Ladies Who Rap: The Playlist and Guided Herstory Tour

by Rachel, Katrina, Gabby and Carmen

We do a lot of writing about rap here.

Despite our obsessions with Kanye West, Kanye West, and Drake, we here at Autostraddle are well aware that female rap not only exists, but thrives. After all, we are the website that brings you breaking coverage of Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj, Brittani Nichols, and every other major figure ever in the history of current female rappers. We do our best.

It can be hard, however, to pay an appropriate homage to the past when you’re also writing about your feelings, your clothes, your sex life, and the news. Sometimes the context of the summers you spent as a teenager listening to rap in your first car, or the wind in your hair as you waited for the bus in the middle of the city, or the time you first heard a rap song and thought, “oh my fucking god” get lost in translation when people are looking for what’s new, what’s happening, and where they can get it for free.

So we did this for you. We’re about to explore female rap from the roots right up to the turn-of-the-century. We’re about to take an ambitious journey with women wearing tank tops, leather, athletic gear, and combinations of all of those things. We’re about to learn something and we’re about to have feelings about the world we live in. You’re gonna wanna be a part of this.


1988: “Twist and Shout” – Salt N Pepa

Katrina: Salt N Pepa (N Spinderella!) were always the epitome of fly. They were loud, fun, sexy when they wanted to be, and they were straight to the point. They led a scene of late 80s/early 90s femme fatale girl groups and made a name for themselves by juxtaposing blatant desire with unapologetic independence. They didn’t take any shit from men, they knew exactly what they wanted, and they weren’t afraid to straight up tell you. For this clip, I was going to pick “None of Your Business,” which is a three-and-a-half minute goldmine independent woman lines like, “How many rules am I to break before you understand/That your double standards don’t mean shit to me?” but then I found this cover of “Twist and Shout.” I don’t need to give you a reason to watch this because there are so many, but I’ll give you one anyway: Salt N Pepa wearing 60s-style suits.


1989: “Cha Cha Cha” – MC Lyte

Crystal: MC Lyte was the first-ever female rapper to release a full-length album – a fairly significant accomplishment. Said album was 1988’s critically acclaimed Lyte As A Rock, which produced MC Lyte’s first hit “Paper Thin“. It’s a good song, sure, however given the task of choosing just one Lyte track, I prefer the flow of “Cha Cha Cha” from 1989’s Eyes On This. “Cha Cha Cha” spent over four months on the Billboard Rap charts, peaking at #1 – not too shabby for a track written when Lyte was only seventeen.

In 2006, MC Lyte’s diary, turntable, records and other items were donated to the Smithsonian Institute for “Hip-Hop Won’t Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life” – a collection of objects of historical relevance to the hip hop genre from its inception. I just thought that was interesting / something I would’ve liked to have seen.


1989: “Ladies First” – Queen Latifah

Crystal: When Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” (ft Monie Love) was released in 1989 it became an automatic feminist anthem and, to this day, remains one of her most popular tracks. “Some think that we can’t flow – stereotypes, they’ve gotta go” more or less sums up what this song is all about. “Ladies First” appeared on Queen Latifah’s excellent debut album All Hail The Queen, which in my opinion still measures up to rap/hip hop records produced today. It ranked #35 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop, and #1 in my heart.


1991: “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” – Yo-Yo

Gabrielle:  My first thoughts when Carmen emailed about the Rap Herstory piece: FUCKING A, RIGHT ON! YESSSSSSSSSSS!!! I am now in love with Carmen’s brain, especially the rap-lovin’ side.

Carmen: This article was Katrina’s idea. ALL HER IDEA. I TAKE NO CREDIT FOR THE IDEA.

Gabrielle: Yo-Yo, born name Yolanda Whittaker, is one of the many female rappers from the early 90s that showed so much promise but couldn’t really gain a strong foothold in the music industry. Her most popular single “Can’t Play with my Yo-Yo” came out in 1991, when I was 9 years old. The hook still finds its way into my brain on a semi-regular basis. That’s powerful in its own way. Also, one major thing about Yo-Yo was that most of her attitudes and lyrics were based around being a strong female and connecting with other women to rise above the misogyny and male-based bullsh*t in life. Her crew of homegirls were called the IBWC: Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition.


1994: “Creep” – TLC

Carmen: I chose “Creep” because I can still remember listening to it and strutting to parties my first summer in DC. I remember wishing once I really discovered TLC – way too late in the game / in my life – that I’d been more into their brand of girl power as a kid.


1996: “Foxy’s Bells” – Foxy Brown

Gabrielle: Fox Boogie Brown is Bad As Hell. First, Foxy Brown came up with one of the greatest self-imposed rap nicknames ever in life: The Ill Na Na. And if you’re not sure what that means, it’s ok, mostly it means that she has the best pussy and is the best rapper. All of those things in one word and, bonus, it acted as the title of her first album. The Ill Na Na was released in 1996 and continued to the drive started by Lil’ Kim for female rappers to run solo. Well, mainly as a solo female surrounded by a crew of dudes. Foxy’s first single “Ain’t No N*gga” was huge and a lot of that boost came from the star power of Jay-Z. Still her bravado and booming voice secured her spot as a force in and of herself. Immediately, the rivalry between Foxy and Lil’ Kim became a thing because obvs two badass women rapping could no longer be friends. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because drama sells and maybe this type of rivalry laid the foundation for shows like The Bad Girls Club. I digress. Still Foxy’s music and attitude made for great hip hop. Her collabs with Blackstreet and involvement in rap super group, The Firm, make her a VIP in the rap herstory group. Also, at one point not only did she go deaf but she also ran a reign of terror on nail salons. Mad drama, ya’ll. Foxy Brown will always have the Ill Na Na.


1997: “The Rain” – Missy Elliot

Katrina: It has been nothing short of an honor coming of age to Missy Elliott. On the scene as a solo artist since she dropped Supa Dupa Fly in 1997, Missy has relentlessly proven that it’s possible to make it in any game just by doing you. Fortunately for her, “doing you” has meant being talented, ambitious, stupidly charming and continuously humble. The quality of her music and the genuineness of her character have made her recognizable from the beginning, which granted her exclusive access to the boys’ club, where she was working with dudes like Timbaland and Diddy before her first single even dropped. Playing with the boys has never slowed her roll, though, and Missy shaped herself, intentionally or not, into a feminist hip-hop icon by being honest in her work. Despite what the haters may have to say, she’s maintained a positive message (and managed to do so without being corny), embraced her body type, retained a sense of humor and always respected other women, even when playing their pimp in that great, great Lady Marmalade cover. And, in the 21 years that she’s been a musician, she’s never, ever slowed down. It’s entirely possible that Missy is forever.


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  1. I would pick Junior Mafia(well actually is just Lil Kim and BIG) Get money over crush on you. Sure the line at the end maybe taken a bit wrong or what not, but I think she a bit more rough there and has that I want to snap your spine feeling to it. I think she is an authentic rapper from the ghettos of NY, and can actually back it up, unlike some of the newer rappers in this category.

    Foxxy Brown’s Ain’t No N**** with Jay-Z is another hot track. Shame she went deaf.

  2. Sometimes, when listening to the latest round of guitar-driven white people strumming on CBC, I wish there were an autostraddle radio station of everything I’d missed growing up to CBC.

  3. I love Lauryn Hill so much, she has so much talent and grace. I also really like Monie Love(she was featured in the Queen Latifah part), she did quite a bit with Latifah but her solo work is really amazing. Missy Elliot had this tv competion for singers and rappers a really long time ago, my mom and I used to watch it religiously.

  4. Basically, I have the same feelings about this post as I did when I saw the “Ladies First Tour” with Beyonce and Missy Elliot back in 2004. Amazing.

  5. I’m really glad this article mentions the death of “positive sister-based feminism” in the female rap movement. I wasn’t sure exactly when the change happened, but I know that I’m uncomfortable with the way many current female rappers treat other women in their lyrics. Each time another kickass woman busts into the mainstream rap scene, like Azealia or Nicki, I always have these high feminist expectations for them (especially Azealia because she’s bisexual so I was hoping she would be a positive LGBTQ presence in the rap world)…and then they fall into the tired pattern of exalting themselves while beating down other women. (“Stupid Hoe”, anyone?) Not to mention playing into male fantasies instead of claiming their sexualities as their own…gah. Feelings. Has anyone else noticed this same pattern?

    (oh and clearly I don’t mean to say that all female rappers do this, but it’s common among the most popular ones today)

  6. Small nitpick. Aaliyah wasn’t a rapper. She was an R&B/
    Pop singer, like Rihanna or Beyonce. “Are you that somebody?” is maybe the closest song of hers that could be considered rap and that’s being generous. She was still awesome though.

  7. Nice article, although I can think of more female artists as well, that have not been mentioned, whether “conscious” and or otherwise. Also, if anyone is interested, Da Brat has an interesting little interview about the state of female mc’s in Hip Hop, which can be viewed here:

  8. Well, I know what I’m listening to the rest of the week (at least).

    Also, Are You that Somebody isn’t on Spotify while other Aaliyah songs are, what is that nonsense?

  9. I would have to admit that I jam a lot(or atleast tried to sing along) to Missy Elliott Songs although I can barely breathe and half of the lyrics i “rap” are incomprehensible! HAHA embarassing :x

  10. I love Aaliyah more than ANYTHING!! But not technically a rapper.But I understand the need to mention her.

  11. Thank you for this! I love them all. (Especially Lauryn Hill!) Autstraddle’s writers have an insane ability to pick interesting topics AND the talent to write about them with intelligence, eloquence, and humor. I feel educated and entertained!

    You know what would be supa dupa fly?? If you all wrote one article (similar to this one) for each genre of music. There is so much good music put forth into the world by lovely ladies. It would be rad to read more about my favorite musicians and ones I have maybe never heard of. But this may be something you’ve been doing for the past three years. I don’t know – I’m very new. But I’m absolutely LOVING Autostraddle.

    Kudos on another great piece!!

    • “You know what would be supa dupa fly?? If you all wrote one article (similar to this one) for each genre of music. There is so much good music put forth into the world by lovely ladies.”

      THIS. I can think of literally a million female artists spanning different genres that make absolutely beautiful music that should be heard.

  12. In all seriousness, Missy Elliott did, can, and will always get it. I’m surprised Lauryn Hill isn’t on the list though, her freestyles shut down stages. Another legend.

  13. wow, so many awesome rappers–and memories! The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first CD I ever bought, with my saved-up allowance–and it turned my little sheltered, nerdy mind inside out.

  14. also, I’m really glad to find out I didn’t hallucinate that falcon in the Aaliyah video. Some late-90s video director actually decided, “You know what this video needs? You know what Aaliyah needs, on top of her hot abs and leather outfit? A fucking falcon.”

  15. I still remember what it felt like the first time I heard Missy’s The Rain. And then saw the video. Blew my mind wide open.

  16. i agree with turkish about the aaliyah thing. she wasn’t a rapper. additionally, i would add people like angie martinez, da brat, eve, lady of rage, trinia, and sole. all big time rappers in my opinion. i’m glad you put monie in there though, even if it was just a feature mention!

  17. good read … although i wouldn’t classify Alliyah as a rapper, but on a side note there are alot of talented up and coming and under the radar gay female rappers that get little to no attention or pub maybe we can see an article on them.

  18. Amazing list. I’m happy to know most of the artists. What the heck happened so that fierce female rappers are so scarce these days? Why did we devolve?

  19. Dope! Haven’t forgot about any of these females who had it poppin at one time or still. As far as the content, don’t forget hip hop is a culture, too when complaining about most lyrical contents with today’s popping female rappers.

  20. Amazing list. I’m still crushing on Lil’ Kim (since her Junior M.A.F.I.A days..) but my feminist part of my brain won’t stop saying that this is probably kinda sexist.

    Huge props to Missy and the Queen as well (realizing it now, “Ladies First” is too gay to be true). I’m also a huge fan of Lauryn Hill but since I was recently at a concert of hers I must say I was very, deeply disappointed of her performance. It still hurts :S

  21. This post has exposed me to sooo many female rap artists who I plan to obsess over for the rest of the day. I was born in 1991, and my exposure to anything other than gangster rap has been very limited. Although, one time, when I was a little girl, my dad went to start up my mom’s truck and flipped out when I started rapping along with the Salt n’ Peppa mixed tape that mom left in her sound system. He didn’t think it was appropriate for little girls to be absorbing lessons about their sexuality (my dad, btw, is a hardcore metal head and I think we all know about the cheesey hetero innuendos that especially ’80s hair metal employed). My mom told him to relax and that it’s good for girls to know that they can be sexually liberated.

    Do any of you have stories about your first experiences with rap music?

  22. I know I’m commenting, like, SIX YEARS LATER!!! LOL, but, I just really loved this read (and listen) when it popped up in the archives. I love everything y’all present, but this was really the boost I needed on a somewhat depressing cold, rainy sinter day putting up with the narcissist “haters” that I live with! I’m definitely adding some of these to my femme power playlist!!

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