Roxanne's revenge is the sweetest yet

She was a hip-hop heroine in 1985. Then she vanished. Rap's child star fesses up to Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture

Roxanne Shanté calls it life after hip-hop. At the age of 13 she was the rapper on a surprise hit US single from 1985 entitled "Roxanne's Revenge", a novelty "answer" record to the hip-hop group UTFO's "Roxanne Roxanne". Riding the wave of answer records that followed (incredibly, there were an estimated 102 responses to the original theme), Shanté became one of the first female stars of hip-hop. Then, at 21, she retired, disenchanted with the music business, which had chewed her up and spat her out.

Roxanne Shanté calls it life after hip-hop. At the age of 13 she was the rapper on a surprise hit US single from 1985 entitled "Roxanne's Revenge", a novelty "answer" record to the hip-hop group UTFO's "Roxanne Roxanne". Riding the wave of answer records that followed (incredibly, there were an estimated 102 responses to the original theme), Shanté became one of the first female stars of hip-hop. Then, at 21, she retired, disenchanted with the music business, which had chewed her up and spat her out.

After giving birth to a second child - she had her son, Kareem, when she was only 15 and on the road - Shanté (real name: Lolita Shanté Gooden), went to college and emerged with a master's degree in psychology. She now works as a criminal psychologist for New York State, assessing the mental health of criminals up for parole. With enough money from royalties on her records to buy property across the tracks from her old neighbourhood in the housing projects of Queens, Shanté found herself surprisingly well set up, and had no thought of a return to music. Then came an encounter with the Mekon.

The British DJ and producer John Gosling - named the Mekon by his mate Goldie - had been asked to compile a wish-list of potential collaborators for his second album for the label Wall of Sound. Having already called upon the talents of old-skool rapper Schooly D for his first album, Gosling put Shanté at the top of the list, remembering the thrill he had experienced when he first bought his copy of "Roxanne's Revenge".

But Shanté couldn't be found. "We actually hired someone in the end", Gosling says. "We'd get so far down one avenue of enquiry, then it would turn into a dead end. Eventually, the guy we hired managed to slip a note into her ASCAP music publishing cheque. Those envelopes always get opened."

Shortly afterwards, the Mekon hooked up with Shanté in a Manhattan studio and she "free-styled" (ie improvised) a rap on the track he had already written for her. You can hear the result on the single "What's Going On?", which also appears on the forthcoming album, Relax With Mekon.

Happily, after all that bother, the track turns out to be rather good. Roxanne Shanté's inimitable Queens' rasp is heard over a frantic, break-beat backing, as she raps rhymes and repeats the phrase, "What's going on Mekon?" over and over again. The repetitions of the producer's name could be seen as rather unnecessarily self-aggrandising - especially as Shanté only said it once and Gosling used a sample for the repeats - appearing to reinforce that sense of the artist's exploitation by the employer which so resounds throughout the history of black music.

But although this may have made for a better story, Gosling is endearingly hopeless when it comes to playing the big cheese. A classic Brighton slacker, the 37-year-old admits that he would be scared stiff if faced with the popularity of Fatboy Slim. "I don't think I've got the personality to deal with that kind of success", he says, chugging on a beer.

Shanté, by contrast, looks ready for anything. When we meet at a publicist's office in Notting Hill, she is sitting on a sofa looking slightly matronly in a leopardskin-print trouser suit, her hair tied back in a tight pony-tail. "I guess it just dropped into my lap", she says of her original success. "It wasn't like I wanted to be a rapper; it was just luck and timing, which is something I'm pretty good at."

Her gift for rhyming was, she says, derived from listening to black comedians like Nipsy Russell on TV. "We used to watch him and you'd come outside the next day and see if you could do the same thing. Eventually, I got so good at it I was able to pursue a career from it, making records in five or 10 minutes, just going in and doing it."

Like many female stars before her, Shanté had to fight to get her share of composer credits and royalties. "They were giving my mom money and she didn't know too much about the record business; she was just happy they were giving her money, so they were really taking advantage of the situation. That made me pretty bitter so I no longer wanted to make records; I was just tired of the whole thing. I'd never seen myself as a star so it was easy for me to quit."

Following her initial success with the answer records, Shanté was sent out on tour with rap packages. "I must have toured for about four years straight, constant touring, even had my son and everything and was still doing shows every weekend. So when I was able to stop, I stopped." As to whether she feels she was exploited, Shanté is cautious. "As with a lot of child stars, and I would consider myself a child star, it happens. But I like the fact that hip-hop taught me a lot. Hip-hop life and the entertainment industry prepared me for life itself, so I learned a lot, let alone the money I made from it."

Now, Shanté lives in an apartment on the ritzy side of Queens, where she's aware that some of her neighbours think she must be the cleaning lady for one of the other tenants. She's also aware that the art of rap that she helped to pioneer is not what it was. "If you listen to it you will notice that rap then was more of a truthful story", she says. Asked if she wants to continue her return to recording with the Mekon, Shanté suggests that she might, but only if she had creative control. On balance, it looks like hip-hop might lose out to criminal psychology, with Shanté likely to end up counselling the odd rapper less resilient than herself along the way.

'Relax With Mekon' (Wall of Sound) is released on 2 October; 'What's Going On?' is out next week

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