Issue #181: Dirty Harriet by Rah Digga

October 7, 2019

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Dirty Harriet by Rah Digga
Released On April 4, 2000
Released By Flipmode & Elektra Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford

When I first heard Rapsody, I was floored. She had the skill, the flow, the lyrics, the attitude, and the aggression to rhyme toe to toe with any of the boys, and oftentimes steal the show. She rhymed about a wide range of subjects from our society’s perception of beauty, what it’s like to be a black woman (inside and outside of hip hop), black history, relationships, and just how freaking nice she is on the mic. I was so excited because she was a prominent new voice on the scene that couldn’t be ignored, and garnered immediate respect from the new age trappers to the hippest of the hoppest traditionalists. She didn’t have to mention how pretty she was, or talk about the size of her ass or her prowess in the bedroom to get attention. She used her raw skill to out-rhyme everyone else. But I was most excited because she was only the second female rapper to ever make me press the rewind button. The first was Rah Digga.

In the late nineties, it was par for the course for nearly every rap crew to have a female member. Roc-A-Fella had Amil. Ruff Ryders had Eve. Murder Inc had Vita. No Limit had Mia X. Bad Boy had Lil’ Kim and Def Jam had Foxy Brown. But when Busta Rhymes put together the Flipmode Squad, he didn’t pull his trump card from the club or the runway — he pulled it from hip hop’s gritty underground. While nearly all of the aforementioned femcee’s flaunted the designer labels on their backs, and bragged about their skills while laying on their backs, Digga was a well-respected lyricist and a key member of the underground dream team Tha Outsidaz. Her rep was of course cemented when Tha Outz were featured on “Cowboys” off The Fugees classic The Score. Everyone wanted to know who was that girl that went rhyme for rhyme with Lauryn Hill. Digga was undeniable. Even if you were the most jaded hip hop fan, her verses, and especially her punchlines, made you say “damn” with the same energy as your favorite male emcees. Busta managed to find the only legit female rapper, other than Lauryn, that could command that type of unconditional respect with the sheer quality of her rhymes. Rhymes that she wrote on her own.

Not having to pay for writers, Busta spared no expense in recruiting a Murderer’s Row of producers to provide the backdrop for Dirty Harriet. Truth be told, if you marketed the album strictly by the production roster, you wouldn’t even have to mention the artist to sell units. DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Nottz, Da Beatminerz, Megahertz, DJ Scratch, & Rockwilder. Sold. So now we have an incredible lyrical talent paired with the who’s who of underground hip hop production. As long as Digga could bring the magic with her pen, we’d have a bonafide classic on our hands. And boy, did she bring the magic. “Harriet Thugman” pretty much sums up Rah Digga in a nutshell: “Fingering the Mac, trying to tap into the spirits / of misguided souls who ain’t checking for the lyrics / Many different players, only one hold the ball / Ghetto fabulous chick go against the protocol / With the grittiest lingo / Still such the little sweetheart / book educated with a whole lot of street smarts.” The lyrical wizardry would continue for the length of the album, and to be perfectly honest, there’s way too many highlights to list here. It’s one of those good problems.

But where’s the connection to me? If you’re a regular OYR reader, you know that I mention the producer Nottz whenever I get a chance. Well, Nottz owns this record. In the same way that the Flipmode Squad Imperial album is “the DJ Scratch album,” Harriet Thugman, is “the Nottz album.” His five tracks, “Showdown,” “The Last Word,” “Straight Spittin’, Part II,” “What’s Up Wit’ That,” & “Just For You” are the heart and soul of the record. These are the songs that give Dirty Harriet its unique sound. It’s a direct reflection of Nottz’ revolutionary, quirky funk that led a nation of producers in the late nineties to put down the Stax soul, and sample everyone’s favorite show tunes. Yea, he did that. And sure, maybe Mark the 45 King had a little to do with it when he flipped Annie for Hov’s “Hard Knock Life.” Nottz is the single most creative person I’ve ever had the privilege to be around, and he proves it on “Straight Spittin’, Part II.” That’s not your ear playing tricks on you; he actually sampled the sneezing from Young Frankenstein, chopped up the strings from the same score, and mashed it together, on beat, to form one of the most unique tracks I’d ever heard at the time. The moment I heard it, my mind was opened, and I saw the endless possibilities of sampling. If you have the ear for it, you can make music out of anything, and Nottz is the epitome of that statement. He’s the one that made Harriet so dirty.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

From the murky underground to the flashy spotlight came this talented MC with a scrappy aura that’s endlessly captivating.

When I think back to Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah, or take a listen to my more current favourite female wrapper, Yugen Blakrok, it becomes clear what they had in common which makes them so special. It’s a sort of authenticity and unique voice that doesn’t try to carve out the same sound as the male rappers who came before them. It’s more like they’re not playing anyone else’s game. The variations in hip hop are all over the map with distinct character from the West Coast to the East Coast and every urban center or country in between. As a genre, it gets away with a broad range of verbal offenses precisely because most people realize that the art form is the expression of struggle (most of the time) and other times, it’s the language of celebration and triumph within a community rooted in struggle. Either way, you generally don’t expect a PG rating. But when it comes to female rappers you often find that there’s an almost blush-inducing overcompensation for the sex and the violence. Some rappers turn it up so extremely that the art from switches from expressing meaning to just being pap on par with the worst vapid pop dance music to hit the charts. With the artists that I mentioned, and, most notably with Rah Digga’s 2000 record Dirty Harriet, this is not the case. What we have here is a solid 18 track hip hop playlist with some fantastic boom-bap production, wobbly bass lines, and clever lyrics. It’s no coincidence that she was introduced to Flipmode Squad by Q-tip and began boasting some serious company among such hip hop titans. She eventually became one herself, although never really quite reaching the same household name-level success of other, similar artists at the time. You could argue that in 2000, people weren’t ready for the serious, tough sound of Rah Digga in a time when female rappers were far too few to make headlines. That may be the case but today, almost twenty years since its release, the record stands as a monumental achievement that never go the recognition or appreciation it should have had being attached the Flipmode Squad.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

Do the words “East Coast Hip Hop” get you excited in all the right ways? Or are you, like, “Ew, they curse a lot and use the n-word too much”? If you’re the latter, no shame in your game (not much, anyway), but stay the fuck away from this Rah Digga album. But if you’re east-coast-ride-or-die like me, and you also don’t already know Dirty Harriet, put down your Venti PSL and dial this shit up stat. While there are a few weak moments (that sax on “What They Call Me” — why, Pete Rock, why?), the album as a whole is a straight up blast of the best from the past. One sign of Digga’s dominating vision is how unified the record sounds despite no one producer working on more than two tracks. Same goes for the features — bars from the likes of Eve and Young Zee serve to enhance rather than overshadow Digga’s lava-hot flow. Speaking of which, I’m reminded of how Holland-Dozier-Holland used to write songs for The Four Tops just out of Levi Stubbs’ vocal range so he was always reaching for the note. Digga sounds hungry like that, pushing her deep voice hard into every verse. I love most of the album, but if I had to pick one track, it might be “Tight,” with a genius beat by Mr. Walt (dig the Quincy Jones and Richard Evans samples) and Digga sounding especially jazzed to be on the mic. Also, how can you not love lines like, “Warmer than a bomber, hotter than the region of Ghana / Get loot like that Trump bitch, Ivana.” I would expect no less irreverence from a woman whose other nickname is “Harriet Thugman,” which displays a sense of humor equal to her sense of pride. Does Rah Digga run this motherfucker? Hell yeah!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Click here to wach the bustling video for “Imperial.”

Even when stylin’ & profilin’, Rah still comes across like the most bad-ass MC around.

My wife pressed play on Dirty Harriet at around 10 on Sunday morning, a six-ish-hour drive from Asheville, North Carolina back home to Richmond ahead of us. It was like stepping into a time machine together. I tend to think we had similar upbringings — born just a few months apart, parents who were all educators at one point or another, friend groups that seem like they would have meshed had we not grown up 300 miles away from one another… We also have a long list of shared cultural touchstones, and this era of hip hop is one. Memories of the chorus in “What They Call Me” came rushing back for both of us, as did the title refrain in “Do The Ladies Run This?...” The excitement and comfort found in musical flashbacks like these make me wonder if I should look back so critically at my high school self — whether awkwardness truly defined that chapter of my life so negatively. While Dirty Harriet did provide a blast from the past, so many elements are simply timeless. Rah Digga’s delivery sounds just as crisp and commanding as it did back then, and many lyrical passages ring just as true. Astonishingly, if you mentioned South Park in a song today (as she does in “Straight Spittin’, Part II“), you’d still be referencing a current TV show, and a line like “Smooth with the pen, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen” is about as enduring as it gets. So is the production on the five tracks helmed by Norfolk legend Nottz. His beats are gritty and vivid, and the presence of vinyl surface noise reminds you of the sprawling musical timeline he’s picking and choosing from. Dirty Harriet also features production work from legends like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, but the beats from Nottz strike me as the most immortal. (This is the quality that makes Kellen’s own beat making as J. Clyde stand out, in my estimation.) Our ride back to Richmond quickly turned into a producer discography scavenger hunt: Rockwilder on “Da Rockwilder” and “Like My Style.” Megahertz on “Gotta Make It To Heaven” and “Got Ur Self A Gun.” A pretty great way to spend a car ride, if you ask me.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

I’d heard of Rah Digga prior to this week. Had you asked me who that was, I could’ve told you she’s a rapper, she appeared on The Score, and that her peak popularity was somewhere around 2000. But that’s about it. So what struck me when I gave Dirty Harriet a few listens were the numerous references to the turn of the century. I graduated from middle school to high school in 2000, so just about all the pop culture stuff found in this hour of music is stuff that I can recall. Many references to that era are dated — Foxy Brown, Deep Blue Sea, Tae Bo, seven figure music videos, Timberland boots, and two (!) different Silkk The Shocker mentions — but that’s the case with any song or album that makes a (then-)current reference. Indeed, those are no more or less dated than when Phife Dawg referenced Arsenio Hall on The Low End Theory or when Eminem referenced Kevin Federline (in 2013). There are a few that, um, haven’t aged well, too: R. Kelly, Al Gore being the next president, and “rock harder than Limp Bizkit.” That’ll happen, though. After all, there’s always Biggie’s “blow up like the World Trade” line for comparison. It should be noted, also, that some pieces of pop culture Rah Digga throws out are still relevant: Silicon Valley (the place), South Park, Nike, White Castle, and stocks dropping. All in all, it was a fun stroll down memory lane. Additionally, it’s always nice to have an excuse to listen to the cartoon jack-in-the-box that is Busta Rhymes. I’d call that a win-win.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

I was expecting some completely different than what I got when I turned on Rah Digga’s Dirty Harriet. Settling into the idea that it was already Sunday night and tomorrow is Monday and I have gotten nothing done this weekend, I prepped myself to do dishes (meaning downed another cup of coffee) and pressed play on Dirty Harriet. Call me naive or judgmental, but when I pressed play, I was expecting some soothing and calming reggae music. I attribute this to the acts name being Rah Digga although now I’m not quite sure why I expected reggae. I was surprised but not disappointed as the album kicked in and I was transported into another time. Released in 2000, Dirty Harriet was definitely in my time frame, but I was so lost in a world of boy bands and falling into a world of metal and sinister bands like Slipknot that the R&B and rap scene is something I that I completely ignored. This album has a very old vibe to it from the styling to the instrumentation, but there was something very timely about it lyrically especially the song “Do The Ladies Run This?...” It’s hard to not jump to the conclusion that had it not been for Rah Digga, artists like Beyonce wouldn’t have such anthemic female empowerment, well, anthems. Although I could have done without majority of the cursing that at times felt more like an angsty teenager just trying to fit in as many curse words as they could in order to tick off their parents than sending a message, there’s clearly a message in every song on this album and that’s something I absolutely loved. Digging into Rah Digga a bit more online, I wasn’t surprised at all to read that she was a longtime member of the Flipmode Squad which was a hip hop group led by Busta Rhymes. Beyond “Imperial,” which is a song that has Busta on it, it’s clear to see that he had a part in this album and Rah’s sound. The raps are harsh and almost aggressive at times, but the instrumentation and the beats behind them are almost playful in a way creating a sound that is both confusing and intriguing. Dirty Harriet may not be my cup of tea, but there is definitely something to be said for this woman and her talent.

Langen Goldstien (@girlatrockshows)
Queen Of Everything Loud & Nostalgic

Mixing glamour with grittiness, Rah Digga established herself as one of the premiere MCs of the late ’90s and early 2000s.

The songs on this album are pretty short — I thought I was still listening to the intro and it turned out that I was on track three. Like I said last time we all gathered here, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for brevity in song length. (I say, as I sit down to write after listening to the final mix of my latest five and a half minute single.) This record is certainly unique to someone like me, who only occasionally dives deep into hip hop, but has always enjoyed the genre. I feel like it’s not all that common to hear the word “feminist” on a ’90s hip hop track. Again, maybe I’m limited in scope, but the moment caught me off guard, and in the best of ways too. The rap song I listened to earlier today, released the same year, had some lines about women that I don’t really feel comfortable quoting here. The fact that Rah Digga was able to offer a rebuttal to some of the sexist presentations in the music industry at a time where doing so could (and, I suppose, did) lead to her one day ending up in a publication like this one about underappreciated albums, makes me respect her even more as an artist. The fact that this album came out one month before Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP is a little bit telling of the times. The record that celebrates women ended up being the underappreciated one, and the one that includes a narrative about a man slitting his wife’s throat won three Grammy’s and went down as one of the greatest hip hop records ever made. I’m glad that we can take today to maybe pay some respects to an artist whose views back then were far enough ahead to speak to where we’re at now, socially.

Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965

Like many artists we cover here, I was vaguely familiar with the name of this week’s artist, but not much else. So, in between head bopping and shoulder swaying while listening to this record, I decided to learn a little bit more about Rah Digga. While bouncing around a few different places, I came across a tidbit on Discogs that’s so insanely spectacular, I’m just going to throw it down here word-for-word. “Her unforgettable performance at New York’s Lyricist’s Lounge, during her 8th month of pregnancy, is what inspired Q-Tip to bring her to Elektra and let Busta Rhymes get a listen.” During. Her. 8th. Month. Of. Pregnancy. That’s badassery if I’ve ever seen it, something that Rah Digga is more than happy to reinforce throughout her debut record here. From “Harriet Thugman” down to “Lessons Of Today” (or “Clap Your Hands” for those who miss the day when bonus tracks were, you know, actually a bonus), her skill permeates the record as she barrels her way through expert production from Nottz, DJ Shok, DJ Scratch, Megahertz, and more, oftentimes making it seem like she’s doing them a favor by rapping over their beats as she could turn ears and captivate audiences over any ol’ beat, pregnant or not. Her flow isn’t particularly flashy, not when you consider how much of a feat it was to replicate some of her Flipmode co-hort Busta Rhymes’ raps in the ’90s, but when you stumble upon a lyric sheet, you can see, clear as day, the inventiveness and audacity pop out of the paper (or screen). Of course, the feel of the record is a bit dated, but more so in the way that ’90s hip hop often felt like a time vacuum, where a single that came out in ’99, stripped of its dated references, could have easily came out in ’90, and vice versa. Yeah, production amped up a lot in that time period, so maybe songs like “Ice Ice Baby” would need a little bit of a touch-up to get released in ’99, but overall, I stand by that statement. Still, despite dated, I found myself drawn more into this than other rap albums from the time and I can point to Rah Digga’s authenticity for that. Even without knowing her story or reading up on her, you can feel it through her words, with verses from one song feeling like they could be transplanted into another with some expert coaxing. That doesn’t just rule out the presence of ghostwriters here, but also that Rah Digga was writing for anyone but herself and for anything but her art. And that type of imperative, whether it’s rap, rock, techno, or country, will always yield something striking. Add to it a gifted MC with a bad-ass persona — well, you got yourself a winning hip hop album you’d be a fool to miss out on.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Rocktopus by The Dread Crew Of Oddwood
Chosen By Langen Goldstien

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Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Langen Goldstien, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

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