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Interview Fri Feb 17 2012
For 20 years now, Da Brat has cemented her status as one of the most noted women in hip hop; as the first female rapper to ever go platinum (1994's Funkdafied), this Grammy-nominated artist has definitely earned a place in music history. After riding in the fast lane with three follow-up albums, along with several television and movie roles, Da Brat (aka Shawntae Harris) hit a speed bump in 2007 with a prison term that threatened to end it all. Now, the Chicago native, part of the Legends of Hip Hop tour, is back in the driver's seat; here, she talks about her life, lessons learned, and of course, loving hip hop.
Gapers Block: You've been in the game for a while now. Take us back to the girl growing up on Chicago's west side — when did you know you could rap?
Da Brat: I knew when I was in junior high school when I was battling all the guys and was just wearing them out. And then when I started to see MC Lyte, [Queen] Latifah and Monie Love, I said to myself, "Oh — this is what I'm going to do."
GB:Of course, everyone knows you got your start with producer Jermaine Dupri--how did that relationship come about?
Da Brat: Well, I got my start as a kid in Chi-Town; my first demo record was "Clean Up Woman," a song done by R. Kelly. I was in talent shows all over Chicago — including the Regal Theater — and was doing my thing and then things changed in October 1992 when Kriss Kross came to Chicago. I met them and they told me they really liked me and the way I rapped. I kept in touch with them and then they, along with TLC, C&C Music Factory and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch came to do "The Oprah Winfrey Show." I was able to go to that show because someone gave me tickets and that's when I met Jermaine Dupri — but he hadn't heard me rap yet. I was shocked when he told me Kriss Kross had told him all about me and then he just said, "Come to Atlanta." I didn't know how I was going to get there; I mean, he didn't say he would buy the ticket or anything! But, thanks to my godsister who worked for TWA, I made it to Atlanta and the rest is history.
GB: You made headlines with your recent incarceration; now that experience is behind you, are there any lessons you learned?
Da Brat: There are so many lessons. You need to think before you react so quickly because your temper will get you in trouble. Also, being away was hard because I couldn't go out and do the things I wanted--like go to the studio--and I was mad about all the times I didn't go when I was home. I just learned to not take things for granted. You don't want to be in there, especially if you have a life — and you're an artist — and that's all stripped away from you.
GB: When you were away, did you ever think "Did I throw this all away?" Did you think you'd fall victim to the "out of sight, out of mind" ideology?
Da Brat: Well, you're only as big as your last hit, but when I went in, I didn't think the [rap] game was fair to females, anyway. When I was getting ready to get out, I thought, "Wow, there really are no female MCs now — there used to be a whole gang of us!" I thought, "Okay, how will I make it now?"
GB: Well, just by looking at social media commentary and the blogs, it looks like you were indeed missed.
Da Brat: That's a great feeling — not to just miss everybody, but for everybody to miss you is amazing. And the mail and all the pictures I got from my fans really made me feel like there are a whole lot of people who do love me.
GB: Let's talk about the current era of hip hop, which is, of course, very different from when you came on the scene in the early '90s. In a recent interview, you spoke very passionately about the state of the female MC — that it's what's sorely missing from and needed in the music industry. What do you think happened?
Da Brat: Before I went away, I was making some bangers, but it was almost like the record labels didn't believe in the female MC. I don't even really know what happened. It was like it just crashed.
GB: Regarding the state of women in hip hop, have you spoken with any of your industry peers — MC Lyte, Lil' Kim, Eve, Queen Latifah, et al?
Da Brat: I've talked to almost everybody. I spoke with Missy [Elliott] and she's ready; she told me, "Come on, let's get out here! Let's do this!" And there is no reason why we can't.
GB: Even after three decades, in many cases, hip hop is still viewed as a boys' club — how do you feel about that?
Da Brat: I hate that it's still viewed that way, but that's almost the case with anything when it comes to women until we make our own way and take a stand.
GB: As far as music goes, you released a mixtape, "Life After Death." Are you working on any more music?
Da Brat: I'm working on album and a mixtape at the same time. The super great songs and original tracks are for the album, but the sample stuff and fun stuff will go on the mixtape.
GB: Let's talk abut the big concert coming to Chicago — the Legends of Hip Hop. You're part of a heavy hitting lineup that includes Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, MC Lyte and Whodini — how does it feel to be a part of this tour, in your hometown, no doubt?
Da Brat: When I was called about participating on the tour, I immediately said, "Hell yeah!" I love all the artists on this tour and really, it's a wonderful thing to be called a legend. I am very excited about it; I'm coming home to perform at the Arie Crown Theater for the first time since 1992, which is when and where it all first started for me.
GB: Speaking of lineups, what do you think about collaborating on a joint with your fellow Chi-Town hip hop peers?
Da Brat: I would love that! Twista is already on my mixtape and Shawnna and I are cool, but I would just love that! I know Kanye is doing his thing but if it could be me, him, Lupe [Fiasco] and whoever else wants to get down, I would love it! It could be a big Chi-Town party!
GB: Besides the concert, are you looking forward to anything else during your Chicago visit?
Da Brat: I'm looking forward to spending time with my immediate family, especially my grandmother, who hasn't been doing well. I don't get a chance to party when I come to Chicago because when I'm there, it's all about getting my cup overflowed with that family love. So, it'll be all about family — that, plus an Italian beef from Portillo's!
GB: You've confirmed it — almost everyone who moves away misses Chicago's food scene.
Da Brat: Chicago has the best food. No one can mess with Chicago when it comes down to food.
GB: I also understand you've written a book — can you tell us about that?
Da Brat: I joined an authors' club when I was in prison. I started writing a book that at first was titled "Insubordination," but I had to change it because it wasn't about that anymore. I'm almost done writing it, but I'm at a stopping point because I'm trying to focus on my music.
GB: What will the book be about?
Da Brat: It's about how I got into music, how I was involved with the church choir and played seven different instruments. There are lots of things people don't know about me; they think I'm just some ill-mannered, potty-mouthed rapper. There's so much more to me. I'm many other wonderful things but of course, people like to only focus on the negative stuff.
GB: What's next for Da Brat?
Da Brat: Well, I really want to get this music out, but also, I'm getting tagged to do reality shows. I cannot portray a negative person anymore; I mean, I just got out of prison — how foolish would I be to be seen on TV throwing bottles, getting drunk and fighting? I'm not that person anymore. I'm going to do a TV show, but I'm just trying to figure out exactly what I want it to be about. I want it to be something really creative — and positive — that shows all sides of Brat.