While the hip-hop community tends to overlook women in the industry by separating them into their own category, female rappers in the nineties sat at the forefront of the genre. They set precedent for equality universally, and exemplified a liberation of many women from gender stereotypes and expectations that previously held them back, and not just within hip-hop. Though it is arguable that women perpetuated some gender stereotypes, it is much more evident that the ladies of the nineties revolutionized the world and its perception of women.
This article does contain explicit lyrics and mature themes. It is important to take note of note the role of such themes in the rise of many female rappers. Although these themes may be seen as unsavory, the shock factor of some of the music in this article set important precedents for the ever important open dialogue that remains in hip-hop today.
Bringing a completely original style and flow to hip-hop, Missy Elliot released her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, in 1997 and was subsequently praised for how clearly her persona came through in her lyrics and approach. Tracks like “Hit Em Wit Da Hee” and “Sock It 2 Me” promoted messages of female independence and sexual liberation. While Missy Elliot shot to stardom in the early 2000s, Supa Dupa Fly created a space for female rappers to talk about whatever they wanted.
After some incredible work as a part of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill released her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in 1998. The album is still widely relevant today as it is driven by timeless musicianship and an authentic, relatable representation of feminine emotions. It was truly the first of its kind in the rap world. While the album isn’t exclusively a rap album, it contextualizes a lot of what hip-hop is within one piece of work. That is, it combines poetry, exposing the truth, and musical creativity.
TLC, the group consisting of T-Boz, Left Brain, and Chilli, is the best-selling American girl group to date. While their music is definitively R&B, their influence drastically permeated the hip-hop world, garnering attention for producers and bridging the gap between hip-hop and the mainstream consumer. CrazySexyCool, the only female group album to ever get diamond certification from the RIAA, shot the group to stardom in 1994. With themes like dealing with a cheating partner, safe sex, and addiction, TLC made important statements while still making waves in the music industry.
Taking influence from The Zulu Nation, Queen Latifah really grew into her title as queen throughout the nineties. As positive female messages and proclamations of the importance of peace permeated her discography, Latifah’s lyrical ability gained her respect as one of hip-hop’s first feminists. “Nature of a Sista,” “Ladies First,” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” were all highly acclaimed within the rap community, allowing her to become one of hip-hop’s most influential feminists as well. Simultaneously, her music gained interest in communities outside of rap, bringing feminist ideals to popularity.
While Bo$$ was not the biggest rapper of the nineties, “Deeper” off Born Gangstaz of 1993 shot to the top spots of the Billboard Hot 100. The song exudes a staunch gangster attitude and proved that women could play on the level of any other gangster rapper. Her supreme lyricism and her “street cred” allowed her to gain the utmost respect from the industry.
Often revered as hip-hop’s pioneer feminist and the first female rapper to release a full solo album, MC Lyte was truly the first of her kind. She was also the first female rapper to be nominated for a Grammy in 1993 for “Ruffneck.” MC Lyte made rap that explicitly catered to what women wanted to hear which was an original and incredibly popular approach. She ruled the nineties with cool production and a flow like no other. Her albums Ain’t No Other and Bad As I Wanna B anchored her place at the top with her male peers while distinguishing her as completely unique.
Salt-N-Pepa, the trio formed by Cheryl James (“Salt”), Sandra Denton (“Pepa”), and Latoya Hanson who was later replaced by Diedra Roper (“DJ Spinderella”), was one of the only female rap acts to spread their music in a truly global way. It is almost impossible to have lived through the nineties without having some introduction to their music. With hits like “Whatta Man,” “Shoop,” and “None Of Your Business,” their 1993 album, Very Necessary, blasted on to overall charts, earning them a Grammy and opening up the world to female rap.
Da Brat was the first female artist to receive an RIAA Platinum Certification in 1994 for her album, Funkdafied. The single, “Funkdafied,” sampling the ever popular “Between The Sheets” by The Isley Brothers, was extremely popular and brought visibility to female rappers. Additionally, “Give It 2 You,” although less popular, received a similar level of acclaim within the industry.
Considered one of the greatest rappers to ever come out of Houston, Lez Moné is known for spitting incredibly thoughtful rhymes over G-Funk beats. Receiving shout-outs from rappers like Willie D, it is clear that she was respected by even the greatest of her peers. Lez Moné sat at the forefront of Houston hip-hop as one of its leaders and founders. Her 1994 album, Talkin’ Sh*t, is a refined exemplification of who she is.
Possibly one of the most influential female rappers of all time, Lil Kim made waves in hip-hop and music as she set precedent for feminine liberation and equality within music. After gaining exposure through her involvement with Junior M.A.F.I.A., she released her debut album, Hard Core, in 1996. The album was certified double platinum by the RIAA. The album was a definitive precedent in its use of blatant sexual references and powerful feminine motifs. It created a space for artists to be free in what they spoke about, even if they happened to be female. Her music, while shocking and considerably explicit, continues to be relevant as other female rappers follow her lead today.
Roxanne Shanté first gained popularity through her participation in the Juice Crew and the Roxanne Wars. She was known for her willingness and success in battling male rappers. Her notoriety as a lyricist and battle rapper exploded with her 1992 release of The B*tch is Back. The album was produced by hip-hop royalty including Kool G Rap and Grandmaster Flash. In addition to some really great production, the album delivers astounding rhymes and what can only be described as fighting words. Forget any Nicki and Cardi beef, Roxanne Shanté was and will continue to be the queen of battle rap.
While this list is far from comprehensive, these women were some of the most influential rappers, not just female rappers, to ever exist. They switched up the way women are viewed and smashed gender stereotypes on their way to the top. Each one, in their own way, contributed a great deal in moving toward gender equality. While gender inequality is still perpetuated in the rap community, the progress these women made will not be overshadowed.