Tom Maxwell | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,118 words)
Robin Allen started writing rap lyrics in the 6th grade. By her senior year, she needed an MC name. When a classmate jokingly referred to her as the Lady of Rage, she thought the moniker good enough to tag on the wall of the high school bathroom.
A singular rapper in her own right, Rage would go on to become known as a collaborator, appearing on Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s extraordinarily successful debut albums. Her 1994 hit single “Afro Puffs” perhaps illustrates her artistic potential as much as what she was eventually able to achieve: Rage’s first solo album, Eargasm, was shelved and never completed. Named by Dre, who would have also co-written and produced it, the album would have been made at the height of the rapper’s powers and released during Death Row Records’ incredible winning streak. That Eargasm never came to fruition kept Rage’s career dependent on men — in the form of collaborators and label bosses — rather than resolutely her own.
Born in 1966, Rage grew up in Farmville, Virginia. She took no inspiration from women. “Before I even heard of [MC] Lyte, it was Salt-N-Pepa and Roxanne Shanté, and I just felt that I was so lyrical, that I’m not even competing with y’all,” Rage told Dubcnn. “You’re no threat to me at all, my competition is with the guys! So, I didn’t look to girls for inspiration or influence or nothing like that. Rakim was the one that was blowing my mind, and I was like ‘If I wanna be like somebody, if I wanna mold after a MC, Rakim would be the one.’ … Me being a female, I just wanted to blow guys minds anyway! You’re already gonna underestimate me, you’re already gonna think I’m weak when I step into the circle, you already got me summed up, but wait till I open my mouth, I’m gonna blow you back! That was my influence, Rakim.”
After cutting her teeth in Texas and New York, Rage caught the ear of Dr. Dre, who was forming Death Row Records with Suge Knight. He called Rage, asking her to join the fledgling label. “How do I know you’re Dr. Dre?” she asked. “There’s only one way to find out,” he answered, and sent her a plane ticket.
“It never really hit me,” Rage remembered about being signed to Death Row. “It was just like, it’s all part of a plan. I’m just rolling with the plan, whatever happens happens.”
What happened was that Rage found herself in the middle of a very hungry boys’ club, populated by the vanguard of West Coast rap. “It wasn’t a situation where they treated me differently or disrespected me,” she told Billboard. “I didn’t even have to fight harder because my talent spoke for itself. Yes, I was in a league of extraordinary gentlemen, but I was on the same level that they were. It wasn’t like they had to write my rhymes or hold my hand. I held my own. And that’s how it was with my entire journey in hip-hop. I competed with guys, so it was nothing to me. These guys were my brothers and I was their sister. It was a family.
“We were all young and we all wanted to make this happen,” she continued. “There was just this energy there and we were able to do what we did so well. We had someone in a position to lead us down that road so it became an explosion of sorts. All these things fell in line and it was just a beautiful, magical thing. It was this energetic explosion of talent that was incomparable. That was a dope experience.”
“Rage: lyrical murderer, stranded on death row,” she raps on another track.
And now I’m serving a lifetime sentence
There’ll be no repentance
Since it’s the life that I choose to lead I plead guilty
“It was just wonderful,” she said of the experience. “I never knew that it was going to be that large. I didn’t know that it was going to be groundbreaking or a classic. I was just anxious to do what I had to do and be heard. … We were hungry at the time. We didn’t have any money but we didn’t care! We had that same hunger where we were like, ‘We are going to eat these tracks up!’ The food and the money didn’t matter at the time, or being broke and getting evicted.” No one could have known, but Dre was creating and naming G-Funk, which would become the dominant hip-hop style of the decade.
Dre produced Snoop Dogg’s debut, Doggystyle, released in late 1993. Rage was given pride of place. “Snoop’s album was the most anticipated album at the time,” she remembered, “so everyone’s expecting to hear Snoop Dogg on the first track, and instead they heard me. I don’t know why Dre did it, but I also do know why he did it. It was a set-up. After The Chronic it was gonna be Snoop, so the next artist in line whose album was going to be released would be the first artist on the current album. That was the set-up for me. I was very pleased and excited. It was one of the biggest highlights of the album to me.”
According to Rage, Eargasm was supposed to be released after The Chronic, but because of Dogg’s popularity, it wasn’t. “They went with Snoop,” she said. “I don’t know if this was how it was supposed to go initially or not, but I know when I came, they told me they were gonna do Dre’s album, and my album was gonna be next. After The Chronic came out, Snoop blew up, so they was like ‘Snoop’s album is gonna be next, and your album is gonna be after his.’ It just kept getting pushed back, and I don’t know what the reasoning was behind that. But that’s how it was. I don’t know if it was a female thing, [an] ego thing, or what, but it just didn’t happen when it should have happened.”
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“That song almost didn’t happen,” Rage told Billboard. “I just so happened to go to the studio that day and Dre was playing this beat. He was like, ‘You got something for that, Rage? Let me hear it.’ I spit a rhyme that I had written a few days prior. I didn’t like [the song], but Dre was like, ‘Damn Rage, will you just shut the fuck up? It’s not even done yet.’ I still didn’t like it, but everybody else did. I asked Suge [Knight] to not put the song on the [Above the Rim] soundtrack and he was like, ‘All right Rage, we won’t do it.’”
Luckily, they did. “I was riding in the car with Suge’s wife and I told her, ‘I’m so glad they got rid of that song,’” Rage continued. “And she said, ‘Girl, they didn’t take that song off the soundtrack.’ I had a fit! I said, ‘They’re going to ruin my career. That song cannot be the one.’ My style was more East Coast. I’m from Virginia and ‘Afro Puffs’ was this G-Funk sound. Jimmy Iovine called me and told me to calm down because the song is such a hit. That became my claim to fame.”
I rock on with my bad self cause it’s a must
It’s the Lady of Rage still kicking up dust
So um, let me loosen up my bra strap
And um, let me boost ya with my raw rap
I bring the things to light, but you still can’t see me
I flow like a monthly you can’t cramp my style
For those that try to punk me, here’s a Pamprin child
No need to say mo’, check the flow
Rage in effect once mo’, so now ya know
Even though the soundtrack stayed at number one on the R&B albums chart for 10 consecutive weeks, Rage’s debut was pushed back again. Instead of releasing Eargasm, Death Row released Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food. Once Above the Rim star Tupac Shakur signed to Death Row, Eargasm was shelved indefinitely. “I don’t know if it was some male chauvinistic ways in it,” Rage once said, “because all of the females there it seems like they got pushed back.”
“When I first got to Death Row, the lineup was going to be Dr. Dre, Snoop, myself, and then Tha Dogg Pound,” Rage remembered. “For whatever reason, Tha Dogg Pound came out before me. I don’t know the reason, but I know that when it was time for my album Necessary Roughness to be produced, the dynasty was crumbling. Dre was leaving, Snoop was unhappy and on the verge of leaving, Suge was locked up, and ’Pac was assassinated.”
In 1997, Rage’s debut Necessary Roughness was issued. Eargasm never made. “That was Dre’s whole project!” Rage told Dubcnn. “He came up with the title and everything, he had the concept and his vision of that. Once he left, all that left with him.” Death Row began its process of disintegration: Shakur was killed later that year, Knight began a five-year prison sentence, and Snoop Dogg left in 1997. Necessary Roughness still broke the Billboard Top 50. Rage wasn’t able to produce like Dre.
“And then it’s like, ‘All right Rage, you’re up next,’” she said. “I didn’t have the conductor and I didn’t have the same help that everyone else had when it was time for their albums to be produced. Everybody came in and contributed for The Chronic, Doggystyle, and Dogg Food. Everybody came in for Above the Rim and Murder Was The Case. When it was my turn, it was just me. I second-guessed myself. I have the highest confidence in my lyrics, but when it came to formatting and the sound, I depended on somebody else for that.”
Had it been released when originally scheduled, it’s likely that Eargasm would have done well and established Rage as a preeminent rapper. Her ability to hold her own with her male colleagues is already remarkable. From sexist lyrics to men dominating the game, the hip-hop of her time was misogynistic in the extreme. Female rappers were minorities, often secondary players or novelties. They relied on men to sign and produce them, and existed in a culture personified by lyrics like: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks,” as Dre and Dogg rapped at the close of The Chronic.
“Snoop Doggy Dogg still don’t love a ho,’” Dogg admitted at the end of “Afro Puffs,” “but you got to give credit when credit is due.”
“If I don’t have a fat ass, or 40 double D’s, I can’t get a deal?” Rage asked rhetorically in a 2007 interview. “If I’m not 150 pounds, or if I’m not looking like Beyoncé or whoever they think the hot chick is, I can’t get a deal? Can’t you just base your shit on me because of my talent? You can’t judge me for my talent? I gotta be selling something? So I just feel that it’s a twist for female MCs, specially the talented ones. It’s some that I wonder how did they get a deal. I just wonder.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.