RAP - that street-wise poetry recited over an insistent beat - has, in the past few years, risen from the African-American underground to become a major force in pop music. It also now influences the clothing, speech, and attitudes of young people of many races and cultures.
Once the sole province of males, rap has now become fair game for females, too. The popularity of rappers like Roxanne Shante, Salt 'n' Pepa, M.C. Lyte, and others has paved the way for other women.
And the words of rap are changing. Although sexism, violence, and crass egotism still abound, many rappers are becoming conscious of themselves as role models for youngsters and are using rap as a way to instruct and raise consciousness.
Last year, the group Stetsasonic came out with an anti-apartheid rap. Entitled ``A.F.R.I.C.A.,'' it featured the voice of Jesse Jackson and offered ideas about South Africa and its neighboring countries.
Reggae rapper Shinehead's ``Gimme No Crack'' and M.C. Lyte's ``Not Wit' a Dealer'' are both indictments of the drug culture. Public Enemy, despite publicity about anti-semitic remarks by one of its former members, has stood for self-realization and self-respect among blacks.
Musically, rap is developing all the time. From the spoken word, turntable scratching, and an unvarying beat, groups like De La Soul are injecting all sorts of musical samples, from jazz to soul to cabaret, into their raps, and expanding their concepts.
Into this creative and developing arena of rap has stepped Queen Latifah, a 19-year-old rapper from New Jersey, with a fresh new sound.
Latifah - who has been called the Aretha Franklin of rap - embraces reggae, soulful back-up vocals, boppish scatting, snappy horn back-ups, house music, and much more in her impressive debut album, ``All Hail the Queen,'' on Tommy Boy Records, an independent label with a growing reputation for cutting-edge rap. (Stetsasonic and De La Soul also record for Tommy Boy.)
Queen Latifah started rapping when she was just 16 years old. She and her posse (see rap glossary) put their talents to the test at local jams, talent shows, and parties.
In an interview, Latifah told me about those experiences with the air of an old pro.
``That was back in the days when some girls wanted to battle with us, and we were down for the battle. I wrote some wild stuff back then. Everybody who rapped had to battle; there was only room for one at the top.''
``Battling'' in rap is, of course, a battle of words and wits. But as the next three years went by, she says, ``I realized there was much more to rapping than dissing (see glossary) like that; you have to put some kind of concept into the minds of all these children'' who listen.
Latifah's album is refreshingly free of four-letter words, but, in true rap tradition, she does challenge anyone who would try to rap her down. When I asked her about the put-down lyric, she dismisses it as ``just the typical self-glorification-type stuff.''
But she wants to let her audience know that she's no fool, either. ``In a line in `Latifah's Law,' I say, `BMWs and gold rope chains don't impress me, won't get you closer to the point you could undress me.' It's lines like that that let you know I'm a real person. Like, I'm not some kind of ridiculous, immature infant out here.''
As far as calling herself ``Queen,'' she says, ``It's not meant as rank. It's meant more spiritually, as far as my [ancestry] is concerned. I feel like all black people came from a long line of kings and queens that they've never really had the opportunity to know about. This is my way of giving a tribute to them.'' She takes rap seriously, and sees it as a way of communicating positive ideas. ``It's a creative outlet to me,'' she says, ``and sometimes it can become like a newspaper that people read with their ears.''
Inventing raps is almost an instinct for Queen Latifah. The inspiration, she says, ``really just comes when it wants to come. I could be, like, in the bathroom; I gotta take a pad in there and a pen. Whatever thoughts come to mind, they flow, and the only thing I really have to do is make them rhyme. They come on their own, and I don't really control it.''
Queen Latifah is ready to take on not only her fellow rappers, but the world at large. Plans are in the making for a tour early next year with her dancers, the Safari Sisters.
How does Latifah feel about being a hot item in a field that's still predominantly male?
``No problem. ... That's such a commonly asked question. There are more females in rap today taking a chance. It's expanding. They're getting better and better.''