"This is the true story..."
In 1992, MTV famously decided to show what happens when people "stop being polite, and start getting real" and reality TV was born. MTV's hit experiment The Real World would become a generation-defining cultural touchstone of the 1990s, making the hapless seven strangers (who were thrust together in a Manhattan loft and filmed) household names. Among those seven was Heather B. Gardner, an aspiring rapper from New Jersey with connections to Boogie Down Productions.
In the second episode of the season, Heather is shown on The Real World working on music, prepping a debut album that was then-titled The System Sucks. The show had no shortage of ambitious individuals: Eric Nies would famously go on to host MTV's The Grind; and Kevin Powell established himself as one of the premier journalists/commentators/authors of his generation. But Heather B seemed to embody the "real" in The Real World and her music career has always been a testament to that.
She began in Hip-Hop's much-touted "Golden Age," an affiliate of one of the most celebrated crews in the game. Boogie Down Productions was known for KRS-One's fiery rhetoric and bombastic approach, and Heather B was prominently featured in BDP videos like "Love's Gonna Getcha." KRS-One's brother Kenny Parker would be a frequent Heather B collaborator and her sound and musical ethos were heavily informed by Boogie Down Productions.
Heather B has always been an emcee steeped in hardcore East Coast tradition.
From her BDP affiliation to her work with luminaries like DJ Premier, her bonafides are well-established. The Real World sat her squarely at the forefront of a still nascent phenomenon (reality TV) and made her part of the pop culture zeitgeist; but her heart was always squarely on the music.
But her time on The Real World gave Heather a tremendous spotlight. When she set to work on her debut album, the show had provided a boost that raised her profile significantly. With BDP affiliates working on the production, Heather B. was anxious to make her mark. She would look back at the lead-up to her debut album and recognize how things had moved very fast.
“When I first came out, I felt like I had to do it and now I want to do it because I’m grown and my music is coming from a sincere and confident place,” Heather later explained to AllHipHop.com. “I’m not concerned with any trends or industry misconceptions; I want to put out some good music.”
Heather B's Takin Mine dropped in late 1996, as Hip-Hop's mainstreaming was undergoing a major shift
. R&B hooks and flashy videos were rapidly becoming the norm, as magazine headlines obsessed over a so-called East/West beef. And women like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, who'd been at Hip-Hop's forefront over the first half of the decade, were beginning to give way to new generation of female artists led by more brazen, sex-driven rappers like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.
But women in Hip-Hop were seeing high-profile successes. Salt-N-Pepa won a Grammy in 1995, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees were everywhere in 1996 and Foxy and Kim had become superstars. What Heather B offered was no-frills, straight-up, East Coast boom-bap at a time when more commercial sounds were taking over. The authenticity of singles like "All Glocks Down" and "If Heads Only Knew" stood out for their lack of bullshit; it's lyricism, beats-and-rhymes Hip-Hop.
Her 1998 single "Do You" was also a regional success, showcasing Heather B's growth as an artist and highlighting her move from Pendulum to MCA. But it would be 2002 before she dropped her sophomore project, Eternal Affairs. She was working with DJ Premier and the album received glowing reviews despite not making a major chart impact. Heather B had carved a niche doing her music her way, and soon, she'd have another source of inspiration for her life and career.
"I actually met my husband on a subway train," she would explain to The Urban Daily in 2010. "Horse, formerly of the Bravehearts, with Nas and the Oochie Wally and the whores in the video and the whole thing -- whatever! [laughs] Publishing checks, that's all I care about! Nah, I won't say that about my husband! We've been married for nine years."
"It's like everybody else's house and we're a real family. We got a dog and pain-in-the-ass neighbors. He did music and I do music."
The two Hip-Hop artists found a forever bond in each other and Heather B has always relished the honesty and closeness she shares with Horse.
"I didn't meet Horse in a club," she said. "If I met him as 'Oochie Wally' Horse, it would probably be a different relationship."
Since 2012, Heather has been the co-host of the Sirius Satellite Radio show "Sway in the Morning" with former MTV reporter Sway Calloway. She also has a YouTube series called "The Happy Hour with Heather B." She's become one of the most noteworthy women in Hip-Hop radio, another entry on a resume that runs the gamut from artist to TV star to everything in-between. Heather B is still doing it her way.
As fans tune in to The Real World Reunion this week (the ten-episode series debuts March 4 on Paramount+), the nostalgia will be high for the 1990s and those seven strangers who stopped being polite. But Heather B's journey is unique even amongst her reality show compadres, and her musical legacy is worth recognizing in Hip-Hop. At a time when women in Hip-Hop are being lauded, it's important to celebrate all artists who went up for realness. Props to the authenticity.
Props to Heather B.