Don't get it twisted. The three ladies of Heat are sexy, love to be photographed, and are ready with a thigh-smacking song if that's what you want. But Minnesota's first female rap trio began as a reality check on the endless lap dance of contemporary rap.
"I ain't ashamed to admit, yeah this chick used to strip/Used my ass a couple times, and no, not just to sit," flowed Heat member Nena Brown on an early track, adding, "I was raised in the streets around hustlers and thieves/The only difference in me, was once a month I would bleed." Elsewhere, her partner Cessamilia offered the following dis: "For all you hatin'-ass niggas let's get one thing clear/You niggas is more of a pussy than the pussy that brought you here."
Born Monique L. Fenning and Cicely D. Gage, Brown and Cessamilia share wide shoulders and fierce eyes, with an onstage expression that brooks no question of their dominance. Heat's third rapper, PMS (Pamela S. Smith), says she met the other two after seeing them perform at the Red Sea, on a tip from producer AK. When all three entered the studio to try working on a track together, they knew right away they had a group. The collaboration began with "Addicted II," a Monica-flipping number on Brown's 2004 solo debut, The Beginning of the End (Heat Rocc Entertainment), where three narrators plead with the men in their lives to leave the drug game. The disc was explicitly for the streets—I found it only in stores on the North Side of Minneapolis, where Brown and Cessamilia grew up and became as close as sisters.
The trio then issued Contents Under Pressure (available at CDBaby.com), a 2005 demo recorded under the name Heat, featuring a male chorus by duck-voiced Contac, a West Broadway icon whom Brown knew from Boys and Girls Club. The track, "Aw Nah," painted the women as head-turning club-hoppers not to be fucked with: "the only females to spit fire like the big boys do," as PMS put it. It's this kind of boast that separates Heat from, say, Danity Kane, the P. Diddy-created female hip-hop quintet from last year's MTV reality series Making the Band 3.
PMS already had her own Making the Band experience, and found it worse than distasteful. "I won't say no names," she says, speaking during a recent interview at the Northgate Applebee's, the other two women of Heat sitting across the table. "But I'm from Rock Island, Illinois, and I was moved to Indianapolis, where I didn't have not a relative. And he"—she identifies the producer in her story only as "he"—"had a label. He had artists. I lived in one of his houses, and we were recording. You'd come in, and Too Short would be there. He's paying for everything, and he's using that as a way—I mean, he's like, 'If you want your album to come out, then you're going to have to do this.'"
She refrains from saying the words "have sex with me." "It's just really hard working with dudes when you are a pretty female," she says, taking a deep breath. "Even when you're hot."
The rappers in Heat don't turn to this topic quickly, having spent nearly a half-hour praising various male collaborators. Men like Chase Manhattan and Tommy Real of Young & Da Restless, who got Brown and Cessamilia in a studio; and Muja Messiah, who appears on one of the new tracks; and Big Head, the duo who produced the group's new mixtape CD Heat Vol. 1. But it's no coincidence that Heat will celebrate the CD release with an all-female lineup at the Spirell Bar on Friday. Experiences like what PMS describes are one of the reasons Heat do nearly everything themselves, from songwriting to promotion.
"Passes are made all the time, even to this day," says Brown. "Even last night. I won't say no names"—and she says a name.
"Oh, what happened? I didn't even talk to him," says Cessamilia.
"Some men don't respect female MCs, period," says Brown. "They don't want a female artist to be hotter than them. So when it happens, it scares them, and then they're demanding something from you."
Aged "two decades, some years, a few short of 30," both Brown and Cessamilia have kids, and Heat rap about absent fathers, baby-fathers, and holding it together. The mixtape samples an automated message from "an inmate at the Sherburne County jail, Minnesota," and Brown says the father of her children has been in jail. The 2005 track "Warrior" finds Brown sympathizing with a dealer in a wheelchair, while "I Miss You" remembers a friend who passed. "I miss seeing you down at Augie's, and that dance you used to do," raps Brown. "Tried to roll your whole body, your stomach the only thing that moved."
When I ask if these moms and aunties get self-conscious about the kids hearing these lyrics, they shake their heads. "Our music is our struggles, our trials," says Brown. "And they live our struggles and our trials with us."
"We put things in a song so other women and their kids can see that somebody went through it," says Cessamilia, "but you can still prevail." And if Heat seem sure of anything, it's that they'll prevail.
"My struggles stem back to childhood until now," says Brown. "But it's going to change." She laughs. "It's definitely going to change."