Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop review – a joyous, painstaking attempt to set the record straight

By many metrics, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop – its origin point being a summer house party in the Bronx, during which DJ Kool Herc displayed a nascent style of turntabling. Like so many aspects of music history, this is a contested date. But the hip-hop firmament has settled on this year as the one to mark – hence the bevy of celebratory performances, films and books that have been released recently.

One such documentary is Ladies First: A Story of Women In Hip-Hop, a Netflix documentary series that aims to reaffirm the importance of female MCs, DJs and producers to the genre, as well as the women who worked behind the scenes, such as songwriters, journalists and A&R reps. Historically, hip-hop – like the music industry at large – has had a woeful track record when it comes to celebrating and canonising the work of women, and Ladies First – named for the 1989 track by Queen Latifah and Monie Love, both of whom appear as talking heads in the series – is a joyous, painstaking attempt to establish a new historical record.

It’s something of a Herculean feat to try to work 50 years of history into four 45-minute episodes, and first-time director Hannah Beachler, previously a production designer on films such as Black Panther and Moonlight, does an admirable job. Rap made by women is too often reduced to a canon of two – Nicki Minaj and Cardi B – and although both rappers feature prominently in archival footage, Beachler rightly establishes them as part of a strong, long, under-appreciated lineage. She highlights the voices of lesser-known progenitors, such as 80s teen battle-rap sensation Roxanne Shanté and producer Drew Dixon, alongside more famous faces like Latifah and Remy Ma, and recent stars including Latto, Kash Doll and Saweetie.

Remy Ma hip hop

Beachler starts by focusing on Shanté, Da Brat and Latifah, then each episode is organised thematically rather than chronologically, with segments devoted to topics such as hip-hop style or the unspoken “one female MC to a crew” rule . Conceptually, this structure mostly works, although there is something about it that can make it seem scattershot. When history is presented non-chronologically in this way, it’s easy to minimise how insidious forms of misogyny, chauvinism and homophobia were rehashed and recreated over and over again. For women in rap as a group, attaining recognition has been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back process; but here the documentary has a tendency to make the obstacles rappers faced seem like isolated incidents that were dealt with and overcome swiftly, rather than systemic barriers.

It is understandable that Beachler is so intent on privileging the achievements of women in hip-hop, rather than the struggles. She does explore the way women are often offered worse contracts and the incidents of violence women in the industry face – but there’s still something borderline-hagiographic about the way Ladies First is presented. For example, a section in which Remy Ma details her experience in prison is particularly heartbreaking, but it is framed as an individual story of hardship, followed by a happy ending. There is only minimal acknowledgment of the fact that many female rappers often find their careers derailed or outright torpedoed by such moments. It feels cautious, as if the show is simply so grateful for recognition and space to profile these women in the first place.

Beachler also fails to detail the slightly uglier side of music history: the outsized egos, rivalries and fights that have been endemic to rap music since its inception, for both men and women. The film is so keen to portray the story of women in hip-hop as one of solidarity and sisterhood that less-palatable moments are ignored entirely: the flame war between Latifah and Foxy Brown that was predicated on one side’s homophobia and the other’s internalised misogyny, for example, or Minaj’s long-running beefs with Lil’ Kim, Remy Ma and Cardi B.

Queen Latifah:

Minaj is discussed as a trailblazer in Ladies First, but little more. Although she undoubtedly broke significant ground in the acceptance of women in rap, until recently Minaj seemed to treat rising female rappers with a certain caginess, if not outright animosity, seemingly so protective over the turf she had spent years winning for herself that she was unable to cede any ground to anyone else. I suspect this kind of wrinkle – the idea that rap is a capitalist system that sometimes actively attempts to break down notions of sisterhood – would have been too much for something like Ladies First to deal with.

But, as its title tells us, this is A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, not the story. As it stands, Ladies First is still a capable, invigorating tribute to female trailblazers – just a somewhat incomplete one.

  • Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop aired on Sky Documentaries and is on Netflix from 9 August

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