The meeting place is, perhaps, symbolic: a track at the William Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas. Thirty years after Sequence ushered in the era of female rappers, and 20 years after Queen Latifah and MC Lyte made little girls want to rip mics for a living, Ms. Undastood and Lady L.U.S.T., two of Vegas’ brightest hip-hop talents, say female emcees are still running in circles, trying desperately to break out of their gerrymandered box.
Ms. Undastood (LaMesha Walker) says the hip-hop industry tries to “keep us in our place,” by grouping female rappers into categories: the personable poetess (Lyte, Latifah, Lauryn Hill), the dependable sidekick (Yo Yo, Rah Digga), the sex kitten (Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Trina), the gangsta bitch (Da Brat, The Lady of Rage). Which is hard on someone like her—equal parts poetess and tell-it-like-it-is street emcee. If you can’t be categorized, she says, you risk being ignored.
And living and performing here, in an attention-getting city whose hip-hop scene still barely registers on the national map, makes it even tougher. No exposure, no buzz, no album sales, no fans—might as well be running an endless race.
“If you don’t do gangsta rap or have that prissy, sexy vibe or do something to make the girls’ booties drop, people don’t want to give you a chance,” Walker says. “I’ve listened to the female artists in town, and some of us are better than many of the guys.”
Save for the Raiders of Doom, an ’80s rap group formed by Rancho High students, local female rappers have been conspicuous by their absence for much of the past 25 years—barely seen, rarely heard, almost never headlining shows or getting radio spins. Today, a new breed of artists hopes to change that. They’re fighting for top billing, and openly defying categorization.
“I travel in my own lane,” says the Oakland-born Rachelle Luster, aka L.U.S.T., an acronym for Last Undisputed Spit Truth. “I was inspired by MC Lyte and Da Brat, Jean Grae and Shawna. But I’ve tried to create my own niche.”
Luster came to Vegas six years ago both to start anew and to build on a career begun in the Bay Area. Her debut album, The Ms. Ceily Complex, takes its name from Whoopi Goldberg’s put-upon-but-ultimately-triumphant Ms. Celie character in The Color Purple. The title, she says, reflects her transformation from girl to woman. On the title track she proudly proclaims that she’s a lyricist, not a feminist.
“My music is rooted in my Oakland upbringing and in seeing how politics works,” says Luster, who, on November 1, will perform at the Bunkhouse with LA-based rappers Medusa and Kandi Cole, Neb Luv (of Da 5 Footas) and fellow Oakland reps Conscious Daughters in what might be the city’s first all-female hip-hop concert. Lady L.U.S.T.’s album comes out October 30. “I grew up watching movements. I saw the end of the Black Panther era, and I saw the beginning of the crack era. It shaped who I am.”
Walker’s formative years were spent in a trailer park in North Las Vegas, where poverty, crime and violence were facts of life. Basketball provided an escape throughout high school and an entrée into college at Lake Region State in North Dakota, where she dabbled in music, putting her street-laced poetry to beats in a friend’s makeshift studio. Related by marriage to rapper/producer Spoaty Mac, she eventually acceded to his request to spit on a song. “Once I heard myself on wax, I figured I could do it.”
Walker wears her gruffness like a badge of honor, boasting on the intro to her Quiet as Kept debut about being “rough around the edges,” that she’s going to make it without “getting naked” and that “nobody is fuckin’ with me, like I’m on my menstruation.”
“It’s time to break the sexual aspect of the game, because this is a career for many of us,” Walker says. “It’s time-consuming. I spent 18 months on my project. People don’t want to give us respect, so we’re going to have to earn it through our lyrics, our album sales and our live shows.”
In other words, no more running in circles.