How Nikki D Crashed Def Jam's Boys Club
By Alec Banks
Depending on the era that you grew up, there are several contenders for the "First Lady of Hip-Hop" like Roxanne Shanté, Lil' Kim, and Missy Elliott. While all of these ladies certainly placed their undeniable stamp on the culture, it's simply impossible to give any single person the entire monarchy. However, there are certain irrefutable truths when it comes female empowerment in the culture, Specifically, who holds the title as the first women signed to Def Jam: Nikki D.
Long before she was "Nikki D," Nichelle Strong was living in New Jersey before relocating to Los Angeles with her family. While Hip-Hop — and specifically artists like Kool Moe Dee, LL COOL J, and Beastie Boys— was something that she had absorbed as a kid, it was surprising that the music and the culture hadn't yet made the nearly 3,000 mile pilgrimage West just yet.
"It was like, 'Why ain't they playing this?'" she jokes.
Fate intervened in the form of West Coast icon, Ice-T, who was helping bring the New York City-born art form to Los Angeles — albeit with a Left Coast twist.
"He was like a big brother automatically, and we just hung out because he had a mutual friend.," she says. "He had friends that I became cool with and then we all just kind of clicked up and always would hang out. We would always wind up at his DJ's house [where] he would be rehearsing because he was an independent artist back then on Rhyme Syndicate (his label)."
Since Nikki and Ice-T were often in close proximity with one another, he eventually heard her rapping — something at the time she thought was as nonsensical as a parrot trying to sing an aria. However, Ice-T saw real potential in her skills.
He was like, 'Why don't you write your own stuff?'" she recalls. "I was like, "Nah, I'm not a rapper like that.' He was like, "No, you are a rapper.' I just fell in love with it once Ice-T was like, 'You're a rapper.'"
Moving forward, Nikki D made it a point to be at any and every rap show that made it to Los Angeles. She recalls fond memories of watching the likes of Whodini, Dana Dane (who was touring in promotion of Dana Dane with Fame), and Doug E. Fresh. The latter proved to be especially instrumental in encouraging her burgeoning career.
"I wound up rhyming for Doug E. Fresh and he was like, 'Oh my God, you're hard,'" she says. "Then I just dug in."
Nikki D prided herself on what she describes as a "ferocious pen game," which she says was a rarity for many male and female artists at the time. Although she was initially hesitant to call herself a rapper, she had no problem embracing the inner writer inside.
"For me, writing was everything."
"A lot of people [had other people writing their rhymes], but it wasn't known right off the rip because people were saying the rhyme so good that they made it seem like it was them," she says. "You want to have someone else write your songs: Fine. But all the MC'ing, rapping, and the bragging doesn't land the same [if you're not]."
Nichelle Strong eventually became "Nikki D" — adding the single letter last name as an homage to legends like Heavy D and Chuck D. Although Los Angeles had been instrumental in encouraging her to become an MC, she knew her big break was going to come from New York City.
In Def Jam's infancy, Rick Rubin had signed lagship artists like LL COOL J and Beastie Boys. Nikki sought out Russell Simmons and earned the distinction of becoming the first woman signed to the legendary label.
Within a short period of time, Nikki released her debut single, "Daddy's Little Girl," which shot to the top of the Billboard Rap Charts.
"We were actually on the road [with Yo Yo] and West Johnson — who was our radio guy — called and said, 'Baby girl, that record is number one," she recalls. "I said 'Get the hell out of here!' So it sat there for a few weeks. I was like, 'Wow.'"
While Nikki D was seemingly poised to become the "next big thing," she admits that Simmons was so enthusiastic about her as an artist that it actually had a negative impact on her career moving forward.
"Russell admitted it," she says. "He said, 'I was too fucking excited and I put the song out and I didn't think about it.' And Lyor Cohen, was like, 'Don't put out the record yet. It's not ready, wait for the album.'"
The single dropped in February and the album Daddy's Little Girl didn't come out for another six months.
"That whole spread jacked it up because the industry was still trying to figure out what to do with female rappers. You only get one chance when you go and put a record out. People are not coming back."
While Nikki D isn't one to cry over spilled milk, she does recognize that the "boy's club" allows for men to have more leeway when it comes to continuing a career after an album doesn't sell well. As a result, she simply wasn't given the opportunity to mature as an artist — specifically because she was honing a voice that artfully blended MCing and sexuality — something that now reverberates on the top of he charts.
"I felt like [male artists] did it all the time, so why can't I do it?" she says. "They're talking shit about what they doin' with a chick."
"Well, I'm going to talk shit about what I'm doing with a guy."
Nikki D went onto working alongside Flavor Unit with Apache and Queen Latifah and eventually returned to Def Jam where she worked in an executive capacity. As she suspected, she found out that many of the acts in the industry were in fact using ghostwriters. But that's not something she wasn't to dwell on anymore.
"I like to say I was a little bit ahead of my time."