Teena Marie: The Godmother of Hip-Hop

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

I don't know what you do, but like Nas in "Book of Rhymes" (at 2:30 in), I pump some Rick James with that Teena Marie. The R&B legend passed away on Sunday at age 54, leaving one of the great vocal legacies in music, in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. From her world-famous and somehow incredibly awesome 1981 rap (at 3:47 in — complete with pre-Nicki Minaj inflections!) to her catchy 2004 single (with Cash Money Records, complete with contextualizing intro by Birdman/Baby), Teena's career was inextricably intertwined with hip-hop. She was a hip lady who embraced the music that embraced her. Important and fascinating, her rap celebrates a white person's unabashed and unambiguous affection for black culture — and black audiences returned the love for nearly 30 years.


Hip-hoppers love Teena perhaps more than they do any other R&B singer, not just because she embraced hip-hop early on (interesting in and of itself), but because of the good feeling she generated that paralleled what they felt expressed in the most rocking party songs. Many of her hit tunes in the 1980s felt freewheeling, with an off-the-cuff, cavalier quality central to hip-hop.

Partially this devotion was due to the songwriting genius of Rick James, who did some of his best work with her. Yet James himself, despite Dave Chappelle's best efforts, never seemed to attain that level of affection for himself or for the music he recorded. James also wrote songs for other R&B artists that became hip-hop party anthems and led to rappers' sampling bonanzas, such as the ultimate funk jam "All Night Long" by the Mary Jane Girls, and his role in hip-hop has probably been underappreciated.

So while James' skills have something to do with the affection shown for Teena, the main culprit is her own voice and style. The only simile that seems appropriate for the soul in her voice is that it was like, as Big Boi from Outkast would say, a plate of yams with extra syrup — so substantive and yet so sweet, so good for you, and yet a treat.

As radio personality Michael Baisden has pointed out, she didn't have the most soulful voice for a white woman — she had the most soulful voice, period. Some musicians who took an early interest in hip-hop, such as the Clash, never really found a following within it. Other early outside appreciators of hip-hop, such as Debbie Harry and Blondie, were appreciated by major hip-hop artists later, but I'd argue that the overwhelming and unambiguous adoration of Teena in hip-hop is matched only by the love that hip-hop heads have for James Brown. I can't imagine that anyone in his or her right mind would agree with prominent music critic Robert Christgau's cryptic assessment that her music conflates "florid and soulful without ever sounding like the wannabe that she is." Wannabe what? Only someone without hip-hop DNA could think such a thing.

As Nas also notes on the intro to this track, seeing her in concert was something done by someone of a certain age living life in the highest style. Several years ago, a stylish couple I know (who are pushing 40 now) told me that they were going to see Teena on New Year's Eve in Philadelphia. At the time, that sounded to me like the hippest way anyone could bring in the New Year.

Teena's music has been sampled extensively, starting in the very early days of recorded hip-hop, with legendary party DJ Lovebug Starski's "Positive Life." Starski repeatedly calls the record he samples, "I Need Your Lovin'," the "record of the year." It still gets played frequently on New York radio.


The song's well-known lyric "M-O-N-E-Y never did a thing for L-O-V-I-N" was probably perfect for the 1981 recession. Perhaps it spurred an answer, by the time of the 1986 boom, with Gwen Guthrie's "Ain't Nothing Going on but the Rent," which contains the lyric "no romance without finance." Although both songs still get played all the time, and maybe neither position is completely desirable or tenable, Teena's has to win because it's so much more durably romantic.

It was impossible to dislike her 1988 single, "Ooo La La La," which became the basis for the chorus of the hypnotic "Fu-Gee-La," the hit that propelled the Fugees (and thus Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean) into superstardom by laying the groundwork for a hip-hop-centered buzz for their album The Score. (Some of Hill's less sophisticated anti-white statements are interesting, considering the debt she owes Teena.) "Ooo La La La" also features in a very different sort of hit, Grand Puba's "Fat Rat" (at 1:32 in).


It is easy to forget, in the wake of hip-hop's dominance in pop culture over the past decade, that many R&B artists were fairly cold toward it in its earlier years. Perhaps as a consequence, vast swaths of '80s R&B that were not compatible with the soul of the new zeitgeist have been forgotten and ignored. At the same time, despite making music in a slightly different groove, established acts were a little wary of this new force from the streets. Two unforgotten and huge talents, Sade and Anita Baker, for example, were more than a little reluctant about being involved with the music.

Teena Marie had no such quandaries. Her rap alter ego, Lady T, recorded a memorable verse that cemented her reputation, not just as a versatile vocalist unafraid to embrace this new and nonmelodic form, but also as a free-spirited apostle of fun music, who saw Bach and Shakespeare, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni, and herself as all part of one big soulful tradition. She passed far too soon, while she still had beautiful music to make (having released a new album, Congo Square, just last year), but her legacy will live on in several traditions. 


Paul Devlin is a graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook.