A comprehensive examination of the roles video vixens have played throughout every era of hip-hop.
Who killed the video vixen?
To many, the culprit is Instagram — overnight, it seemed like social media changed the methods of scouting, discovery, and selling sex appeal. Others pinpoint a complete shift in the way the music industry operates as the main culprit. But the reality is, over time, the game has evolved, devolved, and transformed, much like the music industry itself.
In 2019, video vixens still exist, but they aren’t as prevalent in the same capacity as they were during the hip-hop eras of yesteryear. In the mid-to-late ‘90s and early 2000s, rap videos seemingly weren’t complete without a Black woman or a woman of color to focus on. It was a form of marketing; directors and artists knew that eye candy would reel in viewers, and thus boost awareness of the song they were pushing. We know all about the rappers who relied on women’s beauty to keep the audience tuned in, but who were these gorgeous, well-paid muses and how did they evolve?
Here’s a comprehensive examination of the roles video vixens have played throughout every era of hip-hop.
1980s – Accessories
In the 1980s, hip-hop was fresh. The genre was only a couple of years old and many assumed that it was a passing, Black and brown-led fade, like disco. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s that record labels realized the power that rappers possessed. By the end of 1987, Run-DMC had reached success with their crossover album, Raising Hell, and Salt-N-Pepa had released the platinum-selling version of the LP Hot, Cool & Vicious. With this success came the inclusion of rap in R&B and pop records, like Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” which started off with a shot of two women walking alongside a hard strutting leading lady. This concept was borrowed that same year by California-based rap group Oaktown 357, who arguably served as their own vixens in the video for “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” This is an idea that would later be revisited by rappers like Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Nicki Minaj. As for the Hip-Hop vixens of the ‘80s and, even in the early ‘90s, they were essentially nameless and seen as embellishments. Being known was reserved for their white counterparts who appeared in pop and rock videos.
1990s – Music Video Staples
Pop culture archivist Bri Malandro said that video vixens didn’t become the focus of most rap videos until 1995. “Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” video was pretty popular, but I don’t even remember the girls faces being shown in that video,” she said.
LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” is one of the most memorable videos ever and it’s because of the women in it,” Malandro said. Deion Sanders’ ex-wife Pilar can be spotted in the white fur, leopard fuzzy sleeved jacket, and on the bed in the video as well as RZA’s wife Telani Rabb who licked LL’s cheek and wore the iconic fur bikini. This went on to be a part of LL’s aesthetic; and the videos he made for songs like “Phenomenon” and “Imagine That” follow this theme. Wu-Tang Clan’s “Ice Cream” video is another standout, Malandro said. “Instead of the guys just standing on the corner rapping, the majority of the camera time went to the women.”
Soon enough, video girls were everywhere, even in videos for artists outside of the flashy scene, like Q-Tip. It was reflective of the larger, “ghetto fabulous” era that Hip-Hop was experiencing, and the emphasis on the Black American Dream. Wealth, access and excess, inspired by Blaxploitation films, where central points of this dream and music videos were created to showcase this illusion. Being surrounded by beautiful women was equated with having arrived, and everyone wanted to look the part.
2000s – The Takeover
The early 2000s can be considered the peak video vixen era. “A lot of the popular Instagram influencers of today still base their style of off these girls,” Malandro said. This was also a time when Streetwear was extremely popular and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see these girls in ads. Magazines that catered to the audience that checked for these women existed before this time, but when King Magazine was founded in 2002, everything changed. These women, who were once getting a piece of the shine, were now the center of it.
“Shake It Fast,” by Mystikal, allowed women to be the focal point of the video. Melyssa Ford appeared in “Shake It Fast”, adding to her resume that featured clips like Jadakiss’ “Knock Yourself Out” and “Big Pimpin” by UGK and Jay-Z. Malandro said that Ford changed the standards when it came to getting paid properly for work. In the early days of her career, she made $1000 – $1500 (which was a lot to a young college student), and eventually $8000 for two-days of filming. Ford was also featured on the cover of magazines, which gave her the space to solidify herself as a brand. “Melissa knew her stock and how important of a look it was having her in the video,” Malandro said. “And she made sure everyone else did too.”
Rapper Lola Munroe, who starred in videos for G-Unit and Kanye West, shared that she was making $10,000 per video at the height of video vixens’ popularity. Munroe is notable for her successful transition into music, which proved that you could use your role in rappers’ videos to bolster your own career. Perhaps no one knows this better than Karrine “Superhead” Steffans.
In 2005, Steffans wrote Confessions of a Video Vixen, a detailed series of stories about her single year as a video girl and the behavior she witnessed. Industry insiders, and other video girls, viewed her as a snitch and a disrespectful anomaly. She wrote Confessions of a Video Vixen and somewhat exposed the industry way before DMs existed,” Malandro said. “[She] changed the vixen game and offended a lot of the other girls who said they always kept it professional on set.”
Steffans maintains that men are applauded for their sexual appetites, and is saluted by some for capitalizing on her experiences. Her book series has made the New York Times Best Seller list. Bobbie Brown, an ‘80’s rock and roll vixen, and Instagram model Brittany Renner followed in Steffans’ footsteps in 2013 and 2018 respectively, when they wrote tell-all books of their own.
The influx of video vixens in the 2000s also brought up conversations about the role vixens played in rappers’ misogynistic attitudes. In the abstract for her 2008 research article on video vixens, Murali Balaji wrote, “In recent years, scholarship on Black womanhood has become more closely connected to postmodern discourses on identity and resistance, following in the footsteps of Audre Lorde’s claim that identity and sexuality have emancipatory potential. However, in the post-hip-hop era, feminists and media critics have once again brought up the idea of who controls the image.”
Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video was perhaps critiqued most heavily. Spelman students protested against having Nelly appear at a 2004 bone marrow drive at the university. In 2013, Kirsten West Savali wrote, “They were seen as haters on a soapbox, more focused on proving a point about their brand of feminism than truly combating misogyny or caring for their sisters who weren’t pursuing college degrees.” Sex work as feminism and differing ideas of what qualifies as feminism are issues that continue to be discussed.
Present – The Social Media Shift
Instagram has made becoming a video vixen easier than ever and may have changed elements of the industry for both the better and worse. That newly established accessibility ultimately resulted in an influx of; oversaturation of the market devalued the once-lucrative jobs of video vixens.
The rise of Instagram saw everyday girls turn online followings into endorsement deals, and scouts started searching socials for popular faces instead of booking known models.
It’s clear that the game is not the same. The music videos with million-dollar budgets are over, and the shift that Oakland 357 participated in is complete— the video vixens are stars in their own right and lanes — much to the chagrin of Jermaine Dupri. Cardi B, Thee Stallion, and The City Girls have mastered the art of serving up bars and body, becoming one-women-shows that record labels once paid thousands of dollars.
Women are controlling their narratives, even the casting agencies that keep video vixens paid are women-led. But we can’t ever forget or ignore the video vixens of the old days, the bold women who embodied the phrase, “if you got it, flaunt it.” They walked so that the thick, unattainable, digital starlets of today could run.
Brooklyn White has written for HelloGiggles, Bitch, PAPER, and more. You can follow her @brooklynrwhite.