Top Five (which happen to be) Female Emcees

The G.O.A.T. discussion is consistently dominated by rappers who happen to be male. It borders on awful to, in 2016, separate the female emcees into their own list, but rather than let some of the great (which happen to be) women be denied their due, let’s spend a top five opportunity on the female emcees.

Queen Latifah’s 1991 Pro Set “Yo! MTV Raps” trading card.

5. Queen Latifah — The LL Cool J of the female rapper set, Queen Latifah has (like LL) become better known to an entire generation for her television roles than for her hip hop career. Yes, this goes beyond The Wiz. Latifah goes deep in hip hop, signing originally with Tommy Boy Records to release All Hail the Queen in 1989. In less than ten years she released four proper hip hop albums before transitioning into a singing career and, ultimately, television and film.

Let’s never forget the Afro-feminist “Ladies First” featuring the amazing Monie Love (male corollary: Slick Rick who, like Monie, is also English) who, sadly, misses the top five:

Lady of Rage, with her Afro Puffs.

4. Lady of Rage — “Afro Puffs” from the Above The Rim Soundtrack was one of the illest of 1994. Rage is looked on as a West Coast emcee, but originally hails from Virginia.

You do understand she just said “I’m hitting emcees like ‘hadouken’”, right? It does not get much better than that, and this was before Street Fighter 2 part 73 had come out. Rage may present as a one-hit wonder to many, but Necessary Roughness was — is — a solid LP. Rage will remain one of the “roughest, roughest, roughest, toughest, toughest, toughest” emcees regardless of gender.


3. Bahamadia — Hailing from Philadelphia, Bahamadia is recognizable to many, if not most, from her appearance on The Roots’ “Push Up Ya Lighter” from Illadelph Halflife. That said, one would be hard pressed to find a better lyrical display than “3 The Hard Way” from her formative LP, Kollages. “3” charted for Bahamadia in 1996, but “Total Wreck” charted in 1994:

Video for Bahamadia’s “Total Wreck” from Kollage (1994).

Pause for an Honorablee Mention: Remy Ma (FKA Remy Martin) needs a nod. She took an up north trip in the late aughts that may have cost her a lot of shine, but her verse on the classic M.O.P. posse cut “Ante Up” is one of a number of reasons she needs love on this list, not to mention her marriage to Papoose makes her power duo with Pap way better than a Nicki/Meek pairing. [Edit 2/26/2017: Remy went after Nicki Yesterday by hopping on the “Ether” beat and dropping “Shether”. Time will tell.]

MC Lyte.

2. MC Lyte — Lyte is a Brooklyn emcee with teeth. Reaching back to 1987 with Lyte As A Rock, her work as a battle rapper is beyond reproach, but it’s her classic “Ruffneck” that was GRAMMY nominated in 1993 that stands as her defining work. After grinding in New York in the earlier years of hip hop, she stood tall as the golden age reached its zenith.

MC Lyte “Ruffneck” video, 1993.

Before we get to our number one female emcee, a brief detour:

LP cover art for Roxanne Shante vs. Sparky Dee, 1985.

Honorable Mention: Sparky Dee — Tangentially related to the infamous Bridge Wars (for more on that legendary story, click here) via her battle (is it a battle if you release an LP with your nemesis?) with Roxanne Shante, Sparky should be recognized as more than a footnote in hip hop history. Her work on “This Is Sparky D’s World” stands tall in the challenge by woman emcees against the males. Take a listen and hear. Battle rapping the patriarchy in hip hop rarely sounds this good:

And now, for your number one emcee (who happens to be female):

Edited album art from Fugees’ The Score, featuring only Ms. Hill.
  1. Lauryn Hill — Perhaps the only crew rapper so good, so much better than the rest of her crew, that someone took the time to make a mix of a classic album of only her verses, Lauryn Hill is a legend. Her sole solo effort, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is classic. It is flawless. She can spit bars, she can sing, she can do anything. Fame had its adverse impact on her as she faded from the public eye, did a jail stint, and came back only to show up late (if at all) for many of her shows. Talib Kweli Greene has written in her defense in a Medium publication, Cuepoint. Whether or not you agree with Kweli (and his cohort, Yasiin Bey’s) premise, you cannot take away the brilliance of Lauryn Hill. She’s the last person to leave the The GRAMMYs with more than an armful and actually stand the test of time (sorry, Alicia Keys and Adele. And especially not sorry at all, Fun.). You might win some, but if you think Ms. Hill isn’t the greatest and worthy of any top five discussion regardless of gender, you just lost one (Nas agrees):
Be sure to check out Journeymen Rappers and the series of articles on the birth and golden age of hip hop by this author. Follow the author on Medium and Twitter @anygiventues. I’d love your support to help me keep researching and writing: Show how much you loved this particular piece or maybe you want to support on a sustaining basis and get some perks?