Introducing… Femcee Madness
It may be a little early for March (Music) Madness, but I’ve decided that it’s time anyway. In case you are new to either March Madness or OnRecords, let me explain. Each year I create a music related brackets-style competition that relies on your votes! Past brackets have included all-time favourite albums, Beyoncé songs (pre-Lemonade!), soundtracks, and divas. For this year’s tournament, I am excited to introduce to you Femcee Madness, a (mostly) friendly competition between female rappers!
As both a feminist and a hip hop fan, this category is an important one for me. Rap music has always been a testosterone-heavy world, often viewed as a hyper-masculine genre, even though so many pioneers of the art have been women. For so many reasons (read: the patriarchy), it’s hard to get recognition as a woman in rap music. In order to be heard, many have had to work twice as hard as their male colleagues, often expected to sing as well as they rhyme. Plus, this is a particularly good time in history to be elevating and amplifying the voices of women of colour.
While these brackets are an exciting chance to watch some of our all-time favourite rappers go head-to-head, they are also an excuse to profile some exceptionally talented, underrated and under-appreciated women both from hip hop’s short history and the current game. In order to give some of the freshman a fighting chance against long-loved veterans, the brackets have been organized based on career eras. For the first several polls, veteran femcees will face off against one another while younger rappers will spar amongst themselves, leaving our final championship with a representative from both the old and new school.
Let me break down these brackets for those interested in the organization of the tournament. The left side of the brackets is made up of veterans, or those who began their rap career during the 80s or 90s, and the right side represents freshmen, or the femcees who gained their popularity since 2000. The freshmen are then broken up even further by chronology, allowing those who have only been on the scene since 2010 to go up against one another, while those who’ve had a little longer to find a following will face off amongst themselves.
Rap music is a relatively young genre, so instead of breaking up the veterans along a timeline, we’ve divided those who originated in New York City (the birthplace of hip hop), and those pioneers who came from anywhere else. No matter how we slice it, there are going to be some tough decisions right off the bat.
A seed represents a rating that each femcee is given that decides where she will be placed within her bracket. This was especially difficult to establish since I don’t believe that rap music should be evaluated solely (or even primarily) based on mainstream sales, however the contenders need to have at least some popularity and fanbase. Aside from a few points for billboard charting singles in the hip hop category, seeding was mostly based on critical rather than commercial success. I combed through hip hop blogs and publications who had given ratings or rankings to rappers, and every time a lady-rapper made a list, they got some points. (The higher they were rated, the more points they received).
There was no way I could feature every female rapper who has contributed to hip hop. In order to weed a few out, I selected only those who rap primarily in English, and those who’ve recorded an album of some kind – whether an EP, LP or Mixtape. Often the last few of a category were chosen by draw.
You may have noticed two TBD spots in the brackets. In our first polls, the first eight will battle it out for a vote-in chance to compete. Both spots are in the freshman class (to give us extra exposure to some more recent music). The femcee in each category who receive the most votes will go on to compete in the Femcee Madness tournament, and you can watch their progress there starting later this month!
Hip Hop Listening Points
Many folks who have voted on these brackets in the past will not be as familiar with the art of rap, and I realize that this might require a slightly new audience. However, if you are looking for an opportunity to broaden your understanding and experience of hip hop, this is a great place to start! So for those who will be approaching rap for the first time, here are some things to listen for (and if you’re a hip-hop head already, feel free to scroll down to preview the pre-bracket competition).
Lyricism. Rap is basically made up of lyrics, so this might sound redundant. There is a difference between rap and written or even spoken word poetry, but still, many of the things you learned to look for in poetry class are worth paying attention to in a decent rap verse. Watch for metaphors and similes, and for the way a femcee can weave multiple references and ideas into her narrative. Consider her vocabulary in general – it may not be particularly academic, but note the way a femcee will play with multiple meanings of the same word. The more rap you listen to, the more you will catch subtle nods and homages or even disses to other artists.
Arguably the most important literary device in rap is the rhyme scheme, especially when it shifts. This is called the rapper’s flow, and it is an integral (f)emcee skill. Flow describes the relationship between the rhyme and the beat. Listen for when the rhymes end a phrase or are strung along in the middle. Listen for when they sit directly on the beat, and when they seem to sit just in front or behind the beat. Listen for where they are passed from one idea to the next, linking phrases that sound otherwise distinct. A truly gifted rapper will remain in control as they switch up their flow and subvert our expectations. The video below uses all male rappers as examples, but it does a great job describing basics and complexities of great rhymes.
Content can be a value in rap music, although this will vary depending on the fans. For some, social or political consciousness communicated through poetic flow is the ultimate goal, while others are more interested in a really well-told story. In battle rap, content should include some ability to throw shade and demonstrate self-confidence and straight-up braggery. Women have often been treated like objects in hip hop, so when female rappers write about their own sexuality, it can be empowering. Like poetry, you can rap about absolutely anything, the main thing to pay attention to is a variety of unique content coming from the artist.
Whatever the content, a rapper’s technical abilities mean nothing without a strong delivery. Two femcees could easily deliver the exact same verse in completely different ways. Usually it will come down to a personality, tone, style or attitude, or unique, stand-out vocals. Memorable rappers, like memorable singers, have a certain je ne sais quoi that cannot always be easily described.
… then again, sometimes an artist speaks to you not because of the above factors, but because of nostalgia or shared experience, or because they make you want to dance… so just follow your heart and vote!
Download a copy of the brackets, print it out, and mark down your choices, and send your final four predictions to me (@danice.carlson on twitter)!
The Vote-In round will open on Monday, Feb. 6th, but in the meantime you have some time to research the 8 rappers hoping to join the tournament.
Four rappers are in the running for the #11 spot in the northwest quadrant that will eventually face off against Diamond, originally of Atlanta based group, Crime Mob. Will it be Baltimore’s Rye Rye, Mexican chopper Snow The Product, Caribbean-British comical Lady LeShurr, or Ethiopian born/D.C. raised model/rapper Lola Monroe? Here is a handy introductory youtube playlist to get you acquainted.
Representing the freshest of the newbies (in the southwest bracket), four women are gunning for that 16th seed to go up against the weakest #1 seed, Iggy Azaelia. Your choice is between a couple of young Londoners, Nadia Rose and Little Simz, Oakland’s west coast representing Kamaiyah, and the Orlando raised, Brooklyn based Nitty Scott. Check out this youtube playlist to hear a couple tracks from each femcee.
Share the madness with anyone you think would enjoy participating, and we’ll see you for the pre-bracket vote-ins on February 6th!