like girl and woman, despite the titular initials being an acronym for “Let’s Get Butt Naked And F*ck.” This is hardly a feminist anthem, and just like the earlier work “Sex,” features little else than come-ons and hyper-masculine male posturing. However, it still doesn’t use the words “ho,” “freak,” or “bitch.” These tracks show that the genders are connected in their economic powerlessness and their emotional and spiritual death and suggest an increasing dependence on masculine potency to counteract economic and political impotence. It is also significant that the final verse of “Girls LGNAF” implies that this reliance on sexual activity for the release of frustrations is becoming problematic: “If you love sex I know you’re out there / Safe sex that is, ya gotta be careful with this 88 sex biz.” The blame for STDs will eventually rest largely on the shoulders of women, as seen later in the work of Snoop Dogg.

Shortly after this, Ice-T released the song “Bitches” (sometimes also called “Bitches 2”) on the 1991 album OG: Original Gangster. The title “Bitches 2” comes from the song’s chorus that states that men (every verse deals with a male) are “bitches too.” As evidenced by the examples, a “bitch” is someone (regardless of gender) disrespectful who betrays an individual or community. And yet soon after that Ice-T released what would one day become a Jay-Z hit, “99 Problems,” featuring the word “bitch” specifically referring to a sexually active female over fifty times and “ho” approximately ten. The fact that this track features Brother Marquis of 2 Live Crew is notable. 2 Live Crew’s notorious treatment of women is seen in his lyrics,

I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one of them
I don’t trip on hos, cause I don’t need none of them
I only love my hos when I’m goin up inside her
Problem number one is gettin money
I hope you took the pill cause I won’t pay the bill
Gettin pussy’s just another expense.

This repeated lack of emotional connection to women is in contrast to Ice-T’s later verse in the same song: “And I love ’em all, I love ’em crazily / And they love me back – that’s why they stay with me.” Ice-T’s previous portrayal of women encourages them to be raunchy and highly sexual, particularly for the purpose of pleasing gangsters. However, he never disrespects them for this behavior, and the only connection between women and money is when he feels they deserve some token of gratitude. Brother Marquis’s verse shows the emerging portrayal of women as being solely after money, even willing to become pregnant to require financial support. Ice-T expresses affection for women and a monogamous connection in several songs, and in the case of “Pain,” equates the economic situation of women to that of men, treating the female almost as an equal. But in this track women have become money-grubbing gold-diggers that the rapper intends to discard soon, and responsibility for birth control (and possibly all protection) is hers alone. Ice-T has transitioned from “girl” and “lady” to “bitch” and “ho.” How does one account for this drastic change in Ice-T’s treatment of women between 1991 and 1993? Economics.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Billboard Magazine tracked album sales for rap on its Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and mainstream sales on its Billboard 200. Ice-T’s highest chart topper on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was Power, which was the sixth highest seller in 1988. In contrast, 2 Live Crew’s renowned album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which also placed six slots higher on the Billboard 200, was the third best selling R&B/Hip-Hop album. While 1991’s OG:Original Gangster made it to nine on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop, NWA’s Niggaz4Life made it to the second slot, and on the Billboard 200 NWA was the number one bestseller for the year, while Original Gangster languished at fifteenth place. In fact, even after Ice-T tried to “dirty up” his image by performing with Brother Marquis, the industry had already moved on. While Home Invasion, the album featuring “99 Problems,” peaked at number nine on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre both made it to number one with their debut albums, and even newly formed Wu-Tang Clan made it to number eight (All Music). “Young Bucks” and “shorties,” at that time still defined as up-and-coming gangsters, were changing the game and selling big, and Ice-T’s Old School was no longer profitable. The gangster was transforming from a commentator on the dehumanizing effects of poverty to a working class hero and billion-dollar industry, and women were in the way.

The roles of the individual artist in the rap community grew as rappers became producers, businessmen, and public personas and brands. On the West Coast, Dr. Dre emerged as “a producer who can rap and control the maestro” and as the primary figurehead of the Death Row Records label. On the East, the Wu Tang Clan was created, a cross between a music group, a cult and a corporation for supporting the production, performance and careers of its many members. These acts formed conglomerations, and their success was tied to the music that sold—bitches and hoes.

Dr. Dre’s first solo album, The Chronic, showcased his protégé Snoop Dogg, most notably on “Nuthin But A G Thang,” where he told “hookers and hoes” of his stringent use of contraceptives: “You never know she could be earnin’ her man, / And learnin’ her man, and at the same time burnin’ her man…/ Aint no pussy good enough to get burnt while I’m up in it.” Snoop makes it clear that female promiscuity and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases are what make female sexuality unacceptable. In fact, the woman ceases to exist, since he has no interest in her as a whole person, and she begins to be represented by her genitalia, similar to Brother Marquis’s treatment of women in “99 Problems.” Snoop also connects the notion of a ho with a promiscuous woman rather than with a literal prostitute. In “Gin and Juice,” the young buck Snoop references his predecessor’s early work while changing the perspective on sexuality. While Ice-T goes to his old lady to hide out from the cops and seek solace, Snoop has multiple female sex partners in his living room, expecting to share them with his homeboys, but the women won’t leave until “6 in the morning.” Snoop feels the need to emphasize the lack of emotional connection in sexual behavior: “But we don’t love them hoes, yeah!” In the years to follow, this sentiment doesn’t need expressing, but is simply assumed when a sexually active female is mentioned. While the professional respect that characterized gender relations in Ice-T’s day has declined, the importance of money is still the central characteristic of the gangster lifestyle. One of the most famous and oft-repeated lines of Snoop’s career is from his first solo hit single “Gin and Juice,” a commercial chiasmus accentuating the importance of income to a gangster: “I’ve got my mind on my money and my money on my mind.” Even when he is somewhat relaxed or “laid back” money is constantly in the mind of a gangster.

The importance of getting money is also central to one of Wu-Tang’s most popular singles, “C.R.E.A.M.” The East Coast entry, however, is curious in its almost complete lack of any female presence, except for the rappers’ mothers. Raekwon the Chef’s verse, for instance, states “moms bounced on old men,” but the song lacks the normal rant on “hoes and bitches.” The track, similar to Ice-T’s early work, is more concerned with the economic effects on the gangster. The song’s title is an acronym for the importance of cash; what power it has, what power it grants, and what people will do for it. “Cash,” the artists explain, “Rules Everything Around Me.” The rappers and other members of their community don’t have the agency, the cash they attempt to possess does. As people, they are powerless without the almost mystical object that controls the world around them.

In “C.R.E.A.M.,” Inspectah Deck tells of his life as a “shorty,” a young upstart rapper-gangster. Like Ice-T, he has attempted to escape his economic struggle by illegal means and winds up in prison as a teenager, and he considers his imprisonment and his supposed freedom back on the streets comparable: “But as the world turns I learned life is hell / Living in the world no different from a cell.” He reflects on why he does drugs and supposes it is to escape his depression, but he is still depressed and “ready to give up.” His mother, referred to as Old Earth from the Five Percent Nation of Islam jargon, tells him that hard work will help him to “overcome the heartaches and pain.” The life of the gangster, characterized by “stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks / and stray shots,” is not the way to emotional or spiritual stability, and Inspectah Deck has decided to share this knowledge with “the young black youth,” but they won’t listen to him.

The chorus of “C.R.E.A.M.” emphasizes the desperation and emotional impotence of a world where “Cash Rules Everything,” but Inspectah Deck’s verse shows the importance of connection and knowledge in overcoming hardship. The first verse, by Raekwon the Chef, states that his “moms bounced on old men,” which contrasts with the maternal figure of the second verse and the value of passing down guidance from generation to generation. At the end of the rap, however, the positive influence of women, the suggestion that there is an alternative to the gangster figure, and the influence of generational wisdom are cast aside in repetition of the chorus: “get the money, dollar dollar bill y’all.”

Eventually the lack of any positive references to women became too restrictive even for rap music, and the word “shorty,” as previously noted referring to a younger black male who had not yet entered the gangster lifestyle, became a “girlfriend” of sorts, synonymous with the affectionate R&B “boo.” However, “shorty” can also be used for an attractive female admired from a distance, and in some uses even “shorty” is akin to “ho,” as evidenced by Mobb Deep’s 1999 single “Let a Ho Be a Ho” and 50 Cent’s 2003 release “In Da Club.” This slide of “shorty” from one gender to another and its subsequent devolution into “ho” shows that the image of “ho” is more complicated than being just a matter of gender or race.

The problem of “ho” does not fit into the traditional models of feminist criticism; it is not a virgin/whore model, a maiden/mother/crone, or even the classical figures of domina-queen to be served versus the girl whose base physical lure prevents the poet from reaching peak spirituality. There is only the “ho” figure, there are no virgins and few mothers here: Raekwon’s mother is absent due to sex in “C.R.E.A.M” and Ice-T’s positive female role is a “freak.” This highly sexualized view of women has often been explained as a vestigial remnant of slavery by a number of scholars. After the importation of slaves was legally prohibited the value of women as reproductive producers increased, whereas men were valued lower and considered more disposable. Even after abolition, as bell hooks has noted, black women continue to be portrayed as highly sexual and simultaneously emasculating (Gines 100).

However, the “ho” is not merely an issue for the African-American community. Hip-Hop is a form of expression for Asian, Latino/a, and white communities as well. In fact, white males actually purchase more rap than white females, black males, and black females combined (Allers). The “ho” has become a portrayal of women across ethnic lines. While “ho” was originally a highly controversial word, and in fact, one Yahoo’s lyrics site still censors with asterisks, it has become a common word used in song lyrics and popular culture. Fergie, the stage name for Sarah Ferguson, states in her hit single “London Bridge” that she’s “such a lady” but is “dancing like a ho.” As a self-imposed description by a woman of mixed Irish, Scottish and Mexican descent, this verse suggests the word “ho” is much more than a race issue (Philby).

And yet it also does not appear to be merely a gender issue. The gender debate has heated up in recent years with the 2004 Spelman College protests against misogynistic rap lyrics and Essence Magazine‘s “Take Back the Music” campaign begun in 2005. As Tarshia Stanley, a member of Spelman’s faculty and active in their protest, pointed out, “There’s not a countermessage… It would be fine if it were projected as a small part, but it’s projected as all that we do, everything that we are” (Thrash). Yet this is precisely what suggests that there is more than mere patriarchy at work: where is the masculine countermessage? While the ho is certainly lower on the respect ladder, both the gangster/player and the ho/bitch are images of criminal poverty, and neither allow for any variation in gender roles. Just as women cannot be admired and are sexual predators, men are nothing more than pimps and drug dealers or just suckers who can’t play the game. Both images are invested in a notion of socio-economic conditions that root men and women in a vicious and inhuman economy based in sex, drugs, and a strict honor code of respect and disrespect. In fact, Lil Kim, a female rapper, portrays herself as a pimp, player and gangster, “switching” genders and exposing the performative nature of the roles, rather than be trapped in the “ho” category (Gines 99).

The essential economic and sexual similarities and gender role limitations of both the “gangster/player” and “ho/bitch” roles—and the prevalence of these images in multiple ethnic cultures—suggest there is something besides race and gender at work. Since “shorty” can shift from one gender to another and Lil Kim can similarly shift from one gender model to another, at the center of all of these portrayals is economic struggle, not race or gender. Teairra Mari, in her song “No Daddy,” states that she is not promiscuous but may dress or behave in a wild manner because she lacks a father figure. However, she mentions friends who “strip in the club” or “trick in the club,” and while she doesn’t, she understands that their motivation is economic necessity. While she suggests that a broken home leads to wild behavior and apathy, her own description of what motivates girls into sexual behaviors is making the rent. She states that girls cannot look to others for financial support, saying, “ain’t nobody gonna protect your neck like you.” At the center of the “ho” figure is financial independence. This sentiment is echoed in Wyclef Jean’s “The Sweetest Girl”:

They got they mind on they money, money on they mind
They got they finger on the trigger, hand on their knives
See every day they feel the struggle, but stand on they ground
And Aint Nobody take it from us, and that’s the bottom line

Wyclef’s use of the word “us” and the allusion to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” shows that the gangster/player/male figure and the ho/female figure are both trapped in an economic underworld due to financial struggle and the inability to rely on anyone else, an emotional and spiritual alienation.

Both “Gin and Juice” and “C.R.E.A.M” are vitally important in building an understanding of “The Sweetest Girl.” “The Sweetest Girl” is not only a work inheriting a cultural and historical context, but consciously references these works and demands a comparison between the themes and personas presented in the earlier works. While Ice-T’s early gangster work had less of a divide between the gangster and the ho than the nineties’ gangster, it is still from the perspective of the pimp and is uninterested in humanizing the female role, probably, to be fair, because it is more interested in dehumanizing the gangster. “The Sweetest Girl” flips its inherited tradition of glorifying the originally monstrous pimp and degrading the ho by portraying the multiple aspects of the “ho” figure as a young, admired girl as equally financially desperate as the pimp, who lives off her labor while simultaneously deriding it. It sympathizes with the female character and shows, by allusion to “C.R.E.A.M.,” that she is affected by the same economic factors as the gangster. It also emphasizes, through references to Snoop’s “Gin and Juice,” that this economic struggle leads to greater alienation, devaluing of life, and greater disillusionment over time and that the hoes are starting to emulate the gangster.

Wyclef Jean’s verse attempts to portray the female figure as human and sympathetic compared to a cold and unfeeling male using her body for his financial gain. Regardless of her efforts, the man only wants his money. Some Hip-Hop songs deride the “ho” for using sex as a weapon to gain money rather than sleeping with men out of sexual desire, but the sweetest girl’s man tells her “closed legs don’t get fed, go out there and make my bread,” explicitly expecting her sexuality to pay for his life. When, in the course of her duties supporting him, she is severely injured in a car accident, she is disappointed to find that he doesn’t call. What are we to make of this portrayal of the ho and the pimp in comparison to the traditional images of Hip-Hop? Wyclef Jean, in interviews, explained how the song uses the traditional facets of the “ho” figure and attempts to humanize the profession: “My verse was about the ‘Sweetest girl, she got on crack/ she still the sweetest girl.’ Akon’s verse was about the stripper; she’s not trying to ho, but she’s still the sweetest girl. Weezy’s verse is sleeping with the pastor, and she’s still the sweetest girl” (Park). The importance, however, even to Jean, is still on a cash and respect economy, rather than emotional connection: “Pick your choice, but don’t disrespect the women for what they do. You go to the strip bar, drop a hundred” (Park). Jean is not attempting to break the conventions of sexual commodification but is attempting to return respect to the gender extremes of Hip-Hop.

The themes and images of the song are established in the first verse: “Some live for the bill, Some kill for the bill / She wined for the bill, Grind for the bill / (and she used to be the sweetest girl) / Some steal for the bill, if they got to pay they bill.” The indeterminate “some” whose lives are controlled by the dollar bill could be male or female. Similarly, the sexual imagery of being “wined and dined” and later “grinding” is being set with living and killing for the sole goal of money, traditional motifs of gangster rap. Immediately, her former status as the sweetest girl is mourned in comparison to her current status grinding, but the status change is ascribed to the need to pay the bill, shifting “bill” from the dollar to the debts that have to be paid. The sweetest girl, just like the gangster/killer, has sacrificed biblical notions of morality not because of some compromised or inferior moral compass but for economic survival, yet in Hip-Hop her choice is considered beneath his.

However, the sweetest girl may be a ho, but she’s also a mother, and her economic need has a moral limit. The last verse describes areas where the sweetest girl won’t work for the sake of her child. As previously established, there are only two forms of currency in the gangster lifestyle: “So respect her, or pay up for the time used.” The fact that, unlike perhaps the male figure, the female figure has a limit to what she will do to make money where her child is concerned deserves respect, the currency she has not received. However, if you are unwilling to do so, you have an obligation to, at minimum, pay her for her time just as a client would.

The work also emphasizes the spiritual alienation and inability to rely on others that prior artists have noted. The head of the spiritual community not only is unable to help her, but through the clever repetition and flip of the pimp in the first verse, is a part of the problem:

And then she runs to the pastor
And he tells her there will be a new chapter
But she feels no different after
And then she asks him… Where my money at?

Rather than offering salvation, absolution, or comfort, the pastor is a “john.” The sweetest girl leaves with the only thing available to her, not respect, not solace, but money. She may not be able to overcome the dehumanizing effects of her environment, but she can make the rent, and that financial independence is at the root of the gender images of Hip-Hop culture.

Gangster rap was created as a social commentary to decry the monstrous nature of ghetto life and give a voice to those caught in the underground economy, ground up in the gears of capitalism. For every pimp struggling to survive there was a ho equally being dehumanized. However, in an effort to counteract the sub-human emotional state created by the gangster economy, selling the bodies of the player’s “sisters,” the ho had to be degraded and demeaned, separated from the gangster and viewed as an object rather than a partner. As gangster rap gained popularity across ethnic and socio-economic lines, the gangster ceased to be a figure to mourn and call capitalism to account for and became an ideal, an American Dream of an entrepreneur who rapped his way to millions and left the ghetto and the ho behind, while still living off her capital. Even efforts to counteract the limitations of the ho gender role all ultimately decay into a repetition of the objectified and dehumanized moneymaking ho.

But simply examining the problem of “ho” from a gendered or feminist viewpoint loses sight of the masculine oppressions at work here. There are no homosexuals in Hip-Hop culture, only ‘heterosexual’ men “keepin’ it on the Down Low,” and there are no community doctors, lawyers, educators, activists or motivators, regardless of gender, improving the dehumanizing effects of the ghetto economy. Gangster rap creates an essentialized and polarized gender role for both men and women, and its popularity creates an oppressive requirement of authenticity for its fans. The people of the Hip-Hop community are expected to remain a part of the poverty-stricken dehumanized underground economy, and only the hyper-masculine are allowed to dream of an escape by becoming hyper-criminal, inhuman, unfeeling machines. Only by acknowledging the economic factors contributing to the gender roles, the essential similarities between gangster and ho, the fact that the gender roles extend beyond race into an oppression of the poor, and the restriction of positive socio-economic images for either gender can the ho be re-humanized into “the sweetest girl.” An active part of Essence‘s “Take Back the Music” campaign, as well as other recent activist work and protests within the Hip-Hop community, is pointing out the role of the consumer in supporting artists with positive messages while keeping dollars from more offensive acts. Warning labels regarding explicit content have historically come from outside of the community, and many fans of rap music have historically chosen to ignore messages they found offensive and ascribe content to “other women” rather than turn their back on their community. These recent community protests, panels, academic conferences, magazine columns and newspaper articles have finally begun to attack an essentially economic image with an economic weapon: support new messages. The work of Teairra Mari and the recent release of “The Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)” by Wyclef Jean and featuring Akon and Lil Wayne still perpetuate the notion of “ho” and highly sexualized women but undermine the traditional image by giving her a voice. The ho stops being an object and monster and instead has a past, an emotional life, and economic struggles not only similar to the gangster’s, but often exacerbated by him. While these works were preceded by far more revolutionary works, their mass popularity suggests a changing economic need and emerging market that unifies the genders against economic oppression. Perhaps in time this unification can create a cultural production that expects more from its participants than pimping and killing.