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Ladies First: Female MCs

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In a field dominated by African-American males, women are the other minority. For years, they've been shut out of the boys' club, denigrated in songs and used as props in videos.

Chris Pizzello, Associated Press
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott: biggest-selling solo female rapper of all time
Click photo for larger image.

It only added fuel to their fire.

Women, a part of hip-hop since the beginning, fought to thrive in a genre where, according to the "Vibe History of Hip-Hop," males originally were the biggest consumers and wanted to hear other males.

But, early female rappers like Little Lee, Sweet & Sour and Lady B were determined. Then, in the mid-'80s, the ladies broke through with the "dis" record, reacting to "Roxanne, Roxanne," a U.T.F.O. song about a stuck-up girl. The response, according to Vibe, was more than 100 Roxanne-related records, most notably from Roxanne Shante.

Salt-N-Pepa, rap's first female crew, started with a response song, "The Show Stopper," playing off of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick's "The Show." The group's full-length debut, 1986's "Hot Cool & Vicious," was a double-platinum success that established a career that produced hits well into the '90s.

MC Lyte was still a teenager in 1988 when "Lyte as a Rock" came out, introducing a brash, tomboy-ish MC who was only too anxious to go head-to-head with the boys.

Queen Latifah is still probably the first name that comes to mind when people say "female rapper." The New Jersey native delivered the anthem "Ladies First" on her debut, "All Hail the Queen," in 1989, and distinguished herself from other female artists with an Afrocentric image played well in the Native Tongues scene. Latifah has gone on to become as big a star in Hollywood as she ever was in the rap world.

Although she's not really a rapper, Mary J. Blige got the royal title of Queen of Hip-Hop Soul when she debuted with the Puff Daddy-produced "What's the 411?" On the grittier side was Lil' Kim, a member of the Biggie Smalls-associated Junior M.A.F.I.A, who showed how raw and sexual a female rapper could be, starting with "Hard Core" in 1996. Along the same line, Eve is tough enough to work with Dre and then run with DMX and his Ruff Ryders posse.

Lauryn Hill takes a more sophisticated approach. She split off from the Fugees with "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," an R&B crossover record that took on big social issues and won five Grammys in 1999.

The biggest female rap sensation of the moment is also the biggest-selling solo female rapper of all time. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, a Virginia native, debuted in 1997 with "Supa Dupa Fly" and has gone on to top that success, selling 12 million units worldwide. She has also stretched out as a producer and songwriter for Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Lil' Kim and others

Elliott combines a sexy, sassy style with a positive image that includes being a spokeswoman for Break the Cycle, an organization that fights domestic violence.

"I'm not trying to be Reverend Elliott or something," she says on her Web site, "but I do believe when you reach a certain status in this business, you got to be positive. You have to remember you are a role model."

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