(Originally Published in 2018)
In the topic of women in hip-hop, conversations often only go back to Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Missy Elliott as the foundational femcees. In the years approaching hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, there’s been a broader effort to celebrate the ladies who broke barriers with mics in their hands, but the significance of their work is possibly less understood as time passes.
This piece was originally written during a year when fans watched Cardi B., and Nicki Minaj volley Billboard chart records back and forth. Feats like being the first female rapper ever to release a full-length album, or the first female rap group to hit platinum sales already felt far away. But someone paved the way, and while the aforementioned senior MCs each deserve their place in hip-hop history for each pushing the game and culture forward, they weren’t the female pioneers of commercial rap. Lauryn and Missy weren’t the first to switch it up between spitting and singing, Lauryn wasn’t the first conscious female rapper with knowledge of self, and Kim and Foxy weren’t the first to take ownership of their sexuality, or come as hard as the boys. That was all happening as hip-hop was coming of age, in the ’80s, and the originals are long overdue for their props. MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Salt-N-Pepa were early champions of feminism and equality, girl power (before it was a buzz phrase), sisterhood and agency.
On a Friday night in June, 2018, every old-school hip-hop head from the five boroughs assembled in the Barclay’s Center for Yo! MTV Raps’ 30th Anniversary Celebration. The lineup read like a festival bill from 1990 (had there been such a thing as a hip-hop festival in 1990). At roughly the mid-point of the show, rapper Positive K (who, despite his name, specialized in what could be called “street harassment hip-hop”), is performing his 1989 track “I’m Not Havin’ It” in which he attempts, unsuccessfully, to kick game to a young lady too savvy for his shenanigans. He delivers his opening pickup line, and from backstage, you hear the clear, instantly recognizable voice with the quick retort, and now the crowd is screaming, because Lana Michelle Moore, better known as MC Lyte, is here. September will mark the 30th anniversary of Lyte as a Rock, the first full-length album released by a female rapper, and 30 years later at 48 years old, MC Lyte can still tear down a stage with ease as though she does this regularly.
Lyte grew up with the pioneer rap duo Audio Two, best known for “Top Billin” (which younger folks primarily know as the sample for Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” or 50 Cent’s “I Get Money”). When their father brokered the group’s deal with Atlantic Records, he made it conditional on Lyte also getting signed. At the time Sylvia Rhone had just been promoted to SVP and General Manager of Atlantic. Atlantic was one of the few labels in the ’80s that had multiple female hip-hop artists on the roster (they also had Yo-Yo and the group J.J. Fad), and Rhone was hands-on with Lyte (as she later was with Missy Elliott, but that’s a different Women in Hip Hop story).
Lyte, one of the few female rappers ever to have MC in her name, came up in the diss rap era. Diminutive in stature, everything about her attitude and flow let you know she didn’t come to play. It wasn’t aggressive; it was very cool and easy, as though wrecking the mic was light work (pun intended). Like her joint with Positive K, Lyte was a voice for ladies who simply weren’t having it.
Lyte talked shit, and she could stand toe to toe with the boys. She once told Billboard of her rap style, “I was the baddest MC. If you don’t think you’re the baddest MC, then you might as well, sit down cause that’s what hip-hop is all about. It’s braggadocio. You have to put your stakes in and say, ‘I have to come at you some point.’”
Mixed in with the braggadocio was social commentary. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, hip-hop was in the beginning stages of conscious rap and addressed the street violence that went hand in hand with the rise of the crack epidemic. MC Lyte was among the NY-area rappers assembled by KRS-One as part of the Stop the Violence Movement for the legendary “Self Destruction” track and video. Lyte’s verse triggers a break, followed by a change in beat and tempo. The verse has a party feel to it until she hits the message home.
That was her style; her messaging wasn’t on the nose, but it was told through cautionary tales with a mix of dry wit and cleverness. For example, a song about stopping for a cup of “Cappucino” and getting caught in a drug deal gone bad, or “Poor Georgie,” a jam that initially seems to be about Lyte falling for a playboy, but ends up warning against drunk driving.
Hip-Hop has always been a boys’ club, with female MCs often fighting for ground in a landscape of misogyny and sexism, but in response to songs objectifying women, Lyte flipped it back and objectified men. Her biggest hit was a call for a hood dude who could put it down in the bedroom. Not even “get you a man who can do both.” No, just this one thing, thanks. Women clearly supported the sentiment; “Ruffneck” was the first gold single earned by a solo female hip-hop artist.
A couple of years later, she joined forces with Xscape for the Jermaine-Dupri-produced track, “Keep on Keepin’ On” from the Sunset Park soundtrack, the summation of which was basically, “You gonna come to handle this or not?”
As hip-hop grew up and new generations came in behind her, Lyte served as a big sister and mentor to several rising stars. When Rhone had the idea for an all-female answer, of sorts, to the “Flava in Your Ear” remix video for Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down,” Lyte was part of the iconic lineup. So was her sister in hip-hop, Queen Latifah.
For the past 20 years, Queen Latifah’s been known as an actress first, and rapper second (if at all). She may even now be known as a singer as much as a rapper to some. Well, it’s time for a refresher course. Dana Owens took her moniker, Latifah—which she picked out of a book of Arabic names at the age of eight —seriously. Back when we called “woke,” “conscious,” and hip-hop was in an Afrocentric, semi-Black Nationalist moment, everything about Latifah’s messaging and marketing centered around our ancestral roots.
She and her original back up dancers, The Safari Sisters, rocked a combination of tribal and military garb, complete with Zulu crowns, to illustrate not only her heritage but her status as a Nubian Queen.
An original member of Mark the 45 King’s Flavor Unit—a name she later took and built into an entertainment conglomerate—and the Native Tongues (which also included Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep and Monie Love), Latifah’s music was a combination of hip-hop, reggae, and house, with her effortlessly shifting between rapping and singing; a trademark throughout her career.
From the beginning, her approach to music was inclusive, but she also believed hip-hop’s primary obligation was to the community; a philosophy maybe even more relevant now since hip-hop is the dominant music genre. In an early interview with Slammin’ Rap Video Magazine, she broke down her reasoning. “By bringing knowledge to our people, we’re bringing knowledge to every other people and letting them know how we live. That’s when (music) becomes universal. That’s where the teaching comes in. [The message is] directed to the black culture, but it’s something for everyone to learn.”
MC Lyte, Latifah, and Salt-N-Pepa were standing shoulder to shoulder in the game with the boys, claiming their space and making it known that women weren’t going to play the back. They were champions of Women’s Empowerment before the term was coined.
When Latifah conceived the idea for “Ladies First,” Monie Love told Billboard, “She said she wanted to do something that was uplifting for women because it’s a male-dominated industry…. [Women rappers] do exist but we’re few and far between. She said, ‘I want to do something that’s going to empower women and shake the guys up a little bit.” The track is not only now a classic women’s anthem—a classic black women’s anthem—but a definitive moment for women in hip-hop. Two female MCs (originally meant to be three. Lyte was advised to declined Latifah’s offer to get on the song, which she later said she always regretted), who weren’t in a group together, trading fire bars with not a man to be found on the track? They were coming for every preconception, misconception, assumption, presumption, knocking them all out of the box. And they killed it.
Latifah was part of the first class of rappers, along with Will Smith, Ice T, and Ice Cube, to successfully transition from rapping to Hollywood, and the only female rapper to get nominated for an Academy Award. She was also a prime example of the possibilities for growth as an entertainer, businesswoman, and brand. MC Lyte said in tribute to Latifah for Billboard, “My sister, the Queen, has single-handedly changed the way every female MC looks at their business and perhaps more importantly, has no doubt changed the way the world views female MCs and their business potential.”
In 1990, Latifah started doing guest spots and small roles including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever. As she stepped into the acting world, she remained faithful to the image she’d created, keeping her African-inspired style.
Then came Living Single, and Latifah the rapper started moving aside for Latifah the actress. Living Single was the first prime-time series developed by an African American woman (Yvette Lee Browser), and the first time black Gen X’ers were seeing an entire show centered around them as upwardly mobile young adult professionals on TV. The show was top five in African American households for its entire run and inspired the definitive young (white) ensemble sitcom of the 90s, Friends. It also showcased Latifah’s acting ease and incredible comedic timing. She kept hip-hop culture present in the show, from her character Khadijah James’ urban lifestyle magazine “Flava,” to cameos and recurring roles from rappers including Heavy D. and Naughty By Nature.
It was an era when crossing into mainstream meant losing hip-hop cred, and she fired back at naysayers accusing her of going Hollywood. “Well, fame hasn’t got me souped up, selling out, sloppy or poppy.”
Latifah always carried herself with the spirit and energy of an elder, earning the nickname “Mama Zulu” (a reference to the Zulu Nation collective) from her Native Tongue cohorts in her teens. By 1993, she was a TV star, moved from hip-hop hub Tommy Boy to Motown, and developed an additional air of solemn maturity following the tragic death of her brother, Lance Owens. In this elder hip-hop stateswoman form, Latifah delivered her signature song: a call for unification, and condemnation of misogyny in hip-hop culture. The chain she catches at the beginning of the video holds her brother’s motorcycle key. She wore it regularly, both in and out of character for years.
The Black Reign album wasn’t Latifah’s last, but her focus shifted further away from hip-hop. Once Living Single was done, she concentrated more on acting and development/production under Flavor Unit with longtime partner/manager Shakim Compere. She took a full dive into music as a vocalist, first playing a jazz singer in the film Live Out Loud and then releasing her first album of jazz standards, The Dana Owens Album, in 2004. She continued to prove her versatility, becoming a spokesperson for cosmetic giant Cover Girl in 2002, opening the doors for Janelle Monàe and Issa Rae to come later. In 2011 she became the brand’s first spokesperson to create their own line of products, launching the Queen Collection for women of color at a time when the beauty industry was starting to recognize that they needed to cater to darker skin hues. With all this, it’s not hard to understand why people 30 years old or younger don’t realize what the Queen means to hip-hop. Every so often, however, she reminds us all, like when she triumphantly reunited with Brandy, Lyte, and Yo-Yo at the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards for the show-stopping performance of “I Wanna Be Down.”
With discussions about lyricism and depth, Salt-N-Pepa is incredibly overlooked and underrated. In part, because they had a fun, playful vibe, but also because some of their peers discredited them due to their mainstream success. Cheryl James, Sandy Denton, and Deidra Roper assembled one of the first female rap groups, have outsold Lyte and Latifah, and have as many rap Grammy nominations and wins as Latifah. While they aren’t credited with lyricism in the way Lyte and Latifah are, they were at the forefront of combining an R&B, and party vibes with hip-hop, and harnessing their sexuality as power.
No matter what Salt-N-Pepa were rapping about, the vibe was fun. But don’t get it twisted thinking their content had any less substance than their MC peers; they were rapping about agency, independence, and ignoring clowns from the jump.
A London DJ took “Push It,” the B-Side to “Tramp,” and created a remix that exploded both in the UK and stateside. It was not only Salt-N-Pepa’s first hit, but it also garnered the first platinum single for a female hip-hop group and launched one of the most iconic visuals in music, period. When you think of Salt-N-Pepa—hell when you think of the late ’80s and early ’90s hip-hop style—you think of the asymmetrical haircuts, bodysuits, and eight ball jackets (shout out to Dapper Dan) made popular by Salt-N-Pepa. The “Push It” video set the stage for Lil’ Kim, Foxy, Nicki… any female rapper who put their sexuality front and center.
Hurby “Love Bug” Azor, who discovered and produced both the ladies and Kid-N-Play, infused go-go elements in his productions that became a sonic signature for both groups. Salt-N-Pepa paired up with go-go band E.U. (hot on the heels of party-starter, “Da Butt”) for “Shake Your Thing.” A bop, but also a declaration of grown women with a carefree, mind your business vibes (a recurring theme for them): “It’s my thing, and I’ll shake it the way that I feel, with a little seduction and some sex appeal.”
Can we talk for a second about the fashion? Salt-N-Pepa went through massive style evolutions from album to album but were always on trend. Always.
The ladies hit their stride with their third album Blacks’ Magic. First, peep the title. Early to the #BlackPeopleAreMagic and #BlackGirlMagic movement.
They’d taken more creative control, and started writing and working with producers outside of Azor. With hip-hop evolving from the DJ/MC format, Spinderella moved forward as a part of the group’s proper. The ladies once again showed their adeptness at spinning a message into a party hit.
The lead single, “Expression” was about not getting caught up in the hype to keep up appearances based on what you think your peers have going on. Shoot, we might need a reboot for the Instagram era.
Almost a decade before Destiny’s Child was scrutinizing bill-paying ability or asking, “question?”, S-N-P told us they were “Independent,” and ain’t need no drug dealing scammer. Boy, bye. They also tackled community issues. While “Self Destruction” responded to growing violence in the community during the late ’80s, Salt-N-Pepa addressed the HIV/AIDS epidemic and rise in teen pregnancies on “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
They later released an alternate version that focused more directly on HIV called “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” The song earned them a Grammy nomination.
1993’s Very Necessary was the group’s most successful album thanks to hits like “Shoop”; a Grammy-nominated ode to black men called, “Whatta Man”; and the Grammy-winning, anti-slut-shaming anthem “None of Your Business.” With over five million US sales, the album earned Salt-N-Pepa the distinction of being the first female rap act—solo or group—to reach multi-platinum album sales.
Their biggest album was also their last. After parting ways with Azor creatively (and romantically, in the case of Salt), the ladies signed a new label deal, but the label folded almost immediately after. They were also facing a change in musical landscape with the new generation of artists they’d inspired, including Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. A hard arena to compete in as 30-year-old moms.
By the mid-’90s, a new wave of female MCs was on the scene, taking what these ladies had done and going even further creatively and commercially. These women get their flowers, occasionally; Salt-N-Pepa along with Queen Latifah were honored at the 2016 VH1 Hip Hop Honors (Lyte was honored in 2007), and S-N-P just recently performed on the Billboard Music Awards, but they deserve to be in more conversations about pioneers in hip-hop. Women in hip-hop were not a new phenomenon that blew up in the mid-late ’90s. These ladies (and more) broke barriers. Do some homework, and give them their due.