Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low with Lil' Kim

Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low with Lil' Kim

Story by bell hooks / Photography by Christian Witkin

In honor of Lil' Kim's birthday today, we're saluting the Queen Bee by re-posting our May 1997 cover story on the rapper by bell hooks. The interview, which happened seven months after the release of Kim's breakout LP Hard Core, focuses on the double standards that female celebrities embracing their sexuality endure. It doesn't feel like much has changed, either — nearly 20 years later, the questions in this could still be posed to most overtly sexual female performers today. Still, the answers that Kim gives are refreshing and real — show us a current platinum-selling rap star who would go on the record about enjoying anal sex in a national publication — making Kim's voice here all the more important. Check out the interview, below.

In pictures, Lil' Kim looks like the images that used to appear in the sleazy black porn magazine Players. As teenagers, we used to laugh at those pictures. Women in them were always "overdone." Sometimes they looked like raggedy drag queens — a bit rough around the edges. As representations of the hyperfemme, they called out the lack of imagination in sexist, straight male fantasies. Naturally, it's been a bit puzzling to me to see "old" stuff revamped as new and daring. The only new thing happening here is that it took so long for a hip-hop girl to make the down-and-dirty talk pay her bills big-time. Mark my words. Long before Lil' Kim could speak, smart sluts of all ages were talking trash. To talk trash and get paid has always been harder for women than for men. This 21-year-old has gone where others have not been able to go, 'cause she's got the right dudes behind her.

And if you have a chance to see girlfriend up close and personal, you'll know why. Young, pretty and sweet — just plain old-fashioned feminine — Lil' Kim has the kind of innocence it's possible to work with and work over. It's always folks who've never been on the streets, who have never known down-and-out-nowhere-to-go, who believe innocence can't be found there. But it can, and Lil' Kim embodies it, having done her time on the streets. Her "real life" sex thing is just about pure and simple delight in the body. But when it comes to how the boys in charge package her, it's the same old shit — boring straight male porn fantasy.

"More dangerous than any words that come out of Lil' Kim's mouth are the forces of repressive puritanical morality that seek to silence her."

More dangerous than any words that come out of Lil' Kim's mouth are the forces of repressive puritanical morality that seek to silence her. Before talking to Kim, I spoke with lots of so-called cool folks who were putting her down, calling her a "ho...nothing but a prostitute." Even the dudes who are into her gig — fans of her debut album, Hardcore (Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic), and her work with Junior M.A.F.I.A — still see her as another version of "pussy galore": a freak for their pleasure. And then there are the boys who pump her up as "sexy feminism." Gimme a break! Ain't nothing wrong with sex work, 'cause a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. And every girl I know who is working a sex tip has her reasons, but it ain't about sexual freedom. It's about getting paid. Lil' Kim knows that. She's seen and done it all. She knows when it's fantasy and when it's real, when it's about getting paid or getting free.

bell hooks: We have a lot of things in common. We're both into being bad girls, into fashion, into talking on the down low. So I've been really pissed off: I've been talking to folks about you and they keep saying, "Oh, she's a ho." And I keep thinking, Well, all these dudes, when they're talking shit, they're not ho's. Nobody talks about John F. Kennedy being a ho 'cause he fucked around. But the moment a woman talks about sex or is known to be having too much sex, people talk about her as a ho. So I wanted you to talk about that a little bit.

Lil' Kim: Well for one, I can say that I do not have too much sex. I hardly have any sex, O.K.? A lot of people get the wrong perception of me. I talk about all that sex I was doing as something I went through in the past. I did all kinds of freaky things after every show.

bh: When did you start thinking of yourself as a sexual being who had a right to her sexual desire?

LK: I guess as soon as I started, really, which was in my late teens. But even before I was rappin', it was like whatever I wanted to do, I just did it. I became free with it, like, "Whatever, yo. I don't care if he tell his friends." 'Cause you know, when you're younger, it's like, "I don't want you to tell your family. No, don't tell your friends if we have sex." But now it's like, "We havin' sex. Tell whoever — make sure you tell 'em how good I did it!"

bh: So I look at you and you look like you're about 12, and you are cute — clearly a really naturally beautiful woman, Kim. But now, to what extent have you decided this is the image that you wanna project? Or is it the men behind you who are deciding this image?

LK: O.K., we all had a lot to do with my career; we all have our input. I would say that it was me who just started it, because I would have to do it and feel comfortable, you know what I mean? You can't really just make someone into something and it works all the time; that person has to be a natural.

bh: But I mean, you are just so fine in your natural self, but your image is all about excessive glamour.

LK: Well, you know what, when you're dealing with people in an industry that's all about making money, they push you farther than you really wanna go.

bh: Girlfriend, tell me about it. Don't I know it.

LK: And then when you're desperate and you really wanna make money, it might seem like this is gonna work. Whatever it is, you go with it.

bh: What was your line on Hardcore, "Take it up the butt"? Don't be funnin'. What do you think about that?

LK: I think it's real.

bh: Tell me what you mean when you say it's real — that a lot of people are getting fucked in the butt?

LK: Exactly. I mean, there are a lot of women out there who are doing crazy things behind closed doors sexual-wise and are afraid to admit it. And I'm like, "Yeah, I take it in the butt. That's right. Whatever."

bh: A lot of people are talking about you as an example of sexy feminism, as a liberated woman. What do you think? Do you think you represent the liberated woman or the sexy girl of men's fantasies?

LK: Both. The reason why I say both is that we have been set back years — everybody says that. Sometimes they say I set back women's liberation.

bh: I don't think that, but go ahead.

"There are a lot of women out there who are doing crazy things behind closed doors sexual-wise and are afraid to admit it."

LK: I don't think that either. You wanna know why? Because we have people like Too Short, Luke Skyywalker [of 2 Live Crew], Biggie [Smalls], Elvis Presley, Prince, who are very, very, very sexual, and they don't get trashed because they like to do it. But all of a sudden, we have a female who happens to be a rapper, like me, and my doin' it is wrong. And 'cause I like doin' it, it's even more wrong because we've fought for years as women to do the same things that men are doing.

bh: My mother and other older generations felt that in exchange for the pussy, you should get marriage, you should get something. I'm not that kind of girl, though. I think real sexual liberation means that you're in charge of your pussy; you don't have to exchange it for anything.

LK: And sometimes it's not just exchanging; sometimes it's just having a sexual orgasm 'cause you love it and you need it.

bh: But those are two different things, don't you think?

LK: Yeah, I think they're two different things.

"That's one thing about me: I'm not greedy."

bh: See to me, one empowers a woman when she can say, "I want it and I'm having it for my pleasure." The other one, when you're having it for something else, that's not about power to me. But tell me why you might think it is.

LK: I feel money is power in certain senses. A lot of women out there are just givin' it away. And then there are the women that're selling their bodies. But they chose to do that. But this is how they make their money. And I don't see anything wrong with that.

bh: But now Lil' Kim, you talk about being real, but let's get real: most women that are selling their pussies are not getting a lot of money.

LK: Then they shouldn't be doing it.

bh: So do you feel like getting a lot of money fast makes you hungry for more money?

LK: Yes it does, of course.

bh: That's why I say, greed is a motherfucker.

LK: It's a motherfucker. Especially when you're used to having shit. And let me tell you something: It's always nice to want money and keep doin' what you gotta do to get it, but do not be greedy. That's one thing about me: I'm not greedy. I buy things for my friends if I buy them for myself. I make sure my friend's rent is paid.

"I'm a sexual woman. When they turn on the spotlight, it just makes me wanna get down."

bh: How do you feel about porn?

LK: I really wanna address that. Like I said, I'm a sexual woman. When they turn on the spotlight, it just makes me wanna get down.

bh: Were you into porn yourself?

LK: Of course. I'm still into porn. I love to watch 'em, because for one, that's the safest type of sex you can have. And not only that, it introduces you to many sexual positions that you can do with your partner.

bh: What do you say to those feminists who would say, "But look at how porn encourages men to hate women, etc., etc."?

LK: I don't think it encourages men to hate women. And you're seeing some women like it. You can't treat every woman like that; some women don't like that type of sex. If somebody's trying to force me to be in a porno, I would never do it. For one, I'm an artist that's making money from my music, and people know my music is tight. If I would do that, there would be no other place for me to go, 'cause people wouldn't wanna hear that I'm just doin' porn. They're really into what I'm saying. But a lot of people just wanna see me naked, see me having sex with different men and bababa. And that's not me.

bh: One thing, Miss Kim, that I don't see much talk about in your interviews is love. What's love got to do with it?

LK: I don't have that.

bh: But what do you think about it? I know you think about it.

LK: I was in love with somebody recently and he hurt me bad. Three, four years we been together and it's not working. It seems like everywhere I go I can't get real love.

bh: Do you think that people are replacing part of the greed for the fast money and the clothes and the fame because they don't have no love?

LK: I do. When I went out on the street, I was having problems with my boyfriend. I mean, guys used to tell me I wasn't shit, I always gotta rely on them, like, "You ain't shit without me. You always goin' to need me." Till this day I need that person, so they say, "You need me. You can't fucking make it without me. You're ugly." You know what I'm saying? "You ain't all that," bababa.

bh: You are so beautiful, I can't even imagine telling yourself that you're ugly. But how about you now? How do you really feel about Lil' Kim when you look in the mirror?

LK: I'm rebuilding my self-esteem as we speak. I still don't think I'm really a beautiful person, but I know that I can be beautiful inside.

bh: So you are into having a spiritual life.

LK: Yeah, very. That helps me.

bh: And so how do you think spirituality and sexuality come together?

LK: In the Bible, it's supposed to happen. If you read the Bible, Adam and Eve, they just fucked up, like a lot of stupid motherfuckers in life do today. But God wanted them to have sex, he just did not want them to eat that nasty apple that they fucking ate, and they did it anyway. They have to be punished for it. A lot of the stuff that my father told me not to do, I did it anyway and I ended up learning the hard way.

bh: So tell me about sex, what you see as the best conditions for great sex for a woman.

LK: I think that a woman should be in love. I think that love makes the sex greater. Or even if you just really, really like that person.

bh: Let's get to the "Lil'" thing, because a lot of men are just gonna groove on you because they're not gonna see that you're a mature woman; they're gonna think of you as this little girl. But what about when you want the world to see the mature woman that you are?

LK: Time will tell that, because if a man wants to come in here right now, he wouldn't know that he can't just walk up to me and say, "Let's leave." He can't do that. I mean, I'm too large for that, O.K.? I've got morals.

"I'm older, and I wish that a lot of things that I did in my life, I didn't do, but I'm able to talk about it."

bh: I think you gotta take the real image of the sexually liberated you that's behind this image — this male fantasy shit — and bring that out more.

LK: That's what I'm gonna have to do. See, it's all about topping your best. I'm not gonna totally change my next album. You gradually change. I'm gonna still be talking about sexual things, but it'll be deeper. It won't be as much negativity, meaning older woman who are not thinking like you, who are not being as real as you, will understand me better and say, "Well, I have to get with her now."

bh: That's cool, because I did talk to a whole bunch of people around the States about you, and I did find that the harshest critics were older women, and older black women specifically.

LK: Right. Now that I think about those older women, I think they did the same thing that I did when they were younger, and now that they're older they probably wish that they didn't do it. But I'm older, and I wish that a lot of things that I did in my life, I didn't do, but I'm able to talk about it.

bh: I'm older, and I'm here to say that sex gets better. And I think we should talk about it more and do it more.

LK: Not only that, those older women should take what I'm sayin' to heart. "Let me listen to Lil' Kim. Maybe I could spark up something in my relationship..."