WRNB's Lady B celebrates 30 years as hip-hop jump-starter

Lady B "has had so much longevity because she's been able to reinvent herself, first as an artist, then as an activist and as a DJ," says hip-hop scholar James Peterson, Lehigh University director of Africana studies. And, he adds, "she never traded on her sex appeal."
Lady B "has had so much longevity because she's been able to reinvent herself, first as an artist, then as an activist and as a DJ," says hip-hop scholar James Peterson, Lehigh University director of Africana studies. And, he adds, "she never traded on her sex appeal." (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 21, 2011

It's a week and a half before WRNB DJ Lady B's celebrity-studded 30th-anniversary party, and she hasn't heard from rapper-turned-actor Will Smith yet. Will her childhood friend record a promo video in her honor? Maybe Smith will perform one of his megahits at Sunday night's concert at the Dell Music Center.

B is not sure what's up with Smith, and she's getting antsy. She has called Smith's management team and even his mom. No answer. Wait a minute - she just found out Smith is going to call her show in a few minutes. She'll get her answers then.

"The very important person we have on the phone is Will Smith," Lady B tells listeners. "Hey, Will. How are you doing?"

At that moment Smith walks into the studio.

"I just can't call in for 30 years on the radio," Smith says in his leading-man voice. He then dips into rapper slang. "I have to come to the station for that. . . . I'm just saying, 30 years. That's gangsta."

Gangsta, but a lady. That's the best way to describe Lady B and her three decades in hip-hop.

In the early days of the male-dominated rap world, Lady B was arguably the first woman to put a rap on wax. The track, 1979's "To the Beat, Y'all," went gold.

Lady B's biggest contribution to rap music, however, is as an introducer. Through her Street Beat show, she introduced every major player of the golden age of hip-hop to Philadelphia - think Run DMC, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J. Any new artists who wanted to get their rap song played in Philly had to go through Lady B.

In fact, she was the first to play DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's first single, "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble." (The Fresh Prince was the name Smith used in that act.) She was instrumental in helping the duo get its first record deal.

"I used to like Jeff back then," she says, giggling. "Will was so young, he was like my little brother."

Philadelphia's earliest hip-hop fans remember listening to Lady B broadcast live on Power 99 while hanging out on the famous Belmont Plateau. Back in the day, she hosted countless parties with hip-hop celebrities such as Grandmaster Flash and MC Lyte.

She threw LL Cool J's 16th birthday party in Philly at the After Midnight Nightclub. She even persuaded 1980s crooner and heartthrob Al B. Sure to attend Central High School's 1989 prom.

We're talking Lady Big Hip-Hop Deal.

And by being among the first DJs to play rap on radio outside New York, Lady B introduced the music to burbs beyond the Big Apple, even inspiring local artists and groups MC Breeze, Three Times Dope, and Schoolly D to pick up mikes.

"There were people who didn't want to hear what we were saying," says Schoolly D, West Philly's Jesse Weaver, who is scheduled to perform Sunday with Salt-N-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, and Doug E. Fresh in front of 7,000 old-school heads.

Schoolly D fondly remembers Lady B's physically cutting the curse words out of a cassette tape containing his hit "Gangster Boogie" so she could play it on the radio.

"She gave us a chance and heard us when no one else would," Schoolly D says.

So on this muggy summer day at WRNB-FM (107.9), Lady B is mad excited that Smith has taken time from filming his latest movie to visit her Conshohocken studio minutes before she starts the "Old School Basement Party." But true to form, she's feeling some kind of way because her hair isn't done. And she doesn't have on any lipstick. Cameras are there - somebody could have warned her.

Her colleagues are simply glad one of the city's pioneers is finally getting her recognition. One of the producers at WRNB asks Smith to tape a few other short segments. Nope, Smith says, he's here only for Bahiyyah.

"She is one of the most slept-on forces in hip-hip culture," says James Peterson, a hip-hop scholar and director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. "She has had so much longevity because she's been able to reinvent herself, first as an artist, then as an activist and as a DJ."

Lady B, 49, was born Wendy Clark in Wynnefield. She grew up across the street from movie director Lee Daniels and around the corner from Smith.

Growing up, she says, she and her siblings got in a lot of trouble for blowing out speakers. Music was always a love of hers.

In her late teens, she began going by her Islamic name, Bahiyyah. She also began dating 76er Lloyd "World B." Free. During a trip to New York, the two were freestyling in the same staccato style heard in the Sugarhill Gang's hit "Rapper's Delight."

Lady B went home to Philly and mimicked the style at the Kim Graves nightclub. WDAS personality Dr. Perri Johnson heard her and persuaded the 19-year-old Lady B to record "To the Beat, Y'all."

That success led to a short-lived deal with Sugar Hill Records owners Joe and Sylvia Robinson. But she didn't stay an MC for long.

"It wasn't my voice," she says in hindsight. "I was mocking other artists I heard. I wasn't looking for a career as an artist."

Around that time she got an internship at WHAT. She begged host Mary Mason for a shot on the air, but Mason wouldn't budge. Rap artists were sending rap records to the station in piles, but DJs refused to play them. Lady B started collecting them in a crate. Eventually Mason gave in, and Lady B was given a weekend show to play her collection. Her show became a hit.

"People always talked about digging in the crates," she says, "but back in the day, I just had one crate."

Her career took her to Power 99, then up to New York's WBLS, and back to Philly.

Lady B has seen hip-hop grow from a musical genre into a lifestyle. As one of the first female rappers, she saw the rise of women in hip-hop, from the gutsy Salt-N-Pepa to the more risqué Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj.

"She never traded on her sex appeal," Peterson says, pointing out that Lady B is really pretty. In fact, the Lady B of her early photos could easily be compared to Sheila E.

Today she's the 3 to 7 p.m. host on WRNB. The highlight of the show is the "Old School Basement Party" segment, which features a mix of classic R&B and rap.

While Earth Wind & Fire's "September" plays, Lady B reviews her celebration guest list. It reads like a Yellow Pages of hip-hop history: Christopher "Play" Martin from Kid 'n Play, Curtis Blow, Roxanne Shanté, Special Ed, and Russell Simmons.

How did she get all these A-listers to come out Sunday to Philly? She's too humble to admit it, but they practically owe her their careers.


Contact staff writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

Music

Lady B 30th Anniversary Celebration

6 p.m. Sunday at the Dell Music Center,

2400 Strawberry Mansion Dr. Tickets: $25-65. Information: http://rnbphilly.com/category/ladyb30th/

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