By Alec Banks
Brooklyn rap group UTFO — consisting of the Kangol Kid, Doctor Ice, Educated Rapper, and Mix Master Ice — came out with their first single, “Hangin’ Out,” just before Thanksgiving in 1984. The major tastemaker of the era, Mr. Magic of Rap Attack on WBLS (one of just two radio shows devoted to rap in the city at the time), opted to play the B-side instead. While it was seemingly a case of the DJ letting his personal preference inform his radio rotation, no one could have anticipated that “Roxanne, Roxanne” would ignite an all-out war.
The Full Force-produced song — about a fictional woman named “Roxanne” who resisted all of UTFO’s sexual advances — soon picked up steam on DJ Red Alert’s show on KISS FM.
“It blew up,” Kangol Kid told Billboard. “While everyone else was talking about how much money they had and how many cars they owned, we said that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get this young lady. That was keeping it real — everyone had a Roxanne in their world.”
It was a story as old as time; a man pursues a woman and fails miserably. But in general, Hip-Hop stars of the era never failed. As a result, UTFO established themselves as underdogs even though they had a hit record. Had the record run its course like most songs do, “Roxanne, Roxanne” would probably best be remembered as an unlikely hit. However, simmering bad blood between UTFO and producer Marley Marl (Marlon Williams) laid the groundwork for as memorable a Hip-Hop battle as has ever existed.
Marley had his feet in two different worlds at the time. By day, he worked at the Sergio Valente jean factory. He was also mixing records on Rap Attack and making beats on his Roland TR-808 drum machine at night. After UTFO canceled an appearance at a concert for Marley’s radio show, Marley sought out ways to throw as much shade as humanly possible at the Brooklyn group.
He wanted to record a response to “Roxanne, Roxanne” from the point of view of the fictional woman. As fate would have it, he wouldn’t have to look beyond his own block inside the Queensbridge projects.
Marley had already enticed a 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté to record a record by promising her a pair of Sergio Valente jeans. When she delivered the rhymes and he never laced her with the promised denim, she figured this was the beginning and end of her recording career. However, when he peeked his head out of his apartment window, he saw Roxanne Shanté preparing to do the laundry down below. Ironically, she was forced to choose between rap bars and soap bars.
“I said I have exactly 20 minutes to get downstairs before the dryer stops,” Shanté says. “You didn’t want your clothes to stop in the dryer because people would take them out in the projects.”Shanté climbed the stairs. The door was never locked, because if someone knocked, the music was too loud to hear it. Once she passed the kitchen table and turned into the living room, that’s when she saw all of Marley Marl’s equipment.
“I had no idea which equipment did what,” she admits.
“I remember one time he was playing the music and I was like, ‘So when are you going to play the music?’ And he was like, ‘You have to put on the headphones.’”
Roxanne Shanté was green when it came to making songs, even though she had been battling men twice her age for at least four years. Yet she made it seem like she was a seasoned vet. “Roxanne’s Revenge” was made in seven minutes off the top of the dome — with ample time to get back downstairs to make sure no one stole her socks.
Shanté had never seen any members of UTFO in person, but she was certainly familiar with the content of “Roxanne, Roxanne.” Although it was different than the in-person battles she was used to, she was able to channel her killer instinct.
“I’m able to pick up on flows very easily,” Shanté says. “So I can change up the lyrics and have the exact same flow. That’s how ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’ came about. You can notice the pitch changes. Some parts I sound like Kangol Kid, then Doc Ice, and then there are the parts that I’m like the Educated Rapper.”
Within weeks, the scratchy tape that still had Mr. Magic’s signature on-air tags was pressed into a 12-inch by Philadelphia’s Pop Art Records. The original “Roxanne’s Revenge” had to be re-recorded with a new beat after UTFO’s label, Select, sent a cease-and-desist letter over the unauthorized sample.
While it seemingly should have been the best time of Shanté’s young life, it was bittersweet. At the time, she was undergoing a transitional period: She was just moving back in with her family after a stint in a group home, and her mother had the idea she was attempting to turn her battle career into a more legitimate music venture.
“They say that the first time you get bit by the bug is when you hear your record on the radio,” she says. “I never experienced that. I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t hear it; I couldn’t listen to it. It was a very touchy situation in the house. I didn’t want my mom to be upset. So when everyone called me, ‘Oh, you’re on the radio,’ I remember hanging up on them. I remember taking the phones out and not being able to enjoy that moment.”
While UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” managed to break through to the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 79 in March 1985, that same month “Roxanne’s Revenge” peaked at No. 22 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (then called Hot Black Singles). The feud was a sensation, and new answer records flooded in from around the country: “The Parents of Roxanne,” “Yo, My Little Sister (Roxanne’s Brothers),” “Rappin’ Roxy (Roxanne’s Sister),” “The Final Word — No More Roxanne (Please).”
However, it was the back-and-forth between UTFO and Roxanne Shanté that proved to be the most noteworthy. It’s a time in his career that Kangol Kid has joked was episodic, like a Hip-Hop soap opera. UTFO answered with “The Real Roxanne” and Shanté countered with “Bite This,” calling out not only UTFO but also Run-D.M.C., Sparky D, and LL COOL J.
“I’m talking to all the MCs out there / I’ll say your name ’cause I don’t care,” she rapped.
Shanté was the clear winner of the “Roxanne Wars.” While she didn’t reap the financial benefits like she would have liked, the battle MC in her still holds the decisive victory as a point of pride.
“I made a record one morning, it went on the air that night, and I was a star that next day,” she says. “I never knew what it was to go around with a demo or to hear people tell you promises like, ‘Yo, we’re going to do this. We’re going to make a record.’ It hurts me to my heart to hear some of the sad stories that women say they sacrificed, and the things that they had to do in order to get the opportunity — that I just got from doing the laundry.”