In the early 2000s, it became vogue in hip-hop to name someone the "first lady" of your crew. Biggie dubbed Lil' Kim the Queen Bee of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew. Foxy Brown became The First Lady of the Firm. The tradition carries on today with Nicki Minaj occupying that role on the Young Money roster. Some women are fine just being placeholders and seat fillers on a roster's line-up. Local rapper Lolita "Lollipop" Swain has never subscribed to that philosophy.
"All I originally wanted to do was be a live sound engineer and a roadie," she says. "That was my ultimate goal. Everything that I have done in music thus far I actually fell into because no one else filled the position."
Swain says that people took note of her organizational skills and initiative and thought she'd make a great manager. The artists she was working with naturally needed beats, so again, due to necessity, "Lollipop Queen of the Beats" was born.
"I just went out and bought an MPC [Music Production Center] and taught myself how to produce because no one else was serious enough about the artists I was working with," she says.
In 2004, she started the label now known as Visible Lyrics. For all of the pratfalls and perils associated with being a female emcee, the glass ceiling is even lower for a female beat maker. Testosterone runs deep in the veins of hip-hop, and convincing a male artist that he's going to be able to maintain his bravado over a beat laid down by a woman can be a difficult task. Lollipop accomplished this by providing a soundscape than ran quite contrary to her sugary sweet nickname.
"When I spoke about beats, it wasn't some candy coated beats; it was hard hip-hop beats," she says. "When I put on something grimy, I'd make their face turn."
The reputation grew and before she had time to argue with her critics, Lollipop had a bona fide business making beats and writing songs. She hooked up with her first artist Maffii and came up with a blueprint that was quite unique for a local artist.
"I told him, 'I'm starting a label, but since you're here from the start, I'm making you a co-owner, not just an artist."
To this day, Maffii remains the label's flagship artist as well as co-CEO. His baby-face charm gives way to his rugged lyricism as soon as he touches a mic. He's the perfect crossover artist to keep the streets happy while producing hits. The cornerstone was in place for a dynasty, but it was when she met R&B sensation Cha Cha that things really took off.
It was the ultimate kismet of female empowerment to have a woman as complex and creative as Lolli to match the voice and charisma of Cha Cha. Cha Cha started out as a dance artist but is now working on a more mature sound, noting a more adult contemporary stance on her current work. But don't let that fool you—as her 16-measure rap verse on the Visible remix to the Kanye West song "Clique" suggests, she knows how to bring the bars out when she needs to. In 2007, she issued her debut, Euphoria, to critical acclaim.
The crew pulled another coup when they added local wordsmith Izzrael to their roster. Known in backpack circles throughout Cleveland as the Northcoast's answer to Talib Kweli, Izzrael brought something fresh to the roster, and the move was interesting to those in the hip-hop community. Visible had always been seen as a bad- boy type label in that it delivered great singles and commercially acceptable songs, but Izz was always an underground conscious voice. To many, the move was similar to Massillon native Stalley signed with Rick Ross's Maybach Music. One had to wonder where Izz would fit in. The answer? The label is giving him the freedom to spread his wings and try new things.
Young Phenom Crazy 8 the Great has been turning heads as well. He has the emo sensibility of Kid Cudi, but the fresh swagger of ASAP Rocky, and his mixtape The Road to the Rising is one of the most cohesive and freshest albums of the year. The latest signee, Smoke Av., rounds out the crew with an East Coast vibe that's already turning heads in the underground scene.
Needless to say, versatility runs rampant in the Visible Lyrics fam, and you'd expect nothing else from a camp that breaks tradition at its very core. Going to see a Visible Lyrics' showcase is like getting to see a festival, as every artist is so different from the next. You can't define the "Visible" sound like you can with so many other labels, because as soon as you do, the label's artists have moved on to something different. That's the nature of The Game of Thrones. The queen always keeps her people one step ahead of the masses.