‘Women helped build this’: celebrating the ladies of hip-hop

“We were set up on a friend date,” says producer Carri Twigg of how she first met her future film-making partner Raeshem Nijhon. “We got to talking and she mentioned she always wanted to do a project about women in hip-hop, but in a way that was contemporary and different.”

Such are the roots of Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, a four-part docuseries that chronicles the trailblazing, underdog story of how women shaped the genre, from breaking down its doors during the genre’s infancy and the rampant sexism they faced leading up to their present-day status as some of music’s most influential voices. It premieres to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the genre on 11 August.

“I had an unfounded working theory that you can map the waves of feminism based on various eras of women in hip-hop,” says Twigg who, with Nijho, are a part of the production shingle Culture House, which bills itself as a ‘Black-, brown- and women-owned production company and cultural consultancy.’ According to Twigg, the series “is really about women in America and it grew from there”.

To tell that story and shine a light on both its joyful triumphs and sad tribulations, the film-makers recruited and spoke to a disparate list of some of hip-hop’s most notable names throughout its long history, including the first woman MC ever recorded (Sha-Rock) and the first to release a solo album in the genre (MC Lyte). To connect the dots to the present day, modern stars including Latto and Saweetie are also featured. “We wanted it to feel really current,” says Twigg, who recruited Latto well before her 2022 hit Big Energy became a radio staple.

“There’s always a degree of forecasting that happens for projects like this. We’re also alive in a time of rapid social change, so it was a constant puzzle we were always trying to solve.”

While the project was celebratory, it was also vindicating for some of the genre’s biggest unsung heroes. “A lot of these women have not been honored the way they should be,” says Nijhon. “So when you’re putting together a project like this, the big thing is trust. There’s a reason it hasn’t been done before. Part of it is women feel like, ‘Eh, I don’t want to do that. They’re going to dwindle me down and it won’t be worth it.’”

For Nijhon who directed the series alongside Hannah Beachler (a production designer for Black Panther and Beyonce’s Lemonade film) and dream hampton (the executive producer behind Surviving R Kelly), there were many moments during the production which took her by surprise.

“There were things people said where you had to go, ‘What the fuck, that happened to you? We’re so sorry” she recalls, pointing towards an interview with the aforementioned Sha-Rock, who broke barriers as a female rapper featured on the 1979 song Rapping and Rocking the House, unheard of at the time. “She’s one of the first female MCs in the genre and I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘I was erased’. The heaviness in how she said that; it was coming from a deep place.”

“It’s very important for people to understand that women helped build this culture from the front lines from Day one,” says Sha-Rock in the series.

One interview that the film-makers worked two years to come to fruition was with Queen Latifah, the artist whose 1989 song inspired the name of the series. “She represents the most comprehensive experience of women in the genre,” says Twigg who calls her career a blueprint that paved the way for future female stars of the genre. “She’s not only a recording artist, but she’s an actor, producer, a Covergirl and is the complete archetype on how to survive and thrive on your own terms. She was instrumental in changing a lot of the old dynamics.”

Despite the current ubiquity of the genre as some of music’s biggest stars, from Ice Spice to Cardi B, getting a greenlight on the series proved difficult until Netflix stepped in. “It was really hard to sell,” remembers Nijhon. “We were surprised by it because these are the most iconic and influential women in pop culture and people were like, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ You don’t know? There are names everyone is following and this is where fashion trends come from. It was eye-opening for us.”

The Netflix executive who brought it over the finish line turned out to be the Black female executive Jamila Farwell. “When she first started at Netflix, one of the projects she wanted to make was about women in hip-hop,” says Nijhon of the project’s savior. “It turned out to be a good story about the power of truly diverse folks on both sides of the coin.”

For the series and the film-makers, the most gratifying aspect of Ladies First is giving a platform to the voices who felt the most forgotten.

“These women we spoke to felt heard,” says Nijhon. “We made sure to ask them questions about their childhood, their parents, what they did with their mom. The fact they felt so intimately understood made for better answers and showed up on camera as a result.”

  • Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop is out now on Netflix

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