Evolution of Women in Hip Hop Part One
By: Dame Davis
Earlier this summer, Jermaine Dupri caught a lot of flack for comments he made about the state of Women in Hip Hop in 2019. Now whatever side of the argument you fall on, one thing that is pretty much evident is that the early Female MC’s in Hip Hop were perceived in a different light than some of the Women today. I definitely want to pay homage and celebrate the careers of these pioneers in Hip Hop.
I want to start off talking about the Woman that is known as 'The Mother of the Mic'. I'm talking about the one and only MC Sha-Rock. She is the first Female MC and a member of Funky 4+1. She began as a local b-girl, or breakdancer, in the early days of the South Bronx hip hop scene and culture in the late 1970s. Up until this point, almost all of the Pioneer groups in Hip Hop were all male. So the fact that Sha-Rock was seen as a equal to the guys in her group was amazing.
The group's first significant hits was "Rapping and Rocking the House" on Sugarhill Records in 1979 as well as "That's the Joint" in 1980.
On February 14, 1981, The Funky 4 + 1 were introduced as New York City "street rappers" from the Bronx along with headlining musical guests Blondie with its lead singer Debbie Harry on Saturday Night Live. The Funky 4 + 1's appearance reflected a local connection that introduced the uptown musical youth of the Bronx and Harlem to the downtown Lower East Side scenes of graffiti art and music that was represented with the original hip-hop artists playing themselves in the 1983 film Wild Style.
In 1984, a 14 year old rapper from Queensbridge Projects cemented her legacy in the history of Hip Hop. Roxanne Shante joined Marley Marl and the Juice Crew and immediately made a impact by starting a feud with rap trio U.T.F.O.. As the story goes, U.T.F.O. was supposed to perform at a concert promoted by Mr. Magic and they never showed up. So Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, and Tyrone Wiliams were discussing the failed appearance of the group and tried to come up with a way to retaliate. Shante approached them about recording a diss record going at the group and they agreed to let her do it. U.T.F.O. had recently released a single called "Hanging Out," which did not gain much critical acclaim; however, the B-side "Roxanne, Roxanne", about a woman who would not respond to their advances, became a hit. Shante created a rebuttal to the song posing as the Roxanne and went at each member of the group. Marley Marl produced the song using the original beats from an instrumental version of "Roxanne, Roxanne" and the song "Roxanne's Revenge" was born.
The track became an instant hit and made Shante very popular among rap fans. Following this, the "Roxanne Wars" started, and Shante continued to rap and started touring. In 1985, Shante released a record together with Sparky D, who had dissed her before in her track "Sparky's Turn, Roxanne You're Through" for disrespecting U.T.F.O. and being too young to be in rap battles.
The record called "Round One, Roxanne Shanté vs Sparky Dee" was released by Spin Records and included six tracks: the two original battle tracks ("Roxanne's Revenge" and "Sparky's Turn") as well as "Roxanne's Profile" by Shante, "Sparky's Profile" by Sparky D and a battle track, in which the two rappers freestyle and dis each other, in a censored and an uncensored version. Other hits included "Have a Nice Day” and “Go on Girl".
When it comes to groups in Hip Hop, very few, whether male or female put together the kind of career that Salt-N-Pepa did. They had a deadly combination of sexy, cool, and toughness that no other group could really compete with…..and besides all of that, they made some really dope songs.
They came together as a group in 1985, and were down with Producer Hurby Luv Bug. The Group members included Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spinderella. The group eventually signed a record deal with Next Plateau Records. They are actually responsible for one of my earliest memories of hearing Hip Hop in public. In 1987 I was in the 3rd grade, and we used to go on yearly field trips to the rollerskating rink Hot Skates on Long Island in NY. The rink would play all the top 40 hits of the day, and for some reason I never forgot hearing of one my favorite songs from that era blasting over the loud speakers of the rink. The group released their first single "Push It" on March 8, 1987. The song was a hit and became number one in three countries and became a Top Ten or Top Twenty hit in various other countries.
Their debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious sold more than a million copies worldwide, making them the first female rap act to achieve gold and platinum-status. Another one of my favorite songs from that first album is “Tramp”. The video was the first time I noticed Kid ‘n Play, who had a prominent role in the story and was another group produced by Hurby Luv Bug.
Their next album, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa was released on July 26, 1988. The album ended up going gold and sold over 600,000 copies in the U.S. and a total of 800,000 internationally. The album contained another one of my favorite songs from that era, the Top Ten R&B hit "Shake Your Thang", featuring the go-go band E.U..
Blacks' Magic was their third album and was released in 1990. It was a critical and commercial success, the album peaked at #38 on the Billboard 200, #15 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop album charts and was certified Platinum by the RIAA. The album featured four hit singles, three of which made it to the top 10 of the Hot Rap Singles chart. My favorite song and video from this album would definitely have to be “Expression”. The song was both written and produced by Salt.
The group continued to drop quality songs and videos from this album. Two more of my favorite songs from this album were “Independent”, a song speaking on a Woman’s right to be independent from a man and handling her business without any assistance. The second song was “Do You Want Me”, which was about getting to know someone on a more platonic level first before being intimate.
Their fourth album ‘Very Necessary’ completely solidified the group’s status in Hip Hop as one of the top selling artists of all-time, male or female. They sold over 7 million copies worldwide, making it the highest-selling album by a female rap act in history. The group would win the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for their song "None Of Your Business".
By this point in their career, Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spinderella had already planted their flag in the ground as not only the greatest Women’s group of all time, but also one of the greatest groups period. They still dropped two more classic songs and videos from this album, “Shoop” and “Whatta Man” ft. En Vogue.
While Salt, Pepa, and DJ Spindarella were setting records and making history, a young Brooklyn MC started to hone her craft in the mid 80’s. MC Lyte began recording her first track at age 14, although it took around two to three years before it was able to be released. At age 17 in 1988, she released her first song, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)”, about the crack epidemic and its impact on relationships.
In September 1988, Lyte released her first album, Lyte as a Rock, The album was noted for the hits "Paper Thin", its title track, and the battle rap "10% Dis", a response from then-Hurby Azor associate Antoinette.
Before Lyte dropped her second album, she was one of the featured MC’s on the Stop the Violence Movement’s hit song “Self Destruction”. The song featured a laundry list of the dopest MC’s of the time including Boogie Down Productions, Stetsasonic, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Just Ice, Heavy D, and Public Enemy. Despite this list of legends, MC Lyte stood out from the pack with her opening line “Funky fresh/dressed to impress/ready to party….” and subsequent dope verse.
Lyte dropped her second album on October 3, 1989, titled Eyes on This. The album spawned the hit song "Cha Cha Cha", which got heavy radio play on the Friday and Saturday night mix shows. The second song "Cappucino" was another banger from the album. Lyte dropped one more video from this album, “Stop, Look, Listen” as Lyte was once again proved her place in Hip Hop as one of the best.
My favorite MC Lyte song was on her third album ‘Act Like You Know’. The single “Poor Georgie” reached #1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and the video got heavy rotation on The Box and Video Music Box.
The fourth album, 1993's Ain't No Other, became her first to reach gold status and was notable for her first top 40 pop hit, "Ruffneck". The song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Single, making MC Lyte the first female solo rapper ever nominated for a Grammy.
Monie Love was another pioneer and had a prominent role in establishing Women in Hip Hop. Monie was born in London, England and moved to America as a teenager. In 1989 she linked up with the Hip Hop collective known as the Native Tongues. The first time I ever heard Monie was on the De La Soul posse cut, ‘Buddy”
Monie dropped her debut album ‘Down to Earth’ on November 6, 1990. The album spawned two Grammy nominated songs that are some of my favorite songs from this era, “Monie in the Middle” and “It’s a Shame”.
Another collaboration that established Monie early on, was a song by Queen Latifah called “Ladies First”. This song is the epitome of what Women in Hip Hop in these early years stood for. They proved that the Women had arrived and were just as strong and talented as the men.
The last MC I want to cover on this first part is the Woman that still to this day, I consider to the Greatest Female MC of all time. The one and only Queen Latifah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, actress, and producer. She was Born in Newark, New Jersey. Latifah was a member of the Native Tongues collective of MC’s. One of the things that really made Latifah stand out for me was her regal demeanor. She would wear African headdresses and very Queen like attire. Latifah would sign with Tommy Boy Records in 1989 and release her debut album ‘All Hail the Queen’ on November 28, 1989. “Wrath of my madness” was one of the first singles from this debut album
Latifah’s second album, Nature of a Sista’ was released in September of 1991. The album was a moderate success but spurned probably my favorite Queen Latifah song, “Latifah’s had it up to here”. The album also produced the song “Fly Girl”, which showed another side of Latifah’s artistic ability as the track had a pop sound to it and Latifah is kind of singing as she raps.
Black Reign is Latifah’s third album and by far my favorite one in her catalog. The album would eventually go gold, and produce one of the best Hip Hop songs in the 90’s. Latifah won a Grammy in 1995 for the song U.N.I.T.Y.. The song spoke out against the disrespect of women in society, addressing issues of street harassment, domestic violence, and slurs against women in hip-hop culture.
The album had three more singles that got heavy radio play during this time, “Black Hand Side”, “Just Another Day…”, and “Weekend Love”
Queen Latifah would continue throughout the 90’s and well into the 2000’s to cover every aspect of entertainment, including Broadway, Movies, and TV. All of these Women left their mark on the industry and will go down as the pioneers and Mother’s of Hip Hop. They did it with class, lyricism, sexiness, toughness, and social commentary that can still apply to the world now. Shout out to all these ladies, and we will be back soon with Part Two and get into the Women of the 90’s.