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The Conscious Daughters, Rap’s ‘Sucka-Free Thelma and Louise,’ Rewrote the Rules

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The Conscious Daughters, CMG (Carla Green) and Special One (Karryl Smith) in San Rafael, California in 2004. (Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

The Conscious Daughters (TCD) didn’t set out to break every limitation on women in rap — they did it simply by being themselves.

On their 1993 debut Ear to the Street, the tough-talking East Bay duo lyrically stomped on sexist dudes. Instead of riding shotgun, they drove their own Mustangs and had a trunk-rattling hit single, “Somethin’ to Ride to (Fonky Expedition).” And decades before the music industry grew to champion a multiplicity of female rap stars — instead of crowning a single queen — the Conscious Daughters were building a West Coast hip-hop sisterhood.

Simply put, TCD were ahead of their time. And even though younger Bay Area artists like Kamaiyah have cited them as an influence, their legacy remains criminally under-recognized in hip-hop history.

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On a sunny afternoon in Berkeley, the surviving Conscious Daughter, Carla “CMG” Green, smiles as she thinks back to the duo’s early days. She and her late music partner, Karryl “Special One” Smith, “never said ‘We’re going to be the only women who did this, the only women who did that,’” CMG says. “We just did what we loved. And we knew we were different.”

CMG and Special One shared a natural creative chemistry. The two first met as 11-year-old middle school students in El Cerrito, connecting over their love of music. By 13, they were writing rhymes, and in high school, they ran the campus radio station together — Special One behind the boards and CMG on the mic. Both came from supportive families: CMG grew up going to P-Funk and Earth, Wind & Fire concerts with her musician father, while Special One’s mother worked at a radio station, and taught her daughter how to work the equipment by the time she was a teen.

Born in Seattle and raised in East Oakland, Special One had a fearlessness that made her popular in school. It helped that she was a basketball star, and at one point even played baseball on a boys team.

“Karryl was a character. Any room she went into, she just lit it up and she would just talk to anybody,” CMG remembers fondly. “She would be sitting there talking to an old white man. I’d be like, ‘What were you and that man talking about?’ … ‘He’s from Seattle. We talked about boat races.’ Her personality was just beyond belief. An amazing person, you know? She was truly a gift.”

The Conscious Daughters in the 1990s. (Priority Records)

The Conscious Daughters get their break

The Conscious Daughters’ magnetism carried over to their bold presence on the mic. Their complex rhyme schemes contained a musicality gleaned from their early love of funk and soul. Their dynamic stage presence was honed while studying New York rappers like the Fu-Schnickens. And they projected an unmistakably Bay Area, ice-cold player image, absorbed from Oakland’s Too Short and Richmond’s Calvin T and Magic Mike.

Special One and CMG freestyled at every open mic they could find, and always traveled with pockets full of cassettes. Paris, the San Francisco artist nicknamed “the Black Panther of hip-hop,” was impressed when they handed him a demo tape at a party.

Paris himself was at the center of controversy when he became the Conscious Daughters’ mentor. In the early ’90s, Vice President Dan Quayle and powerful record label shareholders stoked a moral panic about gangster rap. Paris had been dropped from Time Warner due to controversial lyrics about President George H.W. Bush and the police. By 1993, he was independent with his own label, Scarface Records, which had national distribution through Priority and took the Daughters’ music to a bigger stage.

The Conscious Daughters’ demo tape had amateurish basement beats. Paris laced them with head-nodding, bass-heavy mobb music production, and helped them amp up the social commentary in their rhymes. “Even in demo form, they were head and shoulders above their contemporaries,” Paris tells KQED in an email.

“TCD was thoroughly uninterested in the default ‘reliance on sex appeal’ lane that many other female rappers have taken, and instead were laser-focused on creating the best material possible,” he says. “Plus, they were extremely relatable and represented an ‘everywoman’ voice in West Coast hip-hop that had never been represented as bluntly as they put it down.”

Many of the lyrics on Ear to the Street, including “Somethin’ to Ride to (Fonky Expedition),” the Daughters wrote themselves. But surprisingly, Paris penned one of their more feminist tracks, “Shitty Situation,” which CMG expertly delivers as if she personally experienced its story of an unwanted pregnancy by a disrespectful guy. (“Then I seen his ass, just a little past Lakeshore / Hollered out his name, but he act like he didn’t hear me though / Ran up quick, ready to send him to his grave,” she spits with venom over the uptempo beat.)

“[Paris] was such an amazing writer, and our delivery was just so on point,” CMG says. “It was such a great combination of us being street and somewhat knowledgeable and conscious, and uplifting women, Black women — all underprivileged people.”

With danceable party tracks (“TCD in da Front”), impressive bars (“Princess of Poetry”) and missives against misogyny with a hardcore twist (“What’s a Girl To Do”), Ear to the Street showed the Conscious Daughters’ range, and the album became a hit. It placed at No. 25 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart, and earned the duo appearances on Soul Train, MTV and BET. They toured with Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest and OutKast, and a young Jay-Z once opened at one of their concerts.

Alex Mejia served as the mixshow director at 106.1 KMEL when he first heard “Somethin’ to Ride to (Fonky Expedition),” and right away he knew the Daughters had something special. The song made its way onto the station’s regular rotation and, eventually, national airplay. “You just had to put your fist in the air because they were just that good,” he says, noting that TCD had a following not just in the Bay Area, but on the East Coast and in the South.

Even Nas appeared to shout the Conscious Daughters out on 1996’s “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” when he rapped, “More conscious of the ways we raise our daughters.” (CMG later appears on the West Coast remix of his 2007 track “Where Are They Now.”)

“They were just as good as Nas,” Mejia continues. “They could flow, and [“Somethin’ to Ride to (Fonky Expedition)”] showed it. And then their presence — coming from the West Coast, they were wearing Pendletons and had 40 [ounces]. The girls were like a lot of folks in the Town, and a lot of people can relate to that.”

From left to right: artist Suga T, ‘Gavin Report’ editor Thembisa Mshaka, artist Goldee the Murderist, Special One and CMG. (Courtesy of CMG)

A hip-hop sisterhood

The Conscious Daughters continued to evolve their sound with 1996’s Gamers. Their rhymes got faster and sharper. And along with Paris’ beats, it included production by mobb music heavyweights Sam Bostic, Mike Mosley and Studio Ton — a trio who made some of E-40’s biggest hits — as well as “I Got 5 On It” producer Tone Capone. Gamers, released on Priority/EMI, showcased the Conscious Daughters’ support for other women on the scene: It featured Digital Underground’s Mystic, years before her influential 2001 solo debut Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, and Suga T, who went solo after debuting with her brothers E-40, D-Shot and B-Legit in The Click.

Though their stories are often overlooked today, a diverse array of female rappers came out of the Bay Area in the early ’90s. Oaktown 3.5.7. made party-rocking anthems, and superstar DJ Pam the Funkstress co-founded a mobb music duo called Female Fonk, though she became better known for her work with Boots Riley in the political rap group the Coup.

“We all came up together and we’re all friends,” CMG says.

Mystic was just 19 years old when the Daughters brought her into a clique that also included artists Shuga Babydoll and the late Goldee the Murderist. “Having these established women hip-hop artists who support you, who stand with you, and who — essentially through their presence and their cosign — are saying, look, she’s dope, she matters, and this is our people,” she says. “That was so magical as a teen and young woman.”

By the 2000s, things changed in the music industry. Among other acquisitions, Clear Channel took over KMEL in 1999, and the broadcaster once known as “The People’s Station” switched its focus to more mainstream programming. Following the success of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, labels began putting money behind a select few female artists with sexy images, and left behind the tomboys who had previously found success without catering to the male gaze.

Though the Conscious Daughters got plenty of praise for being different, the industry hadn’t yet caught up to them. By 1995, Special One had come out as gay to the people in her life. CMG, who is straight, was supportive of her best friend. But she admits that she sometimes worried how the duo would be perceived at a time when homophobia was widely considered acceptable. “Turns out all the women now look just like her. … She was really a trendsetter,” CMG says. “But we had no idea that she was going to be the future, you know?”

Ahead of their time

In a 2004 East Bay Express interview, Special One lamented the double standards that prevented female rappers from reaching their full potential. “Female rappers are virtually extinct,” she said. “I’ll meet female MCs who can rap tight, but then they quit because their boyfriends get jealous when they go to the studio to work with male producers, or because they have to raise families.”

The Conscious Daughters also ran into structural issues at their labels. Paris left Priority Records, and, according to his estimation, TCD no longer had an advocate there. “They weren’t equipped to handle the Daughters the way they needed to be presented,” he said in the same Express article. “When you talk about misogyny in hip-hop, it exists on a label level as well.”

Mejia thinks TCD could have had a much longer career with the proper support. “They didn’t get all the breaks that they should have,” he says. “In the ’90s a lot of female MCs did not get their credit and just due, or the financial support to compete. So they began to lose, even though their lyrics were just as good as anybody else, their beats were as good as anybody else. People in power were not correctly handling the job of creating balance, and it affected music.”

Carla “CMG” Green wears a T-shirt with a portrait of Karryl “Special One” Smith in Berkeley on January 20, 2023. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

CMG recalls that Napster’s debut in 1999 threw the music industry into chaos. Amid a panic about leaked albums and illegal downloads, labels shelved many artists’ work — and The Conscious Daughters’ third album hung in limbo at Universal. Titled The Nutcracker Suite, it eventually came out in 2009 on Paris’ Guerrilla Funk label. But the rare release, best known for its revenge fantasies about domestic abusers, is not currently on streaming services — CMG and Paris say Universal pulled it because of copyright issues.

In the years between their second and third albums, life changed for the Conscious Daughters. CMG focused on raising her son, and Special One, who also became a parent, became active in the LGBTQ+ nightlife scene.

“If she was here today, she’d be loving life, I’m sure,” CMG says. “She would be involved in a lot more things in the community as far as LGBTQ goes. I know that she would probably be running some sort of nonprofit or being some kind of radio personality.”

Tragically, Special One died suddenly in 2011 due to a health condition that resulted in blood clots. CMG still gets emotional when she remembers her best friend, but beams as she recalls Special One’s barrier-breaking accomplishments.

The Conscious Daughters with mentor and producer Paris in the 1990s. (Courtesy of CMG)

The Conscious Daughters went mainstream with pro-woman lyrics that defied the status quo. They reached a huge variety of audiences — schoolteachers, drug dealers and former Black Panthers alike — and paved the way for other women in the industry to be bolder and more outspoken.

“People really tapped into what we were talking about,” CMG says. “Back then, it mattered.”

Paris puts it even more strongly. “The Conscious Daughters are the greatest female hip-hop group in the genre’s history,” he says. “They should be heralded as such for their authenticity, raw talent, and female-centric messages of empowerment.”

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