Discussions of influential women in hip-hop are almost always prefaced by their gender. This might seem necessary in the context of the genre’s male-dominated history, but it seems more reductive than ever to pigeonhole women and discuss them separately. Skills are skills, and plenty of women have proven they can go toe-to-toe with some of the most respected men in the game.
Still, a quick glance through history shows us that women have been taken more seriously when they had an influential cosign, or when they broke out as the ‘first lady’ of a crew or a label. This doesn’t diminish their success, but it does highlight the ongoing misogyny which insinuates that women are only worthy of radio play when they come up under a male mentor. Thankfully, this blueprint seems increasingly outdated. Plenty of self-made women are now blazing trails and earning serious credibility on the back of their lyrical sensibilities – but how much has changed, and when did it happen?
It’s difficult to trace early trailblazers, but Millie Jackson changed the game forever in 1974 when she dropped Caught Up, a honey-drizzled concept album about heartbreak, infidelity and the emotional complexities of love. A modern classic in its own right, the LP sees Jackson’s soulful voice switch easily between seduction and raw, unfiltered emotion. But the album is noteworthy for a reason other than its brilliance. "The Rap" still stands as a stellar example of the new perspectives women could bring to the then-nascent genre of hip-hop; over the course of six minutes, Jackson waxes lyrical on everything from the solitude of being in love with a married man to the unexpected perks: “You don’t have to wash nobody’s funky drawers but your own!”
As hip-hop artistry continued to flourish, the growing popularity of battle rap circuits enabled more and more young women to come up. The Roxanne Wars are a particularly legendary example; in 1984, hip-hop group UTFO dropped out of an upcoming show, leaving DJ Mr. Magic and producer Marley Marl pissed. In an extremely fortuitous series of events, a 14-year-old girl overheard the two men complaining about the group and offered to put out a diss record which used the group’s track, "Roxanne, Roxanne," as a starting point. They agreed, and the resulting record, "Roxanne’s Revenge," became legendary, selling over 250,000 copies and launching the career of Roxanne Shanté, still hailed as one of the best in the game. This opened the floodgates for a slew of influential rappers throughout the late 1980s: there was MC Lyte, Shanté, Queen Latifah and iconic duo Salt-N-Pepa, all of whom proved women could go toe-to-toe with some of the most respected men in hip-hop.
Women including Left Eye, Da Brat and the legendary Lauryn Hill all made major waves in the early 1990s, but the decade’s latter years ushered in a new wave of cocky, sex-positive stars who irreversibly altered the face of hip-hop. Around this time, some of the most revered men in the game were cosigning young women by mentoring them, bringing them into rap crews and giving them prestigious guest spots. Lil’ Kim is an iconic example; the Brooklyn-born rapper came up under Notorious B.I.G. and famously had everybody shook when she dropped a series of blistering verses on Junior M.A.F.I.A’s Conspiracy album in 1995, plenty of which were unashamedly sexual: “Grab on your dick as this bitch gets deep / Deeper than the pussy of a bitch 6 feet.” This was the world’s first introduction to an icon whose 1996 debut Hard Core was a defiant example of a woman reclaiming her own sexuality. Kim’s pussy, Kim’s rules.
While Kim was earning a reputation as the first lady of Junior M.A.F.I.A., another young rapper named Foxy Brown was earning serious street cred. Named after Pam Grier’s sexed-up, badass character in the 1974 film Foxy Brown, the star became the subject of a major label bidding war which eventually saw her signed to Def Jam. Like Kim, Brown spat some eye-wateringly explicit lyrics (like her standout verse on Ludacris’ "What’s Your Fantasy" remix) and caught the attention of industry greats; LL Cool J enlisted her skills for his "I Shot Ya" remix, JAY-Z became her regular collaborator and mentor, and even Nas recruited her for hip-hop supergroup The Firm. Kim and Foxy were also quickly embroiled in a beef which is still yet to be squashed, exemplifying the industry mentality which loves to pit women against each other.
It’s worth pointing out that the cosign is by no means gender-specific – Drake, Kanye and Kendrick all had their early successes buoyed by high-profile contemporaries – but this model did allow women to be taken seriously quickly. Rap crews began to recruit ‘first ladies’: Terror Squad had Remy Ma, Ruff Ryderz had Eve, Crime Mob had Diamond and Princess, DTP had Shawnna, G-Unit had Olivia and even Death Row had the Lady of Rage. Women were emerging thick and fast, establishing close working relationships with hip-hop veterans; there was Trina’s gloriously filthy verse on Trick Daddy’s "Nann," Missy Elliott’s tight back catalogue with Timbaland and a slew of lesser-known names including Ms. Jade, Vita and Amil, who all featured on high-profile bangers but never quite took off.
During this same time, independent artists including Jean Grae, Gangsta Boo, Jacki-O (whose Foxy diss track "TKO" is the stuff of legend) and La Chat were building impressive bodies of work, but the biggest success stories were those of women mentored by men. Even Nicki Minaj – arguably the most successful woman in rap history – began her mind-blowing upward trajectory when she was spotted and signed by Lil Wayne.
However, things seem to have been changing. It’s no secret that the internet has democratized the music industry, making it easier than ever for artists to build their own brand and blow up online. Azealia Banks is one of the first high-profile women to do it, uploading early cuts "Gimme a Chance" and "Seventeen" online before being scouted by XL Records. She may have experienced label drama and fought tooth and nail to finally release her full-length debut Broke With Expensive Taste, but Banks teamed a viral hit (the seminal "212") with a series of beyond incredible EPs and mixtapes (if you haven’t heard Fantasea you seriously need to) to make a name for herself. Sure, there were countless well-documented beefs, but Banks’ creativity is exemplary of a new generation effortlessly blending genres to spectacular effect.
Princess Nokia is another young woman experimenting with disparate soundscapes and building an impressively eclectic back catalogue in the process. Her musical portfolio is genre-fluid, but the industry truly took notice when she focussed her energy into hip-hop on 1992, which was quickly snapped up, expanded and re-released as a deluxe edition by Rough Trade. Like legends such as Left Eye, Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa before her, Nokia incorporates discussions of social justice into her lyrics and proudly wears her heritage on her sleeve, eschewing well-worn lyrical subjects in favor of discussing life as an outsider, spirituality, and beauty standards. She also genuinely practices what she preaches, recently making headlines for throwing soup at a racist. Her presence in hip-hop is a breath of fresh air, whereas her ability to pull from the musical lineage of riot grrrl and punk as well as hip-hop sets her apart from her contemporaries.
As representation has increased, so has diversity. No longer do we see just one tokenized example of women in rap; we have CupcakKe, whose X-rated rhymes and increasingly polished flow have earned her a dedicated fanbase of ‘slurpers;' there’s JunglePussy, whose laid-back rhymes and effortless swagger are endlessly endearing; there’s also the biggest success story of 2017, Cardi B, whose razor-sharp wit and impressive ability to switch her flow at the drop of a hat make her one of the most sought-after women in the game right now. Like more and more young women in rap, Cardi didn’t need a cosign – all she needed was mega-hit "Bodak Yellow." Countless insightful features have politicized her come-up – with some describing the Afro-Latina’s triumph over Taylor Swift as the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to Trump’s America – but the truth is that she’s simply an underdog we all love to root for and her skills are unmatched. She may have had help from reality TV and now be engaged to Migos’ Offset, but she’s still self-made in a way which is undeniably inspiring.
Things are even changing across the pond, with the likes of Nadia Rose, Lady Leshurr and Ms. Banks rising through the ranks of the UK’s iconic grime scene. Meanwhile, Stefflon Don effortlessly rides dancehall beats and spits patois-laced rhymes which have cemented her status as one of the most exciting women in music right now. Both misogyny and homophobia in rap may still be commonplace, but things are shifting – the internet has allowed women to carve out their creative vision with little label interference, and without the need for a high-profile cosign. New hits are dropping left, right and center (Quay Dash’s "Decline Him," Saweetie’s "ICY GRL" and Bbymutha’s "Rules" are just a few stellar examples of the last months) whereas established vets like Nicki and Remy are consistently dropping bangers and upholding their respective reputations as icons.
Never has there been a more exciting time for women in hip-hop, largely because society is moving towards a model which categorizes artists by their talent as opposed to their gender. We need to talk about the history of women in rap because trailblazers have fought deeply-ingrained sexism and misogyny to get to where they are, but it’s also time to change the conversation and acknowledge that some of the best women in the game could easily body their male counterparts in a rap battle. Respected men may have leveraged their positions of power to break the careers of some of the greatest women in rap history, but today’s increasingly digital music industry means that no cosign is needed to break through; now more than ever it’s about talent, and countless women are stepping up to prove they’re well-equipped to lyrically spar with the best in the business.
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