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Hip-hop's infiltration of pop culture was in full-swing during the early '90s, with many of rap's biggest stars making waves with starring roles in an array of high-profile films and television shows. One rap artist that played a huge role in breaking down barriers for hip-hop in Hollywood and Tinsletown was legendary rapper Queen Latifah, whose story stands as a blueprint of how to expand your brand by transitioning into a career in acting.
A native of New Jersey, Queen Latifah (born Dana Owens) got her start in rap after becoming a beat-boxer for local rap group Ladies Fresh, but her big break would come after becoming an original member of Flavor Unit, a collective of emcees and producers from the New Jersey area. When a demo Latifah recorded wound up in the hands of Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, who passed it along to A&R Dante Ross, she was offered a recording contract with Tommy Boy Records, one of the hottest rap labels at the time.
Releasing her debut single, "Wrath of My Madness" in 1998, Queen Latifah would truly establish herself the following year with All Hail The Queen, an album that cast Latifah as a fiery lyricist and staunch feminist, and was instrumental in helping power the Afrocentric movement in hip-hop during the late '80s and early '90s. Boasting standout cuts like "Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children" (featuring De La Soul) and the Monie Love-assisted hit "Ladies First," both of which pushed All Hail the Queen to gold certification and turned Queen Latifah into an overnight rap star and one of the most high-profile female spitters in the game.
Not one to put all of her eggs in one basket, Queen Latifah would capitalize on her newfound fame by seeking out auditions for bit roles in movies during the early '90s, eventually snagging a role in Spike Lee's 1991 film Jungle Fever after collaborator Monie Love—whom Spike originally cast in the role— became pregnant and was unable to appear in the movie. Playing Lawshawn, an opinionated and abrasive waitress who chastises character Flipper Purify's (played by Welsey Snipes) interracial relationship with his Italian-American coworker Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), Queen Latifah's presence and charisma on screen would be one of the biggest takeaways from the film, with critics taking note of her performance and rewarding it with rave reviews.
"I just remember it was hot, it was really hot," Latifah recalled of filming the scene during an interview with ABC News in 2016. "It was summertime in Harlem. I had this tiny little [dressing] room. I just remember being nervous and I didn't really know what I was doing. And I had a little bit of a cold, so I kind of did what I could and got my feet wet." After Jungle Fever's release on June 7, 1991, Queen Latifah would score another memorable role just months later, this time portraying college student Zora in House Party 2, further increasing her buzz as a promising thespian.
Popping up as Ruffhouse MC in the Ernest Dickerson-directed 1992 crime drama Juice, and making a cameo in the 1993 comedic thriller Who's the Man, Queen Latifah may have made major inroads in film, but decided to make the plunge into television after drawing inspiration from fellow rapper-turned-actor Will Smith, who had achieved massive success with his hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "Will Smith was a great friend of ours," Latifah once explained during an interview. "And we kind of grew up on the road together, and when we saw him do The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, we said, 'Hey, if Will can do it, we can do it!'"
Living Single, Queen Latifah's own primetime sitcom, would quickly come to fruition, as her and her team began to search for suitors looking to pick up their show.
Tapped as one of the core actors on the show, comedian Kim Coles found a kindred spirit in Queen Latifah upon the two meeting one another at the behest of Warner Bros. executives. The next piece of the puzzle was Latifah and Coles teaming up with a writer to help create the show. However, due to past failed experiences working on pilots with Caucasian writers, the duo pushed for an African-American to take on that duty, with writer Yvette Denise Lee (now Yvette Lee Bowser) ultimately being handpicked by the pair. Lee, who had written for hit shows like A Different World and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, quickly rounded out the cast, with actors Kim Fields, Erika Alexander, T.C. Carson and John Henton securing the roles for Regine Hunter, Maxine Shaw, Kyle Barker and Overton 'Obie' Jones, respectively.
Living Single would make its debut in August 22, 1993 on Fox and become a hit among the urban demographic in short order, rating in the Top 5 in African-American ratings in its opening season. Set in Brooklyn, New York and based around the lives of five friends that live in the same apartment building and their quests for romance and upward mobility, Living Single stood apart from previous sitcoms in that it put the spotlight on young professionals that were single, employed, relatively financially stable and unapologetically black. However, the characters were far from perfect, infallible, or immune from the pressures of life, as all would face their fair share of emotional and financial turmoil, particularly Khadijah, who often struggled to keep the lights on at the offices for her rap mag, Flavor Magazine. In addition to being one of recurring settings on the show, Flavor Magazine was also a nod to the burgeoning rise of rap-centric publications, which had yet to fully catch fire nationally at the time of Living Single's debut.
In a time where black love was in full bloom, Living Single was one of the first to TV shows to tackle the subject from the perspective of African-Americans of both sexes, resulting in dialogue and scenarios that came off as wholly authentic and true to life. Whether it be Maxine Shaw and Kyle Barker's carefree attitude in regards to their sexuality, Regine Hunter's hatred of broke boys, Overton Jones and Synclair James' courtship, or Khadijah's own matters of the heart, many of the same emotions, characteristics and desires of African-Americans worldwide was put on the table and addressed throughout Living Single's five seasons, making it one of the more groundbreaking sitcoms of the decade. While shows like Friends (which debuted over a year after and many have accused of being an imitation of Living Single) were afforded massive budgets and seemingly devoid of any actors of color, Living Single showcased people of all colors, hues and shades, all while fighting for equal billing as their more "mainstream-friendly" counterparts.
By the time Living Single ended its run in 1998 after five memorable seasons, Queen Latifah was five years removed from her last album, 1993's Black Reign—her most successful album release at the time—and had fully immersed herself in the craft of acting, with her breakout role as Cleopatra 'Cleo' Sims in Set It Off cementing her as one of the most bankable and recognizable stars in rap.
Latifah would return to the rap scene in 1998 with her fourth studio album, Order in the Court, but has since made acting and hosting her main focus, starring in multiple blockbuster films and earning Golden Globe Awards and scoring Academy Award nominations along the way.
However, with all of her success, none of her contributions have stood the test of time quite like Living Single, which remains one of the definitive sitcoms for the hip-hop generation and marks the turning point in which Queen Latifah went from being an rapper acting to a legit player in Hollywood, which she remains today.
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