As a teenager in the early ‘90s, I was exposed to a variety of messages through the hip-hop of the time, which was often socially conscious, and in ways both militant and matter of fact. I just happened to pay special attention to the work of women in hip-hop, and thinking back, these are some of the things that I learned through them:
Street harassment is unacceptable.
It’s very easy to pass through life as a man without understanding what it’s like to get routinely catcalled and harassed on the street. It’s easy as a teenage boy to barely understand the concept of catcalling. Queen Latifah schooled me and the rest of the country with her Top 40 hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” in 1993.
No means no.
“Are you deaf in your ear, sucker?” ask BWP (Bytches with Problems) in their consent anthem “No Means No,” which for a blip of time got a fair amount of airplay on the Box and Yo! MTV Raps. I don’t remember ever considering raping anything, but if I was deaf in my ear back then, they fixed me.
It’s wrong to shame sex workers.
The stereotype of clownish street-walkers with big hair and clothing so tight it was practically irrelevant was burned into my head via ‘80s pop culture, and yet I couldn’t deny the plainspoken reasoning of Salt-N-Pepa’s “None of Your Business”: “If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business.” Incidentally, when I interviewed Salt-N-Pepa in the mid-2000's upon the release of their VH1 reality show, Salt told me the only thing she ever said on record that she regretted was that line, that she, a highly religious woman, didn’t want to be seen as condoning prostitution. It was too late for me, though, as her message had already gotten to me.
I also learned what “bowlegged” was via “Shoop.”
Salt did mislead me, though, by using the phrase “believe me you” in “Let’s Talk About Sex” instead of “believe you me,” even though “believe me you” makes more logical sense. Anyway, I took up “believe me you,” and later in the ‘90s got into an argument with someone regarding “believe me you” vs. “believe you me” and they turned out to be right, and I never would have been so firm in my stance if it weren’t for Salt-N-Pepa.
The “hate that hate produced” is a thing.
Sister Souljah was extreme and sonically assaultive even for a Public Enemy affiliate (she screamed more than she rapped), and yet a lot of her expressed disdain for whiteness based on history and contemporary relations was fundamentally reasonable. “Souljah was not born to make white people feel comfortable,” she proclaimed. Made sense to me and it still does! Looking back, though, it’s unbelievable that a major label released something so black and so political and so uninterested in being pleasant.
“Dis” is spelled with one “S” and “hoe” is spelled with an “E.”
Through the titles of her songs “10% Dis” and “Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe),” MC Lyte proved to be my style guide for life. Any other spelling just looks wrong to my eyes.
Cappuccino is good.
I don’t think I ever even considered drinking cappuccino until Lyte rapped about how the pursuit of a great cup of it put her in harm’s way.
There are earrings called “dolphins.”
I still don’t know exactly what that means (peace signs?) but if Yo Yo says it, it must be true.
There are many shades of butch.
It just seemed like people had way more options when it came to getting their music on TV back then.
And yet, women always had to do more.
Queen Latifah regularly sang the hooks between her rap verses, and a performer named Smooth (formerly MC Smooth) exhibited considerable dexterity by switching from singing to rapping within verses, most famously on “You Been Played” from the Menace II Society soundtrack.
And as the ‘90s continued, the female multi-threat became more common and mainstream: superstars like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott split their time between singing and rapping. Eve did some of of her own hooks. It would take years for this kind of versatility to become a norm for male performers like Drake and Future. So many women had to show they were working twice as hard to maintain their space, but in the process shifted ideals. I don’t know if that counts as progress, per se, but it’s just stunning to look back upon.
Here’s an brief, by no means complete playlist of some back-in-the-day jams by women rappers: