Album Review: Tairrie B – Feminenergy
My Ruin frontwoman Tairrie B taps into her rebel spirit to unleash as tidal wave of Feminenergy...
Tairrie B. Murphy has a lot to get off her chest. Three decades since she burst onto the scene with the furious, feminist hip-hop of her solo rap debut – raging against America’s ingrained misogyny and lack of diversity – it feels like little has changed. The past four years have brought her rage back to the boil, however, with attempts to process (and outspokenly challenge) the reprehensible attitudes of the Trump administration consuming her headspace. Departing the urban echo chamber of Los Angeles for comparatively rural Knoxville, Tennessee has left her looking in from the other side of the red/blue divide, but October’s deeply politicised Feminenergy album – her first in five years – proved that old Tairrie B fire still burns inside.
With Trump’s tenure coming to a close, the year’s end has seen deeper personal reflection, too. Celebrating 20 years of My Ruin – the dark alt. outfit Tairrie shares with husband and long-time instrumental co-conspirator Mick Murphy – mammoth 40-track retrospective The Cathartic Collection casts its gaze deep across the personal and artistic evolutions that see her sitting down, once again, with K!.
She might be resident in a quieter life these days – writing, painting and old-school roller-skating (“not rollerblading,” she insists) – but in many ways this is still the same Ruthless Bitch who stormed to prominence alongside the early 1990s’ notorious West Coast gangster rappers. Even after all this time, she promises, this is a singer unafraid to speak her mind and stand her ground even on pop-culture’s most confrontational frontiers...
You’ve titled My Ruin’s 20th Anniversary compilation The Cathartic Collection. Has music always been a catharsis for you?
“Definitely. I look back over our 20 years as a band and see all this music that resonates with us and with our fans on a personal, cathartic level. Most bands, 20 years in, will release a ‘Greatest Hits’ album. My Ruin doesn’t really have greatest hits. We were never a mainstream pop-rock band. What we do have is songs that resonate and strike that chord with people. Through the years, ‘cathartic’ has been the best word that has defined our output as a band.”
You’ve divided the main 36-song retrospective into three three-album spans – Rebirth, Resurrection and Reflection. Do you really view My Ruin’s output in those terms?
“I do, especially as I’ve gotten older. When I ended my band before this – Tura Satana – it was like a death. People were saying to me ‘Don’t leave your band!’ or ‘Don’t try to start out by yourself!’ My Ruin was definitely a rebirth. I started it as a solo-project in 1999, but when I met Mick in 2000, we became a band and it became whole different animal - heavier, more focused. That phase is represented by our first three albums: 1999’s Speak And Destroy, 2000’s A Prayer Under The Pressure Of Violent Anguish and [2001 live album] To Britain With Love… And Bruises.
“The ‘Resurrection’ phase covers the next three records: 2003’s The Horror Of Beauty, 2005’s The Brutal Language and 2008’s Throat Full Of Heart. I got into a bad car accident the night before we went into record the last of those. I ended up going through five surgeries and almost lost my arm. I didn’t think I was gonna’ get on stage ever again. To come through that felt like a sort of resurrection.
“After we came back from that, we did our final three albums: 2010’s Ghosts And Good Stories, 2011’s A Southern Revelation and 2013’s The Sacred Mood. Those are probably our heaviest work. That was our reflection phase, when we really came into our own. At the same time, we were doing it all on our own. We loved making music, but there were the dramas in the background. The business side isn’t always that fun...”
When you refer to the latter three albums as your ‘last’ does that eliminate the possibility of a more substantial return?
“I’m not sure. Because of where we are [in life] right now, we’ve put the band on hiatus. I’ve been talking about writing my memoir for years, and it’s something I want to really focus on. That’s where I see myself longer-term: as a writer. I don’t see myself out on the road in future unless something drastically changes. I like my life here. It’s much easier than dealing with crazy band members and promoters, and all the drama that comes with it.”
The Cathartic Collection’s opener Sacrosanctity is a new track, though. How does that fit in?
“We recorded Sacrosanctity about two weeks ago here at our home studio in Knoxville. That’s just Mick and I. It’s kinda been the two of us the whole time. Ever since we fell out with our bassist and drummer on The Brutal Language, and Mick showed me he could play drums and bass – as well as producing – it’s mostly just been the two of us. Mick is sort of a one-man machine. That song basically represents who we are at this moment, while also to encompassing who we’ve been.”
Going right back to the beginning, which were the first songs you loved
“I grew up listening to classic rock, soul, R&B, funk, blues… I had a very eclectic background in Southern California. I was into music and open to everything. I look back on the old punk rock documentaries and wonder why I never became a punk singer in the early days, but I just didn’t vibe with it. Hip-hop was the thing I vibed with. I loved graffiti-art, DJs and breakdancing. That was what got me going.”
How did you get started as a performer?
“My girlfriends and I were in a little dance crew who would go around the hip-hop clubs. I had a friend in New York who would write to me about East Coast hip-hop. There was a radio station in LA called KDAY who had these DJs called The Mixmasters who would play these Friday Night hip-hop jams. It was just something I was drawn towards.
“As a rapper, I first got signed to Delicious Vinyl, who had this idea that two of my fiends and I would be like their ‘Beastie Girls’. My friends weren’t as serious as I was, though. Then, they wanted me to write with their different rappers to become like a pop white-girl. I wasn’t feeling it and got out of my deal...”
You famously ended up signing on with LA rapper Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. How did that come about?
“One of my friends took me to see [legendary rap collective] NWA at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, CA. We went backstage and I met their manager Jerry Heller. He thought I was an actress at first, but when I told him I was a rapper, he asked if I had a demo-tape. I told him I did, but I had nothing.
“I ended up meeting up with Quincy Jones’ son QD3 and putting something together, with a sample of Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady. I drove out to Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, California, and everybody was there. They took my demo tape and hit 'play'. It was a crazy moment in my life: so weird and uncomfortable because I didn’t believe they would dig this. Nobody said a word. They took the tape out and handed it to me. I thanked them for their time, turned to walk out. Then Eazy-E said ‘You want a record deal?’ It was just like that. Crazy.”
2020 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of your trailblazing debut solo LP Power Of A Woman, the first rap album from a white female on a major label. It was a triumphant moment, but was marred by run-ins with some of the Ruthless gang. How do you feel, looking back?
“I was very young. I was very naive. But, at the same time, I knew what I wanted. I was with all these gangster rappers and there was this idea of me as the gangsters’ moll, but tough: kind of a gangster myself. They wanted me to write with Dre, and if I had it probably would’ve been a million-seller. But I had ideas. I was very vocal. I didn’t want to be the girl where it’s ‘Dr. Dre said...’ I didn’t want to sit there and shut up and let them write my stuff. I just said no. That’s where stuff went weird...”
What was the most gangster stuff you got involved with?
“I’m saving a few stories for my book, but let’s just say that the point at which you’re carrying a gun to your own record label for protection, it’s gotten pretty gangster...”
It got that bad?
“Eazy-E always had my back. He always supported me and helped me do what I wanted to do. But there were [problems with] other people. Ice Cube and Dre brought out that movie Straight Outta Compton in 2015. It portrayed Eazy E in a certain way, but people who really knew Eazy knew he was a bad little motherfucker. Out of the whole group of them, he was the real gangster. Dr. Dre certainly wasn’t: he was just a misogynist, woman-beating producer. They were telling their version of events. My book will tell mine.”
Aside from that drama, Power Of A Woman remains a landmark release...
“I look back and, on one hand, the record is seminal. It was before Iggy Azalea and Kreayshawn and Brooke Candy and all these girls now. On the other hand, I was just coming into my own. I hear the things I would’ve done differently. There was a time when I couldn’t listen to it. Now I listen to it and love it for what it is: my beginning. I’m not the same person I was 30 years ago. But what you do makes you grow. All the experiences throughout the years have led to me being who I am today. It’s called growing up.”
Why, back then, did you decide to steer away from rap and into rock with Manhole?
“I started Manhole while I was still signed to Ruthless. I’d actually recorded my second rap record [Single White Female], but then I saw Ice-T with Body Count at a Foundations Forum event in LA and decided that I wanted to start a band. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I met a couple of guys from Venice and we worked our way up through the club circuit. Ross Robinson produced our record, which was great, and we became part of the LA rap-rock movement of the time alongside Rage Against The Machine, Body Count and Downset. I loved Manhole. I loved the political aspect of it. I loved that it still had some of the rap stuff in there because at heart I’m a rapper.”
After a claim from a semi-defunct Texan band with the same name, Manhole became Tura Satana. That was quite a different beast…
“Where Manhole was very outward – aggressive, venting – Tura Satana was focused much more inwards. I had toured and been out in the world and had some different experiences. Losing our name and everything that came with that changed me as a woman and as a writer.”
Moving on to My Ruin, what are your memories of first meeting Mick?
“I had been asked to model at a fashion show by a designer called Terrie King in the El Ray club. She’d asked Eric [Erlandson] from Hole, Meegs [Rascon] from Coal Chamber and all these people to be part of it. At the after-party, Mick just walked in. I had never seen him before, but I looked at him and thought ‘I’m gonna’ marry that guy.’ We talked for three hours on the couch. We went on a date the next day. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Is it fair to say that musical relationships born from romantic chemistry tend to fare better than romantic relationships born from musical?
“Having a relationship while playing in a band was never something I expected. I thought it would be a nightmare. But it ended up being perfect. I love the fact that Mick will never brag, but he’s got a healthy ego as a guitar player. He’s amazing. He can play everything. He’s a great producer. He can sing. He’s got so many great projects and people he’s worked with. But as much as he’s got a healthy ego, he’s not got a horrible ego. He doesn’t have any problem with a woman giving him suggestions or ideas. He listens. He respects me. And that respect is mutual. He has everything I look for in a partner. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to actually find it.”
Where does your atmospheric spoken-word project The LVRS fit in?
“The LVRS acronym stands for: Love, Violence, Romance and Sex. We were drinking together one night and I decided I just wanted to speak something into the mic. I started reciting a story, Mick put some ethereal music over it and started recording me. It became about these weird, dark stories: from the tale of Los Angeles’ famous Black Dahlia murder to the memory of when my grandmother committed suicide – and I found her.”
My Ruin connected particularly intimately with UK audiences. Does that feel strange for an artist from the United States’ west coat?
“It is weird, though we have a similarly cult fanbase in LA. We have this special relationship with the two places, which is why there’s that line in Sacrosanctity: ‘From London to Los Angeles’. The juxtaposition between those two great strong cities has defined our career. Beyond that, I just love the UK, right up through Manchester and Glasgow, too. I have so many great friends and memories there.”
Which memory stands out as your favourite?
“I celebrated my birthday at London’s Mean Fiddler in 2006, the same day The Brutal Language came out. We flew in the night before and got held up by customs because of visa issues. They kept us there for 12-and-a-half hours, and we thought they were going to send us home. Eventually, we got through and immediately went to DJ at this gay bar in Camden. Then we played a packed house the next night. I remember my best friend bringing a birthday cake onstage and everything. I’ve been looking back at photos and videos from that night, recently. It really was crazy.”
As My Ruin went on ice, you first went back to hip-hop with 2015’s Vintage Curses. What influenced that?
“I just wanted to do a hip-hop record. Fortunately, Mick is a huge fan of old-school hip-hop and he agreed to co-produce. Where he normally takes the reins as main composer in My Ruin, though, it’s much more about me taking control.”
It’s far darker than your 1990s output, too...
“I realised I couldn’t come back with that original image because it’s not who I am any more. I got to thinking about the people from the rap world who who’d looked me up over the years since and said I was a witch now: into Satan, the dark arts and heavy metal. I found that hilarious. I was 50 years old, too, and knew they were probably gonna come at me about my age. I thought ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna’ own it. I’m a crone.’ I’ve gone through the three stages of my life: the maiden, the mother and the crone. Back in the day, I owned how people would call me a bitch on the song Ruthless Bitch. Beware The Crone was the same thing, but for 2015.”
This year’s Feminenergy LP saw you swerve back towards the politics of Manhole. How much is that a return of the Tairrie B of the 1990s?
“I’ve always been pro-choice. I’ve always been outspoken about that. I worked for Rock For Choice. I worked for Feminist Majority. I worked in women’s shelters. I remember doing benefits to buy bulletproof vests for abortion clinics that were being shot up in Florida at the time. I always try to speak out on the things that matter to me. I had a friend who suffered a traumatic rape. I wrote the song Victim, something empowering for her and women like her to look in the mirror and sing and not feel fear.
“Over the years, as I was out working on the road, my politics took something of a back seat. But the Donald Trump era has just been horrible. When I was recording the song Raised Up Fist, I was putting samples of Trump saying nasty things about women together, and there was, like, an hour’s worth of material. It was unbelievable. This is the President Of The United States speaking like this about women – and some women voting for him. Are you kidding me?!”
Trump’s presidency confounded normal political discourse. Feminenergy felt like the anti-Trump manifesto that many musicians seemed to stunned to actually put out. How proud are you of that?
“It’s an album I’ve made at 55 years old, but it’s one of the ones I’m proudest of. Trump is all about trying to divide: red against blue; black against white; immigrants against everyone else. I have a family member who is a full-on Trump fanatic and it has created a rift between us that is frightening to me. His support reminds me of a cult. Trump is like [infamous Waco Davidian leader] David Koresh, except he’s not even really a Christian. He’s a fake Christian, who uses the Bible as a prop. He’s a fake Republican. He’s a failed real estate developer who’s conned thousands of people out of their money. He’s a ‘leader’ who has damaged relationships with our allies and cosied up to dictators around the world. He’s happy to make a universal issue like COVID into a partisan issue where if you’re wearing a mask you’re a radical liberal. Not meaning it in an arrogant way, but America is supposed to be a beacon for the world. Right now, it’s shameful.”
Following his election defeat, is there any concern about that fire inside you going out?
“You can never predict what’s going to happen. I hope that Donald Trump is brought up on charges and indicted. Unless he is held accountable, our country can’t really move on. I don’t think Biden will be perfect – the truth is that I want Kamala [Harris] to be president – but I hope that we can move on. At least Biden has some real human experience – loss, empathy – where Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was a millionaire at four years old.
“I love my country. I’ve never felt more patriotic than I have in the last four years. I just want a boring normal president with a brain and common sense, empathy, compassion and intelligence. A decent human being who can tell the truth and relate to the people they’ve been elected to represent. Someone who will work to bring people together. My experience is that it’s important to be able to work with people, even if they’re people you don’t like.”
And, more personally, what are your hopes and ambitions as we move into 2021?
“I wanna see people happy and healthy and working again. I want to be able to go out to a club. I don’t know if I want to get onstage again, but I want to see my husband’s bands play. I miss hearing live music. Beyond that, I want to put my book out and go out on a tour where we can all sit in a room together and talk about it. I want to experience all those little things again – like going outside without a mask – that we didn’t know we valued until they were taken away. I want to live a good life!”