“Men write history, but women live it.”Chloe Angyal
It’s true that history is written by the victors, but it’s also been predominately written by men. That is especially true in hip-hop. As the culture closes in on its fiftieth birthday, the contributions of women, whether behind the mic or behind the scenes, have been largely overlooked, marginalized, or outright ignored.
The Motherlode (Abrams, 2021) by Clover Hope could help begin to change that. A cogent and forceful entry in the ongoing need to give the ladies their due, it is a book that is undefinable, or at least not easily categorized, that also happens to be the definitive history of women in hip-hop.
Hope has been publishing great work for years and has been featured in numerous publications, including Vogue, The New York Times, Billboard, Vibe, and XXL (where she and a host of other writers were incredibly kind to a handsome wannabe scribe who took up residence in the site’s online comments section), as well as serving as co-writer on Beyonce’s 2020 visual album Black Is King.
In The Motherlode, she impressively manages to touch on every woman of note that rocked a microphone, from MC Sha-Rock to Megan Thee Stallion, and everyone in between: Roxanne Shante and Lady B, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and J.J. Fad, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage and Bahamadia, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, and Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. There are entries and mentions of emcees that even I, a self-anointed hip-hop scholar, completely forgot.
But it’s not merely a reference book. It’s not an encyclopedia. It’s much more than that. No two chapters are the same. As Hope explains in the introduction, “Instead of writing complete biographies, I wanted to focus on each rapper’s contributions, be it a song, a look, or a movement.” As a result, Charli Baltimore’s chapter examines her songwriting ability while Roxanne Shante’s focuses on the battle records she recorded in hip-hop’s formative years.
Each woman brought something different to the game and The Motherlode follows suit.
The research is deep and impressive, the writing is strong (even if it dips into pockets of hyperbole at times), but what really sets the book apart is the overall package. The colors are bright and vibrant, and the additional touches – pages of shoutouts to artists that didn’t merit an entire chapter, small tidbits and anecdotes that populate the pages and feel like a literary version of Pop-Up Video, and, most of all, the illustrations – all combine to place the book in a class of its own.
Rachelle Baker’s artwork is stellar. Each chapter is accompanied by a graphic of the artist, one that depicts her in her prime, much like a hall of fame plaque. The fashion and hairstyles represented in the portraits also serve as a visual stroll through the history of hip-hop, from baggy jeans and hats to formfitting outfits with designer labels. The illustrations pop and make it a book that deserves to be displayed even after it has been read a few times.
I quibbled with some of Hope’s arguments and assertions, but there is value in us reading things we disagree with, and I learned more from The Motherlode than from any other hip-hop book in a long, long time. It’s part-history, part-biography, part-art book, part-examination on gender, stereotypes, and the music business, and part-classic barbershop arguments about rap. Mixed together, it’s all fun.
Whether you’re a hip-hop savant or a novice, a feminist or a roughneck, old enough to remember MC Sha-Rock performing on Saturday Night Live or so young you think Lizzo is the first artist to ever combine singing and rapping, The Motherlode is for you.
I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.