In 1993 Memphis, where violent crime was at an all-time high and rappers frequently wore their PTSD as a badge of honor, there was no shortage of bizarre characters desperate for a cathartic outlet. With the scene's severe lack of physical media or documentation, these characters have grown to become half truth and half myth, one seemingly inextricable from the other. Perhaps no legend is debated more heatedly than that of Kingpin Skinny Pimp and Lady Bee.
Skinny Pimp, the iconic Memphis rapper who worked with Three 6 Mafia early in his career and would go on to drop the classic King of da Playaz Ball in '96, has long been rumored to be the true voice of Lady Bee, a much more obscure female rapper who released three tapes between '93 and '94, all produced by Skinny. Lady Bee is notorious among fans for her instantly recognizable "helium" voice, which many believe to just be Skinny's voice pitched up.
Fortunately, someone thought to settle the contention by taking Lady Bee's music and pitching it back down. After hearing the song above with normalized vocals, it's evident that it really is Skinny Pimp's voice. But Lady Bee wasn't simply an alter-ego of Skinny, she was also a real woman with whom he worked until at least '93. On the intro track Niggas Coming Clean off Lady Bee's debut Sumthin Fa Da Streets Part 1, one can hear that it's clearly a woman rapping without the help of any vocal effects. She even refers to herself as Lady Bee and tells us that she's 30, which means she was born in 1963 and was at least a full decade older than Skinny.
The subsequent two tracks off that tape, Smoke One and Heavyweights, also feature the "real" Lady Bee. But on her next two tapes she is completely absent; there we only hear the helium Lady Bee of Skinny Pimp. On the song Junts We Choke, Skinny employs pitched-up vocals for his and Lil Gin's verses in addition to the ultra pitched-up vocals he uses as Lady Bee. This shows that voice was something he was interested in experimenting with even outside of Bee. But the only features that she ever gave out or included on her own projects were with Gimisum Family, Skinny's rap collective, and the features were always done by Skinny.
By restricting helium Bee's circle of collaborators to a small group of people whom he already had a relationship with as Skinny, he was able to keep his role-playing clandestine. This was an absolute necessity for him, as he would have instantly lost all of his street credibility and industry acclaim had his cohorts known he was dabbling in transvestism. In fact, his life probably would have been in danger. It's therefore not only incredible that Skinny went to the efforts and risks of playing a woman, but that he managed to keep it a secret for so long as well.
This photograph was originally posted in 2010 with Bee's discography on a Russian torrenting site
but has since been taken down. It is the only known photo that could potentially be her.
but has since been taken down. It is the only known photo that could potentially be her.
But then who was the real Lady Bee that Skinny usurped? One article on the subject that's recently been gaining traction in Memphis rap circles claims that she was one of Skinny's girls during his pimping days, and that after recording one song she succumbed to drug addiction and eventually died of AIDS, leaving Skinny to take over her music and carry on her legacy in tribute. But with nothing other than the author's vague recollection of an un-sourced forum post to support this theory, and no other mention of it anywhere online, it does seem a little too poignant to be true. Additionally, the article states that she only ever recorded one song, 1 In The Chamber, but we know that she recorded at least three, none of which are 1 In The Chamber. The album version of that song features helium Bee, so it doesn't seem likely that Skinny would re-record that song but not the others.
Predating this article are numerous posts around the internet suggesting that Lady Bee's real name is Barbara, and that she was not only Skinny's lover but even his wife for a brief period. But the most significant one is this account of a fan getting in touch with The Legend Lady J herself on Facebook. According to him, she had this to say about Skinny as helium Bee:
"skinny Pimp altered his voice to disguise as a female for financial gain, n he actually thought of the name from his wife which was a much older lady (named Barbara), perhaps the lady part came from my stage name."One knowledgeable Memphis tape collector mentioned that she used to own a record store in the 90s and also confirmed that she and Skinny stopped working together right before the release of Skinny's Gimi Sum Family Pt. 2 in '94. Another established collector I managed to connect with told me that Lady Bee's real name is indeed Barbara, that she and Skinny were married for a time but suffered a falling out, and that she is still around Memphis today. He also explained that the original run of Lady Bee's second tape, Sumthin Fa Da Streets Part 2, all had labels hand-written by Skinny Pimp himself. A third insider mentioned that Skinny's son, who goes by ATM RichBaby or TellaGetGwapp, released a mixtape where he directly acknowledged Barbara as his mother, but unfortunately I was unable to find any confirmation of this. If the two truly do have a son together and are both on good terms with him, it would suggest that they likely maintain some sort of ongoing contact.
After Barbara stopped rapping in '93, she started her own label in Memphis, Lady Bee Records, which released seven tapes between '97 and '00. One of the first tapes, Big Ballin by Tha Cellmates, credits her for both vocals and executive production. But identifying her contribution is not as straightforward as one would hope. The song Gettin It On contains a couple of verses from a female rapper, but she mentions "Lil Meka" who is the other rapper credited on the album cover and indeed a woman. The only other female verse comes at the end of the skit Tha Talent Show and is discernibly not Lil Meka. So, if this brief feature really is Lady Bee, then it's her only performance on record outside of her original three songs with Skinny Pimp from '93.
Now that we've established Lady Bee was a real woman and had a career of her own outside of Skinny, we can turn to the even more riveting question: Why? What could possibly motivate a street-educated pimp and hardcore gangsta rapper to want to take on the persona of his ex-wife and start making songs like Where The Big Dicks At? Besides the addiction/AIDS theory we've dismantled, another post suggests that even helium Bee is the real Lady Bee, and that her last two tapes were intended as disses to Skinny. The only potential support for this is the fact that the cover on her third tape, Strictly For That Nigga, does contain the line "I wanna shoot a skinny ercearl", and the menacing Mask To My Face reiterates it.
It is entirely plausible that "skinny ercearl" here really does refer to Skinny Pimp. But we already know that he is the helium Lady Bee, so maybe it was simply a defensive maneuver: he thought that by dissing himself no one would ever suspect him of being Bee; it could just be understood as a result of their contentious divorce.
However, let's take a closer look at The Legend Lady J's (alleged) conviction that Skinny's portrayal was financially motivated. If that quote truly was from Lady J, it would carry some weight as not only is she an accomplished and well-respected rapper in Memphis, but her sophomore album was also one of the seven releases on Lady Bee's label, so it's probably fair to assume they had some level of personal interaction.
The money incentive doesn't sound all that convincing initially: Skinny was already a successful artist by Memphis standards at the time, and it's dubious whether being a female really distinguished him all that much. From Lady J to Gangsta Boo to Princess Loko, there was certainly no lack of talented female rappers in Memphis.
But after an ugly fall-out with DJ Squeeky, one of his earliest collaborators, it is possible that Skinny's networking suffered a little and he felt that he needed to take on more of his own projects in order to survive financially. In this interview, he stresses the importance of financial stability in the industry, advising, "the main thing in music you gotta have is consistent money". In a different interview from 2002, Skinny explains his mindset at the time of Lady Bee:
"When I was 19 I had got married and I was doing well. I had a club and a studio. But when me and my wife got into it and we divorced. I was doing real bad. [...] What had hurt so bad was I wasn’t caring about the rap or nothing about that, all I cared about is having some money in my pocket."The image of a young Skinny Pimp disillusioned and desperate for a monetary injection certainly does support the Lady J theory. But whether or not money was a central motive for Skinny, I believe the gravity of his performance runs much deeper. In the same interview, he recognizes Prince as one of his earliest influences. Thus, we know he was exposed to gender-bending artists early on, which likely enabled the gender fluidity in his own music. His portrayal of Lady Bee would be courageous and pioneering in any setting, but in the close-knit and incredibly masculine and violent Memphis of the 90s, it was a nearly suicidal venture.
However, the fact that Lady Bee wasn't simply a character of Skinny's imagination but rather his ex-wife is too strange to ignore. Why would Skinny choose to assume the identity of a woman who had just scarred him? Why did Barbara silently allow him to keep releasing tapes as her, with the same moniker that she continued to use? Perhaps she was offered a generous royalty, or maybe she just sympathized with him in his post-divorce despair. Being ten years older than him, she likely was better equipped emotionally to cope with the split.
My personal belief is that - as bizarre as the helium Bee episode was - it was primarily a cathartic experience for Skinny, depressed and isolated after losing his wife. Virtually every track he recorded as Bee was graphically violent or sexual. But on her third tape, in the touchingly hypnotic That's My Man (heard here pitched down to the original), Skinny finally pays homage to Barbara by describing the idyllic suburban life he imagined for them after they eventually escaped the hood:
By not only attempting to appreciate the world from Barbara's perspective, but also allowing himself to act out their relationship and the future he had envisioned for them, it's possible that Skinny got the closure he was seeking with the project and was ultimately able to move on from their separation. After that tape, he boldly returned to the scene as Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and never recorded another song as Lady Bee. Thus, Skinny's Lady Bee endeavor can perhaps be best understood as a desperately inventive form of therapy for a young man haunted by his rough urban upbringing, looming financial uncertainty, and agonizing divorce in an environment where mental illness was rampant but treating it clinically was an admission of defeat.My man made a change, he started going to ChurchCommitment with a ring and the Lord made it workSo now we bought a big house, a big back yardOur dreams came true, a patio and swimming pool
** UPDATE: 1/31/2018 **
Seized by the notion that there were critical questions left unanswered, I was inspired to keep investigating further. I went back and examined the cases on each of Lady Bee Records' seven releases to see if I could obtain any new leads. The back of Independent Hustlaz' Can't Wait references the label's website, ladybeerecords.com, but unfortunately the archived captures of the site from '01 are unable to tell us anything more. We Got Tha Juice by Hit'em Up Thugz turns out to be the source of the photo above that we thought might be Lady Bee, affording it some credibility. But even more interesting is that it notes the address of Lady Bee Records: 1283 N Hollywood St. Lady J's 2 Hot 2 Handle puts the street number at 1281, but a quick Google Maps search shows 1281 and 1283 as a joint unit that now serves as a convenience store.
Searching that address delivers numerous results for a defunct Barbara's Grocery (or Barbara's Beauty Supply) at that location. One site claims that it opened for business in '04, four years after Lady Bee Records released its last tape. Thus, it seems likely that after her record business came to a halt, Barbara transitioned the space into an eponymous convenience store and eventually sold it off.
Aside: At this point in my research, I managed a breakthrough beyond any I could have possibly anticipated. So out of respect for Bee's privacy and the sensitive nature of these matters, I am abstaining from linking my sources any further.
In these searches, I stumbled across my first concrete evidence of Lady Bee's identity: a blurb in a Memphis newspaper from 1997 that features not only her full name, but an actual photo of her too. The write-up focuses mostly on her DIVORCE vanity plate but also connects her to the N Hollywood property and tells us she hailed from the Raleigh suburb of Memphis. In the photo, one can clearly see Barbara's and the number 1283 printed on the wall of her store; so perhaps it was a combination record store-convenience store since its inception.
The newspaper places the divorce at '95, insinuating that Barbara was separated from Skinny for a number of years but did not actually divorce him until after his Lady Bee experiment. This would seem to agree with the sympathetic Barbara painted previously, but her boastful vanity plate does not. The plate - and the fact that she was happy to pose in the news with it - suggest that she was not only proud of their separation, but that she harbored some animosity towards him for it as well.
Supplied with a legitimate photo and Bee's real name, I eventually found a woman on social media whose profile seemed promising. She was working in the Memphis healthcare industry and had attended high school in the Raleigh area. But what ultimately convinced me that I had just unearthed the real Lady Bee: among her followers she counted none other than Skinny Pimp himself.
Encountering Barbara in such a palpable way was far beyond what I had imagined for the scope of this project; and while it is rather bittersweet to finally extinguish her mystique, it is gratifying to know that she is doing well and on positive terms with Skinny. Discernibly a devout Christian now, it's hardly surprising that she was compelled to forgive him and reconcile their knotted past. It might not be the dramatic denouement to the Skinny-Bee saga we were expecting, but it is deserving for both of them that they struck a harmony after the years of antagonism and anguish.