“A lot of records happened because I wanted to bring the magic of hip-hop genius into the mainstream of R&B and pop music,” said pioneering producer Drew Dixon. “So, it’s nice that part of my story is being unearthed.”
For hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year, “Turning 50: Looking Back at the Women in Hip-Hop” recognizes the women who shaped the genre. The series includes articles in print and online, a public syllabus highlighting women and hip-hop, and digital conversations with “hip-hop feminists” in music, journalism and academics.
The hip-hop series “Turning 50” concludes this week—just as the official anniversary of hip-hop’s 50th birthday kicks off the weekend.
Ms.’ final conversation is with Drew Dixon, who spoke with Janell Hobson earlier this year.
Drew Dixon is a producer, writer, activist, entrepreneur and former A&R executive, who spearheaded the recording of iconic songs like “American Boy” (Estelle f. Kanye West), “My Love Is Your Love” (Whitney Houston), “Maria Maria” (Carlos Santana), “I’ll Be There For You” (Method Man f. Mary J. Blige) and many more. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Business School, Dixon lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her two teenagers.
In January of 2020, Dixon appeared as the main subject of On the Record, a documentary directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick which premiered at Sundance. The film, released in May of 2020 on HBO Max, documents Dixon’s decision to come forward in the #MeToo movement as a survivor of sexual harassment and assault in the music industry. Drew later joined fellow survivors and activists to advocate for the Adult Survivors Act in New York, and at the invitation of Governor Kathy Hochul, Dixon delivered a speech at the signing of the bill in Albany, N.Y.
Dixon is also featured in the 2023 Netflix documentary series, Ladies First, and is also set to appear on a special plenary on women and hip-hop at this year’s annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference, co-sponsored by Ms. magazine.
Janell Hobson: What’s your favorite hip-hop feminist anthem?
Dixon: The hip-hop swag, knocking drums, and the empowered lyrics in the collaboration between Ms. Lauryn Hill and the Queen, Aretha Franklin herself, puts ‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’ at the top of my list as my favorite feminist hip-hop anthem.
When Lauryn called me one afternoon and sang her idea for an Aretha song inspired by ‘A Rose In Spanish Harlem,‘ I was blown away. A few days later, when Lauryn gave me a demo of her idea, I rushed to play it for my boss, the head of Arista Records, Clive Davis. Clive then asked me to ask Lauryn to add a bridge to the song, which Lauryn executed beautifully, and then Clive played the new demo for Aretha Franklin, who loved it. I then convinced Clive to let Lauryn produce the record and direct the music video for the song.
This was all before the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, so I really had to push to convince him she could do it.
Hobson: Lauryn Hill is such a standout when it comes to women in hip-hop. As we recognize hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, what stands out for you in terms of significant changes in the genre over these years?
Dixon: Hip-hop is more commercial now. Not commercial, more like monetized.
Hobson: What’s the difference to you?
Dixon: Commercial means the content is watered down for mass consumption, but I don’t think that’s the case. No matter what form it takes now, it’s monetized. So, the rebellion is monetized. The hypersexuality is monetized. Even the feminism is monetized …
Back in the day, we didn’t know hip-hop would get this far. And hip-hop was just representing the perspectives of artists whose stories weren’t being told elsewhere. Now everything about it—the fashion, the vocabulary, even the faux-protest aspect of it—is all monetized.
Hobson: Hip-hop is definitely positioned for mainstream consumption now, especially with its financially successful artists.
Dixon: Yeah, and I’m glad we have billionaires. I’m all for upward mobility. But I used to believe that Black wealth would inherently liberate Black people. I now understand that Black wealth liberates only wealthy Black people. It doesn’t necessarily translate into systemic change for all.
My legacy has morphed into pushing us forward and having the conversation that is long overdue about the way women in hip-hop are depicted, treated, marginalized, objectified, under-compensated, under-recognized, underpaid, under-empowered, and often creatively erased.Drew Dixon
Hobson: How do you see your own legacy as it relates to hip-hop culture?
Dixon: That is a complicated question. Because five years ago, I was totally invisible and erased from the story of hip-hop. And my contribution was almost painful to think about, because it was in some ways buried by me because it was tied to so much trauma and pain.
It’s gratifying to me that people now know that I had the idea for the duet that became ‘I’ll Be There For You’ with Mary J. Blige and Method Man. And, there are other things that I did that I think are still not known. I mean, it was my idea for Kanye to join Estelle on ‘American Boy.’ I introduced Wyclef to Whitney Houston, and they made ‘My Love is Your Love.’
A lot of records happened because I wanted to bring the magic of hip-hop genius into the mainstream of R&B and pop music. So, it’s nice that part of my story is, to some extent, being unearthed. I mean, I signed Nas to a publishing deal before Illmatic came out at Zomba Music Publishing, you know?
Hobson: You’ve been so instrumental to that ‘golden age’ of hip-hop artists and artistry!
Dixon: I’m really proud of the role that I played. It’s very painful to me that I have very little to show for it because it was untenable for me as a woman to remain in the industry. And to find myself again and again, having to navigate around sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the constant 3D chess that I had to do again and again in interactions with men after the trauma of the rape … It’s just very hard to do your job!
Hobson: Despite your short time in the industry, the music is still here, so that’s a very tangible legacy.
Dixon: I wanted my legacy in hip-hop to be records that are soulful, dope, hot, pro-Black, pro-Black love. They’re dignified, almost like a Motown hip-hop fingerprint I was trying to leave on every record I made or helped make.
Now, I have to accept that my legacy has morphed into pushing us forward and having the conversation that is long overdue about the way women in hip-hop are depicted, treated, marginalized, objectified, under-compensated, under-recognized, underpaid, under-empowered, and often creatively erased.
Hobson: That, too is an important legacy for hip-hop culture.
Dixon: It is not what I ever wanted it to be. But I’m on God’s plan here: to usher in a conversation about the way Black women are treated in our community, the way Black women are treated in our country, and the way Black women are treated in hip-hop, by both Black men and Black women who enable the toxic patriarchy.
We have to have that conversation, even as we love hip-hop and are proud of what Russell Simmons built. But what does it mean if the king of hip-hop was a serial sexual predator—and an anti-Black one at that?
I didn’t understand I was being groomed. I didn’t understand that every time I ignored one transgression and didn’t quit, the next one was going to be worse.Drew Dixon
Hobson: These are hard but necessary questions! In the documentary, On the Record, I remember you talked about how you loved hip-hop. How did you enter into the culture as a lover, then as a participant, and eventually as a critic?
Dixon: I grew up in D.C. My parents were Black politicians in a predominantly Black city. So, I grew up with a lot of pride in my city and in myself as a Black woman.
I’m also very aware of how I present: I understand that I don’t navigate the world as a Black-presenting Black woman, but I have eight Black great-grandparents, and I’m actually not mixed in the sense that people use that term. But all four of my grandparents couldn’t vote, drank from the ‘colored’ water fountain, sat in the back of the bus, and went to segregated schools. So, we Black, you know? I grew up being very proud of that.
My mother was the mayor of D.C., my dad was a chairman of the City Council. I grew up with an activist spirit when I was a little kid. That informed my lens.
When I went to Stanford, I was the Black Student Union representative to the student government. I was marching for Rodney King. I was all that. I also was a music head.
Hobson: How did you get into hip-hop specifically?
Dixon: I heard ‘Rapper’s Delight’ for the first time at Martha’s Vineyard way back in 1979. I got out of D.C., and the New York kids were bumping this hip-hop. I was like, what is that? This is wild! It was rebellious, in your face, and lyrically dense.
I really got into it when I went to Howard for a semester and helped my mother when she was running her D.C. mayor campaign. I used to think about going into politics. But then, I was like, Nah! Because I love music. I’m going to see if I can use my privilege to put the microphone in as many hands as possible. What do they have to say? What if I can get in there, hold the door open, and say, ‘Yo, microphones for all y’all!’ What is that called? A&R? That’s it. That’s what I want to do.
Hobson: That’s quite the move from politics to music!
Dixon: My family was horrified! Like, what are you doing? Why aren’t you applying to law school? And my first job was at a company called Jive, but my mother was like: ‘That is Jive! They don’t even pay you!’ They thought it was crazy.
But I told them it’s going to make a difference. I think it might even change the world. Then, I just kept answering phones until I got my first job at Zomba, where I was able to sign Nas and Erick Sermon to publishing deals, and then I got my dream job, the job I really came to New York to get.
Hobson: Are you referring to your work at Def Jam?
Dixon: Yes. I really thought I was hired to make records. And in a way I was. But, I had to navigate one of those Wipeout obstacle courses—avoiding sexual harassment [by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons] and not wanting to complain, because everybody said I was crazy to be doing this in the first place! I’m just going to figure out how to keep it moving. I got this …
I didn’t understand I was being groomed. I didn’t understand that every time I ignored one transgression and didn’t quit, the next one was going to be worse. I also didn’t realize he was a rapist … I didn’t know that if he actually had the opportunity in a room alone with you, he would turn violent. I had no idea.
Hobson: Thank you for being so open and honest about your experience. I’m thinking about rape culture, which is tied to both practice and representation because hip-hop has always been accused of misogyny.
Dixon: ‘It ain’t no fun if my homies can’t have none!’
Hobson: It’s so prevalent. Hip-hop is also male-dominated in its representation. Even though I think it’s interesting if you look at hip-hop’s history, women have been very instrumental in its growth.
Dixon: Sylvia Robinson, right?
Hobson: Exactly! Despite the marginalization and the male-dominated space of hip-hop, women are still driving it. Could you talk about that dynamic?
Dixon: I think the dynamic in hip-hop for women is not unlike the dynamic for Black women in our communities, where we hold so much on our shoulders, but then we fall back and don’t claim the credit or the coins because we are so deeply invested in lifting up the community as a whole, and Black men in particular. And we do that because we know our men and boys are in the crosshairs, and they always have been, and we are in the crosshairs in a slightly different way so we build structures to support our men and our boys, which I’m proud to say we do, and I do it as a Black woman.
But where is the reciprocity that Lauryn Hill asked about? “Tell me who we have to be in the music industry to get some reciprocity!” And if you won’t give us reciprocity, if we can’t get the coins and the credit, can you protect us and draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Do not rape Black women and girls,’ and do not laugh at sex tapes where Black girls are being defiled?
The dynamic in hip-hop for women is not unlike the dynamic for Black women in our communities, where we hold so much on our shoulders, but then we fall back and don’t claim the credit or the coins because we are so deeply invested in lifting up the community as a whole.Drew Dixon
Hobson: Are you optimistic about hip-hop’s future?
Dixon: I’m most encouraged by scholars, journalists and thinkers who love hip-hop but are really smart, grounded and clear. Those voices have stood up for Meg Thee Stallion, calling out the misogynoir regarding Russell Simmons and R. Kelly across the board—this generation of writers, critics, academic scholars, thinkers—that squad. Y’all are the squad that I believe will keep this conversation going in a way that I hope starts to trickle back into the music, into the art, into the bloodstream of the culture.
Join Ms. for a special plenary, “Surviving Hip-Hop: A 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Women Who Shaped the Culture” (featuring Joan Morgan, Dee Barnes, Drew Dixon, Toni Blackman and Monie Love), set for Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Baltimore, Md.
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