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Rapper and TV host Dee Barnes looks back on 50 years of hip-hop


THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop, you don't stop the rock.


It started at block parties in the Bronx, and it grew into a global force. We're talking about hip-hop. It has now been around for 50 years. And my next guest had an amazing vantage point where she watched it bloom.

DEE BARNES: They said it was going to be a fad. It wasn't here to stay.

MARTIN: In 1989, Dee Barnes was hired to host a rap show for the brand-new Fox Network. It was called "Pump It Up!" It became an essential launching pad for some of the foundational voices of hip-hop.


BARNES: Yo, this is the man right here - Ice Cube of NWA.

How did y'all become the Ghetto Boys?

So how is the L.L. Cool J of today?

Back right here on "Pump It Up!" with De La Soul.

We got Naughty by Nature from the soundtrack "Juice."


MARTIN: But one of the artists she interviewed violently assaulted her. Dee Barnes pressed charges, and she says that effectively ended her career. More on that in a moment. But first, let's go back to when Barnes first fell in love with hip-hop. She grew up in New York City as rap was taking over. She'd hear groups of older kids practicing in the park.

BARNES: And I was like, you know, what's going on over there? I'd see the little circle and the beatbox and, you know, poetry - I thought it was just poetry at first. But then I started to realize these were lines that they were doing to a song. And that's when it hit me, you know, I wanted to be part of that.

MARTIN: How did you get to perform? Was it mainly, like, in the park?

BARNES: For me, for my generation in particular, it was the roller skating rink. We all went on, you know, Fridays and Saturdays. I remember in particular we would see actually groups that would come perform. One of my earliest memories of that would be Davy D. I don't know if you remember Davy D - one for the treble, two for the bass. Come on, Davy D, let's rock this place.

MARTIN: Oh, my gosh.

BARNES: Remember that?


DAVY DMX: (Rapping) One for the treble, two for the bass. Come on, Davy D, let's rock this place.

MARTIN: Dee Barnes took that inspiration to the West Coast. She went to California after high school, and with her friend Rose Hutchinson, she formed a duo called Body and Soul.


BODY AND SOUL: (Rapping) Come on, a little body for your soul to add to the rest, up to your soul to keep your body in step. A combination of hip-hop, pumping and nonstop, giving the crowd a notion for most of today's rock.

MARTIN: Body and Soul made a record, but it was never released. They found themselves at an impasse with their recording label over creative control.

BARNES: Their definition of what women should be, should look like - the name of the group was Body and Soul. They wanted us to be more body than soul.

MARTIN: You were so young, I have to...


MARTIN: ...Point out. You were just - what? - barely in your teens. I'm sorry. I'm not going to call you out.

BARNES: Yeah. No, it's true.

MARTIN: Did you even have the language to say - you know, now we would call it the male gaze - that you want...

BARNES: Right.

MARTIN: ...To create art for the male gaze. We want to create art that expresses who we are.

BARNES: We were all about the, you know, the upliftment of our people, (laughter) and they called us radical. And we were...

MARTIN: So what did they want you to rap about - sex?

BARNES: Yes, subliminally.

MARTIN: Sex, relationships, but not politics.

BARNES: Sex, relationships and maybe heartbreak. And we were like, that's not what women are about.

MARTIN: That's not what's on our minds right now, or that's not all that women are about.

BARNES: Exactly.

MARTIN: In the middle of all that, Fox offered Dee Barnes the opportunity to try her hand at TV. So at the age of 19, she accepted the job as host of "Pump It Up!"


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Rapping) Come on, pump it up. Come on.

MARTIN: She says she saw it as more than just an interview program.

BARNES: I was like, man, this is part of the movement. Now I'm of age where I can, you know, record our history. I think it also has to do with me with the community-based upbringing - you know, like Black Panthers, you know what I mean? Like, we give back to the community. I just was like, I got to document this.

MARTIN: What are some of the folks you interviewed? Is there somebody from back in the day who you think didn't get their due, who should have been bigger?

BARNES: Oh, there's so many (laughter) and especially women in particular. And usually everybody just mentions the men. But the women were right out there. And I'm talking women like, you know, MC Sha-Rock, MC Debbie D, Lisa Lee...


DEBBIE D, SHA-ROCK AND LISA LEE: (Rapping) Sophisticated is the lady Lisa Lee. To be the man in my life, you got to be my only.

BARNES: ...The Mercedes Ladies, The Sequence, you know? I mean, there's so many, so many, so many.


DEBBIE D, SHA-ROCK AND LISA LEE: (Rapping) Us girls can boogie too.

MARTIN: So I don't want to dwell on it, but I do feel I have to ask about a pain point. When - well publicized at the time, Dr. Dre attacked you at a party, physically attacked you and you pressed charges. He pleaded no contest. He paid a fine. But do you think this came to overshadow your career?

BARNES: I definitely feel like it overshadowed my career. And I'm not just about that trauma. But any woman that speaks up about any trauma, to any harm that's been done to her, especially Black women - you know, Malcolm X said it best. We're the most disrespected, the most unprotected, the most neglected in America, you know?

MARTIN: Do you think it's because you pressed charges that it had such a powerful impact on your career, or do you think it's just the fact that you stood up for yourself?

BARNES: I think it's both. I was uniquely punished, you know, because, you know, you're not supposed to snitch. You're not supposed to talk to the police. That's like Hood 101. But at the same time, if I didn't do something, I felt like, you know, the next victim would not be as lucky. And that's really a horrible choice of words, because I was not lucky - maybe lucky in the sense that I didn't die that night.

MARTIN: We are speaking now in the wake of the #MeToo movement and other powerful individuals who have been brought to account for their conduct. Do you think that the outcome would be the same, that your career would be so derailed because of it?

BARNES: I'm not sure. Women seem to still not be believed. We just had Megan Thee Stallion who was shot, you know, could have died, and she was dragged through the mud, so to speak, from her peers and from, you know, the public. Not believed, not protected - how has things changed? I don't know. You know, she did get justice as far as you know, Tory's in jail for his crime. I did not have that.


BARNES: You know what I mean? And then it was a matter of who was making the most money at the time. And so people are going to side with the money. So as the opportunities kept coming for this one, opportunities were pulled away from me. It is a real thing when they say you'll never work in this town again.


MARTIN: That is Dee Barnes. As the host of the popular TV show "Pump It Up!" she chronicled the rise of hip-hop in the late '80s and early '90s. Dee Barnes, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BARNES: Thank you for having me. It was great. All right. Shout out to everybody.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) U-N-I-T-Y... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.