Hip Hop is celebrating its 50th birthday this summer (11th August, to be precise – the date on which DJ Kool Herc took to a turntable at his sister’s back-to-school party in the Bronx), which makes it the perfect time for Netflix’s new four-part series. With artists like Latto, Megan Thee Stallion, Coi Leray and Ice Spice, some of the biggest viral songs in the past few years have been by women, so it’s high time there was a show concentrating on the women in hip hop. Welcome, then, to the streamer’s latest music documentary series, Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop.
Who are the team behind it, which artists are featured, and how did they shape the genre, from its infancy to its present-day status as one of the planet’s most influential and popular genres?
The docuseries is the brainchild of Culture House, which bills itself as ‘a Black-, brown- and women-owned production company and cultural consultancy’. Producer Carri Twigg and her film-making partner Raeshem Nijhon agreed that they wanted to do ‘a project about women in hip hop, but in a way that was contemporary and different.’ Ladies First is co-produced by writer and documentarian dream hampton (Surviving R Kelly) and Black Panther’s production designer, Hannah Beachler.
The existence of the docuseries itself is indicative of how difficult it is for female creatives: they couldn’t get it greenlit until Netflix stepped in. Raeshem Nijhon told the Guardian, ‘It was really hard to sell. 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.” There are names everyone is following, and this is where fashion trends come from. It was eye-opening for us.’
The woman who said yes to it? Netflix exec Jamila Farwell, who wanted to make a project about women in hip hop. As Nijhon says, ‘it turned out to be a good story about the power of truly diverse folks on both sides of the coin.’
The Line Up
The films feature a star-studded cast including Sha-Rock, Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Remy Ma, Tierra Whack, Latto, Monie Love, Saweetie, Chika and many more. Plus, the series shines a light on the female fashion stylists, A&R reps, journalists and producers who have also influenced hip hop, shaping its cultural, social and artistic dimensions.
Who brought the Sugar Hill Gang together, for example? A producer – and Sugar Hill Records’ CEO – called Sylvia Robinson, who knew ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was a hit the moment she heard it.
Singular & Exceptional
‘Black women’s contributions in hip hop are treated as moments, as almost flukes, and then they’re these things that kind of go away. We’re looked at as singular and exceptional, but not part of the general fabric of excellence that people usually attribute to a culture that lasts for 50-something years.’
Dr Joan Morgan – writer and programme director of NYU’s Centre for Black Visual Culture
The producers have called on a diverse ensemble of talking heads, including scholars and industry professionals, to examine the factors – patriarchal, racial, economic, among many – that have contributed to Black women’s marginalisation within both hip hop and mainstream culture. The contradiction between women who are so influential in pop culture, and their mistreatment, underappreciation and outright erasure comes through most obviously in the second and third episodes, ‘What are they up against?’ and ‘What have they lost?’
As just one example, artists such as TLC and Megan Thee Stallion might be huge international bestsellers, but as Drew Dixon, a former director of A&R at Def Jam, explains, they were victims of ‘360 deals’. These are contracts that allow labels to take a shockingly high percentage of their artists’ earnings.
‘We Are Here. You Will Listen.’
First-time director Hannah Beachler features global superstars such as Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, but establishes them as part of a long, under-appreciated lineage. The first episode focuses on pioneers including the earliest femcees MC Sha-Rock – the first female MC ever recorded – and the first to release a solo hip hop album, MC Lyte, together with Roxanne Shanté, Da Brat and Queen Latifah (the series is named after her 1989 track with Monie Love).
‘In the recording of the histories, women are looked at as these exceptions that made it through this male space,’ says Dr Joan Morgan, ‘as opposed to the people who make the culture, who are shaped by the culture, who live and breathe the culture.’
The other episodes are organised thematically rather than chronologically. Whilst it’s a big ask to fit 50 years’ hip hop history into four, 45-minute episodes, one of the Guardian’s criticisms of this approach is that, ‘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.’
Others have pointed out that the series prioritises solidarity and sisterhood, ignoring the beefs between Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown, or Nicki Minaj’s long-running spats with Lil’ Kim, Remy Ma and Cardi B. Plus, Minaj, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill are all notable omissions from the series, in terms of to-camera interviews.
However, Ladies First still succeeds in covering an enormous amount of ground, from colourism to incarceration rates, to the appropriation of the culture’s aesthetics by white artists such as Miley Cyrus and Madonna. There’s also men’s misogyny and double standards and the challenges faced by queer women in rap, together with impossible beauty standards and hypersexualisation.
As well as the insightful artist interviews and gripping personal accounts, there’s a mass of fantastic archival deep dives, all of which, as Decider.com says, ‘builds a valuable timeline between the women who first made it viable, those who built on that, and a contemporary generation who have arrived to thrive in a landscape forever changed by that earlier work.’
And now, with a diverse line-up of contemporary women rappers, there’s room for everyone in the limelight, which final episode ‘What’s Changing?’ highlights. As Latto says, ‘That’s what I like most about this wave right now. We all different shades. We all from different places. We all stand for something different.’ In this last film, women from across generations reflect on their journeys and highlight the strength they’ve found in solidarity.
Spanning some truly shocking revelations to their many triumphs, Ladies First is a long-overdue appreciation and immersive journey into the world of the women behind – and at the forefront of – hip hop culture.
Want More Hip Hop?
Take a deep dive into 50 years of hip hop history, or discover the five pillars of hip hop. And for more extraordinary women in hip hop, including Queen Latifah, read about music’s iconic female activists, or explore the systemic challenges that women are still facing in the music industry, featuring trailblazer Missy Elliott.
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