Queens with Microphones.
Hip-hop always existed similar to comic book characters; many heroes, many villains. With that comes the female rapper: the female heroine (or villainess) that lets you know that the ladies are indeed represented, skilled, and not forgotten.
I love hip-hop. I love hip-hop culture. Like any genre of music or cultural artifact there are in fact the good and the bad to factor in. Right now I am concerned with the female rapper concept; I believe that they are being pigeon-holed into one uniform product that is the most simplistic in design, which isn’t exactly intellectually pleasing. With that said, I’m going to reflect on past lady rappers as well as the present, with a couple of highlights in between. Some will be those you might want to listen to, and others may make you cringe. This serves as part two of my hip-hop documentary series, part one dealing with the extinction (or evolution) of wack rappers. With that said, let us begin…
Breaking Ground, The First to Rock the Mic
While many folks think that Lady B was the first female rapper, actually it was MC Sha-Rock(Sharon Green) who lays claim to the original crown. Starting around 1976, she was a standing member of a pioneer rap group called the Funky 4 +1 More. At the time, the group was considered the Gladys Knight and the Pips of hip-hop. Within hip-hop historian circles, she is considered the Mother of the Mic. Diminutive in size in comparison to her male group members, her style was highly energetic and she stood out the most when rapping with her male peers. Out of her group, she’s certainly the most remembered. She currently has been appointed National Advisor for the Cornell University Hip-Hop Library.
Lady B (Wendy Clark) out of Philadelphia, became the first female artist to release a full length studio rap record in 1979. She soon transitioned into a radio DJ in the 1980′s, and as a radio DJ she became the most influential lady in the hip-hop radio industry. If you enjoy West Coast and your Southern favorites, she’s the one to thank; she aided in expanding hip-hop outside of New York. She also assisted in jump starting the careers of Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, King Sun, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and Cash Money. With her still relevant influence on the game, she is ultimately considered the “Godmother of hip-hop.” Never leaving the game, she is now broadcasting for Sirius Satellite Radio in New York City, and WRNB 100.3 in Philly.
The 80′s: Finding Definition
The Eighties was an era full of individualism. Rockers wore face paint with big hair. There were androgynous men who experimented with numerous musical concepts. Others lit up sidewalks by walking on them. With the eighties came the first female rap group – Salt-n-Pepa – in 1985. The rap trio consisted of Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa), and Deidra Roper (DJ Spinderella). Yes, even their turntablist DJ was a woman. Easily influenced by rap trio Run-D.M.C., this all-lady rap crew rapped about diverse ideas and concepts, which in turn broke down a number of doors for women in rap music. They were also one of the first rap groups to cross over into the popular mainstream, laying the groundwork for the music’s widespread acceptance in the early nineties.
Ushering an feminist awareness that later buttressed the nineties conscious rap styles, MC Lyte(Lana Michele Moorer) graced the world of hip-hop in 1988. MC Lyte is considered among the greatest rap pioneers, ever. If the rap game was analogous to comic book characters, MC Lyte is easily a high-flying, powerful heroine that villains really don’t wanna fuck with. She is parallel to KRS-One in levels of hip-hop seriousness. Any girl who wishes to be a rapper one day, I suggest giving her a healthy dose of MC Lyte, first. From Brooklyn, New York, MC Lyte is the first female rapper to directly point out the sexism and misogyny in hip-hop in her songs. On top of that, she also was a profound storyteller; her stories would allow listeners to peer into a pensive woman. Her stories dealt with honest scenarios such as heartbreak, death, loss, said from a woman’s perspective. This technique was later followed by rappers Eve and Lauryn Hill. On that note, she had a level of vulnerability that was perfectly balanced with her lyrical roughhousing capabilities. Her lyrical content and composition opened the door for acceptance of ladies such as Queen Latifah and laid the groundwork for Missy Elliott.
Further ushering the nineties was Queen Latifah (Dana Owens) in 1988 and Monie Love (Simone Wilson) in 1989. Both were a part of the Native Tongue collective. While Monie Love enjoyed two albums of playful lyricism, Queen Latifah took social awareness and Afrocentricity to a whole new level. While male rappers fought to be King of New York or King of the West, she was simply a Queen, period. The Queen — long before the “Queen Bee” harlot movement. She wore Afrocentric crowns, and they still remain a part of her residual image. With singles likeU.N.I.T.Y., you couldn’t find a greater demand for respect and community. Much like the Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah later dove into acting, starring in both movies (Set It Off) and sitcoms (Living Single). Among the most important pioneers, she remains a multi-talent with a career path to envy.
The Nineties has begun.
With California gaining dominance thanks to NWA affiliates, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Lady of Rage (Robin Yvette Allen, 1991) and Da Brat (Shawntae Harris) brought it hardcore from the West Coast. Both were very tomboyish in style of dress. Jermaine Dupri had a hand in da Brat’s image being that she was intended to be a female counterpart to Snoop Dogg; she later would shed that image. Da Brat’s debut album in 1994, Funkdafied, sold one million copies making her the first female solo rapper to have a platinum-selling album. Lady of Rage, being a lyrical technician, was interviewed for the making of the book How to Rap. She laid down much of her technique and the importance of having different styles of flow, good vocabulary, pauses, researching reference material, etc.
With MC Lyte and Queen Latifah still rapping the positivity game, the nineties ushered a golden age for rap music, with various styles and tropes of lady rappers. Lauryn Hill first made her appearance with the Fugees in 1994, and later dropped a hip-hop essential, masterpiece album,The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1997. Lauryn Hill seemed like a woman beyond her time; in the wake of the “rap diva” trope she stuck to her guns reminiscent of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and didn’t make it a point to be stripperific in dress. Her natural hair styles was also a message. Unlike the rap diva, Lauryn Hill was immensely lyrical, and her Afrocentric essence along side of her intelligent lyrical content won the hearts of millions of sapiophiles. She was also a multi-talent, she often sung on her work, and she was the best reason to watch Sister Act 2. Lauryn Hill since has developed a cult-like following in hip-hop, and regardless if she drops a new album or not she still remains a relevant force in music, with her essence and spirit in high demand.
Out of Virginia, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (Melissa Elliot) proved to be a futuristic, new type of lady of war when she picked up the mic. A childhood friend of master beatsmithe Timbaland, it’s understood that she is as just as good producing as he is. Missy first worked on tracks for Aaliyah, Total, and 702. Her first album Supa Dupa Fly (1997) proved early that she can harmonize, sing, as well as rap. On the production of her first album, I’ll say that she was certainly a rapper who came before her time. Elliott is the only female rapper to have six albums certified platinum, with one album Under Construction (2002) double platinum. Missy Elliot always had a very psychedelic, eccentric style, and her lyrical versatility makes her a rap powerhouse. No one’s ready to fuck with Missy. She collabs a lot with MC Lyte. As a songwriter and producer she has worked with artists such as Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson, as well as Ciara and Monica. Missy Elliot is certainly on of the heroes in the rap game, being that she always adapting to the times, staying relevant regardless of generational change.
Harlot Rap and The Diva Wars.
With hip-hop growing into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, the hardcore lady rap branched out into a new concept: The Rap Diva/Harlot Rapper. Lil’Kim (Kimberly Jones) and Foxy Brown (Inga Marchand) are accredited as the first in this new “Rap Diva” division, and they were the primary ones who defined this rapper trope and their influences remain an element to female rappers current today. The story follows the similar design of the fiercest of personal rivalries: Inga and Kim were actually high school friends. Despite becoming Lil Kim and Foxy Brown and joining rival rap factions (Junior Mafia, The Firm) they still remained somewhat close. In pioneering and codifying the rap diva trope, these two women’s formula consisted in exaggerating sex appeal. Extreme and edgy, the rap diva was very stripperific in appearance and very illicit; they were not ones to hold their tongue on sexual conquests, and the hardcore demeanor was much spent on being in your face in telling detail of what goes when fucking them. They bragged about sucking, fucking, swallowing, and all types of harlot activities. While MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were well covered, these two made it a point to expose skin. Are they heroes or villains here?
With their parallel personas and image, the rivalry came to a start after both of their debut studio albums were scheduled for release a week apart in 1996. Similarities between the album art of Kim’s Hard Core and Brown’s Ill Na Na were made… as well as the lyrical content. The biggest rap beef between lady rappers was born. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown got into the most beefs out of all female rap artists. Beefs Lil’ Kim got into involved Foxy Brown, Shine, Charli Baltimore, and Nicki Menaj. Beefs Foxy Brown got into involved the following: Lil’ Kim, Eve, Jay-Z (a mentor), Charli Baltimore, MC Lyte (huh?), Lady of Rage, Queen Latifah (what?), Ms. Jade, Nas (another mentor), 50 Cent, Lisa Left-Eye (why?), Trina, and Jacki-O. Foxy Brown got into a lot of fights.
There’s something that needs to be said about the diva ego. In throughout all the years of their feud, Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim could have obviously focused more on how alike they were. They both scrapped their concept collaborative album Thelma & Louise. A Kim and Foxy collab album? Talk about missing out. In sacrificing lyrical prowess for focusing on exaggerated sexual attention, rap divas heavily relied on other rappers to write their work; this is the precise reason why they often shared the verbal register of their writers, Foxy Brown with Nas and Jay-Z in her early years, and Kim with Biggie (all the “uh” sounds). Nonetheless, these two ladies redefined what it meant to be a female rapper and to this day their impact is seen. Trina (Katrina Laverne Taylor) and Jacki-O (Angela Kohn) one of the many who will adopt this style in the near future. The overwhelming majority of mainstream female rappers will now at least keep a layer of “raunchy” in their playbook.
Tragedy and Loss
Left-Eye of the R&B group TLC (Lisa Lopes) brought rap flavor to a singing trio in 1990. With a high-flying flow better than many lady rappers, she eventually branched out as a rapper collaborating with many another artists a decade later. Before she truly began as a solo rap artist, tragically a vehicular accident claimed her life in 2002. Happening around the same time as singer Aaliyah’s death, losing two icons in one year was too painful for hip-hop fans to absorb. After the deaths of Biggie, Pac, Big Pun… the realization that we can lose our women too, was gut wrenching.
Late Nineties, First Ladies, and the Millennials
As the new millennium moved in within arms reach, our heroines either got tougher or raunchier. Many were lyrical powerhouses… others were rap harlots… and few were both. Some ladies of war dove into gladiator battles; women battle rapping are among the most gruesome fights you’d ever witness. MCs such as Jean Grae (Tsidi Ibrahim) and Lady Luck (Shanell Jones) remain underground favorites, Female Gladiators who will slay anyone before them — man or woman.
With record companies becoming the new crews and teams, the late nineties gave us the concept of the “crew girl”, a concept that pushed every record label to have their First Lady representing them. The ladies who were crowned First Lady of a record label crew was usually highly skilled lyricists and made their way through the dredges, battling their way to the top. Rah Digga (Rashia Fisher, 1995) represented Flipmode Squad, Amil (Amil Whitehead, 1997) Rocafella Records, Eve(Eve Jihan Jeffers, 1998) Ruff Ryders, and Remy Ma (Reminisce Smith, 1999) Terror Squad, respectively. The first lady seems new when it took place, but if you read this far you’d realize that this is just a call-back to the style of the old; MC Sha-Rock — the first lady MC — was technically the first lady of a crew herself. The first lady concept was largely a composite of a few prior rap concepts: 1. Rap Harlot, got to have sexiness up front; 2. Battle Rapper, must be as hard as the guys; with 3. allowing space for other variables. With the different crews, the first lady rapper is certainly an idea that continues to have staying power.
The Future and Beyond?
Filling a void for the new generation of listeners, Nicki Menaj (Onika Tanya Maraj) signed toYoung Money Entertainment. She released the LP Pink Friday in 2010, peaking number one on billboard 200 and was certified platinum. In fact, her single Super Bass, went platinum eight times. Also, Minaj became the first female solo artist to have seven singles charting on the Billboard Hot 100… at the same time.
“I really loved [Foxy Brown] as a female rapper. I was really interested in her mind and her aura, I was really, really into Jay-Z. Me and my friends in high school, we were reciting all of the Jay lyrics. His words were our words in our conversations all the time. I never really told Foxy how much she has influenced me and how much she changed my life, and you’ve gotta tell people that when they’re alive to even be able to take the compliment, instead of paying tribute to them when they’re no longer here.”
“Foxy [Brown], [Lil] Kim, Lauryn [Hill], and then Remy [Ma]. You know when Remy came out, I was very, very excited about her. They were all from New York too. It’s no disrespect to any other female rappers, but those are the ones that I felt like, ‘Ok, yeah. I could get into that.’ They sounded like me when I spoke, and I just thought they really made an impact.” ~ Nicki Menaj on rap influences
Nicki Menaj is a composite rapper; taking a bit of eccentricity of Missy Elliott, the harlot styles of Foxy and Trina, the wigs of Lil’ Kim; Nicki Menaj became the most-charted female rapper in the history. She is noted for her fast flow, and her ability to shift styles (and personalities, “alter-egos”) throughout her songs to the point of doing British accents.
“She picked a fight with Foxy, then she picked a fight with Eve, then she picked a fight with Remy, then it was Mrs. Wallace, then it was Nicki Minaj. Every time you in the news, it’s ’cause you gettin’ at somebody! Where’s your music? Put your music out, and when I see your name on Billboard, that’s when I’ll respond to you. Other than that, goodbye. It’s Barbie, bitch” ~ Nicki Menaj on Lil’ Kim’s beef with her
It is a thing known that the pioneer divas — our first harlot rappers — get into a LOT of fights. With a new highly successful composite rapper and a few wrong words, it’s only a matter of time before beef begins. Nicki Menaj’s biggest beef was with Lil’ Kim, being that Pink Friday and Nicki’s style of dress (pink and blonde wigs, dead-giveaway) is a play taken directly out of Lil’ Kim’s playbook. Lil’ Kim’s response to her was an album called “Black Friday” which depicted artwork with Kim cutting Minaj’s head off. Rappers from all sides have things to say about this beef. Some say Nicki should respect those who paved the way for her; others say Kim is wrong for jump starting a beef.
While there’s other lady rappers out there, Nicki Menaj is on top of the world right now… not done all by herself, but by being well-studied and utilizing the different ways that went before her. She also has a profound social media presence, using Twitter more than any other rapper. Perhaps this is the future of our artists?
Thoughts on What’s to Come
As a man who loves his music and loves his women, I love to see women get along, mass collab on tracks like the one I’m ending this with. No more petty beefs between each other; Thelma and Louise. I can only hope that the next aspiring female MC knows and understands that she doesn’t have to be the way the record company’s A&R says she has to be. I hope that when she pries that mic from the microphone stand… with firm intent on rocking it… she knows that many women from various walks of life have walked her path. I simply wish for ladies to be inspired by more than female rappers who chase controversy to sell albums, or show copious amounts of skin. Will they check this article and take a look at all of those who walked before them? Only time will tell.