The Early Women of Hip-Hop

by Matthew D. Gamble

Hip-hop has been a genre that has underwent many changes since its formation in the 1970s. Beginning as a cultural movement in the late 1970s, becoming a subculture in the 1980s and breaking into the mainstream in the late 1980s and 1990s. Today, it is one of the most popular genres of music, enjoying both success and controversy around the globe. Hip hop was originally used as a tool of expression of young Blacks and Latinos in inner-city areas who experienced the hardships of systemic racism, street violence, police brutality and poverty. While Black men were seen as the face of hip-hop; hip-hop itself has not always been a male-dominated medium, in fact many of the earliest rappers were Black women. And just like young Black men, young Black women also had a lot to say about society.

flygirlscoverpicyellow1.jpgThe late 1970s saw the introduction of many rappers and rap groups, some of whom are unknown or forgotten today despite their major impact. One of the first female recorded rappers is Tanya “Sweet Tee” Winley. While she was only active from 1979 to 1982, she had a huge impact on the genre of hip-hop. She and her sister Paulette were the daughters of Paul Winley, the owner of Winley Records, a record label which specialized in doo wop. The sisters made the earliest all-female hip-hop single by called “Rhymin’ and Rappin’” in 1979; released under their father’s label. Sweet Tee also released a solo single filled with social commentary entitled “Vicious Rap” in 1980. Sweet Tee’s career came to an end in 1982, though she and her sister released one last single, a funk song called “I Believe in the Wheel of Fortune”. Another early female rapper is Wendy “Lady B” Clark who released the hip-hop single “To the Beat Y’all” in 1979. She eventually ended up as a radio host of the Philadelphia hip-hop show Street Beat which ran from 1984 to 1989. The Street Beat featured many up-and-coming hip-hop acts such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, MC Lyte, Public Enemy and many others. Lady B made major contributions to the hip-hop industry by not only being one of the earliest recorded female artists but also hosting a radio show that helped spawn the careers of many young artists. She continues to work as a radio host in both New York City and Philadelphia.

Another one of the great female pioneers is MC Sha Rock who made history being one of the first female MCs in a hop-hop group. Sha Rock was a member of the Funky 4 + 1 (Also known as The Funky Four Plus One More). The Funky 4 + 1 become the first hip-hop group to perform on national television, appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1981. The Funky 4 + 1 was a very influential group, being an inspiration for the Beastie Boys and others. Sha Rock herself is titled “The Mother of Hip Hop” and is cited as an influence on DMC of Run-DMC, Diddy and Jay-Z. More recently, Sha Rock was appointed as the National Advisor for the Cornel University Hip-Hop Library.lady b.jpg

Hip-hop as a genre has had a big impact on society and despite becoming a mainstream style, it is still used as a platform of sociopolitical commentary by daring artists. Even though Black men are typically seen as the quintessential rappers; Black women have always been behind the mic as well. Black female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte have enjoyed much success and popularity yet hip-hop itself still remains a very male-dominated field. Yet Black women have always been front and center in the development of hip-hop and made great contributions to the movement. Just like their male counterparts, they have used music and rhymes to express themselves and speak for their communities. To the great and talented female rappers of the 1970s and 1980s, we owe much thanks to the everlasting impact of hip-hop.

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