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'Louder Than A Riot' reckons with hip-hop's past and looks to a more inclusive future

Megan Thee Stallion performs onstage during the 2023 LA Pride in the Park Festival. In the first episode of its second season, the <em>Louder Than A Riot</em> podcast examines the backlash Megan faced after being shot by rapper Tory Lanez.
Emma McIntyre
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Megan Thee Stallion performs onstage during the 2023 LA Pride in the Park Festival. In the first episode of its second season, the Louder Than A Riot podcast examines the backlash Megan faced after being shot by rapper Tory Lanez.

As hip-hop marks its 50th anniversary, Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, the co-hosts of the NPR podcastLouder Than A Riot, are taking a hard look back — and ahead — at a genre that male artists and hyper-masculine lyrics once dominated.

The first season of Louder Than A Riot investigated the connection between hip-hop and mass incarceration. In its second and final season, the podcast examines the misogynoir that has long plagued the genre — and highlights artists that are pushing back. Carmichael says the topic is "well past due, but also right on time."

"Both season 1 and season 2 were very much about us taking the temperature of the culture in that moment," Carmichael says. "When we looked around and saw what was happening and what was going on within hip-hop at the time, it was like the story, subject and theme for the season was basically being served to us."

Carmichael points to the 2020 incident in which rapper Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion in the feet following a party at the home of Kylie Jenner. Though Lanez was eventually found guilty of three felony charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison, Megan was "disbelieved by a lot of heavy hitters in hip-hop, was ridiculed, was made fun of, was harassed," Carmichael says.

The first episode of season 2 examines the backlash Megan faced by speaking out against her assailant. Subsequent episodes have chronicled how the pioneering female rapper Sha-Rock was shut out of the industry and the workplace discrimination and sexual harassment endemic at The Source magazine.

Despite the challenges — or maybe because of them — Madden says a new generation of women and queer artists are changing the genre by daring to be themselves.

"The girls and the gays are running things. They are the culture crusaders at this point when you think about who is creating trends, who's starting talking points, who's ending and deading old tropes and old archetypes," Madden says. "We wanted to spotlight not only those people but [also] kind of examine everything that has come before that they need to be pushing against in the first place."

Interview highlights

On the hip-hop tracks that initially got them excited about the genre

Carmichael: I have a standard answer to that. It's a track that still probably is celebrated today. You probably heard it a lot this month if you were tuned in to hip-hop 50 celebrations. It's not the first hip-hop song I ever heard, but it's the first song that showed me that hip-hop could be more than just a party, for instance, and it's the song by Grandmaster Flash& The Furious Five, "The Message." That's still my favorite kind of rap song. Like, that's a whole lane of rap that continues. If you look at trap, trap music is very much that lane. "Gangsta rap" in the '90s was very much that lane. All of my favorite rappers, a lot of them, talked about struggle and overcoming insurmountable odds, all of that stuff; that's hip-hop at its finest.

Madden: I do vividly remember going to the supermarket and being allowed to buy theMiseducation of Lauryn Hill CD with my allowance and playing it back to back, over and over, but stopping on certain songs. And I feel like "Lost Ones" was really one of those songs for me. It just talked about the tension, the fleeting nihilism, the diary aspect to it, and really just putting to words so much of the swirling emotions I felt coming up but never knew how to describe, or never had the vocabulary of, for myself.

On the industry backlash that curtailed the career of Sha-Rock of Funky 4+1

Carmichael: One of the big things that ends up happening to Sha-Rock, that just kind of shows how different the times are now versus then, is... at the height of the Funky 4's success, Sha-Rock is pregnant and the height of success for them is being the first hip-hop group to appear on Saturday Night Live. They have this really big performance; a lot of their peers at the time are upset because they feel like they should have been the group that was chosen to do this big thing, bringing hip-hop to the masses on Saturday Night Live. The Funky 4 was picked specifically because Sha-Rock was in the group. This was the night that Debbie Harry was hosting the show, and she was familiar with the Funky 4 and really liked them because they were young and fresh and they had Sha-Rock, and she wanted to spotlight them.

And Sha-Rock is pregnant at the time of the performance, which a lot of people in hip-hop don't find out two years later. I mean, we talked to DMC of Run-DMC for this episode. He's a huge fan of Sha-Rock. He didn't know until we told him during the interview that Sha-Rock was pregnant at that time. So she was hiding it at the time because she felt like it would in some way, shape or form be construed as detrimental to their success and everything they were doing. And when she told them after the show, that's what happened. Her group members did not support her, did not hold her down, and the sentiment pretty much was, "Man, we're on the cusp here and you're messing this up right now." So there were lots of factors that went into the group splitting up. But her treatment by her group members, by hip-hop culture at that time, was really a huge part of what ended up happening and why her name has not rang out in the way that it should have based on her being this pioneering first woman MC.

On Kim Osorio's claims of sexual harassment while she was the first woman editor-in-chief of The Source

Madden: She and her lawyers presented all these examples of unsafe, unsavory, disgusting, icky types of moments and events that happened in the workplace. We're talking about pornography being hung up on the walls. We're talking about men's-only meetings, where women were not allowed because there were men-type conversations, topics happening. One of the former owners of the magazine would go around and touch female staffers very inappropriately, touch bra straps, gift people Victoria's Secret underwear for holiday parties...

There have been many examples in the hip-hop space, in the hip-hop culture space, where women have come forward, people have come forward and it hasn't really made a seismic shift in how Black women and people presenting as Black women or anybody else who is not in the majority, who is not a cis-het Black man, is treated in these spaces.

On the image of masculinity in the '80s and '90s hip-hop

Carmichael: If you were a young Black man growing up in the '90s and you were receiving these messages of Black men being an endangered species... There's war on drugs, which we now understand was really a war on Black people. The mass incarceration era is kind of getting ramped up... [In] the crack era, there was an intensity around how you present yourself as a man. And the music was reflecting that as well. And a lot of my favorite rappers were hyper, hyper-masculine. And it was something that I fed off of because, in a lot of ways, it felt like it was something that I needed to be as well. Everything that you're consuming at that point in time is kind of teaching you and schooling you. And even if you had great parents at home, it's really hard to not be swayed by what you're internalizing. You're your culture; you internalize the music.

It made me check my sensitivity. Which is probably the first thing that happens, right? You just start to learn how to guard or hold up a guard or mask your own sensitivity and vulnerability... with other men, but most definitely with women as well, women that you're interested in, women that you might have tender feelings for, but you might feel like it's not necessarily cool to express that too much, or be too open and vulnerable about that. You learn how to pose and mask a little bit, or at least you try to.

On messages she picked up by listening to a variety of female hip-hop artists

Madden: There were messages of overt objectification, but there were also messages of being the weirdo and being successful at it. I grew up on Trina, but I also grew up on Lauryn Hill, and I also grew up on Missy Elliott — which, if you'd say those three names, you could think of, like, completely divergent messages and divergent paths of what those women represent in hip-hop. But to me, it was like I was on shuffle and I was listening to all those messages at the same time. So it's hard to say that I had one succinct and loud message about what being a Black woman was courtesy of hip-hop because I had all this variety.

On sharing hip-hop with his 4-year-old son

Carmichael: I want to be armed with the conversations to be able to have with him about how to process and ingest and still have a respect for and enjoy this culture and this music that I love. And a lot of these topics are very adult topics. But I think that it's better to start as a father thinking about that earlier than later. I mean, hip-hop has given me a lot of things... The gangster thing was one element, but it also gave me a love for being weird and being open, and De La Soul and A Tribe Called Questand groups like that were my favorite, too. And I want him to develop a relationship with the range of that experience as well because this is the range of Black folks' experience in this country.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Ciera Crawford adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.