Hip-hop could be seemly a man’s world, but women have been there from the start.
The infamous Bronx party that gave birth to the genre was organised by Cindy Campbell, a high school student who was trying to raise money for her back-to-school clothes. It was Cindy who wrote invitations on index cards and invited her brother Clive, aka DJ Kool Herc, to play the music.
Before long, former R&B singer Sylvia Robinson co-founded the world’s first hip-hop label, Sugar Hill Records. Alongside landmark singles like Rapper’s Delight, she also released one of the first all-female rap records, Funk You Up by The Sequence (featuring a then-unknown Angie Stone).
But as the genre became mainstream, pioneers like Roxanne Shanté, Kool Lady Rock and MC Sha-Rock were overshadowed by their male counterparts. The dawn of gangsta rap in the early 1990s turned hip-hop into even more of a boys club.
As the genre turns 50, a new three-part BBC documentary aims to correct the record.
Narrated by Neneh Cherry, First Ladies of Hip-Hopacknowledges the contributions of artists like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Rah Digga and Lil Kim, while highlighting a new generation – Ice Spice, Little Simz, Doja Cat – at the forefront of rap innovation.
Among them is Philadelphia-born rapper Eve, the street-tough MC who emerged as part of the Ruff Ryders posse, and went on to score major crossover hits like Who’s That Girl? and Let Me Blow Ya Mind.
We asked her to choose five women who had changed the course of hip-hop. Here’s what she said:
1) Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah wasn’t the first female rapper, but she was the first to become a star. With a no-nonsense, straight-talking style that emphasised feminine power and Afrocentric consciousness, her hits included U.N.I.T.Y, Ladies First and Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children.
Words have always been something that I’ve loved. From the time I was eight years old, I would always write poems. And that obviously turned into rapping. Rhythm and poetry – that’s what rap is.
Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa – those were the women who showed me I can do this. Any time I saw them, I felt “yeah, that could be me”.
But I always felt a particular closeness to Queen Latifah, maybe because she’s from Jersey and I’m from Philly, but also because I was a tomboy when I was young. I saw that toughness in her, too: she stands strong in her womanhood, but she also hangs with the boys.
And lyrically, she’s amazing. She talks about her pride in being a black woman and about female unity: let’s stand together, we don’t have to be competitive, let’s celebrate each other.
She had such a presence. Her career has been a blueprint for me, in terms of longevity and versatility.
2) Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill proved her rap credentials on Fugees tracks like Vocab and How Many Mics, but it was the uplifting blend of hip-hop, soul and reggae on her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that cemented her legacy. To this day, she remains the only female rapper to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.
I love her to death. The Fugees as a whole were amazing, but having Lauryn there took them to higher heights, for sure.
She rapped about things outside the normal, [subjects like] heartbreak and resisting peer pressure, and for a lot of us coming up with Lauryn, we felt like she was a big sister, pulling us to one side and going “hey, girl, watch out, you shouldn’t be doing this” or “don’t be scared of this person”. She was teaching us how to be a woman – letting us in on game, a little bit.
She had a very different style, a different cadence. It was almost jazzy, in a way. I refer to it as “backpack hip-hop”, you know? The Fugees, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest – they ride the beat in a different way.
I kind of fought against that kind of style, because I was a battle rapper. And because I went up against dudes all the time, it was very ego driven: “Hey, you still live with your mom and you’re broke and you don’t have a car and you’re not well endowed.”
But Lauryn was different. She educated us.
3) Missy Elliott
Innovative, individual, incomparable – Missy Elliott changed the sound of hip-hop forever, with her alien beats and larger-than-life music videos. Hits like Get Ur Freak On and Work It were often imitated, but never bettered, with Missy branding her competition “beat biters”.
Missy took us into that pop world, that crossover world. Everything was bigger and brighter and bolder. She brought a theatrical element to hip-hop in her presentation and her videos.
And what I love about Missy is that, because she had a hand in writing so many R&B songs, she’s very melodic in the way that she rhymes – whereas, before her, that really wasn’t done.
She also stood up for herself. Lines like, “Copywritten, so don’t copy me / Y’all do it sloppily” – I love that, because men say that stuff all the time, but Missy was as cocky as they were. And she was right. She was original and she knew it.
We worked together several times. The Hot Boyz remix was my first foray into that world, and she sang the theme tune to my TV show. The times that we had in the studio, she’d be like “this is what I’m thinking, here’s what the track sounds like, I’ll let you be”. She’s not a micromanager. She’s more like “you do your thing, and I’ll see you after”.
She’s always been an incredible friend and supporter, and someone I could count on in the industry.
4) Nicki Minaj
One of the fiercest wordsmiths on the planet, Nicki Minaj burst on to the scene with 2010’s Pink Friday, at a time when female MCs were missing from mainstream hip-hop. Since then, she’s scored 133 hits on the Billboard chart, including Starships, Anaconda and Super Freaky Girl.
Her wordplay is incredible. She’s just a great lyricist and no-one can take her on. Anything I’ve ever heard her on, like that guest verse on Kanye’s Monster, she’s murdered it.
She’s also very smart about the industry – knowing what’s coming and capturing the moment. She’s done a great job building her fanbase, the Barbz, and knowing where that generation was going.
Being a female rapper, or even a female pop star, it’s easy to get put into a box – and sometimes you have to do drastic things to break out of that box.
I think both Nicki and Doja Cat, who I’m a big fan of, are really pushing to be the artists they want to be, and that’s dope.
The elusive, Brooklyn-based rapper Leikeili47 keeps her identity hidden under a ski mask, ensuring the focus remains on her dextrous, quotable lyrics.
I was watching the HBO drama Vinyl and this song came on that I didn’t recognise. I was like “wait, who does this?” so I Shazam-ed it, and went into this Leikeili47 deep-dive. I never looked back.
If you are a hip-hop head who’s drawn to lyrics, and wants to hear a good story and feel something, she’s amazing.
She doesn’t reveal her identity, she just lets the bars speak for themselves. I would say she’s an all-round perfect MC… I just need her to release more music!