Before Nicki Minaj sported patent pink Dr Martens and expressed her burning passion for his ‘Super Bass’, and after Lil’ Kim appointed herself the Queen Bee on ‘Crush on You’, there was one woman who bridged the gap between these two phases of rap music. She is a central part of the ancestral line of East Coast rap and is one of, if not the definitive, female rapper of Y2K. This person is of course, The First Lady of Ruff Ryders – Eve.
Eve is one of the unsung heroes of ’00s rap music due to the awkward position of her peak. She released her first album ‘Let There Be Eve… the First Lady of Ruff Ryders’ in 1999 and became one of the first women in hip-hop to debut at number one. Her influence is underplayed, and this is partially due to her gaining popularity shortly after Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown had already established themselves as the figureheads of ‘Female Rap’; being the faces of their respective crews (Bad Boy Records and The Firm).
Her success is also underplayed because of the slew of women that have come-up after her, who have successfully replicated her formula for crossover female duets – such as Rich Girl, Like That and Gangsta Lovin’.
Before she joined the legendary Ruff Ryders crew (and before she sported the infamous paw print tattoos), Eve Jihan Jeffers was born in the Mill Creeks projects of West Philadelphia. Her mother has always maintained that her star status was predestined due to her little patience for following rules. In fact, her mother once told a story of being called into Eve’s school after complaints that she had been ‘talking too much’ and she solved this by sticking tape over Eve’s mouth and instructed her teacher not to take it off. Eve’s behaviour did not fare well for her grades, but it serviced her rap career to unprecedented results.
Pursuing music was something that came very naturally. She shifted gears from singing and dancing in a church choir to rapping in her early teens. One of her first ventures into hip-hop arrived in the form of the girl group ‘EDGP’ (pronounced Egypt) in high school. Here, Eve truly came into her own. She chopped off her hair and dyed it the now-iconic crimson red; and through battle-rapping the boys in her school, she carved her signature sound that we still hear today.
It is important to remember here that Hip-hop is a genre fuelled by competition. Whether it’s between different labels or in individual cyphers, it is shaped by opposition and rising from adversity when others have doubted you. In some ways this is good – as it forces the genre to evolve. The innovation and sub-genres it has created in its relatively short life-span since conception is a testament to this.
However, this also breeds a toxic, often hypermasculine environment. Women are already forcefully in competition with each other by the malignant ‘beauty myth’ and unrealistic ideals of femininity, so when this is put into the conditions of rivalry where the rap industry thrives; it is a very difficult environment for women to work in. This is something Eve has had to deal with her entire career.
A year of stripping and a meeting Dr. Dre
Still eighteen and hungry for success, Eve started stripping as a way to make ends meet. On one shift in 1996, almost serendipitously, rapper Mase (who at this time was incredibly famous due to the rising status of Bad Boy Records) showed up to the club Eve stripped in. Eve took this opportunity in her stride and started rapping for him. Mase then gave her life-changing advice: stop stripping and take music more seriously.
And Eve did just that. She quit her job and hired managers (who were also local drug dealers), and on one fateful day got a call that Dr. Dre’s right-hand man was in Philadelphia looking for weed. Eve pulled up unannounced (posing as a delivery girl) put in a tape and rapped for him. Her immense talent got the coveted Dre co-sign almost immediately, and an excited and precocious Eve headed to Los Angeles to write an album.
This is the fairy-tale that many artists dream off. The magical call from Dr. Dre that whisks them into his Compton studio and then almost instantaneously, they become multi-platinum selling superstars. This is not far from true, as many musicians such as Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and even Mary J. Blige can attest to the Midas touch of Dr. Dre. For Eve however, her experience did not live up to this.
As a new rapper, Eve was side-lined for Dre’s more secure musical investments. Her album was coming along slower than she expected, and she entered a rut. Ultimately, after living in Los Angeles for seven months and a near complete album under her belt, she got a call from Aftermath Records saying that they no longer had an interest in her. She only had a few days to pack up and move back home.
Dre’s dismissal of Eve so early on in her career proved to be a bump in the road. Another dead-end record deal that never came true. Little did they know they would soon end up making some of their most successful songs together.
Ruff Ryders and Let There Be Eve… (1999)
Unlike many other rap dynasties forged through neighbourhood associations or area code, the Ruff Ryders had to earn their membership through battle rapping. So, when Eve got the call that the DMX-led Ruff Ryders were looking for a new member, she immediately went to Yonkers, New York to, in her own words – “basically battle for [her] life”.
Legend has it she was relentlessly freestyling for hours, and it became clear she had no other competition. There was no other person worthy of the title of the ‘First Lady of Ruff Ryders’, and this hefty title (which forms the full title of her debut album) is one Eve worked very hard for.
Joining the likes of the LOX, DMX and Swizz Beatz, Eve was a necessary component of the Ruff Ryders. As a male-heavy group, predominantly hailing from New York, Eve’s image was crucial to their popularity, and even decided to physically showcase the ‘bite’ that Ruff Ryders had through the paw print tattoos on her chest. Eve is unapologetically Philly, and this allowed them to extend their influence past New York, to represent all corners of the East Coast.
The release of her first album ‘Let There Be Eve… the First Lady of Ruff Ryders’ (1999) exceeded expectations. She sold over 200,000 copies and she became the first female rapper to debut at #1. Her album was primarily self-written, and with one of the most a dynamic posse behind her, Eve was unstoppable.
Her debut exuded confidence and charm, a carry on from her adolescence. Let There Be Eve… (1999) is vulnerable and open, and she is noticeably vocal about social issues that are dear to her heart. The popularity of this album lies in its lack of conventionality. It misses the formulaic radio songs and opts for honesty – a creative decision that paid off.
Eve was light years ahead of her contemporaries. Years before Michelle and Beyoncé confronted Kelly’s abusive relationship on the Destiny Child’s song ‘Girl’, Eve rapped about trying to get her pregnant best friend out of a relationship fraught by domestic violence on ‘Love is Blind’.
Written at age sixteen, Eve tackles a lived experience that women go through universally, but often find difficult to put into words, let alone in the form of a song. Let There Be Eve… is a layered and rich album, meshing different genres and topics – an incredible feat for a 21-year-old to pull off.
Let’s skip to 2001. Eve is working on her follow-up album Scorpion, which would become her biggest album to date. Dr. Dre is ready to work with her and the very first song they worked on was ‘Let Me Blow Ya Mind’. This single followed the success of ‘Who’s That Girl’, and Scorpion was certified platinum the same year of release.
Eve was now one of the most popular artists of the early 00’s – all before she turned 23. Now equipped with a Grammy, a sitcom and several more top 10’s, her story is a case of how the grind can pay off.
Eve was never overshadowed by the strength of her production or by the star power of the posse she was loyal to. With a decade’s worth of singles that are always in ‘throwback’ Spotify-curated playlists, Eve is important in so many ways. She is a staple of Y2K, a woman who cyphered her way through the masculinised field of hip-hop and mastered the female pop duet. But on top of this, her influence deserves far more credit than what she gets.