The Evolution of Women in Hip-Hop
In the process of producing and presenting a specialist radio show on women in hip-hop, I have learnt a surprising amount about the lack of exposure and opportunity offered to female artists in this male-dominated industry. Thus, I felt it necessary to conclude my stint on air by summarising these findings in an article. Just like the structure of my show, I shall highlight how hip-hop music, specifically released by women, has evolved from the 1980s to the present day.
Firstly, let me define hip-hop. It’s sometimes difficult to categorise a song as hip-hop or RnB as blurred lines do exist between the two and a lot of it is down to personal opinion. This is made increasingly difficult by the introduction of Hip-Hop Soul in the 90s. The Collins Dictionary defines hip-hop as a ‘US pop culture movement originating in the 1980s comprising rap music, graffiti, and break dancing’. However, I think it also often tells us a story about a rapper’s life and experiences. So, where do women fit into all of this?
80s – Ladies First
Kick-starting in the 1980s, I discovered just a handful of female rappers and, as a result, the show consisted of only four hip-hop tracks. This is immediately revealing of the lack of representation women were to experience for years to come.
My hip-hop journey began by watching Roxanne Roxanne, a 2017 Netflix film about the life and career of the unsung artist Roxanne Shante. At the age of 14, Shante appears to have become the first female MC to gain a level of notoriety with her freestyle, Roxanne’s Revenge. The Roxanne Wars between herself and Sparky D are some of her best-known work, but by 1994 her career was largely over. Salt-N-Pepa were next on the scene with their 1986 hit, Push It, and, sadly for Shante, have since been awarded the honorific title, The First Ladies of Rap and Hip-Hop. MC Lyte and Queen Latifah also followed in suit with releases that exude female empowerment. Both women chose pro-feminist titles and lyrics such as: ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ (I Am Woman, MC Lyte) and ‘Believe me when I say being a woman is great’ (Ladies First, Queen Latifah & Monie Love). Lyte is considered the first solo female rapper to release a full album with Lyte As A Rock and Latifah’s All Hail The Queen was unusually popular for a hip-hop album at the time. Interestingly, the work of these female MC’s has withstood the test of time as, out of only eight tracks recorded by women on the VH1’s Top 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time, all four feature.
90s – Big Bad Mama’s
The inspirational icons of the 80s continued into the 90s with Queen Latifah’s notable release, U.N.I.T.Y., which became one of the first songs to address the disrespect towards women in hip-hop culture and, more widely, society. The song includes the lyrics directed at women, ‘you ain’t a b***h or a hoe,’ and, due to its message, many radio stations chose not to censor those words. Queen Latifah set such a precedent with U.N.I.T.Y. that it won her a Grammy Award in 1995 and was actually the inspiration behind my whole show. Likewise, Salt-N-Pepa carried their provocative music into the next decade with the 1990 release, Let’s Talk About Sex, which encouraged people to talk more openly about their sexual encounters. This was ground-breaking at the time and has etched this outspoken girl group’s name into hip-hop’s history.
1997 was a huge year for women in hip-hop as it saw the emergence of two leading ladies, Foxy Brown and Missy Elliott. Foxy Brown’s distinctive voice holds its own against Jay Z in I’ll Be and, as the title suggests, she delivers a fiery performance in Big Bad Mama. Both of her tracks are featured on the R&B Classics Collection playlist on Spotify (I would recommend giving it a listen). Foxy Brown had a very impressive career but sadly suffered from hearing loss in later life. The album Supa Dupa Fly launched Missy Elliott’s solo career with excellent tracks like The Rain and Sock It 2 Me. Although, both women appear to have been given a helping hand by men as Elliott’s childhood friend Timbaland produced this album; this is the unfortunate reality about the hip-hop industry, and many other industries, there seems to be a constant, inescapable male presence.
The term Hip-Hop Soul was also coined in the 90s by P.Diddy as he promoted Mary J. Blige’s debut album, What’s the 411? (of which he was executive producer), after which Blige became known as The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. This subgenre consists of mid-tempo R&B ballads sung over hip-hop beats. Lastly, one of my faves from the 90s was Not Tonight which saw a legendary collab between Lil’ Kim, Angie Martinez, Left Eye, Da Brat and Missy Elliott, really showing what women can create when they come together.
00s – Goodies
The 00’s appear to be the decade of sexualisation as a feminine reinvention of hip-hop was headed by none other than the seductive Junior Mafia member, Lil’ Kim. This was a vast change from the stereotypically ‘hardened’ persona of a hip-hop artist. Lil’ Kim caused controversy due to her overtly sexualised image and she has arguably paved the way for modern day artists like Saweetie. Even her lyrics are oozing with sex, ‘I got the magic clit,’ ‘I sex a n***a so good, he gotta tell his boys,’ and ‘It’s the drugs baby, I’m makin’ ya high,’ (Magic Stick feat. 50 Cent) which could be viewed as her taking ownership of the typically misogynistic ‘sex, drugs and money’ narrative. Whether this translates, I’m unsure.
The early 2000s looked promising for women in hip-hop, with an array of 2001 top ten’s including Family Affair (Mary J. Blige), Let Me Blow Ya Mind (Eve & Gwen Stefani) and Get Ur Freak On (Missy Elliott). Eve also released her platinum album Scorpion and the Grammys introduced a category for Best Female Rap Solo Performance in 2003. Crunk, a more up-tempo and heavy bassline form of hip-hop, gained mainstream success through Ciara’s 2004 hit, Goodies. Even Britain was catching on with Ms. Dynamite’s infectious tune, Dy-Na-Mi-Tee. But only two years later, the Grammys retracted their progressive award as fewer female MC’s were being signed to major labels. Thus, the mid-2000s marked the end of hip-hop until it resurfaced as we know it today.
10s – Shade
Compared to the four hip-hop songs of the 80s, my present-day show had an overwhelming 19 tracks. However, this does not necessarily mean that the exposure for women has increased as only Nicki Minaj and Cardi B have managed to reach mainstream success – have you heard of Dej Loaf, Young MA or Princess Nokia? As an example of this, I conducted a small survey within the University of Birmingham and, out of ten people asked to name five female rappers (excluding Cardi and Nicki), none could complete the task, with seven failing to name any at all. In actual fact, hip-hop seemed more promising for women back in the day. In comparison to over 40 women signed to major labels in the 90s and 00s, by 2010 there were only three. The Queen with the formidable flow, Nicki Minaj, was one of these few and Pink Friday became the first album by a female MC to go platinum in eight years. Equally, when Cardi B rose to fame with Bodak Yellow in 2017, she was one of only four female rappers to be signed to Atlantic Records. Bodak Yellow spent three weeks at number one and, consequently, became the longest reigning number one by a female rapper, ever.
Pitchfork suggests that ‘the mainstream doesn’t support more than one woman in rap at a time’. It is therefore important for female artists to support each other and not follow in the footsteps of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B who came to blows at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party. Clearly the media are seeking to portray these powerful women as rivals and this happens all too often. Nicki referred to the beef between the two in her 2018 song, Chun-Li, in which she raps, ‘Oh, I get it, they paintin’ me out to be the bad guy’ and ‘They need rappers like me / So they can get on their f*****g keyboards / And make me the bad guy, Chun-Li’. Chun-Li is a street fighting character, inferring Nicki’s refusal to be booted from the limelight.
Additionally, it’s really interesting to observe how female hip-hop artists have evolved from the innocent, empowering messages of Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah to the overly sexualised content released by artists such as Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. I’m not saying that Cardi or Nicki aren’t feminists, or whatever they define themselves to be, as I believe it’s such a difficult industry to hold your own in as a woman; but if you compare song titles such as Cardi and City Girls’ recent release Twerk to that of MC Lyte’s I Am Woman, it’s easy to see where I’m coming from.
This is possibly as a result of the commodification of current hip-hop artists. If it wasn’t already hard enough for women, American rapper Rick Ross made a rather conceited comment back in 2017 in which he described his reasons for not signing female rappers, “I never did it because I always thought, like, I would end up f*****g a female rapper and f*****g the business up”. This resulted in a survey of other hip-hop record labels by Pitchfork in which they discovered that none have signed more than two female rappers and three have signed none at all. Further statistics show that fewer than 20 female rappers have received mainstream attention and reached the top 20 since 2000 compared to over 180 men. Fair enough if this was because men genuinely had more talent but, having completed this journey, and in the process having discovered some amazing female artists, I find that very hard to believe. Furthermore, the majority of the women who did break the top 20 either featured a male artist or were featured on a male rapper’s song (i.e. Lean Back, Terror Squad feat. Remy Ma). Two issues seem to co-exist – the ability for a female rapper to be signed to a label and the disinterest in a non-sexualised message.
Onwards – GREY Area
So, what does the future hold for women in hip-hop? I acknowledge that this article has largely covered American artists as this is where hip-hop originated but there appears to be a small rise in young female MC’s from the UK. It’s refreshing to see the likes of Little Simz and Ms Banks rising onto the scene in 2019. Simz tweeted recently, ‘You wouldn’t believe how many ignored me, told me ‘no’ and turned a blind eye. NEVER stop believing in yourself,’ which consolidates my point that, even today, it’s so hard for female rappers to get the same exposure as male. As for the USA, it’s nice to see Rico Nasty doing her own individual thing and, with her recent signing to Atlantic Records, we’ll hopefully be seeing more from her soon. Nonetheless, the problem for female rappers remains, they must work against the odds to get the notoriety and representation they deserve. Maybe the hip-hop industry is in much need of a female-run record label?
Make sure you check out my Spotify playlist: The Evolution of Women in Hip-Hop.
Written by Char Stape.