Hip-Hop Turns 50: Meet the 7 Unsung Women Who Pioneered the Movement

Hip-hop is officially 50.

Yup, on August 11, the culture — which includes rapping, of course, but also encompasses deejaying, dance, art, knowledge, producing, fashion, and more — that started with block parties in the Bronx and turned into a global phenomenon hit its half-century mark. Even if you’re no fan of the music itself, hip-hop has left a definitive mark on life as we know it in ways both evident and subtle, from record scratches in pop and country music to logo-covered clothing to the “remixing” of content on social media.

While the prevailing, go-to image of a rapper, or hip-hop in general, is usually the image of a braggadocious, cocksure man on the mic, the truth is that women have been central in the making of the movement since the very first days. And it’s not just the women in the spotlight, like rap legends Queen Latifah and MC Lyte — many, many women helped shape and define hip-hop from behind the scenes, with their vital contributions too often overlooked or forgotten. In honor of the culture’s milestone and the ladies without whom hip-hop wouldn’t be possible, here are seven unsung women pioneers who deserve all their flowers on this birthday.

Cindy Campbell

visits hue man bookstore cafe on october 2, 2011 in new york city

DJ Kool Herc, Cindy Campbell, and Ice-T visit Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in New York City.

Johnny Nunez//Getty Images

Did you know the first hip-hop party promoter was a girl? That’s right. Long before Diddy made a name for himself with his shebangs or Kanye West (Ye) was leading his Sunday Services, Cindy Campbell created the blueprint. Remarkably, she was just 17 on August 11, 1973, when she threw a “Back to School” party that’s now considered the inception of the art form. Charging 25 cents for ladies and 50 cents for gents, Campbell — sister of legendary hip-hop forerunner DJ Kool Herc — hosted the block party that started it all.

MC Sha-Rock

us rapper sharon green aka mc sha rock performs with us dj and producer grandmaster flash during the 50 years of hip hop grandmaster flash and friends birth of a culture the four elements block party at capital one city parks foundation summer stage on august 4, 2023 in new york as a teenager grandmaster flash began pioneering the turntable as instrument, playing the now iconic bronx block parties that gave birth to hip hop and revolutionized music tonight, he was back home, commemorating 50 years of the genre with a performance that had new yorkers born in the mid 20th century reliving their youth and hip hops photo by angela weiss afp photo by angela weissafp via getty images

MC Sha-Rock and GrandMaster Flash perform onstage at Crotona Park on August 4, 2023 in New York City.

ANGELA WEISS//Getty Images

Regarded as the first female emcee or “Mother of the Mic,” MC Sha-Rock, aka Sharon Green, was a member of the group the Funky 4 + 1, who rose to popularity in the late 1970s. Also a breakdancer, MC Sha-Rock was part of the first rap group to appear on TV and invented a style that went on to influence many other artists, including DMC of Run-DMC. The rapper is still active today, hosting a radio show.

Sylvia Robinson

unspecified january 01 photo of sylvia robinson photo by michael ochs archivesgetty images

Sylvia Robinson is pictured in a photo in 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives//Getty Images

Hip-hop is big business, yet this wasn’t obvious in the early days when artists and fans were just having fun in their neighborhoods. Sylvia Robinson, however, saw dollar signs early: After her own stint making music as a singer and guitarist, she founded Sugar Hill Records in 1979. The label released the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap music’s first recording ever, that same year. Though the label folded by the mid-’80s, unable to maintain a footing due to overcrowding after the genre’s explosion, Sugar Hill Records undoubtedly paved the way for labels to come. And we have a woman to thank for blazing the trail.

Sylvia Rhone

sylvia rhone, ceo, epic records at billboard women in music held at youtube theater on march 1, 2023 in los angeles, california photo by christopher polkbillboard via getty images

Sylvia Rhone is pictured at Billboard Women in Music, held at YouTube Theater on March 1, 2023 in Los Angeles.

Christopher Polk//Getty Images

In the modern era, few other executives of any gender have had as much influence on hip-hop as Sylvia Rhone. After working her way up from a secretary gig at a label in the 1970s, Rhone went on to become an A&R manager, director, and exec at the world’s most powerful record companies, from Atlantic to Elektra, to Universal, Motown, and many more — often as the only woman in the top spots. Scores of artists, including Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, and Travis Scott, have had their careers shaped by Rhone’s expertise, and she remains a larger-than-life figure in music today.

Shanti Das

Right after finishing Syracuse University in the early ’90s, Shanti Das returned home to Atlanta and quickly found herself leading the culture. As director of promotion for the influential LaFace Records, Das shaped the careers of some of the label’s biggest acts, including OutKast, Usher, and TLC. She went on to work with huge acts at other labels — Jermaine Dupri, Bow Wow, and Prince among them — but in recent years has shifted focus to advocating for mental health with her nonprofit Silence the Shame.

Dee Barnes

new york, new york october 08 host dee barnes aka sista d and mc lyte aka lana moorer appear backstage at the sisters in the name of rap concert and television special at the ritz on october 8, 1991 in new york city photo by al pereiragetty imagesmichael ochs archives

Dee Barnes and rapper MC Lyte appear backstage at the Sisters in the Name of Rap concert and television special at The Ritz on October 8, 1991 in New York City.

Al Pereira//Getty Images

There’s much more to hip-hop than music, and one of its most vital but overlooked components is journalism. From the very start, writers and TV personalities interviewing

artists were crucial in raising awareness about the culture — and critiquing it too. One of the most prominent hip-hop journalists was Dee Barnes, who in the ’90s captured the scene in real time on the show Pump It Up, interviewing young artists who are now legends — among them Ice-T, DJ Jazzy Jeff, KRS-One, and Queen Latifah. Though her career was derailed after she was allegedly assaulted by Dr. Dre, she remains a towering figure in the culture thanks to her presence and definitive interviews.

Angie Martinez

new orleans, louisiana july 02 angie martinez speaks onstage during the 2023 essence festival of culture™ at ernest n morial convention center on july 02, 2023 in new orleans, louisiana photo by paras griffingetty images for essence

Angie Martinez speaks onstage during the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

Paras Griffin//Getty Images

Though she had her own stint with making music — she released two albums and is featured on Lil’ Kim’s enduring ladies-only trackNot Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)from 1997 — Angie Martinez is best known as an NYC radio personality. For decades, hip-hop lovers in New York and beyond tuned in to hear Martinez interview hip-hop’s A-listers on Hot 97; interviews with Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. are among the many that give her a deserved place in hip-hop history. She moved on to rival station Power 105.1 in 2014 and branched out to other areas of media, but no matter what she does, she’ll forever be an integral voice in hip-hop.

Malcolm Venable is a Senior Staff Writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmvenable.

Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TODAY

This post was originally published on this site