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This story is the second part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
A waitress from Los Angeles working the lunch shift at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge just happens to be DJ Quik’s godmother. She recognizes Detroit rapper Boss, who’s in a booth getting photographed, and introduces herself. Old home week begins. Stories of South Central neighborhoods and mutual acquaintances ensue, ending with the exchange of phone numbers.
Boss turns to me, offers an it’s-nice-to-be-treated-with-respect grin and sums her story: “There’s so much about my history that I can’t even rap about.”
Lichelle “Boss” Laws is all smiles, her wide brown eyes reflective, optimism abundant, and her easy, lilting conversation disarming and self-deprecating. But it all seems juxtapositional, or maybe just hard to believe: Here’s a rapper who’s scaled the depths and heights with white-light speed — from Catholic schools and ballet lessons to hawking drugs and sleeping on bus benches in Compton to ripping murderous gangsta raps in arenas alongside Dr. Dre and fielding calls from Madonna (who wanted to work with her) to a fleeting radio career in Texas. Then back down, down again — the earnings used up, debilitating hospital encumbrances and bunking with the folks in her girlhood bedroom— all in a span of a decade.
America’s first full-on female gangsta rapper is Norma Desmond updated, comeback certain.
It’s hard to imagine this lovely girl/woman — who’s dressed in sweats, matching Detroit All Stars baseball cap and T-shirt (designed by her sister Karyl), a Fuct jacket, with hair pulled into a pair of little-girl neck-length braids — posing with automatic weapons and spitting malevolent rhymes about cop killing, liquor swilling, street hustling and being the “bitch that’s legit.” Harder still when, with face beaming, she produces a photo of her 9-year-old son, Lamar, whom she obviously adores.
Just your average gangsta “rapper mom”? No, that’s too easy, a moniker bestowed upon her by Lamar’s teachers and classmates.
Eleven months ago Boss endured a kidney transplant — part hard-living related, part inherited — after years of renal failure, dialysis and doctors telling her she’s lucky to be alive.
Fuck death, she says, she’s Boss. She’s going to make it.
She asks if she looks fit, if the noxious years are showing. She does and they aren’t. She’s still smooth-skinned, pretty in the kind of way that makes pubescent boys shudder. Perhaps her kind of pretty is simply in the genes; she should, after all, look fit after the hell she put her body through and the hell her body put her through.
Another woman approaches the rapper seeking advice; it seems her teenage son is keen on breaking into hip hop and needs a quality local studio in which to record. Boss obliges, gives out her personal cell number.
It’s obvious that at one point in her life, Boss had settled into the role of rap star.
The squalid side of South Central Los Angeles — derelict hotels, feudal gangs, dealing and hustling — is pretty much what Boss and her DJ partner Irene “Dee” Moore (though the duo was called “Boss”) found after stepping off the bus from Detroit in 1990. Gangsta rap was taking firm hold then, augmented by N.W.A.’s Niggaz4life, their huge follow-up to Straight Outta Compton. The girls, barely in their 20s, had tried New York City, were once even offered a shady management deal to be signed over a McDonald’s lunch (they balked and returned home, where Boss worked a job and saved some money for California).
Boss wanted to rap, was fiercely committed to it. Every hormone in her body screamed the desire. And, according to those who remember her in the late ’80s Detroit rap scene, she was destined for stardom. Having adored the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and N.W.A., Boss approached L.A. with temerity, a sense of adventure and the bunny-eyed exuberance of an advantaged girl antipathetic to her upbringing. Boss understood the hard facts: If you were a rapper in Detroit, you didn’t stand a chance unless you bailed on the 313.
“Me and Dee went on this mission to get a deal,” Boss says, laughing at the thought. “And, what a mission.” She pauses, looks for another smoke that she knows she shouldn’t be lighting and says, “I was drinking so much and there was gangs out there and I could go on and on. It was horrible. It was just horrible.”
Boss tells of sitting on salable drugs hidden beneath clumps of public park grass, renting space in someone’s backyard for luggage storage, showering in community bathrooms, and would-be rapists pounding on her low-rent hotel door. One or two anecdotes involve some kind of shoot-out. Her stories are occasionally interrupted by bursts of laughter and head shaking, as if she can hardly comprehend that life now.
“I would smoke and drink all day — Boone’s Farm wine and Old English. Oh, my kidneys were killing me. But I was writing these raps — spittin’ these raps all day — from sunup to sundown. We was half-starved and black as hell from being in the sun all day.”
She stops, anticipates the next question, cliché as it might be, and snips the query before it finds air: “But we never sold no pussy.”
Her family, oblivious to the life she was leading, would periodically help out.
“We didn’t know anything about her life there,” says her mother, Lillie. “We were sending her money whenever she asked for it. All in all we stuck by her.”
At one point Boss got renowned producer/rapper “Def Jef (Jeff Forston) to come “all the way to the hood to hear me rap.”
The rapper obtained Forston’s number from a mutual friend in Detroit and cold-called him. Forston was known then both as a producer and solo artist.
“She called me out of the blue one day,” says Forston in a phone interview from his home in L.A. “I had no idea who she was or how she got my home phone number. But she told me I had to come hear her rap. I just said ‘maybe’ and she said, ‘Nah, nigga — you gotta come today or never. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here.’”
Forston relented, was intrigued by this rapper’s obstinacy and self-belief, and drove to Compton.
“She was living in some crappy $40-a-day hotel in Compton,” continues Forston. “It was really sketchy, didn’t look kosher at all. … And she was shy. But as soon as she started rappin’ I stopped her. I just said, ‘You’re gonna be a big star.’ It was like that. Forston put Dee and Boss up at his own place to work on music and says Boss knew exactly what she wanted.
“She hated my beats and that was that,” he says flatly.
Within days Boss was back on the streets.
By some miraculous fluke, Dee and a barefooted Boss stumbled into the offices of producers Tracy Kendrick and Courtney Branch, who were responsible for DJ Quik’s 1991’s multi-platinum, street-cred-heavy Quik Is The Name.
Boss demanded that the producers pay attention to her raps. “I said ‘Look, we’s from Detroit, we’re looking for a record deal.’” They did and loved her.
Kendrick and Branch put together a management deal. Boss and Dee slept on the floor of the offices. Not long after, the two signed with Def Jam, and label head Russell Simmons made Boss a kind of pet project.
Upon her meeting with Simmons at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Boss says: “I think we said like three words, ‘Shit; Russell Simmons.’”
“Industry people believe that no one will buy hardcore females,” Simmons said in an early interview about Boss. “But the same women who buy Ice Cube or N.W.A. will buy hardcore female rap if they’re given the chance.’”
Life had suddenly changed. Boss had some dough and was off the street. But she was tired from the street hassles, and her kidney ached. “I didn’t get a chance to recover from sleeping on benches and concrete,” she says.
Consider that Boss’ parents are both church deacons (pop’s a retired autoworker, mom was a teacher) who worked hard to give their children opportunities. When their daughter dropped her Def Jam album in 1993, they had gone on record proclaiming disgust with their daughter’s brand of music. They later warmed up to her career and her mother says that they are now “quite proud.”
Boss grew up on the West Side, just south of Eight Mile, the youngest of three sisters. She attended private school (St. Mary’s in Redford, where she says she “fought all through school”). She eventually became a cheerleader (“I was captain of that muthafucker”) and a member of the homecoming court.
Early on, Boss would write her own rhymes over other rappers’ beats. She did her first official show at a high school function in the ninth grade.
She followed her older sister Karyl, “Kap” (who was rapping and DJing), out to clubs at night.
She did two years at Oakland University, where she met Irene Moore, who became her DJ. The duo performed wherever and whenever. She can’t remember if she actually left college or was given the boot, but says, “I was lookin’ to get my shit on.”
While still in high school, she had met Doc Chill, a trailblazing teen rapper, who introduced her to Jewel Silas, who had a collective of mostly teen rappers, DJs, and dancers called Thee Posse.
Silas rented venues and each weekend threw anti-drug, anti-crime rap-dance parties (retooled “talent shows,” an attempt to avoid cop interference — a permit was required to throw a “party”), sometimes at now-defunct clubs such as the Brotherhood and the Cotton Club. The events were fire-hazard crowded.
Silas engineered rap battle playoffs called Rhyme Roulette, an elimination roundelay that saw a group of 20-or-so rappers trade one-line raps one end off the other — free form — until somebody flubbed. Boss would kill everybody.
“She was the baddest; she’d win, even against the men,” Silas says. “Her mind was that quick, able to match the preceding line while putting something together that was hard for the next guy to catch. It was phenomenal. Her ability to write, to put metaphors together, was phenomenal.”
Was the gangsta seed planted in Boss at
“Oh, my God. She was definitely gangsta then,” he says. “I still have the photos we did, where we rented shotguns and everything.
Silas initiated Thee Posse, which existed from about 1988 to 1993, as a way to give what he calls “suppressed urban youth” a chance to do something other than lurk on the streets and soak up drugs. He basically put dancers, DJs and rappers through an arduous training program, educated them on music business matters, and all aspects of recording and performing. He recorded artists and shopped them to labels. This Motown idea of grooming up-and-comers was fueled by the sanguinity of a burgeoning underground scene. In this life, timing is everything, and Silas’ lofty goals saw humble payback.
If you wanted to be a rapper, or if you were a rapper, your opportunities were severely limited in Detroit in the ’80s. Documented history of Detroit rap from that period is scarce. For one thing, the genre has an ephemeral sense of its own history — a real here-today-gone-today attitude, so much that to cynical ears the local scene might as well have not even existed. Detroit rap wasn’t 8 Mile. Thee Posse was in the trenches (along with others: Ms. Candy Productions, Bum Rush productions, etc.) working its ass off to get Detroit hip hop heard.
These were days long before battle-rap nights, indie labels, and overzealous press teams and lawyerly types. Forget radio play. An upcoming rapper had less chance of getting local spins then than now (in the frog-rectum tight corporate radio squeeze). There was basically no way for a rapper to get his music heard. It was word-of-mouth shows and backyard parties.
“Back then it wasn’t nothing,” says Boss. “The whole scene back then was underground. You had to get out of here.”
Silas: “You lock a person in a cage, they’re gonna become an animal.”
And when the industry started opening up for audacious Detroit rappers, the rest of the country flipped a deaf ear. Boss had to leave this city — and many of her contemporaries at the time understood her reasons for leaving — and suffer somewhere else “to get her shit on.”
“I understand individuals have to go through trials and tribulations, but some things are unnecessary,” says Silas. “I didn’t know at the time what happened to her between the time she left Detroit and (signed with) Def Jam, but she wouldn’t have had to have gone through so much drama to get to where she was going. … Then Boss was the highest earning female gangsta at the time.”
Yet Boss says the talent pool here was rich. “You had so many great rappers, Kaos & Mystro, B-Def, Merciless Amir, Detroit’s Most Wanted, Chill. … There were so many.”
Thee Posse is now almost legendary in certain circles. At the time, the work Silas was doing was rarely, if ever, written about — media attention was nil for Detroit hip hop. The media often ignored anything having to do with rap, which had yet to find its audience for anything not from New York. Gangsta was still festering in the West Coast underground.
“Jewel was the founder of rap in this town for me,” says Boss. “I recorded my first song at Jewel’s house.”
Silas says in some ways it was an unfortunate time, and he says he’d become jaded by the time things started opening up for rap years later. He was there from the beginning, working the word of mouth tip.
“I was bitter,” Silas says. “I was bitter because a lot of things that originated here were denied. We were all prepared for something to happen, for stardom. We were so far ahead of the curve and I knew these kids had what it takes. (Detroit) projects I thought were on the mark — you’d hear the same flavor coming out of New York or L.A. months later.” He stops and issues a chortle that suggests complete frustration. “It was insulting. We would get a great response, but never the break.”
Silas started a label with RJ Rice in 1990 called Ton Def to showcase the myriad Detroit rappers. Though the label received national attention, and its initial release, Knowledge Is Power, sold in the tens of thousands, the timing was, again, off.
“I blame the racism — for lack of a better word — of the media,” he continues. “Also, a lot of things that hurt rappers back then was themselves — they didn’t understand the business side of things.”
Doc Chill — who now, incidentally, has his own cable TV show, Switchblade TV, and runs Okane Management Group — concurs. “Detroit (hip hop) had bad business practices. A lot of Detroit artists worked with big names then, but their talent just got absorbed.”
Boss’ brow furrows and her mouth forms a perfect “O” when the subject of record company money comes up. It’s a telling little expression. She says after they signed the Def Jam deal, her managers showed up driving brand-new “Benzes. I’m talkin’ about the big daddy Benzes. …”
Worse, Dee and Boss could no longer coexist, so they lived separately. “We used to fight so much that they had to separate us,” Boss says.
She began hanging with one of her heroes, Eazy E. “He had a house in the hood and one in the hills. We’d hang in the hood. So now we’re rolling around with Eazy, dumb, young and retarded! One time he got a flat tire and I’m like, ‘Damn, even Eazy gets a flat tire!’”
She was drinking copiously, pounding the already-tender kidneys with toxins.
Simmons moved the pair to New York City and Boss lived in the Gramercy Park Hotel for months — everything on room service, meals for friends, top-shelf booze, everything.
“We were liii-viiig,” she says, purposely affecting a pompous tone. “We drank water from pitchers with lemon. I was on this lemon shit. …”
Boss soon parted ways with management. And she had no idea that the label largesse would be charged back against future royalties from album sales. It took a while to get the debut recorded.
“So at this point we’re on Russell’s nerves. The hotel bill is skyrocketing. Dee crashed a rental car. I dyed some jeans black in the Gramercy tub, it left black all around the bottom. It wouldn’t come out. Things like that Russell paid for.”
Boss says she never paid attention to where the money was going. “I had a lawyer looking into it but nothing happened,” she says. “I got one $40 royalty check from Def Jam.”
Meanwhile, producer Jeff Forston heard Boss again on a collaboration she did with AMG, and was, again, blown away.
“Later I heard AMG’s “Mai Sista Izza Bitch” and I said that’s that girl, yo,” Forston says. “Then I ran into her at a rap conference. She had just signed to Def Jam, so she had some money. She was done up — she had the devices, the beeper cell phone — everything that you could have then. She just came up to me and said, ‘I’m signed to Def Jam and you’re working on my album.’ She called Russell Simmons right there. The first song I worked on was ‘Deeper’ and that was the first single. It was a huge hit.”
“Deeper” (which featured a hooky, loping Barry White sample) hit in April ’93, went to No. 1 on the rap chart and spent 13 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her androgynous persona (“I wasn’t about to dress up like a ho to sell records”) became a video fixture on BET and received substantial play on Video Jukebox and MTV. “Deeper” still occasionally appears on MTV Jams.
Suddenly, the rappers who had yet to do interviews were on national TV.
The album, Born Gangstaz — which saw Dee in a somewhat reduced role — featured a sundry list of moneyed, A-list producers including Forston (Def Jef), MC Serch (now on air at WJLB) Jam Master Jay, DJ Quik, Onyx and others.
The record, bolstered by Boss’ deft and rhythmic rhyming skills, blithely and cheekily flips gender roles, drunk on 40 ouncers and high on female empowerment as it skewers male roles persuasively on thuggish ditties like “Recipe of a Hoe,” “Born Gangsta,” “Drive By,” and “Diary of a Mad Bitch.” The Serch-helmed “I Don’t Give a Fuck” documents a life up from the callous streets.
The record received some raves in important hip-hop magazines, and for a moment had the Christian right up in arms. There was a hard-hitting downside too: Critics accused Boss of speaking a reality that wasn’t her own, of simply trafficking in racist stereotypes of black thugisms, and, with the help of giant corporate record label, selling the image to white kids. She was denounced as a bandwagon-jumper. A 1994 cred-deflating Boss piece in the Wall Street Journal portrayed her as an ersatz gangster, little more than a well-bred opportunist.
“Critics started fucking with me, sayin’ ‘She’s from a middle-class neighborhood, how can she be gangsta?’ Ya know I killed a million niggas on that record. They weren’t getting it. There’s gangsters all over the place — ones that went to Harvard in the business world….”
Truth be told, the humor and derision on Born Gangstaz zipped over many critical heads. Boss as a weapon-wielding, foul-mouthed chick gangster in a loveless, sexless existence was an attitude, a mindset, a persona rooted in fiction. But the inspiration was fixed in experience.
The album is, in fact, bracketed with a mockery of her rearing; phone messages from mama and papa particularizing a privileged suburban upbringing (Catholic-school, piano-playing, tap-dancing) that belies the slab’s unyielding vulgarity and embroidered aggression. The snippet worked as a brilliant and self-mocking disclaimer.
It was Forston’s idea to get the parents involved on the record. “I can’t believe none of the reviews saw the irony of that,” Forston says. “No one did!”
The Hughes brothers, fresh off the film Menace To Society, directed her second video, the single “Progress of Elimination.” MC Eiht (Compton’s Most Wanted) was in the clip.
Then Boss and Dee stopped working together. Dee had a solo deal with Def Jam, but nothing ever came of it.
“We couldn’t work together anymore,” says Boss. “But we were still cool.”
For the tours, Boss enlisted help from Detroiters Dynamite and Jahses and her sister Kap. The tours were large, including a spot on the ’93 Chronic Tour with Onyx, Run DMC and Dr. Dre.
“That was wild, coming from the benches and playing arenas,” she says.
Born Gangstaz peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard pop charts and according Neilsen SoundScan, sold 378,000 copies, huge numbers for a female rapper then (up to that point, no female rapper had gone gold). Boss suddenly had legions of fans. Simmons was correct in predicting American kids would embrace hardcore female rappers.
“Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Yo Yo would be nothing without Boss. She’s the first one to start calling herself a bitch,” says Chill, laughing. “Her first album sold almost 400,000 copies. That’s unbelievable.”
Boss split New York for Texas to record songs with Coco Budda (né Ricardo Royal), a rapper she had heard and admired. The two fell in love and Boss moved to Houston to be near him. The couple had Lamar a year later. Life hit cool-out mode.
“I ended up living down there. I ended up with a baby. I had me a four-bedroom house. Shit, I was chillin’.” She pauses, shakes her heads and adds with a faint hint of regret, “I was sittin’ on my ass. …”
Def Jam funded demos for album number two, which Boss recorded in Texas, but the label rejected the results. Def Jam and Simmons stopped returning her calls and she was soon dropped from the label’s roster.
“I took that as a fuck-you; ‘I’m not gonna suck your dick,’ ya know what I mean?”
She says she posed in photo op with Simmons last year at the Hip Hop Summit, and says there’s no animosity.
Though the drop from Def Jam was unexpected, Boss says she wasn’t so upset. She understood the cyclic nature of pop, and outward signs suggest that the wisdom gleaned from her wild ride in the record biz isn’t mired in disillusionment.
“I was used to that kind of shit, the whole time. But I thought I was good enough to get another deal. But I just chilled in Texas. Then I got sick.”
Boss continued doing shows, though her earnings were running out as popularity waned. She moved with Royal to Dallas and in 1995 took a radio gig co-hosting a nightly hip-hop show on K104 (KKDA) — a stint that lasted nearly five years — where she’d interview up-to-the-moment rappers, including Yo Yo, Biggie and Busta Rhymes.
After having tasted huge, albeit fleeting, success, working radio couldn’t have been so easy. “I felt like I was on the wrong end of the interview,” she says. “I’d be like ‘turn that mic around and interview me!’ Though, that was a bomb job.”
By 1999 her kidneys were failing. After an amicable split with Royal, Boss moved back in with her parents in late 1999.
Boss was on dialysis for three and-a-half years. “Every complication that you have with it (bad kidneys) I had.” Doctors were saying she was a goner.
“They told my mama I wouldn’t live past Thursday. And I was down. I was cussin’ bitches out in the damn hospital.”
At one point Boss weighed 80 pounds, and didn’t want to be seen in public. A friend of a friend with matching blood type donated a kidney.
When health permitted, Boss had recorded intermittently with Forston and in 2001 contributed raps to a Krayzie Bone track, “Rollin’ Up Some Mo.”
“When she was dealing with her kidneys she never once complained,” says Forston. “Never once. She had an IV with her in the studio and it didn’t matter who was there. She’d hook herself up. … Her spirit is undying.”
Rough demos of her newest raps reveal a tough-talking Boss, but toned down to a more human level. Her rhythm skills haven’t waned. “It’s still hardcore,” she says. “It’s me. I’ve been through so much. I try to put a message in there, but it’s not preachy shit.”
“I’ve shopped Boss to almost every major and indie label and met with resistance,” says Forston. “People are always asking about how she looks, what her age is … it’s never about the music. I’ll work with Boss when she’s 45 years old. She gave me a new perspective on women. I think she helped kind of pave the way for women to say exactly what they want to say.”
Boss will be in L.A. with Forston in a few days to record new songs. “When my record comes out I’m gonna pack up my kidney pills — the 45 I have to take every day — and go wherever.”
Boss steps into the well-tended, florid back yard of her parents’ ranch-style home. The setting is suburban idyllic. Her father arrives and talks of taking the boat out, maybe doing some fishing on Lake Huron. Boss excuses herself for a phone call from her doctor. She returns and laughs off (tentatively) the news that there’s swelling around her kidney.
“All this is a test,” she says finally. “I’m back at square one.” After a moment she adds, “I thank God that I’m still alive.”
Boss is committed to a comeback. Even her mother thinks her daughter is old enough now to handle whatever is handed her.
Boss moves into her bedroom. Souvenirs from her career (cassette tapes, photos, show passes) line shelves. Lamar’s drawings hang on walls. Sheets of hand-scrawled lyrics cover her bed. There must be hundreds of songs.
Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.