Women have always been a part of hip-hop culture since its inception. One of the earliest MCs was Pebbles of the Funky 4+1 More back in the '80s. Since then, women have become a powerful voice in the culture, often standing toe-to-toe with their male counterparts.
In the 1990s, rappers like Queen Latifah pushed feminism in hip-hop to the forefront by demanding that it's "Ladies First," and then years later urging women to embrace "U-N-I-T-Y" and not negativity.
On the West Coast, Yo-Yo told men that she wasn't a toy to be played with, while the rap trio Salt-N-Pepa boosted women's self-esteem and creativity with "Expression."
But in the mid-90s, a post-feminism wave exploded with artists like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown owning their sexuality through their music and not apologizing for it. Turning a slur into a term of empowerment, Lil' Kim boasted proudly that she's a "Queen Bitch" and established a brand that exudes sex with an extra dose of lyrical bravado. Her good friend Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott took it to another level with "She's a Bitch," using the word as a term of empowerment.
Other rappers were in-your-face with their feminism by denouncing, broke-ass dudes (TLC's "No Scrubs") and challenging gun-toting rappers to a rap battle (Heather B's "All Glocks Down"). In a moment of female solidarity, in 1997, Angie Martinez, Lil' Kim, Left Eye, Da Brat and Missy Elliott teamed up for "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)," a glorious posse track.
Meanwhile, Lauryn Hill recorded an album that would bring a new femininity in hip-hop. Her 1998 debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, offered a solid voice in womanhood as she revealed the many challenges she faced as a woman in growing up in hip-hop and in life.
In honor of Women's History Month, The Boombox salutes female rappers who made some noteworthy anthems of womanhood and empowerment in the 1990s. As hip-hop continues to evolve, new female MCs (Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma, Cardi B, Tink, Rapsody, DeJ Loaf and more) continue to emerge in the rap game.
So without further ado, here are 10 Women's Rap Anthems of the '90s that will make you nod your head and raise your fists.
Since the start of her rap career, Queen Latifah has been pushing womanhood and girl-power in her songs, starting with her 1989 breakthrough hit “Ladies First.” On her 1994 song “U-N-I-T-Y,” Latifah takes a stance against street harassment, domestic violence and misogynistic lyrics in hip-hop. “Who you callin’ a bitch!?” she shouts at the start of the track. Latifah also details a story of G-checking a dude for squeezing her butt without her consent. “Since he tried to break fly with his guys / I punch him dead in his eye,” raps Latifah.
"Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)"Angie Martinez, Lil' Kim, Left Eye, Da Brat and Missy Elliott
This all-star posse track was considered a great moment in hip-hop for the mere fact that you have five female emcees (yes, Angie Martinez was a rapper) from the ‘90s performing together on one song. Featured as a bonus track on Lil' Kim’s 1996 debut album Hardcore, “Not Tonight” is a fun women’s anthem about solidarity and femininity. The song earned them a platinum plaque and a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1997.
TLC touched a nerve with their infectious song “No Scrubs” when it dropped in 1999. Many critics thought that T-Boz, Chilli and the late Left-Eye were male bashing with their lyrics, but women knew they were speaking the truth. The term “scrubs” has now become a part of the hip-hop lexicon and the song itself is an indelible women’s anthem against broke-ass dudes. The Hype Williams-directed futuristic visual was also one of the best videos of the ‘90s.
"You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo"Yo-Yo Featuring Ice Cube
On “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo,” Ice Cube’s protege Yo-Yo warns that she is quick to deliver the fist if anyone tries to disrespect. An in-your-face women's anthem, Yo-Yo (born Yolanda Whitaker) makes it clear that she’s about uplifting women. “This Yo-Yo is made by woman and male / I rhyme about uprising, uplifting the woman / Far superior to handle any male,” she raps. “Any time, any rhyme, any flow, and any show.”
Lil’ Kim led the charge for female rappers to own their sexuality. The Hardcore track “Queen Bitch” was the Brooklyn rapper’s proclamation that she could stand toe-to-toe with any man lyrically. Although Kim’s balancing act of mixing her lyrical prowess with unmitigated sexuality were hit and miss sometimes, she certainly broke the mold when it came to female empowerment in rap. Recently, Remy Ma paid homage to the Queen Bee by featuring her on “Wake Me Up,” which samples “Queen Bitch.”
Unlike Kim and Foxy, Lauryn Hill displayed a sense of vulnerability and introspection on her classic 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The former Fugees rapper articulated a multitude of emotions and narratives on the LP that many women could relate to on a human level.
On her lovelorn ballad “Ex-Factor,” which samples Wu-Tang-Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple,” L-Boogie reflects on an unrequited relationship that’s left her heartbroken. The grain in her voice conveys the pain so potently that it’s understandable why the song has become an unbridled women’s anthem for those going through the same relationship struggles.
Much Like Yo-Yo, The Lady of Rage was not the one to mess with when it came to bars as well. On the anthemic “Afro Puffs,” Rage rocked her afro-puffs and spit the toughest rhymes over Dr. Dre’s eerie G-Funk productions. “I rock on with my bad self ‘cause it's a must / It's the Lady Of Rage still kickin up dust / So umm, let me loosen up my bra strap / And umm, let me boost ya with my raw rap,” she raps.
"She's a Bitch"Missy Elliott
Taking a page out of Lil’ Kim’s book, Missy Elliott tried to take the sting out of the offensive slur and turn it into an empowering term of defiance. “She's a bitch / When you say my name / Talk mo' junk but won't look my way / She's a bitch / See I got more cheese / So back on up while I roll up my sleeves,” she raps over Timbaland’s punchy beat. If anything, Missy’s eye-popping black-and-white video, directed by the brilliant Hype Williams, makes this a worthy anthem.
Eve emerged as a fresh voice in rap with her fantastic 1999 debut album, Ruff Ryders' First Lady. Her collaboration with Swizz Beatz was a match made in hip-hop heaven. “What Ya Want” is a chest-thumping anthem with the Philadelphia rhymer rapping braggadocious rhymes while Beatz’s salsa-influenced production pulls you onto the dancefloor. “Puttin it down, Ruff Ryders put in they work / Snatched up the illest vicious pitbull in a skirt / Makin’ ‘em hurt, haters steady dishin’ up dirt/ Changin’ the game, setting the rules, makin it work,” she spits.
Salt-N-Pepa have always made it a point to raise the bar for women in hip-hop. The pioneering rap trio displayed a femininity that wasn’t overtly sexual, yet delivered positive messages that were relatable and not cliche. Salt-N-Pepa were the template for many female emcees coming up in the game.
On their fun anthem “Expression,” Salt-N-Pepa ordered women to get on the dance floor and express themselves. Pepa says it best when she spits, "Yes, I'm blessed, and I know who I am / I express myself on every jam / I'm not a man, but I'm in command / Hot damn, I got an all-girl band."
*BONUS* "All Glocks Down"Heather B
Before Remy Ma, there was Heather B, a hardcore rhymer from New Jersey who took no shorts on the mic. The self-proclaimed bulletproof lyricist teamed up with producer Kenny Parker (KRS-One’s younger brother) to deliver a bristling track, “All Glocks Down.” On the song, Heather urged gun-toking emcees to drop their guns and battle her bar-for-bar.
"It's the side-walkin', rap talkin' hip-hop sista No need to try me mista / You got rhymes go for it we need no chorus / Freestyles comin' from da door," she raps, adding, "I didn't feel like playing around / 'Cause you's a part-time with a part rhyme / committing no crimes / And claiming to be hard on the block."
If you want to hear another street banger from Heather B, check out her in-your-face banger "My Kinda N---a” featuring M.O.P.