We invited Delaina Sepko to write a very special guest blog for us on women and hip-hop – part of a series of features we’re running focused on hip-hop, to mark the start of our new HND hip-hop and rap module. Delaina is a music researcher, with her own show on the Scottish radio station Sunny G called ‘Breaks and Beats‘. She writes for us about how her passion for hip-hop often conflicts with the sexism engrained in some of it’s content, and how this motivated her to start a gender-balanced hip-hop radio show.
And she’s even curated a hip-hop guest playlist for us too! It’s an eclectic mix packed with Scottish hip-hop, and classic bangers from some of the best female rappers and MC’s of the past and present – all in the same place. Nice.
In May 2020, while the UK was deep into the first COVID lockdown, I started a hip-hop radio show at Sunny G Radio in Glasgow called ‘Beats & Breaks‘. The show is a mix of 90s American hip-hop, modern tracks that have that vibe, a wide range of Scottish hip-hop artists and a lot of discographical information. Every week, I put on all my hats – sound engineer, hip-hop head, broadcaster and music researcher – to make what I have come to think of as another part of my life-long love letter to hip-hop. The first cassette tape I bought with my own money was Ice T’s O.G. Original Gangster. I was 11 years old and ever since then, most of my jobs or hobbies have included hip-hop in some way. 30 years later, I’m still writing that letter every week with Beats & Breaks. But as a woman, hip-hop hasn’t always loved me back.
While it is not the only genre with misogynistic elements, hip-hop has (arguably more than) its fair share. As a teenager in the 90s, it was common to hear male artists and even a few women rapping about violence against females, sexually using or abusing women, and reducing them to victims, subjects or trash. Dr Dre partly built his career off the back of a “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” image. The artwork for Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle graphically depicts the fuck ‘em and leave ‘em attitude that runs through every track on the album. Eminen even rapped about killing the mother of his child and riding around in the car with her body propped up in the front seat. All this was hard to hear as a young woman, and while I didn’t automatically discredit these rappers or others like them for their lyrics – Dre was and still is one of my favourite producers – it felt almost impossible to reconcile what I was hearing with my love of the music. Granted, these are some of the more extreme examples from an era of hip-hop when a lot of male rappers asserted their authority through violence and sexual dominance. Not every artist took this route and if they did, it wasn’t always so extreme or degrading but it was always there.
More recently, that overt rhetoric has quieted down and changed to a less violent but equally harmful narrative: ‘she’s good for a female MC/DJ/Engineer/Producer/etc’. Women have always been active in hip-hop and helped build it up from the very beginning. From the late 80s, women like Roxanne Shante, DJ Jazzy Joyce and Baby Love were rapping, DJing and breakdancing alongside and against men and although there were far fewer women taking part, the comparisons were more or less equal. Now there’s a divide between men and women with females working in hip-hop getting paid less, promoted less, praised less and these practices perpetuate the idea that women have less value to the genre. The scales are still tipped in favour of men and after all these years, I still can’t reconcile this imbalance with my love of hip-hop.
Radio airplay is one area where there’s a pretty big imbalance. In August 2020, Linda Coogan Bryne and Womxn In CTRL published Gender Disparity Report: UK Radio that in part surveyed UK airplay of the top 20 songs by domestic artists on commercial stations between 1 June 2019 and 1 June 2020. The report broke down the results by male, female and collaborations and showed that every station assessed gave male artists more airplay than women and some stations were heavily, if not entirely, favouring men. Kerrang! and Absolute Radio, we see you. For example, BBC Radio 1 and BBC 1 Xtra – the two stations in the BBC network you’d be most likely to hear hip-hop – favoured songs by male artists 85% and 76.2% respectively. The effects this imbalance has on female artists are many and profound, with two of the most important being less exposure and less PRS or PPL payments for airplay. Add hip hop’s less than favourable attitude towards women to the general practice of giving women less radio airtime and you’ll find that there aren’t many hip hop shows that play female artists, fewer fronted by female presenters and almost none that present a gender-balanced track list.
At points during the last 30 years, I thought it would be better for me – particularly my peace of mind and self-esteem – to just give up on hip-hop. Why continue to love the music and to work in the industry when I had to put in 3 or 4 times the effort just to sit at the table and get paid less? Some of the worst experiences I had as a sound engineer came from male hip-hop artists that simply couldn’t stomach the fact there was a woman behind the board for their sessions. Sometimes it was awkward when I was mistaken for the studio’s receptionist. Other times it was demeaning. And only once was the name calling accompanied by physical threats. One bad apple doesn’t spoil the bushel – as my gran used to say – and I agree but it sure does give you the boke when you bite into it.
Beats & Breaks is a way for me to stop fretting about all the things I feel are off about hip hop and focus on one thing I could do to help put some of it right: even out radio airplay. At first, I thought I’d just programme a gender-balanced track list and that would be good enough. Normalise it, and not make a fuss. But once I saw the Report’s results, I knew I’d have to be more open about what I was doing. I wasn’t just playing music; I was also giving all hip-hop artists an equal footing on the same platform. As far as I can tell, I host the only female-fronted hip hop show in Scotland and Beats & Breaks is the only one with a gender-balanced track list. I want to be wrong about this. I want there to be other shows I haven’t heard about because I don’t want to hold on to this title.
I understand not every radio presenter has the luxury of playing whatever she or he wants. Commercial stations have much stricter and tighter constraints on what songs their presenters can choose from but as a community radio presenter, I have no such obligations. Beats & Breaks is my opportunity to not just settle the discomfort in my own heart and soul but also to encourage other women to present hip-hop radio shows and generally raise awareness about the airplay imbalance. I realised early on that wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t share what I was doing with Beats & Breaks. I want more women in Scotland involved in hip-hop as MCs, DJs, producers, promoters, sound engineers, radio presenters, event organisers and managers and part of seeing that happen – at least my part – is to reach out to anyone considering those roles and let them know that Beats & Breaks and Sunny G are spaces where the you’ll never be called “good for a female.”
About the Author
Delaina Sepko is a music researcher, radio presenter and life-long hip hop head living in Glasgow, Scotland. She trained as a sound engineer at Sarm West under Trevor Horn, Tim Weidner and Robert Orton and was a finalist for the 2005 Music Week Woman of The Year award for being Sarm’s first female assistant engineer. After working with the Pet Shop Boys, Seal, Tinchy Stryder, Transglobal Underground and Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly., she earned an MSc and PhD in Information Studies and audio preservation from University of Glasgow. Now she is a contributor to the long form blog Hip Hop Scotland, presents Beats & Breaks on Sunny G Radio every Wednesday from 8-10 PM and uses the show to promote gender equality and showcase Scottish hip-hop.
Listen to Beats & Breaks archived shows on Mixcloud.