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Jackson Howard: Where have all the femcees gone?

By Jackson Howard, Daily Hip-Hop Columnist
Published October 3, 2013

The first verse on the introduction to Snoop Dogg’s landmark debut album Doggystyle is aggressive, witty and rapped with force. Here’s an excerpt:

“Never will there ever be another like me / You can play the left, cuz it ain’t no right in me / out the picture, out the frame, out the box I knock em all / Smack em out the park, like a friendly game of baseball / Grand, slam, yes I am / Kickin up dust and I don’t give a goddamn!”

Do you know who rapped that? It wasn’t Snoop, Dr. Dre, Daz, Kurupt or Warren G. Instead, it was a rapper by the name of Lady of Rage who, in the early 1990s, was considered such an incredible lyricist that she — not Snoop himself — was given the honor of rapping the album’s first verse. There once was a time when female emcees (femcees) were not only given the same respect as their male counterparts, but actually achieved similar levels of commercial success.

Today, however, the story couldn’t be more different. Since 2005, only one female rapper has attained as much success and acclaim as her male contemporaries: Nicki Minaj. Every other female rapper of the past 20 years has either stopped recording or faded into oblivion. What happened to the female emcee? Why, since the early 2000s, have female rappers been on the steady decline, both in numbers and in record sales? And, last but maybe most intriguing, why does it seem like the American public has lost interest in female rappers? There is no definitive answer. However, if we look back at the history of femcees, some clues emerge.

Between 1988 and 1989, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté exploded onto the scene with three classic debut albums. These rappers relied on their lyrics — not their bodies — for success, and preached predominately feminist messages in their songs, highlighted by Latifah’s classic “Ladies First.”

The 1990s, though, were the real height for female rappers. Almost every hip-hop label or crew during the decade boasted a femcee on its roster at some point: Lady of Rage and Storm on Deathrow, Lil Kim on Bad Boy, Eve on Ruff Ryders, Remy Ma on Terror Squad, Da Brat on So So Def, Rah Digga on Flipmode and Foxy Brown — who actually started solo on Def Jam — later on Roc-a-fella are just some of the many female rappers who had prominent positions in some of rap’s most storied crews.

These women were not just placeholders, though. Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill all released platinum albums in the 1990s, while TLC, featuring the talents of the incredible, late rapper Left Eye, sold a whopping 21 million records. What is important to note, in addition to the record sales, is these artists’ subject matter. While the lyrics had certainly shifted from feminist pioneers like Latifah and Lyte in the late 1980s to a more party-centric and sexed-up approach, by no means was sex the only subject matter for these women. It was, as it was for men, just another aspect.

No two rappers demonstrated the unimportance of blatant sex appeal in their raps as did Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill, two of the most successful and talented artists — male or female — of the past few decades. Missy’s groundbreaking debut, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, pushed sonic boundaries with the help of a then-up-and-coming producer named Timbaland and proved that female rappers didn’t have to exude sex to be successful. Hill’s magnum opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill went eight times platinum and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year. Even more remarkable was the fact that the album centered on themes of love, race, class and religion, not necessarily the makings of a pop smash, especially from a woman rapper. With the successes of the aforementioned women and the revolutionary projects put forth by Hill and Elliott, it’s clear that the ’90s — specifically the latter half — were the femcee golden age.

The 2000s, however, were the beginning of the end.