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Ladies last?

Shawnna tries to change the macho hip-hop game

It's almost cliché to mention how hard certain industries are for women. But in hip-hop, the reality can't be overstated. In the genre's 20-plus year history, there are still only a handful of successful female rappers. And two — Queen Latifah and Eve — have increased their popularity more through television and film than hit records.

It also takes a lot longer for female rappers to get into the game. Male rap stars, on the other hand, often come out of nowhere to hit big. (St. Louis' Chingy comes to mind.) But for female rappers, every career gain is a struggle.

That is certainly the case with 26-year-old Shawnna (nee Rashawnna Guy). Although the Chicago-bred rapper — who is a member of Atlanta's Disturbing tha Peace crew — first attracted national attention on the 2000 Ludacris hit "What's Your Fantasy," her album, aptly titled Worth Tha Weight, is about to see the light of day — four years later.

"Anybody goes through ups and downs," says Shawnna over the phone, explaining her album's many delays. "That's why I tell a lot of my friends [that] when you get ready to pick a career, it better be what you love to do, because there are gon' be some times when you don't want to do that shit no more. It's got to be something in you that's gon' keep you right there and that's what I got with hip-hop."

It wasn't easy for Shawnna to get started, however. Initially, her father — who happens to be legendary blues man Buddy Guy — discouraged his daughter's passion. "He didn't tune into hip-hop," Shawnna explains. "He just went off of what was in the media and that was just guns, sex and violence, so he assumed that was what I was about."

At the time, the legendary East Coast/West Coast rap rivalries were brewing, and Shawnna's hometown of Chicago was being ravaged by deadly gang violence. Poppa Guy saw hip-hop as a part of those problems, but his daughter soon convinced him that it could be more than that. Like the blues, it could be a way to make sense of — and even rise above — all of the pain. "It's the instrument of our generation," Shawnna told her father.

After winning her dad's approval, the next step was getting signed. In 1997, Shawnna, who was then a mother-to-be, nabbed her first record deal as a member of the female rap duo Infamous Syndicate. But the group's 1999 self-titled album failed to hit. Then the label, Relativity, was absorbed into Loud Records, which chose not to keep the twosome on its roster. It was a dire disappointment, especially for the new mom who now had a child to support.

Fortunately, Shawnna caught the ear of Chaka Zulu (yes, that's his real name), Ludacris' manager and the VP of the Atlanta-based Def Jam South. He was impressed by the rapper's skills and quickly signed her to a new deal. But as Shawnna soon learned, that was only the first step of what would prove to be a long journey. While she watched guys steadily appear on the hip-hop scene and blow up, Shawnna stayed on the shelf. It was a frustrating wait, but it ultimately gave her the time to carefully craft her album and image.

Now the mother of two, Shawnna was compelled to come off different from such popular — and often gleefully raunchy — female rappers as Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina. "I can't be 'money, cars, clothes and hoes' in the street," Shawnna says, "and be 'books, education and certain standards' at home." Still, her first single, produced by beat master Timbaland, is called "Shake That Sh**" and another cut on the album is titled "Super Freak."

Those are all part of the compromises that come with being a woman in a testosterone-fueled field. "Hip-hop is so grimy," she says. "It's so male-dominated that men don't wanna hear that the laundry was piled up today and the kids were nagging you and that my hair ain't done — just regular stuff that women can sit up and talk to each other about all day. So you got to speak their language and then eventually they gon' start listening to whatever you say."

And if that actually happens, it will be really worth the weight.

music@creativeloafing.com
Shawnna's album Worth Tha Weight will be in stores on Sept. 28.