The Mother of WAP? The Indisputable Ms. Millie Jackson - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because she was a pioneer of tell-it-like-it-is hip-hop.

By Eugene S. Robinson

  • Raunchy R&B pioneer Millie Jackson was the forerunner of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
  • Jackson’s music had an unforgettable rawness that spoke more to women than to men, and was later sampled by rap legends like the Wu-Tang Clan.

“When you’re going with a married man, he can come over two or three times a week and give you a little bit. That means you’re two up on the wife, because after you’re married, you only gonna get it once a week.”

There’s a pause amid the walking bass, wah-wah pedal and pulsing organ — all puns intended — and then the speaker continues.

“On payday, he can come over and give you a little bread too, and I like that. But the sweetest thing about the whole situation? When you go to the laundromat, you don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own!”

BOOM!

I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.

Millie Jackson

And we could claim yet another mic drop moment from the illustrious Millie Jackson, if her entire career hadn’t been one continuous mic drop moment. The Georgia-born Jackson remains a rarity: a female pop performer who spoke to women like there was no one else in the room. And her razor-edged R&B wit and wisdom, a direct antecedent to the ribald chart-topping Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion single “WAP,” was popular because of this, not despite it.

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Widely regarded as one of the first rappers, Jackson started talking between songs as a cure for her stage fright. She wasn’t one of those singers who had always dreamed of being a singer. She was just a patron in a club in Harlem one night in 1964 whom a friend dared to get onstage.

The $5 bet was that she wouldn’t. Jackson won the fiver and a career that drew on a realpolitik only hinted at by her more successful peers Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. And Franklin’s church beginnings made it extremely unlikely that she would ever do a record like the oft-banned Back to the S**t!, which featured a photograph of a grimacing Jackson sitting on a toilet with one shoe off, one shoe on, presumably taking a crap.

The difference between “WAP,” which is really pop music for strip clubs and people who dig on strip clubs (read: men), and Millie’s stuff is that Millie’s stuff was the stuff discussed over kitchen tables between friends (read: not men).

Photo of Millie Jackson

Millie Jackson, circa 1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Which is why men found Jackson’s music so uncomfortably … intimate. The aforementioned tribute to being the other woman, for example, was part of a three-part magnum opus titled Caught Up that also featured the wife in the unhappy threesome having her say.

“It’s All Over but the Shouting” starts off with the wife’s story, which, as the song title implies, is not one iota less edgy than that of the other woman. Jackson says it best when she sings, “The shouting’s gonna be deafening.”

“Most of the time in my personal life, I was the other woman,” Jackson told Atlanta Magazine. “But I also felt the need to give the wife a say-so. Women loved it. I was speaking to them. I was the poor people’s queen.… The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

So whether it was men who came too quickly or were otherwise bad in bed, Jackson covered it all, and fans returned the love. She pulled in several gold records, most notably 1977’s must-have Feelin’ Bitchy, while Caught Up hit No. 4 on the Billboard R&B albums chart and No. 21 on the pop albums chart. She worked with both Isaac Hayes and Elton John. And then, in the mid-’70s, Jackson did something totally unexpected. Something initially called rap.

Hip-hop, the superset that included break-dancing and graffiti art and picked up where disco left off, hit hard and Jackson earned a second — hell, third — life being sampled. Her bawdy and rough-hewn yet lyrical take on life fit perfectly with hip-hop’s very similar zeitgeist. And the list of samplers was long and noteworthy: 50 Cent, MC Lyte, Mobb Deep, Too Short and the Wu-Tang Clan, thank you very much.

Counting the records sold by her samplers alone, millions and millions could be credited to the account of the still very significant Ms. Jackson.

“Remember, it took a lot for her to do what she did back then,” says Al Crawford, whose After Dark Facebook Live event on Friday nights has become a staple for serious R&B fans. “She left a lot on the table in sacrificing radio play and so on.” But Millie Jackson choosing to remain Millie Jackson instead of trying to not be Millie Jackson was the only way forward for her during a time when many men were doing material considerably more risqué, something that has struck Crawford over the years.

“Richard Pryor said a lot of the same stuff, but he was just being funny,” Crawford concludes. “Millie was being truthful.”

Amen.

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