"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
DJ Debbi T’s latest undertaking, Divas of the Rock, an all-female showcase of the city’s best hip-hop, rap and R&B talents, continues on Friday night at Revolution.
Texarkana native Debbi Tedder has worked in the entertainment industry since the early ’80s, first managing stage lighting for strip clubs and burlesque shows and later turning to karaoke DJ-ing. Soon after hitting the Little Rock scene in 1995, Debbi T started T’s Tunes Entertainment, offering DJ and karaoke services to area venues and individuals, working private parties for anyone who could afford her, including Jermain Taylor. While her musical repertoire is as diverse as the clients she serves, she was bred on R&B and funk and has a flair for hip-hop and rap music. In 1998, she started T’s Tunes Productions to produce and promote shows that weren’t being put on in Little Rock. Today, she’s one of Central Arkansas’s most important promoters of hip-hop and R&B.
“I started T’s Tunes Productions because there wasn’t a stage available for underground music,” Tedder says. When she was working as a karaoke DJ, “Kids would come up to me and ask to sing their own music. I was equipped for live entertainment. I thought I could probably find a place for these kids who wanted a feature.”
Last October, she started hosting Tha Rock Underground hip-hop show at Juanita’s. Set up as an amateur open mic night, the first show drew a dozen performers and a diverse crowd of more than 200.
“My deal was to open the show to the public,” Tedder says. “These guys and girls believe in what they’re doing. Many of these kids had no place to perform because they didn’t have a clique.”
While there were hip-hop shows taking place in the city, very few, if any, allowed for an open format that welcomed any artist onstage until Tha Rock Underground. During these live shows, artists take the stage to deliver live vocals over instrumental and vocal accompaniment provided by the DJ who spins the artists’ tracks. Most artists perform three or four songs each during the shows, which usually run about three hours.
After short stints at Juanita’s and White Water Tavern, Tha Rock Underground show moved to Revolution’s larger stage. Performances happen every other Monday night.
Growing out of that event, which has had a mostly male line-up in the past, Debbi T began to see a need for an all-female showcase.
“We’d had a lot of guys come out. We’d had all-guys and occasionally mixed shows, but not such a thing as an all-girls show,” Tedder says.
For the all-female bill, she rounded up eight local hip- hop, rap and R&B acts — Lucky Rudy Ru, Shea Marie, Goldy, School Gurl, Heavon Sent, Alicia, Spice and the Caddy Kitties — who have all brought their own style and personality to the monthly show since its March debut.
To promote Friday night’s show, Debbi T called upon Willie Bigs, CEO and president of Hoodtech Productions, a company that produces and promotes local artists, including Lucky Rudy Ru.
“[The local rap scene is] still male-dominated,” Bigs says. “The women are part of a crew of men. We’ve got to pull these women together and let them learn from each other’s experiences.
“Each of [the Divas] has a unique personality,” he says. “They create a nice balance. It’s not all candy paint, hustling, shake-your-ass stuff. There might be a little bit of that, if you need a fix, but instead of being beaten over the head with crunk, you leave feeling like you got a little happy, a little sad, a little horny.”
Little Rock rapper Lucky Rudy Ru, who Bigs calls “80 pounds of 100 percent mouth,” might be the littlest and biggest rapper on Friday night’s bill. Shoulders back, chin up, she hits 5 feet, if that, and though her appetite suggests otherwise (she put away a bowl of cheese dip and five Coca Colas during our hour-long interview at Rumba), she carries no more than 90 pounds on her boyish frame. Wearing an orange-and-white-striped polo shirt and baggy jeans, she might look and eat like a teen-ager, but she speaks and acts like the 27-year-old street-smart rapper that she is.
Growing up, she admired any female rapper that picked up a mic, naming MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and Da Brat as her earliest influences. In 1999, at 19, Rudy put out her first album, selling “hood CDs” out of her car or at shows. Pushing a measly 50 to 70 copies of that album, she says rap shows were few and far between, and it was even rarer to find another woman who was doing what she was doing.
Three years later, North Little Rock native XXzotic broke out on the male-dominated scene with the mixtapes “Go Hard or Go Home, Vols. 1 and 2,” which led to a deal with Next Page Entertainment. The label is set (fingers crossed) to soon release her full-length debut, called, appropriately enough, “1st Among Equals.”
“XXzotic showed that a female could be the draw,” Bigs says. “Formerly, a female would perform on the bill of whoever the hot male artist was.
“After XXzotic, males were opening for the female artist’s show. [Before XXzotic] it was also the thought that a female artist was just an addition — not an asset — to a label,” says Bigs, who recently released Rudy’s album “TomBoy,” on which she relates to men and adores women.
“[Before Divas of the Rock] all the shows I did were with guys,” Rudy says. “I feel at home with the guys. [On “TomBoy”] all of the concepts are mine. I wrote it all. I talk about my ups and downs, my everyday grind and my love for the ladies.”
Rudy just completed six cities in three weeks on her solo tour, something Bigs says he’d like to do with the Divas. While he admits that the show is still somewhat raw, he has arranged weekly practice sessions during which each act will run through a choreographed performance to work out the kinks and make it a more cohesive show.
“We’d like to make it like a live mixtape — blending it together, making it more fluid,” Bigs says. “We plan to do all live vocals, removing lyrics from tracks. We’re working to incorporate a live band to make it more entertaining, not just a rap show.”
Bigs believes that as long as the commitment is there, more opportunities will arise for the women, including regional and national tours. He’s currently working to attract sponsors for such endeavors and plans to target 10-12 college cities for campus tours. Expect a Divas of the Rock CD as well.
“A year from now, I’d like to see the Divas on a fully booked regional tour on a fully sponsored tour bus,” Bigs says. “If the work continues to be consistent, we’ll likely see something like that.”
Through September, Divas of the Rock will continue as a monthly event, rotating venues around town.