The Original Queen Of Hip-Hop (Continued) [WAAMN Chapter 2.3]

MC Sha-Rock’s career got off to a roaring start in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Why did her momentum stall even as hip-hop went global?

This is a limited-time free preview of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future weekly serializations, click here. The below installment is Chapter 2: The Genius of Ownership (Part 3).

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When I sat down to write about MC Sha-Rock, I quickly realized the story of the world’s first female rapper to ever lay a verse on wax required multiple installments. Last week’s piece left her at something of a pinnacle: performing on Saturday Night Live in 1980 as part of the Funky Four Plus One More in hip-hop’s national TV debut. This upcoming episode details what happened next—and the lessons it offers creators about the impact of ownership. 

By the early 1980s, Sha-Rock realized that she and her groupmates had signed away virtually all control over their own destiny when they went over to Sugar Hill Records. Label matriarch Sylvia Robinson had plucked a number of hip-hop acts out of the South Bronx—and invented many others, like the Sugar Hill Gang, out of thin air. In many cases, she signed them to something we might now call an all-encompassing “360 deal.” 

The members of the Funky Four Plus One More didn’t get to own their work. Cash flow problems hampered their ability to invest in other ventures, as so many hip-hop stars would later do. Even Sha-Rock’s all-too-brief appearance in the seminal 1984 film Beat Street turned out to be a negotiation with a less-than-satisfying result. The circumstances around her record deal eventually took the fun out of music for Sha-Rock.

“I felt like everything that I was doing was being tarnished by all of this negativity,” she says. “Everything that I loved, I didn’t want to hate it. So what I did was I try to let my contract just go out.”

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