*editor's note: This interview was originally published on 3/10/21
Only a certain keeping-it-real kind of woman could write a line like “let me loosen up my bra strap” as both a tribute and retort to old school refrains like “let me clear my throat.”
Lady of Rage hit the world with her song “Afro Puffs” on the Above the Rim soundtrack in 1994, spitting uplifting lyrics with Snoop Dogg’s vocals urging her to “rock on with your bad self” in the background, but the "lyrical murder" was paying her dues well before that.
Born Robin Yvette Allen, Lady of Rage grew up in rural Virginia, loving poetry and knowing she wanted to be “a superstar.” Her first taste of the spotlight came when she won her high school’s talent show in 12th grade for a dramatic presentation of Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Mother.”
After graduating, a brief move to Houston, Texas lead her to Job Corps, learning the trade of meat cutting. When the organization hosted a talent show, she found herself slaughtering the competition with her freestyle. “They started throwing Little Debbie cakes at me,” she laughs. “I didn’t know that was like money.” She would have won the contest had she not been disqualified for cursing, but that didn’t discourage her. She eventually hitched a ride with a friend who dropped her off in Manhattan, thinking “if Run-D.M.C. could just hear me” everything would be okay. She had all the addresses of the record companies written down and planned to visit them in person to show what she could do on the mic.
While browsing around Tower Records, some guy commented on her Run-D.M.C. hat, telling her the tag was hanging out.
“I know,” she said, annoyed that he didn’t seem to know that was the style. “You rap or something?” he asked. She said yes. When she told him she was from Virginia, he seemed skeptical. As they walked through the store and onto an elevator, she rapped an original rhyme for him as if they were at The Apollo Theater (her longtime dream.)
“And when we got to the floor we were heading to, every in there clapped for me,” she says. The guy was Dax Rodgers, brother of Nile Rodgers, who co-founded the iconic band Chic (yes, creators of the classic song, “Freak Out”). Dax’s mother, Beverly Goodman, was looking for someone to rap a Public Service Announcement for AIDS awareness and she was coming to pick him up that night. “She let me stay with them for a little while and eventually put me in the studio,” says Rage. While bouncing around and even living at Chung King Studios at one point, Rage met the Outlaw Posse in Queens, who introduced her to the LA Posse.
By the age of 19, the Lady of Rage was offered a production deal by the multiplatinum LA Posse production team. During this time, she met and recorded with her roommate Nikki D, who showed their project to Dr. Dre in California.
“Chubb Rock put me on a project. He was going to do my album, but then Dre called.”
She called Dre back, suspicious. “How do I know you’re really Dr. Dre?” she asked. “There’s only one way to find out,” he said, then sent her a ticket to fly to Los Angeles. She became a Death Row Records artist, appearing on Dre’s album The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style, among many others.
When it came time to record a single for the Above the Rim soundtrack, Rage came correct with "Afro Puffs."
“I wrote that in about a week."
- Lady of Rage
"I came up with one verse. Normally when I write a song, I'll let the beat play, and I just start going off the head. I might not even say words, I might just make sounds because I'm trying to catch the flow of how I'm going to do things.”
She freestyled in the mirror, floating the lyrics “I flow like a monthly, you can’t cramp my style/for those that try to punk me, here’s a Pamprin, child” and then she knew it was coming together. Dre played her a track later and she laid her lyrics down, hoping they fit. Inspired by an old picture of her cousin sporting the afro puffs hair style, Rage wore them herself when she went into the studio. When Dre said they needed one more verse, he told her to just keep saying: "I rock ruff and stuff with my afro puffs."
Once it hit the airwaves, the refrain became an anthem for women proud of their natural hair at a time when braids or perms were more popular. Rage eventually wanted to dread her hair, but Dre encouraged her to keep the puffs, calling the look and the lyrics ‘genius.’
Lady of Rage’s full-length Necessary Roughness debuted in 1997, though things had shifted in the Death Row camp.
“Dre was no longer there. Suge was in jail. Snoop was unhappy. Pac is assassinated,” she recalls. “The dynasty was crumbling.” Daz Dillinger produced the record with help from DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee.
A diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis had the rapper wrestling with some health issues for a bit in this decade, but she performed sets in Cleveland and California in recent years, thanks to learning new breathing techniques. Now the mother of three children and grandmother to one co-hosts the podcast Free Em All Radio with Fred Hampton, Jr. and can be found on Instagram often passing the mic to others.
“When I was coming up, my attitude was, ‘I'm better than everybody. My attitude was competitive,” she shares. “When I got older, it was like, ‘I'm one of the best.’ We are in a league of extraordinary gentlemen, this game of rap that we're in. And I think we need to help each other as much as we can.”