This is not what you expected. Hip-hop in the year '00 is supposed to be dangerous, seductive, ghetto fabulous. It's supposed to be so real it's almost unreal--like something beneath an electron microscope or blown up on an IMAX screen. Hip-hop '00 is supposed to be a post-Puffy dreamscape of excess and escapism and bouncing low riders cruising down streets clogged with dancers and azure pools lined with thong-clad hotties.
Rah Digga is supposed to be part of that fantasy world. After all, she's the MC of the moment. She's a Busta Rhymes protege (he plugged her shamelessly on air at the Grammys); she has recorded cameos alongside some of the biggest acts in rap (for example, on the song Cowboys on the Fugees' 1996 album The Score); and her hard-hitting, long-awaited debut album, Dirty Harriet (Elektra), is due out April 4. From Eve to Lil' Kim, female rappers are hot right now. You can easily imagine Rah, in the near future, taking her place with rap royalty, reclining dazzlingly in fashion layouts alongside Lauryn Hill, gliding into parties with DMX and his crew.
That's the dream.
This is the reality.
Rah Digga--a.k.a. Rashia Fisher--lives in a rundown apartment complex. The security is spotty (you enter through an unlocked back door) and graffiti line the hallways. Rah herself, who is tall (5 ft. 7 in.) and striking, isn't dressed for ghetto fabulousness just this moment. In fact, she isn't dressed for much of anything. She isn't wearing makeup, and there's a blemish the size of a cigarette burn on her right cheek. Her pajama-clad daughter Sativa, 3, stands behind her, peeking between her mother's legs. They look as if they just got up. It's 1:27 p.m.
You sit down on a wooden chair in the living room while Rah and her daughter go into the other room to change. You look around. On the wall there's a platinum record Rah was awarded for her work on The Score. In the kitchen--it's a kitchenette, really--there's a Speed Queen washing machine sitting atop four bricks. In one of the two bedrooms--actually a bedroomette--there's a small wooden bunk bed. The living room--which is only a little larger than a changing room at Banana Republic--is dominated by a large black couch, a 52-in. Zenith projection television and a cluttered table. On the table, there's a colander, a swan-shaped ashtray filled with cigarette butts, color copies of the cover artwork for Dirty Harriet. Next to the table is a stack of vinyl records: Commodores Live, An Evening with Diana Ross, a couple of albums by Marvin Gaye. "How long have you lived here?" you ask.
"All my life," Rah says from the other room. "My parents live here too."
"They have a place nearby?"
"No, they live here too."
Rah, 25, clearly hasn't earned the big bucks yet. But she's well positioned. Imperial, a thumping single off her album, is in the Top 20 on the Billboard rap charts. Busta Rhymes calls her "unquestionably the best female MC." He's almost right. Lauryn Hill is still the best. But on Dirty Harriet, Rah Digga proves herself to be the best to come along since Hill. Rah's voice is rough and low; at times she sounds like a man. Her beats are strong too: her songs hit the listener like middleweight champs. Her lyrics can be playful or boastful or political (she appeared on Hip-Hop for Respect, a four-song CD put out in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting). Rah uses her sexuality not as a come-on but as a weapon. She wants to show that female MCs can be as tough and aggressive as men--and look good at the same time. "I gotta thank God," she raps on Curtains, "I can look this fly and rock it this hard."
"I don't have a problem exploiting my youth and my looks to sell my rhymes--but I don't want to push the sexual stuff to the forefront," she says. "I would rather push my MC skills. But if you do happen to notice that I look good or that I got bodacious ta-tas, that's all good too."
Rah enters the room. She's wearing a green hooded jacket, jeans and fringed brown boots that zip up on the side. Her daughter is wearing a blue coat and jeans with flower patches sewn on the legs. They're both ready to roll. Rah wants to go to a place called the Outhouse.
As you drive through her neighborhood, she talks about her life. She began rapping in seventh grade. She attended a boarding school for a few years ("It definitely wasn't the place for no rapper") before a single year at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Q-Tip brought her to the attention of Elektra Records. Busta Rhymes gave her her next break, allowing her to perform cameos on his records and returning the favor on Dirty Harriet.
You've arrived at the Outhouse. It's a broken-down three-story building with several SUVs parked in front, stereos blaring. The loudest SUV is playing Hill's Lost Ones. This is the place where Rah and other local rappers, like the Outsidaz, hang out. Young Zee, an up-and-coming rapper, comes out and gives Rah a long kiss. Turns out they're engaged (he's also the father of her daughter). "We want to get married on a Valentine's Day," says Rah. "We've been together eight years now. Valentine's Days keep slippin' by."