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V/A - Mother Tongues

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Artist: V/A

Album: Mother Tongues

Label: Quatermass

Review date: May. 29, 2003

Skewed by the Barbies

The world of hip hop has not traditionally been a very female-friendly place. Though women struggle against gender biases in all walks of life, and certainly in all artistic media, hip hop’s tradition of misogyny, particularly post-Eazy-E, has made the break beat an uncomfortable place for female voices. Even the recent ethno-targeted Miller Lite commercial that puts on display the Dozens, an African-American tradition that is one of the predecessors of the modern emcee battle, only allows space for male parody of the female (“stick ‘em up!”). Cue obligatory Roxanne Shante, Salt N’ Pepa, MC Lyte references. Trace timeline forward to TLC/Sporty Thievez, No Scrubs/Pigeons “battle,” notice irony of male group riding coattails of female fame. A new era! But not really. Though women have at various moments insisted on their place in the hallowed hall of hip hop’s blinging stars, they have remained a liminal presence at best, usually shunted off into the realm of the ‘it’s-ok-to-be-a-woman pop-R&B’ (the misfiling of Lauryn Hill); or, if they remain “hip hop” at all, they become hyper-sexualized, a male fantasy turned flesh (see: Lil’ Kim and gallon of sperm urban legends), with Missy Elliot being the fat woman that proves the rule.

Enter the forward-thinking indie/underground hip hop scene, saving the world from all the ills of the mainstream. You want “poetry”? Check. You want more white emcees? Check. You want something other than bling? Check. You want more female voices? Ah, well... Despite Jean Grae’s recent (token?) inclusion on the bleeding edge with folks like Dose-one and Aesop Rock in one hip rag, in general the few women that are making indie hip hop have received none of the attention that their male counterparts are enjoying. Artists like Medusa, AthenA, Lioness and others remain on the level of the under-underground, barely known even to the message-board cowboys and backpacker aficionados.

It was this dearth of all things female in indie hip hop that spawned the label Mother Tongues, that in 1998 brought together the many unheard female voices in Australian hip hop. One can’t help but wonder, however, whether these women were unheard because they were women, or because they were from Australia – a continent not known for its rap exports. And here we have the first, and perhaps the biggest, problem with the Mother Tongues compilation that the label has put out: the album presents itself as the worldwide female hip hop sound, studiously ignoring the fact that the only non-Australian emcee on the album (by my reckoning) is Moka Only, who isn’t even a woman! Which is to say, the presentation is a bit off. This Mother Tongues album ought to be pushing itself as a regional project with gender interests, not the other way around.

But on to the music itself. Inexplicably, after the instrumental intro, the first emcee featured (and the first voice heard) on the album is that of Moka Only, the only male emcee on the entire compilation. I’m not sure who did the layout of the tracks here, but this seems a pretty significant oversight, given that Moka severely outshines female collaborator Maya Jupiter, and that the next track is all about the history of women in hip hop, a seemingly appropriate opening number. Yet such seems to be the case with Mother Tongues – something is always a bit off. The majority of the songs suffer from poor production, always punctuated by a particularly over-mixed and tinny snare. Many of the emcees are also not exactly up to snuff, sounding generally under-confident in the booth. In fact, until Shorti RV’s spoken word “memories,” there is hardly a listenable moment on the album, and that trend remains true to the end. All in all, it sounds as though about 10 of the 14 tracks should not have made the album.

It is difficult to understand why a compilation of this sort is released. In the Internet-connected global village of independent music, there would seem to be little reason to insist that the voice of the Mother Tongue must come with an Australian accent, especially with the wealth of underexposed female hip hop artists in other countries. This seems especially true given that only four different artists are responsible for eleven of the fourteen songs on this album – it is hard to imagine it represents all the Australian female hip hoppers. Hopefully Mother Tongues as a label can right its course, and either acknowledge it’s only providing a forum for a select group of Australian female artists, or take its stated mission more seriously and put out albums that are somewhat more inclusive of the global female hip hop sound. Until then this compilation – with its schizo break between its sense of self and reality – will continue to accomplish very little, and the indie scene will remain as testosterone-heavy as the mainstream.

By Daniel Thomas-Glass

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