In 1997, some of hip-hop’s most influential women made a powerful statement with “Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix).” The video is a lesson on female empowerment, with scenes including Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes rapping and having a blast. But the verse that kicks it all off comes from none other than “The Voice of New York,” Angie Martinez.
Close to two decades later, Angie is not just a rapper who’s worked with legends both on and off that song. She’s also a radio icon, respected hip-hop journalist, and a New York Times best seller, thanks to her new book, My Voice: A Memoir. Recently, Rap-Up spoke with Martinez about her literary venture and her career, documenting hip-hop’s all-time greats. Oh, and we didn’t forget about “Ladies Night.”
What details do you remember most when you reflect on the Tupac interview?
That’s a good question. I kind of tried to pull it all up in my brain and put myself back in that place when I was writing the book so I could paint the best picture possible, so just the small details like the pizza, and how attentive he was, how he looked at whoever he was talking to in the eyes in a way that made you feel like you couldn’t pay attention to anything else. He was super powerful. His presence was super powerful. Even of the powerful people, he stands out. He’s definitely a standout in terms of his presence. His confidence, his sense of purpose, whether you agree with him or not, he believed in everything he said and in what he was doing and what he was here for. It was probably a combination of his sense of purpose and charisma and his conviction. Those things are powerful.
You also talk about unguarded moments with the Notorious B.I.G. Can you describe a moment that you shared that embodies Biggie the most?
He used to just hang out in the studio. The interview would be over and he would be there talking shit. He was a regular Brooklyn dude, ultimately, but super likable. Jokes. He made everybody in the room laugh and feel good. And he would be like a superstar, but he would show up in these little hole in the wall clubs. If you asked him what he was doing there, he’d say, “I came to show love.” I think that embodies him. He’s somebody who always tried to show love. He was a big presence, but I think he knew he represented a certain group of people that he was proud to represent. I think he just tried to show love as much as he could and he tried to stay positive. Even in the situation with ‘Pac, he tried to take the high road. I think that’s who he was. He wanted people to feel good. He wanted to make people laugh and to have good vibes. He wanted to make people say “Oh shit” when he had a dope line. I think that captures who he was.
You talk about giving Jay Z feedback on every album before it drops. What’s a moment that stands out the most from those sessions?
I wasn’t overly critical. I was just honest. I wasn’t judging him or picking him apart, but he made it easy to be honest because he was so confident that everything was taken with a grain of salt. That didn’t mean he would necessarily change his single or change a song, but he liked to get vibes from people. If I said something, he’d be like, “You don’t like that?” And then it’d be onto the next. It wouldn’t be like he was crushed or his feelings was hurt. And that type of thing makes you feel like you could be honest with somebody. Sometimes I was wrong. There were definitely songs where I was like, “I don’t love that,” and it’s a fucking smash.
When did that happen?
Like “Hard Knock Life.” I didn’t love that. It wasn’t my favorite Jay song. But it was probably his biggest song before “Empire State.” It was not my favorite song. It’s not something I would ever put on in the car. I’m more of a “Reservoir Dogs” type of person. That would be the song I would play in the car. I like the harder Jay songs.
You also were embedded in the Jay Z and Nas feud. Looking back, it could have gone super left, but it ended up being more of just a battle in the truest sense. Is there a moment within that time that sticks out to you?
What you just said right there is pretty insightful because the truth is, sure, in hindsight, it was just a battle. It was fine. It all turned out good. But in the moment, especially after experiencing what happened with Big and Pac, there was fear there, fear that it could go too far, fear that this could end ugly. There was fear in that. I was concerned for them at that time. I think we were, or I was, shellshocked from what happened to Big and Pac. So anytime there was a war like that, I was a little more sensitive than I would have been had [Big and Pac] not have happened. So, in hindsight, it was great. It pushed both of them on many different levels. But in that moment, there were times I was concerned for both of them because you never know. As sophisticated and smart as both Jay and Nas were, and even if they were smart enough to avoid any real problem, it’s usually not them. It’s usually the people standing next to you that end up taking it to a bad place so yeah, I had those thoughts during that time. Thank God it turned out OK. In those moments, I also did my best to try to not make it worse.
Sometimes your legendary radio career overshadows your music. Why did you decide to not put out more material after 2002’s Animal House?
Well, I think it was a couple of reasons. Number one, honestly, as much fun as it was, and I did feel like I was starting to get better and I could experiment with different beats, rhymes, or flows, the truth is that, by the second album, I was in my 30s and I was pregnant during my second album. So, if I was 20, I probably would have kept pushing because I would have had that type of energy and work ethic that it would have taken, but it was hard for me. It wasn’t something that came naturally like when you look at an artist like Nicki [Minaj] or Jay [Z], when they go in and spit it out and do two songs in one night. It took me seven nights to do one song, if that. It wasn’t something that came easy. It was really hard for me. As much as I liked the challenge, at that point in my life, it wasn’t worth it. I had a baby. I was doing radio. It was kind of like, “Am I gonna kill myself trying to chase this thing?” I just look at it as a period in my life where I was experimenting with a different piece of my creative side. I had a couple good records. It was cool. I got to travel, experiment, and I got a much clearer understanding and respect for the process of making music. Overall, it made me even better at my job.
Rappers must respect that as well because you’ve been in their shoes.
Yeah, and it made me listen to shit a little bit differently too. You hear an ad-lib clearer when you’ve done ad-lib. You hear people doubling their verses when they shouldn’t, when their flows are off, you hear it a little bit clearer than you would have before.
What collaborations are the most precious to you now?
“Ladies Night” is probably my favorite in terms of what it represented, the women that were involved, and how iconic each one of them was in their own right. How dope is that? Every single person on that song matters on some level, in their own lane. That’s dope to me. Also, it was the biggest thing that happened in my career at that time.
What do you think the differences are between being a hip-hop journalist and a traditional news journalist?
By nature alone, if you’re a hip-hop journalist, you have opinions. You should love it and it should come from a place of a fan. As a journalist, you tend to be less opinionated and a little less emotionally attached to your subjects. If you’re a hip-hop journalist, you’re probably doing it because you love the culture and you love the music. You are emotionally attached and you have a responsibility to it. A regular journalist doesn’t.
How has that changed in the time since you began?
Hip-hop is so broad now. Everything in the world is influenced by it, from fashion to pop artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. You see the hip-hop influence in those artists. They’re the most pop artists in the world, but hip-hop is everywhere. They are hip-hop. They in the club dancing to Fetty Wap. It’s so broad, which is a good thing, as long as we can kind of control it, but sometimes it gets a little out of our hands, which is a little scary. It’s a good thing. I think hip-hop is not just a subculture anymore. It’s mainstream. It’s good and bad. It’s good because it broadens things, but bad because it’s open to anything also. Everybody has an opinion, people who aren’t of the culture, whether it’s criticism or opinion or insight, not everyone is necessarily qualified to have one, but everyone has one. But hip-hop is everything now. Look at Kevin Hart. He’s a comedian and mainstream, but he’s hip-hop. He’s of the culture. Even a Justin Bieber, as pop as he is. Not saying they’re rappers, but you can see the influence. They follow the culture. They are influenced by it.
You talk about going into the interview game without any formal training, not knowing the dos and don’ts. Looking back, what are some of the important lessons you’ve learned about interviewing through experience?
As a human being, I’m constantly evolving and learning so my position within the culture changes a little bit, so my conversations also have to reflect that. Now, I’m a little older, I’m seasoned, I have a family, I have issues that I care about, so really, at the end of the day, it’s about being honest about what your perspective is. I can’t be acting like I’m of a cultural perspective that I’m not anymore. Whatever you do, you have to be honest in your conversation, in your perspective. That’s it. When you start to try to follow what everybody else is doing or what the wave is, that’s anti hip-hop in itself. That’s anti-real. That’s what it boils down to. If you’re doing an interview or if you’re a journalist, writing a story, let it be honest. Talk about how the artist affects you in a real way, or what you really care about in the artist. What I care about now is different from what I cared about 20 years ago so my conversation has to be as honest.
In what ways is it different for you?
Back in the day, I might just care about where their show is gonna be at and what he said in the second verse. Now, my perspective is different so we may talk about issues that are a little bit deeper. We may talk about somebody’s family or their political views. It’s not forced. It’s just things that I care about. They come out in conversations so they’re different than what they used to be. Ultimately, you’ve gotta be in the moment, you’ve gotta be honest, and truthful, and your intention has to be good.
You’ve interviewed Jay at every phase of his career. He’s just released a couple of verses. As someone who knows him so well, what do you think his immediate and long term future holds in rap?
I don’t know. I haven’t really spent much time with him recently at all so I don’t really know where his mindset is on that. I would just say, from knowing him, it’s not business driven. As an artist, I think it really moves him as a true artist, so when he has some shit to say, he wants to spit. When he doesn’t, he wants to go to business meetings. Right now, just because there’s been so much chatter and it’s been some time and he’s probably seeing what’s going on, I think he probably wanted to get his shit off. That’s what he does. It’s who he is. I’m not surprised. I’m happy. If we talk the greatest of all time, he’s in the conversation so I think it’s never a bad thing when he makes music.
A lot of people thought he was going to write the foreword for My Voice. Did you approach him about that?
Nah, I didn’t because it felt too cliché. Also, I told so many stories about Jay, I didn’t want it to taint what I had to say or what my truth was by him writing the foreword, number one. And number two, because Roc Nation manages me now, it just felt incestuous in a way. A family member writing it doesn’t have the same type of… I don’t know. It felt forced to me. It didn’t feel authentic so I didn’t want to do that. Honestly, I didn’t want anybody to do that, but then with J. Cole, I asked for just a quote. He sent that and it was so poignant and dope and smart. I asked if I could use it as a foreword and he said he hoped I would so it all worked out.
It also works well into how your story gets started in the book.
Yeah, and it also speaks to how I view myself and my position in the culture. Clearly, I’ve been in the game a long time. Clearly, I can speak to how shit used to be and I’m still clearly in it so I can speak to how things are now. That’s a rare thing. I’m still in it. My ratings are better than ever. I have a best-selling book. I’m still very much in it, but I also have an understanding of how things used to be so that’s a unique and valuable position to be in. So, I can share things I love, share information, and share history. I can do all that from a current stance. It’s a unique position and so J. Cole’s intro spoke exactly to that. I want to be able to share the things I know with the people who are in it now. The people need to hear some of this shit. In the book, I tell that story of introducing A$AP Rocky to Rakim. To me, that also speaks to the unique position. I say that in the book. It’s one of my favorite interviews because it bridged the hip-hop that I grew up on and as a kid inspired me with someone who’s the epitome of a new school type of rapper right now. That defines my space in the culture. I love that I can do things like that. I love that I can have that conversation with A$AP Rocky and talk to his mom, but then I love that I have the access to get Rakim on the phone and that he actually shows up. That’s a rare position. Not too many people can get that done.
Lastly, let’s get into some classic hip-hop talk. What’s your favorite album and who’s your favorite MC?
Jesus, man! You know that’s an impossible question. It depends what day of the week it is, what my mindset is. Honestly, I can’t. It just varies, man. If we’re talking about Jay, I mean clearly, Jay has been my favorite or one of my favorites for the longest time. Jay holds that place for most. The Blueprint, of all his albums, is my favorite. But then also, catch me on another day, and I’m listening to [2Pac’s] Makaveli album or a Brand Nubian album, or A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders album. It’s a phenomenal album. I know that sucks as an answer, but the truth is it depends where I’m at in my life. It depends what’s going on. It depends what season it is. It could be anything. Right now, I’m still with [Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo] album. It’s what I’m listening to all the time.