10 Female Rappers Who Changed the Hip-Hop Game

You can be the King but watch the Queen conquer

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The contributions of women in hip-hop have been extraordinary—they have broken gender and race barriers, shed light on some of our most poignant yet underrepresented people through visionary storytelling and have continued to force music and culture to evolve and transform.  

Trying to find space in a true boys’ club and integral to a group in which they are still undervalued and marginalized, these ten women have forged the path for women emcees like Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj. They have created some of the most truthful pieces of art about their lives, their loves and their struggles, forcing the world to recognize them as multifaceted creatives.

Their stories haven’t always been pretty, but they’ve never been here for that anyway. 

1. Cindy Campbell

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Hip-hop is said to have originated on Aug. 11, 1973, in a rec room of an apartment building in the Bronx. In an effort to make money, a teenage Cindy Campbell decided to throw a party. She reserved the recreation room for $25 and asked her brother, Kool Herc, to DJ the event. She used index cards to create invitations: “.25 for the ladies and .50 for the fellas.” That night, she not only became the first party promoter but is also credited for starting hip-hop. 

2. Sylvia Robinson

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Sylvia “The Mother of Hip-Hop” Robinson was a multi-hyphenate before multi-hyphenates existed. The singer-musician-producer-Sugar Hill Records founder convinced Tina Turner to record the hit song, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” She also played guitar on the recording, where she went uncredited, which led to Ike Turner getting the accolades. She produced the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which went on the serve as a template for rap songs, and pushed for the recording and release of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Robinson was such a force that she even inspired a powerful female television character: “Cookie Lyon” on Empire.

3. MC Lyte

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No list of hip-hop pioneers is complete without Lana Michelle Moorer, better known as MC Lyte. She came on the scene in 1988 at age 17, when she was featured on the remix of Sinéad O'Connor’s "I Want Your (Hands on Me).” That same year, she released her first album, Lyte as a Rock, the first solo rapper to release her own full-length album. Although MC Lyte has been open about the difficulty in establishing herself as a woman in hip-hop culture, no one could deny her talent; in 1993, she was the first female MC nominated for a Grammy for her single, “Ruffneck.”

4. Salt-N-Pepa

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Some will say it’s not about who did it first, it’s about who did it best,” but what happens when that’s one and the same? Legendary group Salt-N-Pepa (with DJ Spinderella) were the first women to win a Grammy for Best Performance By Duo or Group in 1995, and they remain one of the best-selling rap acts of all time. They were the first female rap group to achieve gold and platinum status with their hit debut album in 1986, Hot, Cool & Vicious while their fourth release, Very Necessary, sold seven million albums, making it not only one of the best-selling rap albums, like, ever, but making Salt-N-Pepa the first female rap act to have multi-platinum selling albums. If that wasn’t enough barriers to break, they are also heavily credited for ushering in a wave of hip-hop feminism that we hear today.

5. Queen Latifah

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Before she was the leading lady of movies like Just Wright and Last Holiday (which, if you know me personally, you know is my favorite movie), and even before she was playing Khadijah James on the beloved sitcom Living Single, Dana Elaine Owens was paving the way for all the rappers-turned-quadruple threats of today. She started off beat-boxing for hip-hop group Ladies Fresh before she started rapping herself; it didn’t take long for Queen Latifah to make a name for herself, thanks to her willingness to explore issues that affected women and members of the Black community. Her song “U.N.I.T.Y" addressed the way hip-hop culture treated women, along with verbal and domestic violence, which won the Queen a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1995.

6. Roxanne Shanté

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In the mid-1980s, a series of rap battle tracks had hit the streets. Known as the Roxanne Wars, 30 to 100 artists responded with their own stories and spin on the tale. The origin of the Roxanne Wars, however, was the song “Roxanne Roxanne” by the hip-hop group UTFO. The song was about a woman who wasn’t interested in their advances; around the same time, UTFO had to cancel a show appearance. Upset at the cancellation, 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden changed her rap name to Roxanne Shante and recorded “Roxanne’s Revenge,” making her one of the first and youngest female battle rappers.

7. Foxy Brown

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When 15-year-old Inga DeCarlo Fung Marchand won a talent contest in Brooklyn, she had no idea about the impression she made on the production duo Trackmasters, in the audience while working on LL Cool J’s album, Mr. Smith. Not too long after they invited Marchand, otherwise known as Foxy Brown, to rap over “I Shot Ya,” Def Jam signed Foxy. Her age and her provocative and distinct style of rapping landed her a spot on the Bad Boy remix of “No One Else” with Lil’ Kim, Da Brat and Total. Foxy Brown’s debut album, Ill Na Na, secured her position in hip-hop notoriety, as it was full of “radio-friendly jams, club bangers and street anthems.”

8. Missy Elliot

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Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot has reinvented herself time and time again. From song to music video to album, each of her creative endeavors has broken molds and led the way for the female artists who have come after her. She’s sold over 30 million records, has won five Grammys and last year, Missy made history when she became the first female hip-hop artist and third rapper ever to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Fearless with her vision for herself and her music, Missy is responsible for some of the most iconic videos from the past decade: “Pass that Dutch,” “Supa Dupa Fly,” “Work It,” “Get Your Freak On,” “Hot Boyz” and “Sock It to Me.” Missy’s devotion to her craft and originality also allow her to continue trailblazing in other arenas: Earlier this month, it was announced that she had signed onto play a role in the new Cinderella musical.

9. Lauryn Hill

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Sometimes an album is so powerful, so impactful—and so strongly received that it secures an artist’s place in hip-hop history—that said artist only needs to make one. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of those albums. Lauryn Noelle Hill was in high school when friend Pras Michel asked her to join a musical group; friend Wyclef Jean joined shortly after— and The Fugees were born. After three years, however, the group broke up, and Hill went on to record her debut album, which showcased her incredible talents and made her the face of neo-soul. The rawness of her lyrics speaking on “themes like love, motherhood, spirituality,” felt fresh and were articulated in a way that wasn’t common at the time; the 1998 album debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and went on to win five Grammys.

10. Erykah Badu

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It seems like Erykah Badu’s biggest superpower is truly knowing herself: from her headwraps, to her incense, to her tea, Badu comes across as a woman cloaked in her own wholeness. Her smoky blues-meets-soul voice is what drove her first album, 1997’s Baduizm, to triple platinum and won her the title of “first woman of neo-soul.” The three-time Grammy-winning artist continues to influence a new generation of music, with her ability to reinvent herself and branch out with new, creative endeavors such as acting, DJing and being the face for a Tom Ford fragrance. As if that wasn’t enough, Badu recently announced that she would be releasing incense that smells like her vagina.

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