Hip Hop Turned 40 and We're Giving a Shout Out to the Ladies

by Maggie Freleng

On August 11, hip hop officially turned 40. Born out of a South Bronx, N.Y., apartment in 1973, few know that it was a teenage girl who helped get the hip-hop party started.

Cindy Campbell hosted a back-to-school party and asked her 16-year-old brother, Clive, aka Kool Herc, an aspiring DJ, to be in charge of the music. In the recreation room of their apartment building, Kool Herc spun dancehall, soul and disco records.  But it was his friend's shouting over the mixed beats of artists like James Brown, The Incredible Bongo Band, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, where hip hop evolved. It started with the power of DJ and then the lyricist.

In an industry dominated by men, who would have thought a young girl's idea for a school fundraiser would help ignite a movement? 

In honor of hip-hop turning the big 4-0, VITAMIN W honors some (note: not all) of the most influential female MCs in the history of hip-hop.

Queen Latifah

You can now add talk show host to Queen Latifah's many titles. An unyielding symbol of female power in the music, acting, and modeling industry, she came to the hip hop scene in 1989.   With her debut album, "All Hail the Queen," she had no qualms stepping into the industry as a self-proclaimed powerful woman who demands respect (and some bowing down), with songs such as “Ladies First” which has  been acknowledged as an “Afrocentric feminist” song.  She was also one of the first women to run a hip-hop label, Flavor Unit. Yet, perhaps one of her most influential moments was the Grammy Award-winning song  off her 1993 album, Black Reign, "U.N.I.T.Y,” which addressed street harassment, domestic violence, and slurs against women in hip-hop culture. She was and still is arguably one of the most inspiring women in hip-hop. All hail The Queen.


Foxy Brown

Foxy Brown has been noted by current female MCs, like Nicki Minaj, as one of the most influential women in her career. Brown is certainly a legendary female MC having a spot on LL Cool J's remix "I Shot Ya" and a spot on Jay Z’s "Ain't No Nigga," at just 16. The certified platinum and gold artist was the only female member in the rap super group The Firm, featuring Nas, AZ and Nature.


Missy Elliott

Five-time Grammy Award-winner and the only female rapper to have six platinum albums, including one double platinum for her 2002 album "Under Construction," Missy Elliott is one of the most notable female MCs. The writer, producer, dancer, rapper, and singer pushed creative boundaries in hip-hop. 


Lil’ Kim

Opinions aside. Lil’ Kim’s sexually graphic style makes her one of the most influential MCs in history. Before Kim, never had a woman in the industry been so sexually explicit. She had no fear, no shame and paved a way for female sexuality --the way a woman perceived it-- to have a spot in the music industry. Her hardcore (the title of her double-platinum album) talent was recognized by The Notorious B.I.G. She was also the first and only lady to land a spot in his rap crew, Junior M.A.F.I.A.  She is the only female rapper besides Missy Elliott to have at least three certified platinum albums. She is also 100 percent awesome because of her philanthropic work on HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.


Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill is noted as having one of the most successful albums of all time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, selling eight million copies in the U.S. and over 400,000 copies in the first week -- also certified platinum eight times.  Hill was nominated for 10 Grammys, taking home five. She gained notoriety in the hip-hop group The Fugees as the only female member among Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. Oh, and let's not forget her Grammy Award-winning anthem about respect, "That Thing," off the Miseducation album. Preach.


MC Lyte

MC Lyte made it onto the scene at a young age, releasing her first album at 17. She held her own against her male counterparts in the 80’s releasing seven studio albums with two reaching gold status, making her perhaps the most prolific female MC of the time. She became a featured artist on hits by Janet Jackson and Brandy in 1994. She later became a successful actress and did voiceovers. Lyte also founded the Hip Hop Sisters Network, a non-profit foundation that promotes positive images of women of ethnic diversity.


Da Brat

Da braids, da jerseys, da baggy pants, da Timberlands -- dubbed the female “Snoop Doggy Dog” by her producer Jermaine Dupri -- Da Brat certainly has a name for herself. With her 1994 debut album, Funkdafied, selling one million copies, she was the first solo female MC to go platinum.  Many do not know that Da Brat was one of the first female reality-show based rappers after winning a local rap contest sponsored by "Yo! MTV Raps. " Da Brat has collaborated with other female MC superstars such as Lil' Kim, Destiny’s Child, Left-Eye of TLC, Angie Martinez, Missy Elliott and Mariah Carey.



Having not one but three talented women, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, these "three little women" known as TLC, were rated by Billboard magazine as one of the greatest musical trios and at the end of 1999 they rated TLC again as the seventh most successful act of the 1990s. Between 1992 and 2003, the band accumulated ten top ten singles, four number one singles, four multi-platinum albums, and four Grammy Awards. They are ranked as the second best-selling female group of all time, behind the Spice Girls. In the face of debt, arson, and alcoholism (to name a few scandals behind TLC's name) this is only a quarter of the accolades the legendary and one of the most influential female groups was acknowledged for.



Before there was TLC, there was Cheryl James, Sandra Denton, and Deidra Roper aka Salt-N-Pepa. Salt-N-Pepa was one of the first female rap crews, paving the way for the likes of groups like TLC with three out of five albums being certified platinum and four Grammy Awards. Their Grammy Award winning song, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” broke ground during a time when HIV/AIDS was on the rise. The song talks about safe sex, consequences, and communication around sex. The song also talks about the censorship that sex had around that time in American mainstream media saying, “Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows...Let's tell it how it is, and how it could be, how it was, and of course, how it should be. A remix was later titled, “Let’s Talk About AIDS.”

And of course, notable shout outs to:

Jean Grae

Jean Grae made a name for herself in the mid 1990’s as the lone female rapper in the New York based group, Natural Resource. Grae has recorded with successful hip-hop artists such as Atmosphere, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Styles P, and Immortal Technique, to name a few.

Gangsta Boo

Gangsta Boo, aka Lady Boo, was the only female member of legendary Three 6 Mafia. Her solo career was equally as successful as her time with Three 6 Mafia, landing her top spots on the charts for each of her albums.


Before becoming a Grammy Award winning rapper, record producer and cress, Eve was the only female member of DMX’s notoriously hardcore rap group, the Ruff Ryders. Her first three albums have sold over eight million copies worldwide. She is also an actress, gaining notoriety for the Barbershop series. She won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for her collaboration with Gwen Stefani on "Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”

Roxanne Shanté

The first female member of the hip-hop collective the Juice Crew, Roxanne Shanté, became famous for dissing popular rap act UTFO for their portrayal of women. Although her success was limited, she was one of the first female MCs to let the world know ladies are not to be messed with.


Photo: laubarnes on Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)