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'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Queen Latifah

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our hip-hop history series with my 1999 interview with Queen Latifah. Her first album, "All Hail The Queen," was released in 1989 and established her image as an Afrocentric, independent female artist, a stark contrast to the misogyny of some of her fellow rappers. Her third album, 1993's "Black Reign," became the first album by a solo female rapper to go gold. In 1998, she was the first rapper to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. This year, she became only the second hip-hop artist to be named a Kennedy Center honoree.

Like our first guest Ice-T, Queen Latifah is famous for both her music and acting. In the '90s, she starred in the sitcom "Living Single." She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the film musical adaptation of the Broadway musical "Chicago." And she currently stars in the CBS crime drama "The Equalizer" as a former CIA agent who now works independently on the side of justice for those in need. When I spoke to Queen Latifah in 1999, we started with her Grammy Award-winning song, "U.N.I.T.Y." In the song, she uses the B-word to talk about what she doesn't like about that word.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U.N.I.T.Y.")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) U.N.I.T.Y. That's a unity. U.N.I.T.Y. You got to let him know you ain't a b**** or a ho. Instinct leads me to another flow. Every time I hear a brother call a girl a b**** or a ho, trying to make a sister feel low. You know all of that gots to go. Now, everybody knows there's exceptions to this rule. Now, don't be getting mad. When we playing, it's cool. But don't you be calling me out my name. I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame. That's why I'm talking. One day I was walking down the block. I had my cutoff shorts on - right? - 'cause it was crazy hot. I walked past these dudes. When they passed me, one of them felt my booty. He was nasty.

GROSS: In this rap, you talk about what you don't like about b**** and ho kind of language. Elaborate on that for me.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Laughter) You know, at the time, there were so many records coming out with, you know, rappers calling women, you know, b**** this, ho that. And I just thought it was, like, getting out of control. It was becoming a bit too much. And I'm not saying that I don't, you know, use expletives when I'm hanging out with my friends, you know? And, you know, I mean, we may say some of those things, but we say it in joking. But when it's meant to be really derogatory or to disrespect people constantly, you know, it just got to be too much. And so I felt like saying something about it, you know?

GROSS: Did you feel that that language represented larger attitudes toward women in the music world or the rap world or among your friends?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, definitely. Some people use that word to apply to all women, you know? And it seems like the word - I mean, I felt like, you know, it's time somebody said something about it because it was just - it's still out of control. It's still out of control, you know? But I think that that helped bring awareness to it. And the record wasn't so much about the word b****. The record was about - the first verse is about that, you know, the respect - respecting a woman. The second verse is about abuse, a woman being beaten by her man and finding the strength to leave. And the third verse was about young girls, like, who wanted to be tough, wanted to be gangster B's, you know what I mean? I mean, the record was really about a lot of different things, and the point of the record was unity. Let's bring it all together. Let's put all this stupid stuff to the side and let's be together, man. Let's stop pushing each other away from each other, and let's be down with each other.

GROSS: As a woman who was a rapper, were you expected to go along with that? Were people surprised when you took issue with it in your rap?

QUEEN LATIFAH: No, I think people respected me for it, you know? They may have been surprised, but I think they respected me for it.

GROSS: Now, Queen Latifah, you may have the only rap record - at least the only one I know of - that has the line, I'm staying celibate, in it. And this is about somebody whose body wants to have sex but their mind is saying no.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah.

GROSS: Why don't I play some of this? This is called "No/Yes."

QUEEN LATIFAH: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO/YES")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Oh, Flavor Unit. Fine-tune it. Talking about sex in the '90s. Yeah, My mind keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it? My body keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it? My mind keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it? My body keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it? Should I do it? Should I do it?

(Rapping) Don't want to get too complex, but does the stress come with the sex? I know you want to see me undressed. You're fiending to taste my sweetness. And since I'm your sex interest, it's about time for me to confess. I want to smoke you like Buddha - bless. But my mind like a bulletproof vest. It's a no/yes.

(Rapping) My body's ready. My mind's blocked. It's going to take a lot to reach my hot spot. I kid you not. I want to set it and let you - so come and get it. And when we through, you'll need a paramedic. No, never mind. My thoughts dip. You might trip or flip. And so instead, I'm staying celibate. My body's ready. My mind's bugging. So I'm struggling. Do I need your love or your loving? I just don't know.

(Rapping) Should I do it or don't do it? My body keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it? My mind keep telling me, should I do it or don't do it?

GROSS: Queen Latifah, tell me a little bit about the writing of this record.

QUEEN LATIFAH: This record was fun because this record was also taken from another real-life experience where I was in Miami with someone that I went to high school with who wound up doing security. He's a cop now, so he wound up doing security for me. And he was always handsome in high school. And we would, you know, flirting with each other and, you know, talking and - you know, he's sitting in my room, and I'm, like, sitting on my bed. And I'm looking at him debating, like, yo, should I do it or don't do it? Do it or don't do it, you know? So that's kind of where the line in the song comes from during the chorus. But this is the debate that I think every person goes through when they - physically, they would love to do it. But then mentally, you know, their mind begins to analyze the whole situation and it's like, oh, no, I don't know about that. Let me think about that. You know, you should be able to - they should both be in sync. If they're not in sync, then something's not right probably. So...

GROSS: When you first started going to clubs to hear music, you say that the one that you used to go to a lot was called Latin Quarters in Manhattan, and you were living in Newark. So you'd go across the river, go to this club in Manhattan. And you said you'd take back to New Jersey with you some of the styles and the new lingo that you were picking up from the rap club in Manhattan. What were the things you took back with you?

QUEEN LATIFAH: The dances. That was - like, one of the most popular dances to ever come out in rap history was this dance called the wop. And it started there. It started in that club. It started in New York City and was mastered there. And there was so many moves to it, and I was good at it. So I would go there, and I would practice. I would go and watch and try and pick it up, and then I would go home and practice in the mirror until I nailed it, you know? And then I would show my friends, you know, my boys from across the street and my homegirls. You know, I would show all of them, and most of them couldn't do it. This one kid named Rich (ph), he got it. He was young. He was, like, you know, 13 at the time - you know, 12 or 13. And he got it real good.

But I would take the dances back - also, the clothes, the clothing style. I mean, it was all about a name brand back then. You know, I had a S.W.A.T. sweatsuit with some Guess socks with some Spot-Bilt sneakers or K-Swiss sneakers with a Benetton backpack and a Benetton hat, you know? So it was like it had to - it was about style. It was about, you know, flashing those name brands, you know? Even Coca-Cola was popular. Coca-Cola had T-shirts, you know, and sweatshirts that were, like, the bomb to wear back then.

GROSS: Now, the first name that you rapped under was Princess of the Posse. How did you decide on that name for yourself?

QUEEN LATIFAH: No, Latifah was my name. The Princess of the Posse was just my little title, you know, because I was, like, the only girl in our crew. And Ramsey was kind of like - Ramsey and DJ Mark The 45 King were, like, the heads of the crew, you know, so to speak. They were, like, the heads of the crew, but I was - I mean, I didn't go with either one of them, so I couldn't be, like, their girlfriends or anything like that. So I just took the little - I was like the little sister. So I took the princess title.

GROSS: So what was it like being the only female in your posse?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I wasn't the only female, but I was the only female - it felt good. I was - you know, I was cool with it, you know? And then all my friends - I introduced, like, a lot of my friends to the guys in my crew, and some of them hooked up with the guys in my crew. So it was, like - it was cool. We had a big old family. We had a female DJ, this girl named Ginger G (ph). She used to DJ. So she was the female DJ. I was the female rapper. And, you know, we had a couple of other people, you know, down with us, but that was it. And it was actually a good experience for me 'cause I got to be around guys and see how they think and what they do. And they could be natural around me. They didn't really hide anything, you know, in front of me because it wasn't like I was their girlfriend, you know? So they didn't have to front and, you know, be phony or whatever. I learned a lot. And then I had - you know, I had them right there to help me practice. We all practiced around each other. We were writing, and we would bounce the rhymes off of each other to see what the other person thought and get constructive criticism. It was almost like a school for rap. It was real good.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1999 interview with Queen Latifah. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN LATIFAH SONG, "FLY GIRL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1999 interview with rapper and actor Queen Latifah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did you decide what you wanted your image to be?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I kind of just wanted it to not be like anybody else that was already out. So, you know, when the record company gave me some money to go shopping to take - you know, to get clothes and stuff for my promo pictures, you know, I didn't have a stylist, so they basically just gave me money to go shopping. So I went and bought, you know, a couple of outfits, you know, some stretch pants and a nice shirt or whatever, you know, but then I was walking down the street downtown in Newark called Halsey Street, and I passed this African store. And I had already decided my name was Queen Latifah by this point. And then I was looking at some of the clothing, and I liked the way that the pants were made. It was like a drawstring thing. It was beautiful embroidery. I saw this fabric, and I asked the lady could she make me a suit, basically, you know, a shirt and some pants and a hat to match, like a crown? And she said she could do it, and she hooked it up for me, and it came out real cool.

So I took my first promo pictures in it, and I was barefoot in these pictures, squatting with this African suit on. And it was like, whoa, who is this? You know, my look was just automatically different from right - from then on. Plus, I was more open minded. I didn't have to just wear, you know, sweat suit and a gold chain and - you know what I mean? Everybody was already wearing that. I didn't want to be like everybody else. I wanted to be an individual. So considering the fact that at that time, there was a lot of pressure on South Africa to free Nelson Mandela and for companies to divest, I was really conscious at that time of what was going on in the Black community and in the world - African - as an African American. So that just fell right in line with it.

GROSS: It's good you had your clothes made, too, because you write in your book that you hated the full-sized women shops. You didn't like the clothes in there.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, yeah. Most of the time, it's just some big, you know - I mean, things have gotten a lot nicer since, you know, then. I was - you know, that was, like, 10, 12 years ago or whatever. But yeah, things have gotten - they've come a long way. You know, I still think that the bigger ladies need some really fly clothes to wear because most women - I mean, most women that I know aren't just small women, you know? They need to be - have really nice things made for them so they can look just as beautiful as, you know, these little size 6s. It's all good. Share the love.

GROSS: You know, you use your size on stage as power, too.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. Why not? I am statuesque. My stature goes right along with my personality.

GROSS: Tell me about your name, Queen Latifah - not just Latifah, but Queen Latifah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, initially, the queen was put on because I didn't want to be MC Latifah. Just back - goes back to not wanting to be like everyone else. You know, MC Latifah didn't sound right to me. It just sounded - and everybody was MC something back in the day, so I just didn't want to be MC Latifah. I was like, man, that sounds corny. And I could have just left it at - my first single just says Latifah, so I could have just been Latifah. But I felt like I needed a little pre-name, a little, you know, something to go before that. And so I was, like, writing down all of these possible - this list of possible things and bouncing them off of my friend Ramsey (ph), and I was like, what about Queen? What about Queen Latifah? He was like, yeah, that sounds good. That sounds good. My mother laughed at me, but, you know, I thought it sounded good.

GROSS: That's her job.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Oh, yeah, 'cause, you know, your 17-year-old daughter calls herself Queen Latifah, you're going to likely crack up a little bit.

GROSS: How old were you when you started calling yourself Latifah?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I was 8.

GROSS: That's really young to decide you want to change your name. What made you want to do that at such a young age?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I didn't want to change my name. It was kind of a nickname, you know? Everybody did it. I was a follower. Don't you know? No, where I'm from in Newark, it's like a lot of people pick up Muslim names. They don't pick, you know, like, peewee necessarily and Jojo and Junie and Junior and you know what I mean? Like, I guess - I don't know, maybe there was, like, a big surge of Islam in Newark, in the city of Newark, basically, and that, which is, like, the Mecca of the area of Jersey where I'm from. So I think that, like, after the riots in '67, probably, when, you know, they had those - they had some riots in Newark in '67, and then they built all of this public housing they had to, like, you know, give to the, you know, Black people in Newark.

I think Islam may have been, like, bigger. It had gotten bigger, so we kind of inherited all of these names 'cause a lot of people that, you know, lived around me, older people, had Muslim names. I don't even know if they were all Muslims, but they had Muslim names. I wasn't even Muslim. You know, I was a Christian. I wasn't nothing yet 'cause I really didn't choose till I was about 11. But I just liked the name. It meant delicate and sensitive and kind, and that was me on the inside. Even though I was bigger than most of the girls my age, I was really a sweetie pie on the inside. And so that was really reflective of me. And my brother and I and my cousins all picked our names, so it just kind of worked like that.

GROSS: When you started rapping, gangster rap was very popular. Did you relate to the stories of gangs and guns?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, we had gangs and guns, but not to the extent that they did here in California. You know, it wasn't quite the same. And we had, like, gangs, but, see, gangs played out in Jersey, in New York. They were no longer - it was no longer cool to be in a gang. So if it wasn't cool, then you didn't want to do it, so - but I could relate to it, but I had no idea. And everybody wanted to down gangster rap when it came out. Like, people who - you know, so-called gangster rap or whatever, they wanted to down it and say it was so negative and violent and misogynistic and this and that, you know, but what it was was real. What it did was inform the rest of the country of what was going on out here. And that was, to me, very interesting because I had no idea what Crips and Bloods were. I had no idea that, you know, there was this subculture going on in California that we really didn't know about. So, I mean, to me, the guys kind of informed you about it. The rappers, they let you know what was going on.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1999 interview with rapper and actor Queen Latifah. We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN LATIFAH SONG, "LADIES FIRST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview from 1999 with rapper and actor Queen Latifah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You have been doing, you know, a lot of acting. You had - you were the star of the TV series "Living Single." You've been in several movies, including "Juice" and "Get It Off" - is that what it's called?

QUEEN LATIFAH: "Set It Off."

GROSS: "Set It Off" - yeah. I saw it, and I couldn't think of the title.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Get It Off" - what you thinking about over there?

(LAUGHTER)

QUEEN LATIFAH: "Set It Off."

GROSS: "Set It Off" and, oh, "Living Out Loud." When you got into acting, did you - had you planned to get into acting?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, it was something that I always wanted to do.

GROSS: Since you were a kid?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. I mean, I acted in school plays and stuff. I never had any, like, really formal training, as in classes or anything like that, but I felt like I had a talent, you know, and I felt like I would - it would be something good for me to do. And I wanted to do it because I never I never looked at myself like I'm the best rapper ever on the planet. And unless I could say that, then I would never be comfortable just being a rapper. I needed to have - like, I needed to diversify and have things to fall back on. So acting was definitely a passion that I wanted to pursue.

GROSS: Your first movie was "Juice," right?

QUEEN LATIFAH: My first movie was - was it "Juice" or "Jungle Fever"?

GROSS: Oh, "Jungle Fever." OK, that was, like, a small role, very small role, right?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah, one day.

GROSS: OK. And then in "Juice," you had a larger role as a DJ, so it was kind of pretty close to who you are.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Right.

GROSS: You didn't have to, like, reinvent yourself completely...

QUEEN LATIFAH: No, exactly.

GROSS: ...For that. Was that a good way to get started, you know, in a role that was pretty close to home?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, you know what? It was, I guess, in a way, but then it wasn't. You know, it was kind of like I got sick of playing what people thought Queen Latifah was in their scripts. Like, people would look at my image or who they thought I was, and they'd write me in there, basically. But it wasn't me, you know? It wasn't me. I was much more well-rounded than the linear characters that they kind of had me playing. And they were just, like, this remanufactured version of Queen Latifah. I was happy for the opportunity to be in a movie and kind of learn, so it was kind of - it was good learning some of those things without having to stretch too far from who I really am. But that's not something that can sustain you, and that's not something that can establish you as an actor. So I was dying for the role that was not me, that was not anything remotely like me so that I could really show my skills, my talent, use it (ph).

GROSS: What's the closest you've come to the - to a role that's not remotely like you?

QUEEN LATIFAH: "Set It Off" - Cleo.

GROSS: And describe your character.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Cleo in "Set It Off." She was basically orphaned at a young age. She had no one left, really, but her friends. Her friends were the most important thing, you know, in her life to her. She would die for them. She was very strong but real tender on the inside. She was a lesbian and in a monogamous relationship with someone, although she did like to flirt. And that was basically - she just really cared. You know, she kind of cursed a lot. She liked to drink, and, you know, she liked to smoke her cigarettes. She was a little bit wild, but she was a very caring person. She really was really down for her friends, and that was, like, the bottom line, so...

GROSS: Did you see a lot of homophobia surface after your performance?

QUEEN LATIFAH: No. You know, I didn't. People had love for that character. And that was what I really wanted to do. I wanted to make them really love her. You know, that character was so great, and the script was so great for her because she got to really go all-out for her friends. You had to love her. If you didn't care about her, then you were just - you needed to really examine your own emotions and your own feelings because anybody who basically would say - look, you guys go run - and take the heat, and knew she was going to take the heat, and knew she was probably going to die and knew she was going to meet her end, you know, but sacrificed herself so that her friends could try and - you know, could be free like that - that's a true, true trooper. That's a true friend. And so I figured that there's - you know, if you don't have love for this girl by the time this movie is over, you're just twisted.

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUEEN LATIFAH: So, I mean, basically, the - there's a scene in there where I kiss this girl, and I have yet to watch this scene because I can't watch it, you know, myself. I can't - I don't think I could just watch myself be intimate, period. It wasn't the fact that she was a girl, but it was the fact that just, I'm kissing somebody on - I can't watch me do that, I don't think. But it was kind of funny because I went and saw the movie, like, eight times, you know, when it came out. And I would see it in regular theaters - like, creep in and just sit in the back of the theater and watch the movie with a regular audience to see how they reacted. And every time that kissing scene came, people was like, ugh...

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUEEN LATIFAH: ...Ew, ooh. You know, people - I mean, you could hear this big roar in the theater. But by the time that the end of the movie came, they were, like, cheering for the girls, like, cheering for us to, like, get away to win, you know? So they couldn't remember, you know? It wasn't like their mind stayed focused on that one thing - you know? - which was good for me.

GROSS: In one of your records, you say, Latifah's on vacation; I'm just plain old Dana today. Do you often feel that way?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. I do have to put Latifah on. Because you know what? Latifah is me, but then she became bigger than me, you know, because Queen Latifah is known in all these places. And, you know, everybody knows her face and what she does. And, you know, everybody doesn't know what Dana really - you know, who Dana really is. So I have to give the, you know, professional stuff a break and just be me sometimes, you know? And that's when I just jump in my car, and drive, and go visit my people and all that kind of stuff, you know? That was what that was about. You could - yeah, I'm Queen Latifah, whatever, but today, I'm just Dana. You know, just - let's just be Dana today.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Thank you. I had a great time.

GROSS: My interview with Queen Latifah was recorded in 1999. She now stars in the CBS crime series "The Equalizer." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our hip-hop history week continues with interviews from two different groups known for their clever lyrics and inventive use of samples - De La Soul and the Beastie Boys. I hope you can join us. And if you'd like a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. This week, we're compiling a playlist of music by all the artists we're featuring during this week of shows celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. To get the playlist, subscribe to the newsletter, whyy.org/freshair. That's whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADIES FIRST")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Ooh, ladies first, ladies first. Ooh, ladies first, ladies first. Ooh, ladies first, ladies first. Ooh, ladies first, ladies first.

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.