여hen considering the history of women in hip-hop, some pioneering names will always stand out. There’s Debbie D, a member of DJ Marley Marl’s Juice Crew; Pebblee Poo, who joined DJ Kool Herc’s Herculoids; and Lisa Lee, who was in Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation. Then there’s Sha-Rock, considered the first prominent female MC; Mercedes Ladies, the first all-female group in hip-hop; Roxanne Shanté, the formidable battle rapper. But as in many parts of the music industry, these women were told they’re good for a girl: a patronising framework that is one of the core reasons women are left out of the history of the genres they helped revolutionise.
In the UK in 1983, two more young women were also about to be underestimated. MC Remedee (Debbie Pryce) and Susie Q (Susan Banfield) were just getting started as Cookie Crew, inspired by what was happening in the New York music scene. Cookie Crew pre-dated other prominent women in UK hip-hop such as She Rockers and Wee Papa Girl Rappers, not to mention Monie Love, who would go on to settle in New York in 1988 to massive success. As one of the first female hip-hop groups in the UK, they were also among the first to battle the hurdles women faced in the genre; constantly compared to adjacent male rappers, forced to prove themselves despite their evident success, and constantly pushed in different, and often contradictory, directions.
“We started listening to hip-hop because Debbie would go to New York with her family in the early 80s, record the radio on a cassette tape and bring it back for us to listen to,” Banfield explains. “We would listen to it at home, and it was amazing to us.”
The pair would spend time in the park near where they grew up with their crew of friends, roller skating and playing double Dutch – once they started writing, this was the ideal place to test the waters with their rhymes. “Malcolm McLaren did this documentary in a place in Covent Garden where breakers [breakdancers] used to hang out,” she recalls. “We started to connect the dots with everything that was happening in the hip-hop scene. There were graffiti artists down there, there were breakers, and there were rappers – everyone started to try a little something.”
This included Banfield and Pryce, who were writing raps, not realising that there weren’t really other girls doing the same thing locally. “We had no clue because we saw American girls doing it. We were listening to female rappers like Sha-Rock, Lisa Lee and Debbie D and we were influenced by them. There were a lot of rappers out there [영국에서] at the time, all male, but we did see Michelle Devitt also known as Mystery MC of Family Quest. We saw her rapping on stage; she was freestyling and she blew us away – the first female rapper that we had seen from England.”
It was at this point in 1985 that they heard about a rap competition being run by a young Tim Westwood, with prize money and a recording contract up for grabs. “The boys that we used to hang with were saying, ‘You could win this!’ And so our friends forced us to go down there, and we put our name down for the first week. We saw all the rappers that were taking part and then thought, 확인, we’ll go back next weekend and take our name off the list, because this is looking really hard and we’re not sure. But the night came and we thought: We’re just gonna go out there and do it because it doesn’t matter. I remember the stage being so big that they had to lift Debbie up on to it! We rapped over Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock, and it was fast. It was so fast!”
“Basically, we killed it,” Pryce adds with a grin. “We could see all the guys from Battersea who came with us, who were our support network. The crowd was just going crazy. When they made the announcement on the night that we won, it was like our feet didn’t touch the ground. It was a complete blur, but it was sheer excitement. We went away feeling like champions and after that, the world was our lobster.”
They took the prize money but not the contract. “It’s a good job we didn’t take it, because it probably would have been a mess,” Pryce notes. “We went for a meeting and I just remember coming out unsure. We knew nothing about the business. We just wanted to hang out and build our reputation on the scene. Thank God we didn’t sign – but we did get a trophy!”
Cookie Crew were asked to do a show with Afrika Bambaataa, who was touring with DJ Red Alert and Lisa Lee, someone that Pryce and Banfield looked up to from the start. “We got to be on that show with other people from Covent Garden. That to me, out of everything we’ve done – and we’ve performed at Wembley, we’ve supported Bobby Brown, we’ve lived in New York, we’ve worked with many different rappers – doing that show, and Lisa Lee being in the audience, was the most nerve-racking thing I think I’ve ever, ever done,” recalls Banfield. “We did a rehearsal where she was sitting in the auditorium watching us and she told us off for one, looking nervous; two, standing still; and three, not giving it enough. 그래서, we went away really annoyed with ourselves, went home, practised, came back, and came back correct.”
에 1988, Cookie Crew had an unexpected UK No 5 hit with Rok Da House, created by production team Beatmasters, who they were partnered with at the recommendation of Westwood. While it led to the duo signing with London Records and going international, it’s part of their history that they have complicated feelings about.
“Rok Da House was kind of like an accident,” Debbie explains. “Beatmasters put together this backing track, we went away and wrote a rap to it. The track had more of a hip-hop base but after they mixed it and they played with it, it somehow turned into this house-sounding track.”
“I think they started playing it in the clubs,” Susie ponders. “We were very adamant for them to not associate us with the track. They had ownership of it and we said, Whatever you want to do with it, it’s yours. It’s not ours.”
After having some success on the dancefloors of London, the track made its way to Mark Moore from S’Express. He took it to Rhythm King Records, they loved it, and from there their career took off in new and unexpected ways.
“It just escalated and escalated,” Pryce says. “Radio 1 used to do the chart rundown every week and they’d phone up the artists live and have a conversation and talk about the record. We went live on air and basically said, We don’t like the record, it’s not us. We were honest. But the record still did its thing and it became this track that we just couldn’t get rid of. It’s not a record that we are proud of but I am grateful for it. 다시 찾고, we could have probably dealt with it a bit more strategically, but we were just a couple of girls from south London – we loved hip-hop.”
After signing with London Records, Cookie Crew took on the US, and soon they were working with the likes of Stetsasonic and Gang Starr. But through all of this, they stuck to their truth, and to their British identity, and did all they could to represent the burgeoning scene at home. Songs from their debut album Born This Way make direct reference to their home town and to their journey (“We’ve got a message to all who said we couldn’t do it / take a look at us now, take your words and chew it”); Black is the Word captures their pride in their Black British identity and From the South is a homage to their home.
“We’ve always stayed true to our roots because we were very patriotic about London, and about south London particularly,” Pryce says. “All the narratives on the tracks are based around our experiences, even though the delivery might have had that American tone, because that was our reference point. Our subject matters were very, very British. When we were in New York, we were very proud of being British. We also felt that we were educating them about what was going on outside the US. A lot of the people we met didn’t realise that there were actually Black people in England because not many people had passports back then and they weren’t travelling. We were educating them on who we were, 영국인, but British Caribbean too.”
“Our references came from our parents, and our parents were the Windrush era,” Banfield explains. “Hip-hop in a way introduced us to what was happening in America but it didn’t introduce us to wider issues we faced as Black people. 예를 들어, we spent a lot of our time doing anti-apartheid gigs. We spent a lot of time making sure that we were involved with any gig to do with freeing Nelson Mandela as much as we could. We boycotted certain things, we were involved in everything possible that could be against Margaret Thatcher. We’ve always had that side of us.”
The music industry in the US wasn’t exactly supportive of such serious messaging, especially by women, so they had to have more of a light touch in speaking out publicly. In their next album Fade to Black, tracks like The Powers of Positive Thinking and A Word to the Conscious laid bare their thoughts and feelings on vital issues of the day, including the incarceration of Mandela, the causes of racism and oppression, and gun control. “Those kind of tracks wouldn’t have been chosen as singles – we did them to satisfy us,” Pryce says.
At home, focus had always been on lyrical dexterity and flow but in the US, image was overtaking in terms of importance. “Whenever they tried to talk to us about songs,” notes Banfield, “I think they respected what we were trying to do but deep down, they wanted us to be something else. We didn’t come from that; we came from a very tomboyish image and so for us to try and be like Salt-N-Pepa, it wasn’t going to work and I think that it was our demise in the end. Female rappers were getting more and more sexual, and we were going more and more the other way – we could never compete.”
“And we weren’t willing to compromise,” Pryce adds. “We loved Lil’ Kim and we loved Salt-N-Pepa, but that wasn’t our way.”
“Female rappers are all about the lyrics and delivering and showing that they are better than the guys,” says Banfield about the UK scene. “We felt like that when we first started in 1985, our whole point was to be better than the boys. Because they were the ones that were popular. Why were they more popular than us? We weren’t about to go and pimp ourselves out and show a bit of cleavage on stage; we wanted to show lyrically that we could stand next to you and hold our own. I think that female rappers in the UK still have that same mentality and it’s definitely a British thing of: Forget about what you’re seeing here, listen to what’s coming out of my mouth first.”
I ask Pryce and Banfield what it would be like if Cookie Crew were operating today. They both laugh, remarking that it would be easy to get something out there but the hard part would be them actually getting round to doing it. Hip-hop is in a healthy place, both agree, and the women in the scene in particular are doing them and other pioneers proud. “It’s just free, it looks good and it’s authentic,” Banfield says, on today’s landscape. “That’s what I like about it – I see it just getting better and better.”