In the late 1980s, there was a surge of women making major noise in rap music. Salt-N-Pepa's 1987 debut album had gone platinum. Brash Brooklynite MC Lyte had become the first solo female rapper to drop an album in 1988. And at the end of that year, an 18-year old named Dana Owens released her first single for Tommy Boy Records.
Dana rapped under the alias Queen Latifah. She'd loved the name "Latifah" after finding in her cousin's book of Arabic names; and "Queen" felt appropriate as she sought to make her name amongst the mostly-male Hip-Hop collective of hungry New Jersey-based artists who called themselves "The Flavor Unit." Latifah's deal with Tommy Boy, and that first single, an infectious track called "Wrath of My Madness," was the result of the entire collective putting in the work to see Queen Latifah become a star. And it was the first step in the legendary career of one of the most iconic women in Hip-Hop.
The Flavor Unit was a crew of emcees and producers who'd gathered around DJ Mark "The 45 King," a Bronx-born beatmaker who'd broken big with "The 900 Number." That famous breakbeat (built on a bari-sax loop from Marva Whitney's "Unwind Yourself") made DJ Mark a hot commodity. He landed a production deal with Tuff City Records and moved to New Jersey to launch his own studio. And in the Garden State, he found a cadre of hungry emcees: including rappers Lakim Shabazz, Apache, Latee, Chill Rob G, Nikki D and a teenage girl from East Orange named Dana.
"When I first met Mark, it was through this guy Abdul that was managing me. He had let Mark hear my demo," Lakim Shabazz explained in 2015. "Eventually he took me up there and we would sit around in 45 King’s basement and watch videos of him spinning and Tito from the Fearless Four rhyming. I had to be around the 11th grade at this stage."
And young Dana was an unproven entity within the group, initially.
"I met Latee, then he brought in Apache," Markey Fresh recalled. "Then Latifah came down, and everybody looked at her as the girl that wanted to be on the baseball team, but didn’t think she could hit any home runs. But we let her try out, and she killed it! She became a member."
"When Latifah got her deal, that’s when it became the Flavor Unit. Before that, everybody was just doin’ their own thing."
"Wrath Of My Madness" got Latifah tremendous buzz in the New York area and built anticipation for her debut album. But it was her first video that introduced Queen Latifah to the mainstream. The 45 King-produced "Dance For Me" flips Sly & The Family Stone's classic "Dance To the Music" into a late 80s dancefloor anthem. The music video announced Queen Latifah in sound and image, as she enters centerstage, rocking her soon-to-be-ubiquitous crown and rapping fiercely after an opening bit featuring the Flavor Unit and The 45 King himself.
With her name and image, Latifah was positioned as an icon of female Afrocentricity in Hip-Hop from the very beginning. In the late 1980s, pro-Blackness was rising in popular culture, and Latifah explained why she preferred to celebrate Afrocentricty. “By wearing African clothes, African accessories, not only am I supporting my African brothers and sisters who have these businesses, but it brings me closer to my ancestors,” Latifah told Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy in 1989 in a store with dashikis, batiks, and more African clothing items.
“Not to mention, they’re comfortable. I just feel inner power.”
Latifah's first album would embrace that Afrocentric image wholeheartedly. On All Hail The Queen, the young rapper makes it clear that she isn't afraid of topicality, but there isn't simply a parade of "message raps." There's a genuine spirit of positivity, community and, dare we say, warmth, throughout the album. The collective camaraderie of the Flavor Unit is evident on tracks like "A King and Queen Creation" with The 45 King; but even outside of her brothers in the crew, Latifah was able to draw people to her.
The Jersey-based Flavor Unit was undoubtedly Queen Latifah's crew and musical family, but upon signing with Tommy Boy, the young emcee was now labelmates with a quirky trio out of Amityville, L.I. De La Soul was the talk of Hip-Hop in 1989, a crew of oddball emcees with an idiosyncratic musical guru producer named Prince Paul at the helm of their critically-acclaimed debut, 3 Feet High & Rising. Paul was tapped to produce a track for Latifah, and the resulting song "Mama Gave Birth To the Soul Children," features De La Soul and suddenly connected Latifah to a collective of Afrocentric, positive rap acts who called themselves Native Tongues.
Latifah's membership in the Native Tongues would be solidified when she appeared on De La Soul's hit "Buddy"
That classic posse cut dropped in late 1988, around the same time as "Wrath Of My Madness." It positioned Latifah as a fixture in two major crews of the period, and became one of the Native Tongues signature songs. And also on All Hail..., there are appearances from celebrated contemporaries like KRS-One (who shows up on "Evil That Men Do"), and Daddy-O of Stetsasonic on "The Pros."
The album shows a remarkable fearlessness for a debut album, both in the embrace of guest appearances at a time when that was still novel in Hip-Hop, and Latifah and the 45 King's willingness to dabble in a wide array of genres. All Hail The Queen features flourishes of dancehall, house music and R&B; and even on the more traditionally "Hip-Hop" songs, Latifah jumps from Native Tongues whimsy to B.D.P.-esque topicality without missing a beat.
Another aspect of All Hail... that commentators and critics were quick to note was Queen Latifah's singing. She spends most of her debut album flexing her microphone skills, but Latifah showcases her vocalizing on the hook for hit singles "Come Into My House" and "Ladies First." At a time when rap credibility could be ridiculously rigid, Latifah wasn't afraid to highlight her R&B bonafides, something that would become much more prominent over the course of her recording career.
"Come Into My House" featured house artist Quasar and was Latifah embracing dance music sounds and showcasing her vocals on the songs catchy chorus. The song would be another video hit for MTV and BET, but it was Latifah's next single that pushed All Hail The Queen to a higher height commercially.
"Ladies First" is an anthem that arrived just as the misogyny of acts like N.W.A. and Too $hort was becoming mainstream in rap. Women were making major strides in the genre, but there hadn't been a song that specifically swung back at some of the "Bitch Iz A Bitch" sentiment that was becoming a norm. For the track, Latifah was joined by a newcomer from London. Monie Love had been making major noise in the U.K. before she moved to New York City and also became friendly with the Native Tongues. After bonding with the Jungle Brothers, Monie was part of the crew, that now also included Latifah, alongside A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
The "Ladies First" music video features references to global imperialism, and important Black women like Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth. The song has endured as a Black feminist anthem for decades. In addition to Monie's star-marking turn, fellow emcees like Miss Melodee and Heather B make appearances in the clip, and it all spoke to a rising wave of women in rap. The spirit of the song and the video was one of sisterhood. Latifah was asked in 1990 when asked if Melodee and Heather were her friends. "I invited them all to the shoot. I invited MC Lyte too, but Lyte had to help her mother move that day."
"Ladies First" became Queen Latifah's most popular video on MTV and the song that broke her big. It also served as a launching pad for Monie Love, who would drop her own debut album in 1990.
“To me, rap is a school," Monie said of the song's impact at the time. "The heads are split between Public Enemy and KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions. The students are me, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul . . . but the best thing about it is that the classroom is open to all.”
"Ladies First" became Queen Latifah's most popular video on MTV and the song that broke her big. It also served as a launching pad for Monie Love, who would drop her own debut album, Down To Earth, in 1990.
Released in November 1989, All Hail The Queen announced Latifah as a force in Hip-Hop. The album sold just shy of 500,000 copies and was successful enough for The 45 King to push the Flavor Unit to greater visibility. He would also produced Chill Rob G's hit "The Power" that year, and he would soon sign a lucrative production deal with Warner Bros. His production on Chill Rob G's hit would be sampled by Eurodance group SNAP! for their 1990 hit of the same name.
"You gonna quote me?" The 45 King told Music Technology. "I wouldn't sample off any other person doing the same thing that I'm doing. I wouldn't take their shit, so I don't expect for them to take my shit. It's kind of like a rapper saying somebody else's rhymes; nobody wants to be known as a biter. If you use shit from somebody else who's trying to do the same thing as you are, people don't look up to that."
Latifah herself was immediately vaulted to the forefront of women in Hip-Hop. Alongside other late 1980s contemporaries like Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte, Latifah proved that female emcees could be commercially viable, setting the stage for women in rap to have even more high-profile successes in the 1990s. She even landed on David Bowie's remix of his classic "Fame."
"Mark, my producer, told me that David Bowie had heard my stuff, liked it, and wanted me to do something with him," she told INTERVIEW in 1990. "I sang over some of Bowie’s parts and did some 24-bar-rap."
But, with her Native Tongue brothers in De La Soul enjoying platinum sales and mainstream commercial success, it was noted that Latifah hadn't really caught pop audiences' attentions with All Hail..., despite what the album did for her standing in the rap community. She acknowledged in an interview with Chris Hunt that year that she hadn't really made much noise with the pop crowd.
“Then again,” she countered in 1989, “I haven’t really made anything that they probably would want. I haven’t really been into pop shit.” She was compared to Salt-N-Pepa, women in Hip-Hop who'd sold in the millions with their first two albums. “A lot of people support me, I have a crowd,” she said. “But I’m not a Salt-N-Pepa yet!”
“I’d like to make their money. I’d like to be large, but I’m not rushing anything; it’ll come in time.”
Of course, she was right. For the teenager out of Jersey, All Hail The Queen was only the beginning. Queen Latifah's first album set her on a path to Hip-Hop greatness and pop culture omnipresence. Her charismatic, confident debut solidified her crew, but it also affirmed that Dana Owens was ready for her close-up. She spoke it all into existence; with an appearance in 1991's Jungle Fever, she would kickstart a film career that would lead to awards, nominations and the Hollywood A-List. And she saw it all.
“I would love to be in Spike Lee’s next movie,” she said in 1989. “I’ll audition and the whole bit, 'cause I think I could probably get a part. I just got to find somebody who knows Spike.”