Yo-Yo doesn't strike one on first glance as a young woman who would swap insults with hard-core rapper Ice Cube on his volatile "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" album.
The former Los Angeles school bus driver seems more like a cheerful, easygoing teen-age member of, say, the Whitney Houston fan club than an associate of one of America's most controversial pop figures.
"Forget how I seem now," the 19-year-old said when she stopped by her manager's Crenshaw District office on a recent morning.
"I'm nice now, but I can be tough--real tough when I have to be, when I have my rap face on," she said.
Emphasizing her point, Yo-Yo--whose real name is Yolanda Whitaker--slowly replaced the smile on her face with an icy glare.
"Even if I wanted to be nice and smiling and soft I couldn't do that and be a rapper," said Yo-Yo, an East Los Angeles native. "I'd seem weak, and you can't look weak and survive--not in rap. It's a jungle--full of males. If you come across as weak, you get cut to ribbons."
But even a tough demeanor would not have gained Yo-Yo, or any other woman, acceptance during the early years of the decade-old rap revolution.
Rap was and in most ways remains a man's world. Nearly all of the field's creative personnel--the rappers, producers, writers and musicians--are men, making music geared mostly to black males in their teens and early 20s.
This domination has resulted in rap's being a veritable men's locker room, a fraternity in which the initiation rites include "dissing" (putting down) women, often referring to them in foul, cruel gutter language. In rap songs, women are portrayed either as sex objects or gold diggers. There seems to be no in-between.
But Yo-Yo is part of the new wave of female rappers--including Queen Latifah and M. C. Lyte--who have demanded the right to join the club. In some ways, their effort is a repeat of what female rockers went through in the '60s and '70s.
According to one rap artist's manager, the music's commercial success has finally led record companies, eagerly searching for new talent, to consider women.
"For years, the record companies were just signing men," said Pat Charbonnet, executive vice president and co-owner of Street Knowledge Productions, which manages Ice Cube and Yo-Yo. "That's who they could make money on. Women didn't have much of a chance to get beyond the neighborhood rap scene then."
But that's changing, she said. "As rap got bigger and started branching out in different directions, record companies saw they could make money off women rappers too. They see a market for them, so now they're signing them. If they had seen the market a few years ago, they would have started signing female rappers back then."
Yo-Yo, however, believes the women's economic role in rap is secondary. More important, she said, is the healthy new perspective they bring to the music.
"One thing men can't do is rap about things from a female point of view," she said. "What's happening now is that rap is growing to the point where more females are turning on to it. So there's an interest in the women's point of view."
Any discussion of female rappers invariably begins with a question: How can women work in a field in which they are consistently attacked--in which words such as bitch and 'ho (whore) are commonplace? It might be deemed degrading, tantamount to consorting with an enemy.
Most of the female rappers interviewed, however, said they are not offended by the men's put-downs, which, they contend, are not as sexist as they seem on records. Those women simply chalk up the put-downs to male bluster.
"That's just guys spouting off," said M. C. Lyte, who, along with Queen Latifah, is considered the best of the female rappers. "Some people call it sexist, and by some standards it is. But in the black community that's the way guys talk and, for the most part, that's what it is--just a lot of talk."
Queen Latifah agreed. "I'd be upset if I thought they were talking about all women or even about me," she said. "But a lot of what male rappers say is just their egos running wild. You can't take it all that seriously. But I'm sure most women would rather not hear that stuff at all. They'd rather hear nice things."
Some female rappers don't take the dissing so lightly.
"Some raps really dog (downgrade) women in a horrible way," Yo-Yo said, declining to name culprits. "Those guys can really make you mad. If they're just exaggerating and telling funny stories, that's OK. But some go way overboard."
Tairrie B, a white Los Angeles rapper whose debut album, "The Power of a Woman," was just released by MCA, agreed.
"Guys can be so childish and mean," she said angrily. "They don't have to talk about women like we were tramps who were only good for sex. What if women talked about men like they were dogs, would the males like it? Hell no!"
Though the outspoken Tairrie B, 25, takes some swats at men in her album, most female rappers avoid such attacks, fearing commercial backlash, Charbonnet said.
"Would the rap audience accept it?" she asked rhetorically. "Probably not. If the woman rapper had great beats and great delivery, there's an outside chance the rap audience might accept it.
"But it's very risky putting too much of something like that on record. Also, the male producers and writers who dominate the business aren't going to write a whole lot of that kind of stuff for women rappers."
Like men, young women often turn on to rap because it permeates their neighborhoods.
Yo-Yo, for instance, built a solid reputation as a rapper in South- Central Los Angeles before being discovered by Ice Cube.
"In the black neighborhood, rapping is like breathing," she said. "I started rapping when I was 12. I got to be pretty good--better than the guys. Even Ice Cube saw that."
Indeed, Yo-Yo made such an impression on Ice Cube, who was with N.W.A. before embarking on a solo career late last year, that he co-wrote and co-produced her debut album, which is scheduled for an October release. He also asked her to rap on his "It's a Man World," the cut that introduced her to the national rap community.
Ice Cube met Yo-Yo, who'd been rapping in the South-Central area, at a swap meet last summer. Through a friend, he'd heard about her rapping skills. He immediately invited Yo-Yo to his studio to do some demos, which he liked.
"I liked her attitude," he said. "She had this I-don't-give-a-damn attitude. She wasn't acting like a groupie, saying, 'Oh Ice Cube this' or 'Oh Ice Cube that.' If she had acted like that I wouldn't have nothing to do with her.
"In the studio, I liked her delivery, which is the most important thing in rap. Plus she wrote her own raps--good raps. That impressed me too. I'd never dealt with a girl rapper before. But she was good enough to make me decide to give it a try working with a girl rapper."
D. J. Spinderella, a member of Salt 'n' Pepa, one of the first commercially accepted female rap groups, said that the music plays a vital role in the lives of black youth.
"It's the sound of the black community," Spinderella said in a recent interview. "You can't escape it. Love it or hate it, it's there. Females in black neighborhoods rap too--because everybody else does it."
That neighborhood influence prompted Queen Latifah, 20, of Newark, N.J., to venture into rap.
"It was something to do that was fun," she recalled. "I got more serious about it when people started telling me I was good at it. I started writing my own rhymes. I started playing talent shows and parties. Then some people at Tommy Boy Records heard my demo, and I got a record deal."
Latifah's trademark is her regal African attire and majestic presence. She forgoes cussing and dissing, but does her share of boasting.
A rapper for six years, 19-year-old M. C. Lyte, a poised, confident young woman from Brooklyn, has been a professional for only three years. "Getting into rap was easy for me," she said. "There weren't many women in rap. I started writing rhymes in high school. They were good enough to inspire me to follow through with rap."
These are all black rappers. What's it like for white female rappers?
"My story is simple," said Tairrie B, who's from San Fernando. "I got into rap about three years ago because I liked it and I thought I could do it. People said, 'You don't sound black enough.' But I didn't let that stop me.
"Finding a style was real hard. First I copied people, but that was all wrong. I was afraid to be myself, to sound white. But finally I had to be myself or the raps would sound fake. I get across that I'm strong and independent--and not weak."
Roxanne Shante was an early influence on many of today's female rappers. Known for her aggressive boasting and raunchy raps, she rumbled out of the New York underground in early 1985.
At 14, the Long Island native became a minor sensation in rap for her searing "Roxanne's Revenge," the best and most acidic answer record that year to UTFO's sexist "Roxanne, Roxanne." Her biggest asset is not her delivery or beats, but her lewd sense of humor, reflecting the strong influence of R&B; comedian/singer Millie Jackson.
"She was a real trailblazer in women's rap," said Charbonnet, of Street Knowledge Productions. "Rappers like J. J. Fad and Salt 'n' Pepa were doing raps that were commercial, that could be played on radio. Roxanne was underground, she had the respect of the rap community--probably the first woman rapper who did."
There are now more than a dozen female rappers who have contracts with major labels, including reggae rapper Shelly Thunder, Oaktown 3-5-7 and Ms. Melodie.
The trend is toward tougher and more aggressive raps than those of early female rap successes J. J. Fad and Salt 'n' Pepa. The usual boasting and put-downs are handled with considerably more authority and variety by today's female rappers, and now there's a stronger feminist sense.
An excerpt from Queen Latifah's single "Ladies First" reflects the tougher tone of female raps:
Strong stepping strutting moving on Rhyming cutting but not forgetting We are the one s to give birth To the new generation of prophets Cause it's ladies first I break into lyrical freestyle Grab the mike, look at the crowd and see the smiles Cause they see a woman standing up on her own two Still, the women tend to be more tame than the men, whose raps are often searing, fanciful tales depicting the rappers as playboys and adventurers--the heroes of the black ghetto.
"We can't do all that the men rappers can do, " said M. C. Lyte, who does her share of boasting and dissing on her two albums, "Lyte as a Rock" and "Eyes on This." "Some of it wouldn't come across right. We can boast, but we can't overdo it because we're women, and the audience won't accept some things from women that they'll accept from men."
Lyte's raps most closely resemble those of the male rappers. "I Cram to Understand U" is the hard-hitting tale of a woman in love with a crack addict. Her current "Eyes on This" album includes "Cappuccino" and "Not Wit' a Dealer," somber tales about the evils of drugs.
Lyte also swears more than the other women. "I think that's why the rap audience likes me," Lyte said. "I don't try to copy men. But I do have this tough attitude. I won't take anything from anybody."
Salt 'n' Pepa's D. J. Spinderella has a softer approach. "Think of the image men have of women," she said. "They like them to be nice and a bit sexy--but nothing extreme. They don't want some foul-mouthed women cussing at them. Can women rappers do a lot of swearing and be accepted? They can't really--not now anyway. Most women just don't like to do heavy swearing. Not too many women swear like the males do."
Of the recent records by female rappers, Yo-Yo's upcoming album may be most likely to create a stir. Co-produced and co-written by Ice Cube, it offers uncompromising put-downs of men and some X-rated language.
But Yo-Yo insisted that she's not a foul-mouthed, female version of 2 Live Crew. "I can say a curse word to express myself up to a point," she said. "I can do some swearing, but on a low level. I wouldn't use some of the words the male rappers use. I don't want to get too nasty."
She concluded: "What I want my record to do is push women rappers up the ladder even closer to men. We've got some catching up to do, some more barriers to break down, some more minds to change. And we're doing it--fast."