Nowadays, Lolita Gooden and Doreen Broadnax are the best of friends. Theirs is a sisterhood forged in rap and made stronger in a bonding process over a period of two and a half decades. Hardly a week goes by when they don’t speak. But it wasn’t always like that.
Once upon a time, back in the mid-80s, Lolita was known as Roxanne Shanté, and Doreen was known as Sparky D. They were locked in a heated feud, the first of its kind, which would come to involve two of hip-hop’s most popular radio deejays, their respective stations and two boroughs. Their legendary battles set the precedence for any rap feud that followed it.
It all began when a fourteen-year-old runaway from the notorious Queensbridge Projects fired the opening shot in what would become known as the “Roxanne, Roxanne” wars.
Why’d Ya Have to Make A Record ‘Bout Me?
In 1984 Select Records boss Fred Munao was crazy about a song called “Hangin’ Out.” The track was by three Brooklyn kids: one wore glasses, another wore a doctor’s suit and the third wore a Kangol hat. Individually, they were the Educated Rapper, Doc Ice and Kangol Kid. Together they were UTFO.
As much as Munao loved “Hangin’ Out,” DJs everywhere hated it. Select even made a video for it. Still, no one liked it. DJs everywhere preferred the flip side, a song called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” which utilized a harder drum sound, funnier lyrics and more intricate wordplay. It was a fictional story about a girl named Roxanne who rejects the romantic overtures of all three MC’s. The song was a hit. UTFO were on their way. And then the worst thing happened: someone assumed the Roxanne identity, hi-jacked their beat and dissed them over their own track.
Munao and UTFO were madder than a pit bull in a cat shelter.
The men behind the song were WBLS DJs Mr. Magic and Marley Marl and Magic’s business partner and friend Fly Ty Williams. UTFO either purposely missed or accidentally missed a show in Philly that the BLS crew was promoting. Figuring that UTFO had gotten full of themselves, the three men wanted to take UTFO down a peg or two. They wanted to publicly embarrass them. They wanted them to feel their wrath. But how were they gonna do it? Just then, a neighborhood girl that Marley knew walked by... She was the answer to their problem.
On New Years Eve 1984, the opening shot in the “Roxanne, Roxanne” wars was fired on Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack: Well my name is Roxanne and don’t ya know, I just cold rock a party and do this show. I met this dude by the name of a hat, he didn’t even walk away I didn’t give him no rap. From that opening line UTFO were pissed. Rap fans didn’t know what to think. If the song was fictional, then who was the girl on the record?
Turns out the girl who jacked their concept was a fourteen-year-old runaway from Queens named Lolita Gooden. In the annals of rap history, Gooden occupies interesting territory. She was the only female member of the legendary Juice Crew and was the first successful solo female rapper of her era. More important, she is the Godmother of the modern battle record. Back in the day, she took it to some of everyone. And they hated her for it. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you: in her time, Shanté pissed off many of her peers, inside and outside of New York City.
It was her opening shot at UTFO that set off the imitators. By some accounts, there were twenty-five answer records – from “Roxanne’s Parents” to “Roxanne’s Granny” and “Roxanne’s A Man” most of which were total garbage.
When Munao heard Shanté’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” he was livid. Not only had Shanté jacked their concept and their beat, but her label was making money off of it as well. “Roxanne’s Revenge” reportedly sold 250,000 units in a matter of weeks. Munao wasn’t having it. He sued Shanté’s label Pop Art Records for copyright infringement. Shanté’s manager Fly Ty and Pop Art Records head Lawrence Goodman ordered the song to be remixed. This time, they made a variation of Billy Squire’s “Big Beat” and incorporated the same turntable cuts UTFO had used for their recording. Shanté’s record became the talk of the industry.
However, the same night “Roxanne’s Revenge” premiered on BLS, someone was plotting their own attack against Shanté, and this person was determined to make her mark.
Doreen Broadnax has been to hell and back. She lost her rap career to substance abuse decades ago. Today she’s an evangelist who ministers to youths about the dangers of substance abuse and street life. Despite all of those battles, to this day, she remembers the night her career shot into the stratosphere.
New Year’s Eve 1984 was the turning point in the lives of Duane “Spyder D” Hughes and his then-girlfriend Doreen ‘Sparky D’ Broadnax. Spyder already had one hit under his belt, “Smerphies Dance,” a gold-selling single on Telstar Cassettes. However, he was having all sorts of problems with his record label, ie; the severe lack of promotion and the insufficient flow of ducats to his bank account. Spyder wanted out of his contract, but they wouldn’t let him go.
Sitting in Sparky’s room on the 14th floor in the Van Dyke Projects in Brooklyn, Spyder made a promise to himself: No more mister guy. It had gotten him nowhere. Just as he had made this life altering decision, “Roxanne’s Revenge” came on the radio. Spyder smelled opportunity. Spyder was struck by the audacity of a young girl, challenging not one but three MC’s. Spyder, who had no affiliations whatsoever with UTFO, Select Records or Full Force thought out loud: We can’t let her get away with this, these are our people. And then he turned to his girlfriend and said prophetically, “It’s your turn Doreen.”
Thus the song “Sparky’s Turn” was born. Spyder wrote the rhymes within an hour while sitting on Doreen’s bed. The next day, the pair went to Power Play Studios in Long Island City, Queens. Doreen nailed the vocal in one take.
Knowing he had a hit on his hands, Spyder reached out to The Fantastic Aleems, a pair of cock diesel twin brothers who played in Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. They liked what they heard, and in a handshake deal pressed the song up on NIA records. Within a week, Spyder and Sparky were picking up the first shipment of 10,000 records at a Greyhound bus station in midtown Manhattan. When the song hit the radio, Shanté hit the roof.
Marley and Shanté were furious when they saw who was behind “Sparky’s Turn.” Marley knew Spyder. Shanté had even met Spyder on one occasion. To say that she was pissed would’ve been an understatement.
“Spyder, you know me,” he recalls her saying. “How could you do that song?”
“It’s just business,” he told her.
As far as Shante was concerned it probably was business but she was going to make it personal too!
“Gimme that bitch,” Sparky growled days later backstage at the Roxy, while lunging at Shanté. The two women had to be separated. Sparky had heard that Shanté had made a disparaging remark about her mother. The younger, smaller, quicker of wit Shanté incensed the bigger and older Sparky. “Yeah, she had a mouth on her,” Sparky told me over dinner. The more Shanté spoke, the madder Sparky got.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. If the beef had turned physical, the ramifications for both sides would’ve been ugly. Sparky’s crew from Brownsville were gangsters whose exploits had been well documented in the papers. Shanté was from the notorious Queensbridge Projects, and had a serious crew of people behind her too. No one wanted the situation to escalate into a Brooklyn-Queens thing.
And it could have done just that, when one night, Spyder and Sparky did a show in a rec center in the Queensbridge Projects. “There was one way in and one way out,” Sparky remembers. “She had to respect me. I came in her ‘hood and did a show.” No guns were drawn, and no fists were thrown.
It certainly didn’t help that Sparky’s DJ Red Alert spun for rival station KISS-FM and Shanté’s DJ Marley Marl was on WBLS. They frequently taunted each other on air. The whole city was locked into the feud.
Though neither lady could stand the sight of the other there was money to be made. They did shows on the same bill, precautions were taken to ensure that they wouldn’t bump into each other because, well, after all there was money to be made.
One night on tour in Toledo, the promoter couldn’t pay Shanté. Sparky and crew saw her outside of the hotel crying. At first Shanté was leery, but after some prodding, she opened up to Sparky. “She was like, ‘Yo, they ain’t got my money, I can’t buy diapers for my baby or nothing.”
“This touched my heart,” Sparky remembers thirty years later. “I reached into my pocket and pulled out a one hundred dollar bill and gave it to her. I said, I’ll give you this if you promise to dance at my wedding.”
Shanté looked at her and said, “Better than that… I’ll do your wedding.”
Money or no money, they still didn’t like each other. It all culminated in a huge battle in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. The show was hyped up on the radio, so the lines were wrapped around the venue.
“It was unplanned,” Sparky explains to me. “She did her song and I did mine.” And then the two women went head-to-head on stage. “It was win, lose or draw,” Sparky remembers. “It was like being in a lions den.”
Spyder recalls that when it came to vocal skill, Sparky won in that category. But when it came down to rhyming off the top of the head and snapping, Shanté easily won that.
After the success of the battle in North Carolina, it was decided to put the conflict to rest. They met in a studio, they agreed to record two versions of the battle: one, in which Spyder produced where Sparky would win, the other, Marley Marl would produce and Shanté would win.
Sparky came at her with lyrics that pounded like a sledgehammer. You call me fat but I’m also fly, say it once again and I’ll punch you in the eye… listen my girl you’re much too skinny, if I was you you’re worth a penny…
But Shanté, light on her feet and quick with jabs responded: A penny? A nickel? Hone you fucked yourself with a motherfuckin’ pickle. It was the first time two MC’s went mic-to-mic on a record.
After the session, the beef was over. They shared a cab ride. Sparky went her way, and Shanté went hers. They still didn’t like each other.
Sparky had one last hit in the late ‘80’s a single on B-Boy Records called “Throwdown.” Displaying all the fierce grit and tenacity that she was known for, Sparky slayed all with a Boz Scaggs sample of “Low Down.” Not long after that her life went into a tailspin of drug abuse and domestic violence. As Sparky’s star descended, Shanté’s continued to rise with the classics “Have a Nice Day,” “The Big Momma,” “Live On Stage” and “Feelin’ Kinda Horny.”
Sitting across from me in an Asian Bistro, Sparky, who could be a dead ringer for Billie Holiday, gives her one-time rival, now friend, her props. “I’m doing this interview with you, but I’m biggin’ up her. She’s the greatest. And I mean that. I love Roxanne Shanté, it is what it is. I’m her biggest fan.”
“Her life and my life are very similar. She dealt with people who were in drugs, she went through the abuse, thirteen-years old having a baby, livin’ in a foster home, getting in the music business, getting robbed. I can’t stand here and say she ever did drugs, I’m quite sure she didn’t. But we dealt with similar situations.”
As Sparky recovered from years of drug abuse, she and Shanté made little overtures toward each other. The once fierce rivals were saying nice things about each other in interviews. And then one night in 2006, Shanté was in Atlanta, Georgia where Sparky resides, missed her plane back to New York. Sparky invited her to spend the night at her house.
“We slept in my bed together,” Sparky told me. “A bed on the floor with no rails. We watched TV, we laughed, we shared our past, we laughed and cried, that’s when we got close.”
Three decades later, when Sparky got married, Shanté made good on her word from that night long ago in front of the hotel: she emceed Sparky’s wedding.
It’s a friendship that only warriors can understand, a respect, somebody gave you their best and you took it, and you gave them your best and they took it. “Thank God [for Nicky Minaj, Lil’ Kim and Trina] they kept the music alive. But the way I see it,” Sparky explains to me, “in order to be the queen, you gotta come through Roxanne Shanté and Sparky D… and they ain’t come this way.”
For more info about the lives of Spyder D and Sparky read the book “So, You Wanna Be A Rapper?” by Spyder D and Mark Skillz available on Amazon, iTunes, barnes and nobles