8 Trailblazing Women of Hip-Hop

Hip-hop, a genre that has dominated the music industry globally, has a long history of innovative lyricism and cultural impact. Although it’s frequently considered male-dominated, women in hip-hop have disproved this notion and left their imprint on the music in a big way as well. Let’s celebrate the iconic women who pioneered hip-hop from its birth, and who continue to innovate with the genre today.

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1. Roxanne Shanté

The “First Lady of Hip-Hop,” Roxanne Shanté, is from the streets of Queensbridge, New York. She first made waves with her fierce persona in the early 1980s. She became especially well known for her fiery diss tracks. Her iconic 1984 song “Roxanne’s Revenge” solidified her status as a key figure in hip-hop history. It was actually a response track to “Roxanne, Roxanne” by U.T.F.O., and ignited the “Roxanne Wars” between Shanté and rival hip-hop artist The Real Roxanne.

2.  Salt-N-Pepa

The dynamic duo behind Salt-N-Pepa was Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Cheryl James (Salt). Their breakthrough in the late 1980s and early ’90s was fueled by huge songs like “Push It” and “Shoop.” They dominated the charts and became household names. The ladies promoted ideas of sexual independence and female empowerment through their music, pushing women to embrace their individuality and strength. Their influence on hip-hop defied expectations, and further proved that women can succeed in a predominantly male genre. Their success inspired a new generation of female artists in hip-hop to pursue their dreams in music.

3. Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah, born Dana Owens, was a pioneer in hip-hop regardless of gender. She’s greatly impacted both Hollywood and the music industry. Queen Latifah made her music debut in 1989 with “All Hail the Queen,” and since then she’s achieved remarkable success, including two gold-selling albums: Black Reign in 1993 and The Dana Owens Album in 2004. Latifah’s hit songs include “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which became an anthem for empowerment and garnered critical acclaim, and “Ladies First.” Queen Latifah stands tall as a feminist icon—in music, film, television, and business.

[RELATED: Queen Latifah Dazzles Singing the National Anthem on ‘Sunday Night Football’]

4. Missy Elliott

The 1997 release of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott‘s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, cemented her place in hip-hop and the industry overall. “The Rain” and “Sock It 2 Me” were two standout tracks amongst many highlights. Supa Dupa Fly distinguished Elliott as a powerful force in hip-hop, showcasing her unique style and creative lyricism. Her numerous chart-topping hits included “Work It,” “Get Ur Freak On,” and “Lose Control.” These songs dominated the charts and pushed the boundaries of hip-hop by blending genres and incorporating inventive production techniques. Her collaboration with musicians like Aaliyah, Ciara, and Janet Jackson further demonstrated her versatility and influence. 

5. Lil’ Kim

She is known for her bold and provocative lyrics and style. Her debut album, Hard Core, released in 1996, broke gender barriers in the male-dominated genre and challenged societal norms with explicit themes of sexuality and female empowerment. With the help of smash singles like “No Time” and “Crush on You,” the album achieved major commercial success. Lil’ Kim‘s fashion sense and image also influenced the industry, making her a pivotal figure in hip-hop lore. She promoted female voices in hip-hop, creating opportunities for other female musicians with her unapologetic attitude and boundary-pushing music.

6.  Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj stepped on the scene in the late 2000s, in particular demonstrating her unmatched lyrical ability. Her debut album, Pink Friday, topped the U.S. Billboard 200 chart in 2010. Minaj later became the first female artist with 100 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to massive tracks like “Super Bass” and “Anaconda.” Minaj’s ability to write rhymes is one of her distinguishing qualities. She can change between flows, accents, and personas that are usually sharp, clever, and humorous. She also isn’t afraid to tackle various societal issues, from empowerment and self-confidence to personal experiences and social commentary.

7. Cardi B

Initially recognized as a reality TV star, Cardi B has become a commanding presence in the hip-hop industry. Her unapologetic attitude and unique Bronxian flair have left an outsized impression. Notably, she has amassed numerous awards, including a Grammy Award, six American Music Awards, eight Billboard Music Awards, six BET Awards, and 14 BET Hip Hop Awards. With her chart-topping hits such as “Bodak Yellow” and “WAP,” Cardi B has shattered barriers and firmly established herself as a burgeoning hip-hop legend.

8. MC Lyte

MC Lyte—real name Lana Michelle Moorer—first made a name for herself in the late-’80s hip-hop scene. She was the first female rapper to release a full-length solo album in the genre with Lyte as a Rock in 1988. Throughout her career, MC Lyte has advocated for self-confidence, particularly for women, and used her platform to highlight significant societal concerns. She committed herself to empowering women by founding the “Hip-Hop Sisters Network.” She has received numerous awards as well, including BET’s I Am Hip Hop Icon Award in 2013. Her successful albums in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as her collaborations with artists like Queen Latifah, make her a true hip-hop stalwart.

Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

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