(CNN) – Does the name Sylvia Robinson ring a bell? For hip-hop fans, it should.
Not only did she found Sugar Hill Records, the first hip-hop record label, with husband Joe Robinson, she also produced the 1979 track Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang. That track achieved massive commercial success, becoming the first hip-hop track to chart the Billboard Top 40.
But that’s not all. The success of the song and the label significantly contributed to mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, said Jasmine Henry, a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. Robinson, she explained, laid the groundwork for the genre’s future impact.
Her story is one of entrepreneurial success, but it’s also indicative of a larger truth: From the very beginning of hip-hop, women have not only been involved, they’ve been influential.
And yet, throughout hip-hop’s history, women and their contributions have largely been cast aside. This subordination of women exists in all genres of music, Henry said, and hip-hop is no different.
Assumptions that rappers are inherently Black straight men are prominent, and it’s resulted in the omission of women in the genre – even media and textbooks disproportionately focus on the achievements of men and choose to only highlight a select few women, Henry said.
Missy Elliot, for example, was only just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in May, becoming the first woman rapper to receive acknowledgement. And though the moment was a positive one, Henry said, it shows just how much women in the genre have been overlooked.
The industry hasn’t always been friendly toward the women in their ranks either. Rapper Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion in 2020, and Megan Thee Stallion was vocal about the pain she suffered, as many questioned the validity of her claim. (Though a Los Angeles jury found Lanez guilty and convicted him of three felony counts in the shooting, megastar Drake implied in a song that Megan Thee Stallion was lying.)
Still, throughout the last few decades, women in the genre have continued to make space for themselves and their experiences, resonating with fans across the world. In honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, CNN is honoring the women we love in the genre – both for their work and the way they make us feel.
Petite Brooklyn native Kimberly Jones may stand short of 5 feet tall, but there’s nothing little about Lil’ Kim’s hip-hop influence. As the only female emcee with Biggie Smalls and Junior Mafia, Lil’ Kim started representing for women with strong feminist lyrics and bold fashion in the early ’90s, earning her the title Queen Bee (before Queen Bey). Her provocative imagery and a powerful delivery on her 1996 debut solo album Hard Core paved a sex-positive path for rappers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion who followed. In multiple albums, singles and the global girls’ night anthem Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix), Lil’ Kim has consistently reminded women to Put Your Lighters Up, prioritize their pleasure and “stay focused in the dopest.”
The first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Missy Elliott is a trailblazer whose sound is unmistakably distinct and simultaneously impossible to define in one word. I still remember being glued to my TV after school, watching her video for The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) – who can forget the “trash bag couture” and that fisheye lens! And I still get hyped hearing the opening of Lose Control (nothing can get me moving on a spin bike like some Missy). From her legacy of trippy music videos to her inventive sound, Missy is an inspiration, and in my mind, her music and her sheer artistry simply stand the test of time.
I was all of 11 years old when I first heard Shoop by Salt-N-Pepa. It was probably the first rap song my friends band I could actually recite the lyrics to. Now, we had no idea that shoop meant having sex at the time or know much else about the talented trio from Queens, New York. We were just happy to be able to rhyme along with that unmistakable beat. Little did I know that Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Deidra “Spinderella” Roper would serve as one of my first examples of what it meant to be a sex-positive, feminist girl boss.
Songs like Whatta Man, None of Your Business and Ain’t Nuthin But A She Thing, taught me that slut shaming was wack, having honest, upfront conversations about sex was the move, and what I did with my body was my business. Thirty years later, those beats, which went certified platinum, still slap and those lyrics are still memorized. And yes, I sang along to all of them at the Rock the Bells festival in Queens earlier this month.
In 2012, before melodic rapping went on to become the dominant sound in hip-hop, Drake declared himself “the first person to successfully rap and sing.” Ms. Lauryn Hill might have something to say about that.
Seamlessly blending powerful bars with soulful melodies, her record-breaking 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – the first and only solo studio album from the ex-Fugees frontwoman – was an instant hit. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and its lead single Doo Wop (That Thing), a perfect showcase of her rapping and singing prowess, also debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100. Hill was ahead of her time in more ways than one. Incorporating elements of reggae, R&B and gospel, Miseducation embodies the genre-bending that is so characteristic of modern hip-hop – and music in general. Twenty-five years later, Hill’s mark on our culture is indelible. Stars including Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Adele count her among their musical influences, and rappers are still sampling her songs. Sure, melodic rapping is ubiquitous now. But – sorry Drake – Lauryn Hill deserves the credit.
Nicki Minaj is the quintessential badass b*tch of hip-hop, and for good reason. She has taken the strides made by the greats before her, like Lil’ Kim, and made the medium her own, with truly unparalleled rapping skills that both infuse her larger-than-life personality and shock the listener into a rapturous state of awe and amusement. If in doubt, just listen to virtually any of her tracks, from the perfect Chun-Li to juicy throwbacks like Itty Bitty Piggy.
Minaj has also become arguably the best guest rapper in the land, elevating every track she is featured on, of which there are many (favorites include Chris Brown’s Love More and, of course, Kanye’s Monster). Through it all, Minaj exhibits a note of brash and boundless self confidence that has previously been thought to only belong to the men of hip-hop. Nicki is here to “pound the alarm” and say, NAH.
Megan Thee Stallion
From dominating male rappers in cyphers to recording freestyles in her dorm room at Prairie View A&M University, Megan Thee Stallion has been Killin Sh*t (the name of one of her earliest freestyles) long before becoming a Grammy-award winning megastar. When I first heard her dropping bars on Instagram a few years ago I was like, “Wow, this girl is fire!”
The Houston Hottie is raw and direct with an authentic sound that is all her own. Her range is felt in collaborations across genres with other artists and even her vulnerability like in the album Traumazine will draw you in. Her unfiltered flows about owning her sexuality in songs like Body and Savage put me in real hot girl mode, whether I’m working out in the gym or just need a confidence boost. Megan’s sound is unmatched and will reverberate across generations.
“Rip me out the plastic, I been acting brand new.”
If you have heard that phrase you can thank Latto, whose clever lyricism has been on display since she was a teenager appearing on the reality series The Rap Game, which sought out aspiring rappers. Naturally, she won, but she has chosen to chart her own path that has led her to success. I most enjoy her because she feels like a mixture of some of my favorite female rappers: She owns her sexuality in a way that reminds me of Lil’ Kim and Megan Thee Stallion, can turn a phrase as dopely as Nicki Minaj, and also gives royal vibes à la Queen Latifah. It speaks volumes that she was able to get another queen – Mariah Carey – to collaborate on the Big Energy remix featuring DJ Khaled. Water seeks its own level, so when the icons want to work with you, it bodes well for your career.
No matter what, Kari Faux always keeps me guessing. She plays hide and seek with her feelings, disguising a soft interior behind a brusque mask.Lines like “This is for my gangster b*tches, they need forehead kisses” are said with enough ferocity to shake my car stereo; meanwhile, the cover of her 2019 EP, Cry 4 Help features her flicking off the camera in a provocative pose, but opens with the line, “Here we go again, another low again.” The duplicity is part of the fun, whispering insecurities in the midst of a bravado that’s unapologetic and boisterous.
An Arkansas native, Kari Faux’s latest album, Real B*tches Don’t Die! is filled with nods to old-school southern hip-hop, placing herself firmly in the tradition of southern rappers who take no BS. Lean in, y’all, because Kari Faux is here – and she’s got something to say.
CupcakKe is an expert provocateur – a few seconds into pretty much every song in which she appears, she’ll have you cracking up, catching your breath and wondering how she got away with it. The Chicago-born rapper can even turn Spongebob Squarepants into something filthy (seriously – songs like Squidward Nose make WAP sound tame).
But beneath her penchant for jaw-droppingly explicit humor, she’s a genuine talent – her delivery is brash, her symbolism is slick and her wordplay is top-notch. Maybe that’s why she’s a favorite of hyperpop artists like Charli XCX and indie darlings like Kelela, who’ve tapped CupcakKe to bring her singular daring to take their music up several notches. Like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown before her, CupcakKe centers women’s pleasure and sexual freedom in her music, though she can also adeptly dance across heavier topics with a light touch.
Most of her lyrics are unprintable here, but don’t let that stop you from seeking out her glorious, subversive and untamable music – just, maybe not at the office.
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