17 Rappers Who Shaped Hip Hop

A lesson in herstory: from 1984 with Roxanne Shanté to Cardi B currently

women in hip hop

Words: Heather Clancy | Illustrations: Lapin Blanc

The story of women in hip hop is really the story of women in a world of men. Underrated, dismissed, overlooked, objectified and yet in spite of everything – triumphant and exceptional. If hip hop was born out of a spirit of rebellion and defiance, then it’s only natural that women – whose very existence outside of the straightjacket of gender norms is rebellious and defiant – would be the natural torchbearers of this ever-evolving form of expression.

The story of hip hop can’t be told without the artists listed who helped redefine and elevate the traditionally male genre. And with Castle Lite celebrating hip hop's multifaceted history by uniting the movement’s foremost female forces on one stage, we thought we'd share a little lesson in herstory. Scroll down to learn more about our list of 17 women who rocked the mic, and then don't forget your Castle Lite #HIPHOPHERSTORY tickets. Simply click the link at the bottom of this page and we'll see you at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand on the 8th of September, throwing our hands in the air for the likes of Young MA, Godessa, Moozlie, Relo, Rouge, Gigi Lamayne, Dope Saint Jude, Nadia Nakai and more.

Roxanne Shanté

Roxanne Shante

Government name: Lolita Shanté Gooden

Popping circa: 1984 

“Every time that he sees me, he says a rhyme but, see, compared to me it’s weak compared to mine.”

Only a teenager would have the chutzpah to put herself forward for a diss track when she had no dog in the fight, only ambitions of her own success. At only 14-years-old, the Queens native pitched herself to do a retaliation track directed towards U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” when the rap trio failed to appear at a concert. Not bound by any societal expectations regarding age or gender, it’s no surprise that the self-assured rapper then known as Lolita, was not bound by her name either, swiftly transforming into Roxanne to make real the track “Roxanne’s Revenge” even if the beef wasn’t. And like a spell being cast, her transformation from Lolita to Roxanne was the beginning of her transformation from brash teenager to a pioneer in the nascent hip-hop scene.

Salt 'n Pepa 

Salt 'n Peppa

Government names: Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and Deidra Roper aka DJ Spinderella

Popping circa: 1985

“Shake your thang, owww. Do what you wanna do. I can't tell you how to catch a groove. It's your thang.”

Their first album titled “Hot, Cool & Vicious” summed up the trios enigmatic nature. Complicated, unpredictable and exactly what no male hip-hop artist or group had the nuance to be – seemingly contradictory. At once blasting revenge with “I’ll Take Your Man” while at the same time giving a middle finger to err’body with “None Of Your Business”, Salt-N-Pepa wielded their sexuality to empower the sexuality of all women with “Let’s Talk About Sex” without shying away from reality with “Let’s Talk About AIDS”.

MC Lyte

Mc Lyte

Government name: Lana Michelle Moorer

Popping circa: 1988

“When you say you love me, it doesn't matter. It goes to my head as just chit chatter.”

A hip-hop prodigy who started rhyming before she was a teenager, MC Lyte was the first solo female to release a rap album and went on to earn four number one rap singles with six albums as well as a Grammy nomination. Known for being soft-spoken behind the scenes, the Brooklynite saved her fury for her tracks calling out sexism and misogyny in hip-hop. Rocking baggy clothes and a hard-core attitude, MC Lyte lived up to her fifth album titled “Bad As I Wanna B”.

Queen Latifah 

Queen Latifah

Government name: Dana Elaine Owens

Popping circa: 1988

“Can't go wrong, I feel strong and the flavour's good. I'm wit whateva comes my way, hip-hop hooray.”

Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” is one of those songs that defies genres. Akin to a hip-hop nursery rhyme, regardless of how long it’s been since you last heard it, inevitably you’ll start singing along like its 1993 all over again. Evolving from a beatboxer to a feminist icon in the music industry, Latifah revealed hip-hop’s ability to evolve too. Stereotyped for being violent and sexist, under Latifah’s command, hip-hop had the ability to challenge gender norms and normalise feminist ideals.

Left Eye

Left Eye

Government name: Lisa Lopes

Popping circa: 1992 

"Satisfy my appetite with something spectacular. Check your vernacular and then get back to ya. With diamond like precision, insatiable is what I envision.”

Best known as one-third of R&B girl gang, TLC, Left Eye was more than just the edgy rapper of the group. Earning more co-writing credits than T-Boz and Chilli, Left Eye also shaped the group’s seminal aesthetic by designing their outfits, artwork and music video concepts. Gone too soon, Lopes was involved in a fatal car accident in Honduras, however, her legacy continues to shine like a star. Repeatedly preaching the interconnectedness of life, Lopes said, “there’s no such thing as death. We can call it ‘transforming’ for a lack of better words. When someone passes away, look up – a new star is born.”

Da Brat

Da Brat

Government name: Shawntae Harris

Popping circa: 1994

“Wella sistas and fellas. It's time to get your groove on. I provide the funkdafied sounds that make yo’ move homes.”

Destroying the rise-and-grind notion that only ten-thousand hours yields success, Da Brat knocked out two historic achievements all with her debut album, “Funkdafied”. Earning the title of being the first female solo rapper to sell more than one million copies notably on her first try, Da Brat’s success wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew her. Labelled the “female Snoop Doggy Dogg” by Jermaine Dupri, the “Yo! MTV Raps” alumni defied labels delivering charged anthems and a love-me-or-leave-me personality juxtaposed with her unmatchable delivery and inability to not steal the show, even when only featuring on a track.

Jean Grae 

Jean Grae

Government name: Tsidi Ibrahim

Popping circa: 1995

“Listen, there's nothing like knowin' yourself.”

The daughter of South African jazz musicians Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim, Jean Grae was meant to be a musician the same way a bird is meant to fly. Growing up in New York City, Grae cut her teeth in the underground hip-hop scene as part of the groups Ground Zero and Natural Resource. Perhaps to mark her evolution from ensemble musician to solo artist, she changed her stage name from What? What? to Jean Grae inspired by the X-Men character Jean Grey. Lyrically fighting fit, Grae recently collaborated with her partner Quelle Chris on the critically acclaimed LP “Everything’s Fine”. An artist at ease with transformation, Grae has embraced the digital era and the career fluidity that usually characterises millennials stating on her Patreon; “I believe in living a polymath lifestyle and living up to, and beyond potential. That we should all be free to live a bunch of lives and feel limitless, regardless of what boundaries society places on us.”

Lil’ Kim

Lil Kim

Government name: Kimberly Denise Jones

Popping circa: 1996

“I got my own Benz, I got my own ends, immediate friends. Me and my girls rock worlds.”

So much can be said about Lil’ Kim, from her high-octane lyrics and blatant sexuality to her show-stealing stage presence. But really, what lingers, is not what has been said about the trendsetting artist, but rather how she made and continues to make people feel – in a word; free. Controversial no doubt, the Biggie Smalls protégé refused to be a product of hip-hop and instead made hip-hop’s evolution a product of her bold creativity and concrete confidence.

Foxy Brown 

Foxy Brown

Government name: Inga DeCarlo Fung Marchand

Popping circa: 1996 

“My name will forever ring. Got ‘em screamin’ ‘Damn Fox!’ on everything.”

“I raised you, basically made you,” raps Foxy Brown on Jay Z’s “Ain’t No” and with that line shorter than a haiku, the “Chyna Doll” rapper’s allure is revealed. Sexy as hell, more confident than a young Jay Z and utterly hypnotic, Foxy Brown used her sexuality like a trojan horse to enter the halls of hip-hop royalty before lyrically attacking anyone who dared to challenge her. With feuds as plentiful and OTT as her talents, Foxy Brown was an entertainer even when she wasn’t on stage.



Government name: Antonia D. Reed

Popping circa: 1996 

“True honey buns, wanna have fun. Unlike a chick who settle for the hit and run, yeah. To all tha girls do what you gotta do. But it ain't what you do - it's how you do it.”

Is she a poet who raps, or a rapper who writes poems? The Philly-born DJ-turned-emcee was never interested in being constrained by genre and instead focused on honing her lyrical gift for self-expression. Her debut album, “Kollage” is a masterclass in silky delivery and chilled-out beats, which sounds as fresh today as when it was released over twenty years ago. Literally big in Japan, Bahamadia continues to have a cult following in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Missy Elliot 

Missy Elliot

Government name: Melissa Arnette Elliott

Popping circa: 1997

“I got a cute face, chubby waist. Thick legs, in shape. Rump shakin’, both ways. Make you do a double take.”

“Who listening in 2018” is one of the 5000+ comments on Missy Elliot’s iconic “The Rain” music video on YouTube. Timeless while being very much grounded in the zeitgeist of the late 90s, the hypnotic track feels futuristic and nostalgic at the same time. Dizzying, right? That pretty much sums up the prolific singer, rapper, songwriter and producer who created this and countless other hits while remaining unapologetically herself. Plus, who could rock an Adidas tracksuit better than Misdemeanor?

Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

Government name: Lauryn Noelle Hill

Popping circa: 1998

“How you gon’ win when you ain’t right within?”

Do it right and you only have to do it once. Lauryn Hill proved this when she released her modern-day classic, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. A melodic companion for young women, the album is instructive, meditative and inspiring. Surely, every girl remembers the first time she heard the album and realised she wasn’t alone. Unhurried by concerns of relevance and dissatisfied with the music industry, the actress-turned-musician never buckled to pressure and maybe that was her gift to her fans too. 



Government name: Eve Jihan Jeffers-Cooper

Popping circa: 1999

“Why this, why that, lips stop askin'. Listen to me baby, relax and start passin'.”

Reading the verse above, or in fact any verse from Eve, and you can’t help but hear her honeyed voice. At the beginning of her career, she went by the name “Eve of Destruction” but later dropped the appendage as she became the first female signed to the Ruff Ryders label. Eve’s debut album, “Let There Be Eve… Ruff Ryders’ First Lady” sold two million copies all before her 21st birthday. A self-described “Pitbull in a skirt”, Eve’s ballsy style complete with paw print tattoos is as memorable as her delivery.

Rah Digga 

Rah Digga

Government name: Rashia Tashan Fisher

Popping circa: 2000 

“First and only female unmatched by anyone. Rip it from old school to the next millennium.”

Best known as a loyal member of the Flipmode Squad, Rah Digga aka Harriet Thugman has collectively sold more than one million albums worldwide. Rapping circles around her contemporaries, the “Dirty Harriet” star thrived in collaborative spaces but never neglected the lonely craft of writing. Famed for her lyrical prowess, in several interviews she detailed the creative process of writing, rewriting and doing it all over again – without losing enthusiasm. Learning how to rap by studying the work of Rakim, Kool G Rap and KRS-One, Rah Diggity has always been a student of hip-hop, but that doesn’t mean she shies away from schooling the new generation, recently stirring up controversy by throwing shade at Nicki Minaj.



Government name: Mathangi Arulpragasam

Popping circa: 2005 

“Live fast, die young. Bad girls do it well.”

Growing up in a council estate in London, the soundtrack to M.I.A’s youth was a mixtape of The Clash, London Posse, Public Enemy and Michael Jackson. Later sampling The Clash’s “Straight To Hell” in her smash hit, “Paper Planes”, in many ways the Sri Lankan artist has come full circle. Saluting her past while remaking it into her own image, M.I.A. sees music for what it is, for what it can be, in a word; everything. A diary, a political statement, a call to arms, a reason to dance, a call for justice, a cry for attention. Given that her bright and flashy style is as memorable as her music it’s no surprise that her introduction to the music world was working as a visual director for the group Elastica. With humble beginnings as a Myspace artist, M.I.A. went on to be the only person ever to be nominated for a Mercury Prize, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Brit Award.

Nicki Minaj 

Nicki Minaj

Government name: Onika Tanya Maraj

Popping circa: 2007

"Man, I been did that, man, I been popped off. And if she ain't trying to give it up she get dropped off."

Crowning herself “Queen of Rap”, Nicki Minaj has acted accordingly. Before her latest album “Queen” was released, Nicki reigned supreme as the first female artist to sell over five million copies of each of her studio albums. Her musical territory includes pumped-up pop hits, slow jams to make you dream of yo’ man and take-no-prisoners anthems. With so much creative talent that one personality simply couldn’t contain, Nicki created a family of alter-egos to do her wild imagination justice. By all accounts, it shouldn’t work. On paper, a New York rapper who switches between a cockney accent that could be mistaken for Oliver Twist and raw lyrics just doesn’t sound right. But Nicki Minaj is peak Nicki Minaj when for any other artist it would be wrong, but for her, it’s just right.

Cardi B

Cardi B

Government name: Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar

Popping circa: 2015 

“I'm the hottest in the street. Know you prolly heard of me.”

A trickster at play, Cardi B could have been a dancer, a model, an actress – anything, so long as the public got what they wanted, what Complex called “the Cardi B-ness of Cardi B”. But Cardi B chose hip-hop and her terse New Yawk verses and addictive beats have already been etched into music history. Making mad schmoney, Cardi is the first female rapper to earn multiple number one songs on the charts. Watch an Instagram Story, see her on “Love & Hip Hop” or just say her name to a group of teens and there’s no doubt that she’s a star, but what surprised critics is that for all her sexy charisma and comedic hijinks, nothing is more dazzling than her talent as a musician.

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