With hip-hop turning 50 this year, you can expect an overwhelming amount of lists and projects geared toward finding a way to sum up what the last five decades of hip-hop have been. Included in this coverage are niche topics like women in hip-hop, which has been covered extensively (rightfully so) throughout the year. Within the last 10 years, the tide has turned for what we expect from women in rap, and what it means to exist as a woman in a genre where they’re often overlooked and overshadowed. However, the recent increase of female rappers isn’t an overnight schtick, or a random circumstance due to changes within the music industry. This influx has been a complex journey that began before hip-hop was even thought of as a fad. When hip-hop had no name but a culture built by the Black American, West Indian, and Latino urban youth.
The journey to icons like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil Kim, and Cardi B is one that began with various women — founding figures and unsung heroes who influenced these generational forces to deconstruct the barriers that denied women in the genre a chance to express their thoughts. It’s women like The Sequence (which featured a young Angie Stone), Mercedes Ladies, Ms. Melody, Yvette Money, Debbie Dee, Lady B, MC Trouble, Lisa Lee, Nikki D, Conscious Daughters, J.J. Fad, and others who laid the groundwork for women emcees to embrace their femininity and sexuality, and speak on everything from violence against women to gender equality.
Throughout hip-hop’s life we’ve seen women present in each decade — from MC Sha-Rock being the first credited female emcee, to Cardi B re-defining the place of women in rap during the digital era. This list is meant to acknowledge the most influential women MCs over the last 50 years, with influence including being the first (such as MC Lyte being the first female rapper to release a full-length LP), pioneering a style of rap (like Lil Kim’s role in pushing “pussy rap” into the mainstream), and creating a blueprint of success that has opened doors for other women in rap to walk through (Cardi B’s viral rise). Here’s the 11 most influential women in rap.
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Sharon Green aka MC Sha-Rock performs with US DJ and producer Grandmaster Flash during the 50 years of Hip-Hop Grandmaster Flash and friends “Birth of a Culture: The Four Elements Block Party” at Capital One City Parks Foundation Summer Stage on August 4, 2023 in New York.
MC Sha Rock was considered the first of her kind to release records commercially while a part of the Funky 4 + 1 (of which she was the group’s sole female member). Known for her signature echo chamber (using a microphone to reverberate sound) style of rapping, Sha-Rock dropped great raps on Funky 4 + 1 songs like “Rapping and Rocking the House” and “That’s the Joint.” The group ended up making history for being the first hip-hop group to appear on a national TV show, performing on Saturday Night Live in 1981 after Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry (who was serving as host) invited them. As a hip-hop founder, Sha-Rock didn’t only make history in helping build the genre, she also showed the greatness it was capable of, and how women could be a crucial part of that. She represented the early success Black female rappers in the genre could achieve, while also setting a blueprint for women who were part of mostly male rap crews.
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Roxanne Shanté performs during DJ Cassidy’s Pass The Mic Live! at Radio City Music Hall on July 21, 2023 in New York City.
At the age of 14, Lolita Gooden, better known as Roxanne Shanté, solidified her place in hip-hop culture with just one diss track. Produced by Marley Marl, 1984’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” was a contracted response track directed at U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne.” “Roxanne’s Revenge” became one of the first notable times that a female MC challenged male MCs on a diss. With the rebuttal track becoming a major hit, the “Roxanne Wars” of answer records would launch, culminating in anywhere from 30 to 100 response tracks being released. Despite her history with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” Shanté’s imprint in battle rap became her legacy. An MC who not only was willing to rap alongside the guys, but address them and the ladies with equally hard-hitting bars, resulting in a now iconic hip-hop moment.
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(L-R) Sandra “Pepa” Denton, DJ Spinderella and Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-n-Pepa perform on day 3 of the 2023 ESSENCE Festival Of Culture at Caesars Superdome on July 02, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
With their Dapper Dan jackets and asymmetrical haircuts, Salt-N-Pepa took the street formula of Roxanne Shante and the potential of MC Sha-Rock to become one of hip-hop’s first crossover female acts. Molded as the female Run-DMC, they recruited a DJ into the group (originally Latoya Hanson before group tension led to Deidra Roper — Spinderella — joining) prior to the release of their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious. Their evolution from traditional MCs to feminist icons can be traced with songs like “Let’s Talk About Sex” from Blacks’ Magic to the original pussy rap album Very Necessary. Their fourth album, Very Necessary solidified their legacy, with “Whatta Man,” “Shoop,” and the anti-slut shaming hit “None of Your Business” showing the power in women expressing their sexuality and dismissing anyone who has a problem with it. Salt, Pepa, and Spinderella’s attitudes, confidence, and defiance made them visionaries for the new era of women in hip-hop that would soon arrive.
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MC Lyte performs at Little Caesars Arena on August 18, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan.
MC Lyte represented the transitional period between the feel-good party raps of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and the socially conscious raps of the mid-late ‘80s. Songs like “Poor Georgie,” “Paper Thin,” and “I Cram to Understand U” showed that Lyte was unafraid to point out sexism in hip-hop, and address social issues like racism, misogyny, and drug culture. Her lyrical ability matched with sampled beats rewrote the textbook definition of women in rap. Unable to play into the conventional idea of being a female MC, her debut Lyte As a Rock was more than just a female rap album, but an album that defined New York rap. It was also the first full-length album by a woman MC. Since her debut in ‘87, Lyte would go on to work with a diverse group of artists — from Sinead O’Connor and Will Smith to Janet Jackson and Brandy. Lyte is more than just a woman in hip-hop; she’s a physical embodiment of the genre.
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Queen Latifah performs live during the NMAAHC Hip-Hop Block Party at Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History on August 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
With her debut album, 1989’s All Hail the Queen, Queen Latifah quickly became one of the most recognizable female rappers of what’s considered the golden era of hip-hop. The major single release of “Ladies First” featuring Monie Love became the first collaborative record by two women rappers who weren’t in a group. The song added to Latifah’s reputation as a rapper who raised awareness of violence against women and the objectification of Black women, all while helping put New Jersey on the hip-hop map. However, her biggest impact on hip-hop is her ability to market on her talents. Latifah became the first woman in rap to acknowledge that she had more than bars. She had a voice that could sing jazz, and incredible acting chops that would land her a Golden Globe, culminating in her having a storied career as an entertainer. She became the first hip-hop artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006.
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Lil Kim performs onstage during Hip Hop 50 Live at Yankee Stadium on August 11, 2023 in New York City.
It’s impossible to do a list of the most influential anything in hip-hop and not include Kimberly Jones, better known as Lil Kim. Evoking her rap moniker alone can bring any iconic imagery to mind. We know Kim as the fashion “It” girl, whose raunchy lyrics on 1996’s Hard Core have defined what’s considered to be the foundation of “pussy rap.” For many women who enjoy hip-hop, Kim’s liberated approach to raising the bar of sexual connotations and reversal of the exploitative narrative within the genre, has been the formative imprint for generations of women in rap. Her feature on Mobb Deep’s “Quiet Storm,” The Notorious K.I.M cut “Aunt Dot,” and the La Bella Mafia diss track “Came Back for You,” perfectly showcases Kim’s versatility and audacity to not only out-filth the men of hip-hip, but to always assert her dominance as the queen.
Ms. Lauryn Hill
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Lauryn Hill performs during the Hip Hop 50 Live concert, marking the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City on August 11, 2023.
Ms. Lauryn Hill’s technique of rapping and singing within a singular song has been popularized and used by artists like Drake, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Kanye West (among others). Although Fugees classics like “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready or Not,” and “Killing Me Softly” gave a taste of her undeniable rapping and singing abilities, it would be her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that made Ms. Lauryn Hill one of the most influential artists in music history. Channeling her perspective on femininity, motherhood, God, love, and heartbreak through lessons led by “The Teacher” (Ras Baraka) in the album skits, Ms. Hill’s brief but overwhelmingly significant work in hip-hop led her to critical and commercial acclaim that stretched the boundaries of what we could imagine hip-hop to be.
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Strength Of A Woman Festival & Summit.
Missy Elliott performs onstage during the Strength of a Woman’s MJB “Celebrating Hip Hop 50” Concert in Partnership with Mary J. Blige, Pepsi, and Live Nation Urban at State Farm Arena on May 12, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.
With her experimental concepts in music videos and stage performance, Missy Elliott’s contribution to hip-hop challenges women and men to dream bigger in conceptualizing their artistry. With Timbaland’s innovative production and Hype Williams’ fisheye lens, Elliott would re-imagine the boundaries of rap sonically and visually. A futuristic masterpiece, Elliott’s style of rap existed between worlds of sex, aggression, imagination, and childish wonder. Refusing to be pigeonholed based on her gender or assumption of sexuality, albums Da Real World, Miss E… So Addictive, and Under Construction allowed Missy to explore the duality of androgyny and hyper-sexuality. Songs like “She’s a Bitch,” “Dog in Heat,” or “Gossip Folks” play on themes of gender equality, feminism, and body and sex positivity that has become heavily associated with the musical universe Elliott has crafted. A universe that has allowed acts like Lizzo, Doja Cat, and Tierra Whack to find themselves and create their own world in a genre that often alienates women for their differences.
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Trina performs during the Hip Hop 50 Live concert, marking the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City on August 11, 2023.
Releasing her debut album Da Baddest Bitch in 2000, Trina took the Southern rap style fostered by juke joint music and artists like Betty Wright and Millie Jackson with the blueprint of Uncle Luke, to craft a signature sound that defined the Miami rap scene for decades to come. Songs like “No Panties” from 2002’s Diamond Princess and “Look Back at Me” from 2008’s Still Da Baddest have added to Trina’s reputation as an aggressive, cocky, and confident MC who says whatever she wants. However, her impact is in the doors she continues to hold open for others. Trina has collaborated with nearly every popular female MC in the game — from Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj to City Girls and Latto. In a genre where most women are often overlooked, Trina has the rare opportunity to smell her flowers while she’s still here, having cemented her legacy in Southern rap.
From 2006 to 2008, there seemed to be a decline in the amount of women in hip-hop. Then, out of Queens emerged a rapper whose musical versatility and animated flow with alter egos and accents, made her one of the most influential figures in modern popular music. With the release of her debut mixtape, 2007’s Playtime is Over, Nicki Minaj caught the attention of Lil Wayne through an appearance on NY rap DVD The Come Up. But it was her third mixtape, 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty, with songs like “I Get Crazy,” “Slumber Party,” and the iconic “Itty Bitty Piggy” that led her to become the go-to girl in rap for her features. The same-day release of her debut album Pink Friday and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — which featured her song-stealing verse on “Monster” — resulted in the world becoming obsessed with Nicki’s brilliance. For a straight 10-year run, Nicki became the biggest female rap star ever. Her fearless aesthetic (from multi-colored wigs to bold outfits), distinct flow, uncanny ability to make both pop hits and traditional rap records, and limitless expectations made her legendary in hip-hop. Maintaining her status as the queen of rap for over a decade, Nicki changed the landscape in hip-hop not because of her gender, but her merit.
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Cardi B performs during HOT 107.9’s Birthday Bash 2023 at State Farm Arena on June 17, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cardi B gained public traction when she began posting several videos online to platforms like Vine and Instagram. Her animated persona, openness as a stripper, and wise-cracking jokes turned her into a social media influencer, hinting at her undeniable star potential. In 2015, she joined Love & Hip Hop: New York, where her witty one-liners quickly turned into relatable memes. After two seasons on the show, Cardi left and began releasing mixtapes from her Gangsta Bitch Music series. In 2017, Cardi signed with Atlantic Records, and by June of that same year she released her breakout single “Bodak Yellow.” With an organic rise on the charts, “Bodak Yellow” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill in 1998 to do so. The song quickly made Cardi a household name, and with the release of her debut album, 2018’s Invasion of Privacy, being met with critical and commercial success, Cardi had officially re-wrote the playbook of how to succeed as a woman in hip-hop in the digital era. Her authenticity and charisma opened the door for new female rappers like City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, Latto and others to believe that success was tangible for them, with all women in hip-hop being able to dominate at once.
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