Forgotten Femcees: How Hip-Hop’s Women Have Always Had It Harder
From Roxanne Shante to The Lady of Rage, female rappers have rarely gotten their due.
The biopic Roxanne, Roxanne, now streaming on Netflix, shines a light on the life of emcee Roxanne Shante, the Queens-born teen battle rapper who became the central figure in “The Roxanne Wars.” Starring Chante Adams and directed by Michael Larnell, the film depicts Shante’s harrowing life and promising-but-stunted career, and serves as a sharp reminder of how unwelcoming the rap game has always been to so many of its most promising women.
Shante, born Lolita Gooden, worked with legendary superproducer Marley Marl early in his career, rap’s clown prince Biz Markie was initially her beatboxer and roadie, and she was central in “The Roxanne Wars,” where the teenager sparked a war of words with UTFO (whose hit single “Roxanne, Roxanne” sparked Shante’s answer record “Roxanne’s Revenge”) and their affiliate The Real Roxanne—among others. “Roxanne’s Revenge” was released in 1985 and made Shante an upstart out of New York City’s hip-hop hotbed, which led to her recording some singles with fellow Queens rapper Sparky D and getting involved in “The Bridge Wars,” another rap rivalry that pitted Marley’s Queens-based Juice Crew against up-and-comers Boogie Down Productions out of the Bronx.
But by the late 1980s, as Marley became one of the most successful producers in hip-hop, Biz Markie scored a monster crossover hit with “Just A Friend,” and Juice Crew affiliates like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and Masta Ace dropped acclaimed debut albums, Shante’s visibility evaporated. Her debut album wasn’t released until 1989, a full four years after the buzz of “Roxanne’s Revenge.” She’d become a young mother and endured an abusive relationship—as well as label problems and a period of estrangement from Marley.
By the time of Bad Sister’s release, the trio Salt-N-Pepa had become major stars, a new teen battle-rap phenom named MC Lyte was the tough new voice, and Queen Latifah was set to become the first lady of the Afrocentric-themed Native Tongues crew. With newer television platforms like Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City giving a wider swath of rappers more national exposure than ever before, these artists became stars—as Shante’s career fizzled. She released The Bitch Is Back in 1992, which included the vicious diss track “Big Mama“ aimed at Lyte, Latifah and another then-newcomer in Yo-Yo. But having become a mom, Shante later shared that she’d learned to put aside any bitterness about her career.
“I knew I needed to let go of that anger,” she explained to Jezebel. “I was no longer in a bad relationship. I was no longer in a bad contract. They stole what they stole. I wasn’t the first they stole from and I wasn’t the last the industry was going to do that to. I wasn’t going to walk with that bitterness, but what I was going to do was to make sure that anyone who came in contact with me, I would tell them how important it was to keep their publishing, know how important your archives are, know how important it is to have your name on your work, know what your worth is.
Shante’s career wouldn’t be the only example of talented women in hip-hop who never seemed to get their due—or get the kind of support that could foster sustained careers in the industry.
Yo-Yo had risen through the ranks of Ice Cube’s crew Da Lench Mob following Cube’s exit from N.W.A. in 1989 and solo breakthrough a year later. She’d appeared on his debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and in early 1991, dropped her first album, Make Way for the Motherlode. Her debut single, “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo,” peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard 100 and No. 5 on the Rap Charts. But her follow-up singles didn’t match its success—and despite solid chart showings by singles, her subsequent albums, Black Pearl (1992), You Better Ask Somebody (1993) and Total Control (1996) fared poorly. Her fifth album would go unreleased in 1998.
Another West Coast-based star, The Lady of Rage was one of the standout talents amongst the legendary roster of rappers at Death Row Records. She’d been a scene-stealer on multiplatinum albums by Dr. Dre (The Chronic) and Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle). And in 1994, Rage landed a hit single with “Afro Puffs,” which hit No. 5 on the Rap Charts. The song was from the hit Death Row-produced soundtrack Above the Rim—but it would be three years before Rage’s debut album, Necessary Roughness, saw release.
That album wasn’t supposed to be Rage’s first. She’d been working on a record tentatively called Eargasm with Dr. Dre, yet it never saw the light of day following Dre’s acrimonious departure from Death Row in 1996. “It was never done!” she told DubCNN in 2007. “That was Dre’s whole project! He came up with the title and everything, he had the concept and his vision of that. Once he left, all that left with him.”
Necessary Roughness was virtually lost amid the chaotic demise of Death Row Records following the death of label star Tupac Shakur, the defection of Dre and the imprisonment of label CEO Marion “Suge” Knight. It would be Rage’s last commercial release until 2008’s V.A. to L.A. but she’d initially expected to be included on Dre’s blockbuster 1999 album 2001, which featured most of her old Death Row labelmates.
“Later on, I found out—I don’t know how true it is—but I found out that Dre just didn’t wanna deal with any problems because I was still signed to Death Row, and he didn’t want any problems. I was like, ‘You could have told me that!’ I could’ve understood that! I could respect that better than, ‘Oh the track’s not done! Call back, call back!’ So that was my last dealings with Dre,” she recalled.
Like Queen Latifah, Monie Love was affiliated with the Native Tongues. Monie’s 1990 single “Monie In the Middle” became a hit on the dance chart and earned a Grammy nod, as did the next single “It’s A Shame (My Sister.)” Her debut album Down to Earth balanced socially-aware, topical subject matter with lighthearted fun. She landed high-profile guest spots alongside Latifah (“Ladies First”), De La Soul (“Buddy”) and Whitney Houston (“My Name Is Not Susan”), but it didn’t translate to the kind of solo success that would elevate her to the status of her Native Tongues contemporaries like Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. Monie also made appearances on high-profile soundtracks like Boyz n the Hood and Class Act, and she earned a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most formidable on the mic—yet commercial success eluded her. She collaborated with Prince, and released her sophomore album In A Word or 2 in 1993. It is her last album release to date. Monie’s since become a respected radio personality, activist and advocate for women within hip-hop.
Following the commercial breakthrough of Memphis collective Three Six Mafia in 1997, Gangsta Boo became the first breakout member to drop a solo album. Boo’s Enquiring Minds was a hit on the strength of her first single “Where Dem Dollas At.” The song was Boo’s first major success, but things soured between her and Three Six Mafia due to financial disputes, and following a renewed focus on religion, Boo left hip-hop for more than a decade.
Chicago-born rapper Shawnna was part of the Infamous Syndicate before going solo and landing with Ludacris and his Atlanta-based Disturbing Tha Peace label. She’d be featured on Luda’s hit “What’s Your Fantasy” in 2000 and her debut album was set to hit stores in 2002. But Worth Tha Weight wouldn’t see release until 2004. Her sophomore album, Block Music, followed in 2006 and was considered a major leap forward for the rapper—“Gettin’ Some” hit No. 5 on the charts and she seemed to be primed to push DTP towards the forefront of the Dirty South’s 2000s takeover. But Shawnna’s relationship with DTP went south. She has yet to release a follow-up to Block Music.
“I’m not the type of person that likes negativity,” Shawnna told HipHopDX in 2014. “Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I didn’t agree with. I just chucked it up to being part of the business. But something would say, ‘Nah, this ain’t good business.’ It’s no secret I was with them for ten years, and all I had was two albums. I had a feature here and there, but it wasn’t enough. People would come up to me and say, ‘Shawnna didn’t get the push that she needed.’ I don’t have to say all these negative things about them. The proof is there.”
Even the top-tier legends of the rap game like Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Eve and Lil Kim all had careers that feel abruptly cut short—albeit for various reasons. Latifah began to focus more on Hollywood—as did Eve; Lauryn distanced herself from fame; and Lil Kim had an unfortunate stint in prison. But one has to wonder why even the most successful women in hip-hop at some point saw a need to pursue other interests—and oftentimes found more sustainable success. Or they were at the center of very public breakdowns or near-breakdowns that seemed to be related to the men who’d played major roles in their respective careers. When rappers like Lil Wayne, T.I. and Gucci Mane can restart their careers after extended jail stints, but Da Brat and Lil Kim are disregarded as has-beens, it suggests a double standard at play in how we view men versus women in hip-hop.
There are legendary women throughout hip-hop’s history. And the commercial success of Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott, Eve, Nicki Minaj and others can’t be denied. But there are so many female rappers who were undeniably talented, and yet their careers look like blown opportunities in hindsight. The four-year gap that stalled Roxanne Shante’s career didn’t hurt Slick Rick, whose debut album dropped four years after he broke big with Doug E. Fresh’s “Ladi Dadi” in the mid-1980s. Maybe Shante wasn’t that kind of priority over at Cold Chillin,’ who had hit albums by Kane and Biz Markie. Was there a label bidding war to try and snag The Lady of Rage after the demise of Death Row and its aftermath? Did the game ever really push Yo-Yo and Monie like they deserved? These women are all still beloved and revered amongst hip-hop fans, but their careers could have and should have been so much more substantial.
They gave us so much. The industry gave them so little.