The Trailblazing Women in Hip-Hop Who Contributed to Female Empowerment
From the 1980s women in hip-hop working in a male-dominated industry who fought to be taken seriously in an ‘underground’ genre, to the females who contributed to the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop in the 90s – and finally, the contemporary women who’re killing it in the internet age, let’s celebrate the women who changed hip-hop from the inside out.
1980S WOMEN IN HIP HOP: FIGHTING FROM UNDERNEATH
In the 80s, women in hip-hop had a long way to go in gaining the respect of their male counterparts.
Equally, hip-hop itself was still considered an underground music genre at that time. Meaning it, too, had a way to travel before gaining credibility as a viable facet of the music industry.
And yet, these trailblazing women added credibility and mainstream appeal to hip-hop. All while fighting to be taken seriously from inside and outside the music business.
SYLVIA ROBINSON: BUILDING HIP-HOP’S CREDIBILITY
When Sylvia Robinson and her husband Joe founded Sugar Hill Records in 1979, Sylvia already had two R&B successes, “Love Is Strange” and “Pillow Talk”, to her name.
She had also co-written and produced other artistes' tracks, including The Moment's “Love On A Two-Way Street” (1970).
All of which served as experience in her new venture.
The label's first release was the Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight” (1979). It quickly became the first hip-hop track to land in Billboard's Top 40. Then in 1982, Sylvia worked on the production of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's landmark track, “The Message”, a critical development in conscious rap's origin story.
As co-founder and CEO of Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia helped establish the burgeoning hip-hop genre’s credibility within the music industry.
SHA-ROCK: THE ‘MOTHER OF THE MIC’
Bronx-based rapper, Sha-Rock was at the forefront of the late 1970s and early 80s New York hip-hop scene. In an era when women rarely participated in hip-hop or were taken seriously, Sha-Rock broke boundaries as the first female emcee.
The “Mother of the Mic” was the first female rapper to perform live on national television and gain a record deal as the “Plus One More” of hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1.
Funky 4 + 1 signed to Sylvia’s Sugar Hill Records and gained their first hit, "Rapping And Rocking The House”, in 1979.
Sha-Rock was also a key innovator of the "echo chamber" rap as featured on Funky 4 + 1's “That's The Joint” (1980).
ROXANNE SHANTE: CENTRING THE FEMALE EXPERIENCE
Roxanne Shante at 2016 Juice Crew Reunion (BB Kings NYC). Credit: fuseboxradio/Wikimedia Commons
Lolita Shante Gooden was just 14 years old when she pitched an idea to hip-hop legend Marley Marl. After being snubbed by UTFO, Marl took Lolita up on her offer and commissioned her to write a rap response to UTFO's 1984 classic “Roxanne, Roxanne”.
“Roxanne, Roxanne” features the hip-hop trio desperately trying to get a woman named Roxanne to pay attention to their advances.
Under the new guise of Roxanne Shante, Lolita wrote her scathing takedown entitled “Roxanne's Revenge”.
The track was an instant hit and gave a uniquely female perspective on street harassment. Aside from centring the female experience in a male-dominated genre, Lolita's idea not only revolutionised rap but led to hip-hop's first rivalry.
SALT-N-PEPA: SELLING OVER A MILLION RECORDS
Salt-N-Pepa performing at the Canberra Theatre in 2013. Credit: David Burke/Wikimedia Commons
Salt-N-Pepa was one of the first all-female hip-hop groups. The members managed to create a style that was uniquely theirs.
Where male rappers focused on objectifying women, “The First Ladies of Rap and Hip-Hop” focused on embracing their sex appeal and owning it for themselves.
Salt-N-Pepa also dominated in terms of commercial success. Their 1986 debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious solidified them as the first female hip-hop group to sell over a million records. And with over 15 million records sold globally at the time of writing, they're one of the best-selling rap groups of all time.
MC LYTE: THE FIRST SOLO ALBUM RELEASED BY A FEMALE EMCEE
MC Lyte in Germany (1999). Credit: Mikamote/Wikimedia Commons
MC Lyte rose to prominence as the first female rapper to release a solo album. Although Lyte As A Rock (1988) wasn't a commercial success, it set MC Lyte apart as a trailblazer in the hip-hop industry.
Music historians and hip-hop fans consider Lyte As A Rock a seminal album in the genre's history.
Lyte would later gain the commercial success she deserved as the first female solo hip-hop emcee to earn a gold certification. And through her work, she inspired other female rappers to enter the hip-hop world.
QUEEN LATIFAH: A UNIFYING FORCE FOR FEMALES
As the 1990s drew to a close, Queen Latifah set the tone for the next decade with her classic track “Ladies First” (1989). Along with fellow trailblazer Monie Love, Latifah didn't just centre women in general but was a crucial component in bringing female emcees together.
According to hip-hop luminaries like MC Lyte, “Ladies First” was historical because it was one of the first instances where female rappers collaborated on a song, and it was an instant classic.
And all this was during a time when male rappers wrote about females like they were nothing more than eye candy.
THE WOMEN WHO HELPED 1990S HIP-HOP DOMINATE
By the early 90s, hip-hop was gaining credibility within the music industry and was fast en route to dominating the Billboard charts.
Here are the women who helped bring hip-hop to the masses, ultimately paving the way for the genre we know today.
YO-YO: AN UNYIELDING FEMALE PERSPECTIVE
Yo-Yo's rapping prowess came to the fore when she went toe to toe with Ice Cube on his track “It’s A Man’s World” in 1990. The song was a battle of the sexes in life and work – and Yo-Yo meant business.
Where “Roxanne's Revenge” was a response on a separate track, Yo-Yo responded directly to Ice Cube.
So, when Ice Cube asked, "Girl, what you tryna do?"
Yo-Yo replied without hesitation: “To prove a black woman like me can bring the funk through.”
And indeed she did, and then some.
Throughout the 90s, Yo-Yo continued to decry misogyny in rap and advocate for female empowerment while inspiring others to do the same.
DA BRAT: THE FIRST SOLO FEMALE RAPPER TO GO PLATINUM
Da Brat made hip-hop history in 1994 with her debut album, Funkdafied.
Her first studio album sold a million copies making her the first solo female hip-hop artiste to go platinum. Meanwhile, the album’s lead single of the same name landed at number six on the Billboard Hot 100.
Aside from helping establish hip-hop as the genre to beat in terms of mainstream success, Da Brat was also one of the first women in hip-hop to rap about her life openly.
LIL’ KIM: UNAPOLOGETIC FEMININITY
Lil' Kim (2008). Credit: windyjonas/Wikimedia Commons
Where Salt-n-Pepa paved the way for female sex appeal in the 1980s, Lil’ Kim took it to the next level throughout the 90s. She was completely unapologetic about her sex appeal, sexuality and, crucially, her femininity.
Lil’ Kim didn’t become masculine to contend in a male-dominated industry. Instead, she embraced the hyper-feminine style that made her feel comfortable.
Equally, Lil’ Kim's rap style (inspired by luminaries like MC Lyte) stands among the best of both sexes.
Aside from embracing her femininity, Lil’ Kim continued the precedent of 90s hip-hop success when her debut album, Hard Core (1996), was certified double platinum.
MISSY ELLIOTT: LARGER-THAN-LIFE INDIVIDUALITY
Missy Elliott (2015). Credit: Atlantic Records/Wikimedia Commons
Although Missy Elliott seemingly burst onto the scene from nowhere, behind the scenes, Elliott, alongside childhood friend Timbaland, had been a production powerhouse for artistes like Aaliyah.
But now, Elliott herself was front and centre.
And unlike many of her contemporaries, she wasn’t resting on sex appeal. In fact, her presentation, including the baggy, surreal and cartoonish fashion choices, consciously favoured humour over sexuality.
Missy Elliott’s larger-than-life individuality was like nothing else (male or female) in hip-hop at the time. She also brought the chart-topping hits from day one.
Case and point, her debut album Supa Dupa Fly (1997) charted at number three on the Billboard 200, becoming the best charting rap debut from a female.
LAURYN HILL: A MULTI-FUNCTIONAL FEMALE ARTISTE BREAKING RECORDS
Lauryn Hill at Kirketorget for Kongsberg Jazzfestival 2019. Credit: Tore Sætre/Wikimedia Commons
Lauryn Hill was already no stranger to critical acclaim and accolades as part of the alternative hip-hop group the Fugees. And with her first solo album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998), the recognition kept coming.
In its first week, the album went straight to number one on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 422,000 copies – a record-setter for all female solo artistes, not just in hip-hop but across genres.
Lauryn Hill wasn’t just a commercial success though. Her multi-functional approach of writing, producing, rapping and singing brought soul to hip hop. And she did it all from a female perspective, writing about love, self-respect, pregnancy and motherhood with unparalleled depth.
At the 1999 Grammys, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was nominated for ten awards and won five, after which Hill became the first female artiste to earn that many nominations and awards in a single night.
EVE: SETTING THE TONE FOR THE 2000S
Eve (2011). Credit: The Heart Truth/Wikimedia Commons
Eve released her debut album, Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady in 1999. Eve wrote all the songs on the album and collaborated with hip-hop legends like Missy Elliott and DMX to produce a gangsta rap classic.
The album went straight to the top spot on the Billboard chart, making her the third female rapper to do so.
Her instant success cemented the mainstream appeal of hip-hop, sending a clear message that it was here to stay in the 2000s.
CONTEMPORARY WOMEN IN HIP-HOP: 2010 AND BEYOND
By 2010, there were little to no “first-evers” remaining for females in hip-hop. And the genre itself had finally been established as credible in the eyes of music execs, primarily due to its proven mainstream success.
That said, for contemporary women in hip-hop, the challenge isn't so much about fighting from underneath, although the industry is still male-dominated. Instead, it's about reinvigorating the genre and transforming their approach to it for the internet age.
NICKI MINAJ: ALL HAIL THE NEW ‘QUEEN OF RAP’
Nicki Minaj (2011). Credit: Christopher Macsurak/Wikimedia Commons
For the longest time (mainly because record executives signed fewer women), it seemed like no new female rappers were on the scene.
In the early to mid-2000s, established artistes like Eve and Missy Elliott held down the forte for female representation in hip-hop throughout the genre’s continued success.
After a drought of new female talent breaking into a male-dominated industry, along came Nicki Minaj with her debut album Pink Friday (2010). And with established stars like Natasha Bedingfield, Eminem and Rihanna featured on the album, it was bound to be a commercial success.
Pink Friday went straight to number one on Billboard's 200 charts.
Aside from reinvigorating the female presence within hip-hop, Minaj reshaped the genre. She represented a direct, animated and sharp rap style, while musically, the album incorporated a dance-pop element that influenced the direction of hip-hop in the 2010s.
AZEALIA BANKS: AN INDEPENDENT RENAISSANCE
Azealia Banks performs at the 2012 NME Awards at the Brixton Academy in London. Credit: Tim Boddy/Wikimedia Commons
Back in the 1980s and early 90s, hip-hop artistes didn't wait for record labels to come to them. They distributed their music through independent mixtapes.
Cut to the late 2000s, and a young Azealia Banks began releasing music independently using the modern mixtape: social media, to be exact.
She subsequently gained a record deal, releasing her debut single in 2011, “212”. The track featured Azealia's signature blend of dance-pop and hardcore hip-hop.
It went viral, and even though Banks is American, the single became one of the UK's top 100 most commercially successful hip-hop songs.
After a series of bad experiences with numerous record labels, Banks decided to stay an independent artiste, starting her label, Chaos & Glory Recordings.
DOJA CAT: THRIVING IN THE INTERNET AGE
Doja Cat released her debut EP, Purrr!, in 2014 and her first album Amala (2018), to little effect. It wasn't until Doja, who was well versed in internet culture, released her satirical track “Mooo!” later in 2018 that people started to pay attention.
The novelty song went viral and transformed the artiste into a meme. Doja Cat then released her second album Hot Pink in 2019, which landed her the ninth spot on the Billboard 200 charts.
With her Missy Elliott-inspired absurd and surreal humour combined with the colourful dance-pop style and aesthetic of Nicki Minaj, few other hip-hop artistes harness the power of social media like Doja: the Queen of the Internet Age.
Press play to discover more trailblazing women in hip-hop.
Want to read more on hip-hop and rap? Take a look at:
- The Origins of Conscious Rap
- Unforgettable R&B Singers that Advanced the Genre
Hip-Hop, A Pillar Of New York – Circa 1970s
- Cold Hearts and Fiery Beats: The Circuitous Rise of UK Rap
- 10 Female Electronic Music Producers Defining the Sound of the Future
Cover Credit: A Paper Creative
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.