Hip-hop pioneers: The women who shaped a cultural legacy
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As rap and hip-hop have become more mainstream, countless documentaries, books, and even college courses have surfaced, validating the genre’s place in the annals of American cultural. Sadly, most historic reviews of hip-hop focus on the men who ushered in the movement—the most successful recording artists, the first mainstreamed performers. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s recall some of the most influential, oft overlooked founding women of hip-hop.

In its early days (circa 1976), before the term hip-hop was even a coined term, it was a happening, an event, a 360º entertainment experience. Music, beats, and turntable scratching were only one part of the hip-hop scene. It was also about the art (namely the native self-taught expression graffiti), the street-fresh DIY clothing, the dance moves (South Bronx was not only the birthplace of hip-hop, but also break dancing), and the party vibe. All-female crews like The Mercedes Ladies hosted parties, rocked the mic with sick lyrics, busted the same fierce dance moves as their male counterparts—without exploiting their femininity or female physiques. The Mercedes Ladies are not well-know today, as they never pursued recording and releasing music—the most tangible legacy of hip-hop today. They were some of the early seeds of the Bronx, New York movement that blossomed into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.

One of the first prominently recorded female rappers of the movement was MC Sha Rock. She first hit the scene in the late 70’s with the rap group The Funky Four Plus One. Singled out as the only female of the ensemble, Sha Rock was the “Plus One”. Making rap and hip-hop television history, The Funky Four Plus One were the first music artists to appear on national broadcast television. In 1981, progressive rock group Blondie—the featured performer on an episode of Saturday night Live—chose The Funky Four and a 19-year old Sha Rock as their special musical guests for the last live music slot of the show. The group performed their song “That’s The Joint”. When the group disbanded, Sha Rock went on to form an all-female rap group, Us Girls—who were featured in the 1984 groundbreaking film Beat Street.

Ushering the 80’s era of powerful ladies in rap was Roxanne Shanté from Queens, New York. After the independent lady-hating song “Roxanne, Roxanne” by UTFO was released, a talented, unknown 14-year old gal boldly approached hip-hop producer Marley Marl with the idea of a rap response to the UFTO song. Not only was Shanté’s song the first recorded “battle response” in hip-hop, the young artist smartly branded herself by adopting the name Roxanne (her birth name was Lolita), and fearlessly lead the charge in the “Roxanne Wars”. The creative debate went back-and-forth for years with nearly one hundred singles contributed to the Roxanne he-said, she-said battle. The war came to a hault with the KRS-One’s misogynistic cadence “The Bridge Is Over”—a song that diminished Shanté’s accomplishments, professing her only talent to be sexual favors on men in the rap game. With her head held high and her tongue still sharp, Roxanne Shanté went on to pave the way for strong, fierce hip-hop female recording artists.

The torch of warrior women in rap was passed from Shanté to the one and only MC Lyte. Lyte broke barriers in the music industry, not only for being the first solo female emcee to sell millions of singles and albums, but also for her progressive lyrics. Her songs helped evolve hip-hop from the feel-good party vibe of the late 70’s in to a socially conscious form of expression. In her work, she addressed issues like racism, sexism, and the drug culture that consumed her neighborhood. Not only did MC Lyte school her male counterparts on the art of freestyle rap, she was the first rap artist to perform at Carnegie Hall, the first solo female rapper nominated for a Grammy, and the first rap artist to receive gold single recognition. Where most of hip-hop’s young performers faded after a few years of bad contracts and dated styles, Lyte has prove to be one of hip-hop’s most enduring success stories, regardless of gender. She still performs today, writes music for others, is a leader in the music industry, runs a scholarship foundation, mentors, acts, and keeps her work relevant. The Smithsonian Museum has even added her diaries and turntable to their rap and hip-hop ephemera collection.

MC Lyte’s presence during the golden era of hip-hop lead the way for countless other women to enter and excel in the rap game with longevity. Likewise, Queen Latifah’s no-nonsense yet feminine artistry laid a foundation for women in hip-hop to embrace and celebrate their heritage, their curves, and their minds. Latifah also set a new standard for black women in the music business as an artist-turned-CEO, leading Flavor Unit Records and Management Company. She also proved to be a triple threat, earning an Oscar nomination for her acting, proving the sky is the limit for women in hip-hop! Salt ‘N Pepa stepped things up, becoming the first female hip-hop group to go multi-platinum. Sister Souljah used her platform as a hip-hop artist to spark critical debates about race in America, and encouraged often-silenced black women to speak up—not only through music but also as activists in communities around the world.  Lauren Hill still has a perch in the top-selling hip-hop and rap albums of all time. The list goes on and on…

While most of the literature and discussions around hip-hop focus on the accomplishments of men, every woman in the history of hip-hop has played a significant role in it’s development and evolution. They deserve to be placed upon (beautifully graffiti decorated) pedestals, in American museums, researched, and documented so their stories are celebrated and not forgotten.