Most hip-hop fans know the story of DJ Kool Herc’s legendary back-to-school jam that contributed to the birth of a musical revolution in the West Bronx, New York City in 1973. But this origin story wouldn’t have been possible without Herc’s sister, who organised the iconic party as an end of summer, back-to-school celebration. The story of the women who shaped the development of this art form is less often told than that of their male counterparts, so for this 5 On It I thought I’d shine a light on some of the legendary female MCs that helped shape hip-hop into the righteous social, and culturally conscious culture we know and love. These Queens paved the way for the Latifah’s, Kim’s and Minaj’s of today.
These under appreciated icons delivered messages of female empowerment with their relentless flow and unconventional beats in times of social anguish for some of the poorest communities in America. When areas were caught in the firing line of gang wars, drug addiction, political neglect and literal fire, these revolutionary MCs reminded listeners in the hip-hop community how to respect themselves and each other; ultimately cementing their legendary positions in hip-hop history.
Sheri Sher and Mercedes Ladies
Live at the T Connection (1979)
Founding member of the first all-female MC group Mercedes Ladies in the late 70s, this South Bronx queen published the first book by a female hip-hop artist based on the challenges women faced throughout the evolution of hip-hop culture. Trying to find audio recordings of Sheri Sher proves to be a challenging task, this worn tape recording of Mercedes Ladies freestyling over the DJ’s heavy breakbeats and manipulated scratching of Chic’s Good Times oozes the indestructible power of an all-female dynamic. Sheri Sher and the Mercedes Ladies are truly under appreciated icons of hip-hop culture.
Rappin’ and Rockin’ in the House (1980)
Sha Rock made the change from b-girling to MCing in 1977 which was a bold move not yet ventured by many. Rock cemented her position as a true pioneer of hip-hop when she became a founding member of the iconic The Funky 4, the first rap group to appear on national television and get a record deal, with Enjoy Records in 1977. In the Funky 4+1’s live recording of Rappin’ and Rockin’ in the House, Sha Rock steals the show in minutes with her effortless bars. Wasting no time coming up for breath, she carries a consistent flow accompanied by adlibs from the rest of the group. Sha Rock was hip-hop’s first established female MC and truly paved the way for those after her, she continues the legacy of women in hip-hop with the Universal Hip Hop Museum’s (UHHM) Women’s Committee that upholds the impact of women in the genre.
Lisa Lee (1983)
Lisa Lee started with the Zulu Nation in the 70s beside Afrika Bambaataa at the age of 14, as an original Zulu Queen she was the only female member of the SoulSonic Force and fought her way through the male dominated space to become a founding mother of hip-hop. In this freestyle from the hip-hop film Wildstyle, Lee rolls out fiery bars partnered with a funky breakbeat and complimentary instrumental whilst maintaining the crowd’s eagerness for more. Lee’s influence is unprecedented as one of the earliest females in the game.
Roxannes Revenge (1984)
At 14, Roxanne Shanté became hip-hop’s first female star through this formidable diss track, she overcame waves of abuse as one of the first female MC’s and can be heard in one half of the first recorded rap rivalries in hip-hop. Shanté’s rebuttal to UTFO’s Roxanne Roxane was nothing short of an iconic dismemberment of the group’s presumptuous rhymes. Verbally spraying an array of steady flowing bars, this track is accompanied by a mid 80s boom bap beat which is constantly evolving with the support of the disk jockey. This freestyle cements Shanté’s position as hip-hop royalty through her ruthless lyricism and first-class flow.
Lyte as a Rock (1988)
MC Lyte was the first female solo rapper to release a record when she was only 18, as well as the first hip-hop star to perform at Carnegie Hall, New York City. Lyte’s hit record Lyte as a Rock highlights the power of self-appreciation and the complexities of living in Brooklyn during devastating social conflict in the city. The music video features Lyte as various powerful icons like Cleopatra and a Black Panther, which elaborates on Lyte’s messages of female empowerment. By throwing emphasis on her rhymes and socially conscious lyrics Lyte secured an impenetrable position as an integral part of hip-hop history.