My mother used to turn down the volume dial in the car any time my father played a song with a hip-hop beat, protesting that every rapper was a misogynist and she didn’t want to listen to them on what could be a pleasant car ride. Her perception of rap music, of course, came from a place of truth: rap is an extremely male-dominated genre, and like most male-dominated spaces throughout history, the hip-hop world has lent itself well to offensive behavior towards women. However, there do exist female rappers, and the songs written by women who rise to fame in this genre often are often quite feminist indeed. Read on to discover nine old-school hip-hop artists that my mom might actually like.
1. Roxanne Shante
Back in the days of hip-hop collectives that warred amongst themselves, many groups liked to have little diversity in their squad to spice it up. For the Juice Crew, this spice was Roxanne Shante. Born with the name “Lolita,” this rap powerhouse changed her name to “Roxanne” at the age of nine, which constituted the beginning of her long career. Six years later, she wrote the song “Roxanne’s Revenge” in response to U.T.F.O.’s hit song “Roxanne, Roxanne,” as a diss to the artists; and all of a sudden, at the age of 14, Shante was a name to contend with. If you’re looking to find out more about her, watch the 2017 biopic Roxanne Roxanne about Shante’s life.
2. Monie Love
Monie Love’s hit 1990 track “Monie in the Middle” opens with the words, “Brother, what is with you, you can't take a hint?” Over the next three minutes and 43 seconds, Love uses careful lyrics to paint the picture of continuous unwanted attention from a man whom she has repeatedly spurned. This English rapper often deals with the rejection of overbearing men in her songs — another track that’s worth a listen is “Let a Woman B a Woman,” which also contains heavily feminist undertones while telling some imagined man to hit the road.
3. The Lady of Rage
The Lady of Rage has bounced around a lot in the rap world. Originally, she recorded with the Outlaw Brothers but later went on to collaborate with many big names like Dr. Dre, 2Pac and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Her most iconic song, “Afro Puffs,” was released in 1994 and demonstrates her rage as she disses other MCs and raps about her roughness. For more feminist content, listen to “Big Bad Lady,” wherein Rage addresses the fact that female rappers are diminished to their own “female” category at awards shows, when, in reality, “even a lady can be diesel.”
4. Nitty Scott
Nitty Scott moved to Brooklyn and started rapping full-time at the age of 17. She saw international acclaim for the first time in 2010, when she made a video freestyling over Kanye’s track “Monster,” and it drummed up an audience. A lot of her music has feminist themes, but if you’re going to listen to only one song, try “BBYGIRL;” it’s an angsty outpouring of frustration about the patriarchy and features a very poignant, moving outro that dissects seemingly loving words exchanged in an intimate relationship, analyzing how even those moments can reflect patriarchal systems of power.
This group, comprised of Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Deidra Roper (DJ Spinderella), became an immediate sensation with the 1987 release of their single “Push It.” These ladies wanted to flip the script on their male peers, who made music videos objectifying naked women and expected them to be easily used and abused; instead, Salt-N-Pepa chose to dress scandalously and openly addressed topics like sex from a female perspective, taking the power back into their own hands. Their 1991 hit “Let’s Talk About Sex” is a great example of how Salt-N-Pepa broke down stigma concerning women’s sexuality.
6. MC Lyte
This prolific artist put out her first track, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” in 1988, and has been contributing to the hip-hop scene with her unique voice ever since. She’s always been an advocate for women in rap, lamenting the lack of female voices loud enough to be heard over the din of male MCs’ offensive slurs. This, in part, is why she founded the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation, which helps fund education for a few lucky young artists with a scholarship called #EducateOURMen.
7. Queen Latifah
Way back in 1989, Queen Latifah started building a decades-long career by signing with Tommy Boy Records and recording her first album, All Hail the Queen. Right from the start, she chose to air her grievances as a black woman in the world through her music; her song “U.N.I.T.Y.” became an anthem for women everywhere at its release in 1993 due to its rallying cry against calling women derogatory and offensive terms. Around 2002, she transitioned to singing more often than rapping, eventually breaking her way into the general public eye by acting in the film adaptation of the musical Chicago, and has since appeared in many popular television shows and films.
8. Ms. Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill found her ladder to fame through performing as part of the Fugees, a rap collective that was named the ninth greatest hip-hop group of all time by MTV in 2007. She is strongly influenced by reggae and soul. After recording two albums as part of the Fugees, Hill left and started out on her own, recording The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, a more melodic album (Hill has a beautiful voice). Listen to that album to hear her air her more personal concerns with what she terms her "miseducation;" alternatively, you can hear her spit some more intense bars on Fugees songs like “Nappy Heads.”
Yo-Yo’s 1991 song “Girl Don’t Be a Fool” is brash and abrasive, stating outright, “Guys ain't nothin but dirt / And they'll flirt with anything dressed in a mini-skirt.” This theme of how men treat women poorly resounds in most of her lyrics; she has repeatedly denounced the inherent sexism present in most male rappers’ music, and to combat those male voices, Yo-Yo founded her own all-female rap group, called the Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition, or IBWC. She has worked closely with Ice Cube a few times, and he calls her his protégée. Listen to her track “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” to learn more about how a woman can excel in the man's world of hip hop.