360°Sound caught up with Clover Hope, author of the new book The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop (out now on Abrams Books). The 240-page paperback, which was illustrated by Rachelle Baker, features profiles of Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and many more female rappers.
Based in Brooklyn, Hope has written for numerous publications, including Vibe, Billboard, XXL and Elle. Hope also co-wrote Beyoncé’s film Black Is King. She is currently contributing editor for Pitchfork.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Please start by explaining how the idea for the book came about.
Clover Hope: I knew I wanted to do a book about music. Hip-hop and R&B were my first loves. I grew up on ‘90s hip-hop and R&B. I was a teen around that time. During my formative years, hip-hop was always there. I was discovering it and searching for it. Within that, I discovered so many women emcees kind of naturally. I sought out the Kims, Missys, Trinas, and Salt-N-Pepas of the world. When I thought about what kind of story I wanted to tell, it was the story of hip-hop based on a girl growing up in hip-hop.
The book says there’s some dispute over who has the claim of “first female rapper.” Who do you think has the strongest claim for the title?
The first essay in the book tackles this idea of who came first. The reason there is such a battle is partly because the women didn’t feel like they were being recognized enough in the first place. Those women, like MC Sha-Rock, Debbie D, Pebblee Poo, all basically helped co-found hip-hop in the ‘70s. At that time, it was still pretty nascent. There was no name for it. They want that credit, and part of that credit is being known as the first.
MC Sha-Rock really lays claim because she says she was the first woman in a hip-hop group. But then there are technicalities where Debbie D says she’s the first female rap soloist and first to perform without a group. It’s hard for me to say who has more claim to the title. It’d be great to give an answer. I think it’s interesting either way that the debate was so quietly happening amongst them. Part of it is just that they felt that they weren’t being given their due. Having a title gives you that relevancy. People have these titles you can’t take away from them – like Aretha Franklin is “The Queen of Soul.”
You write in the book how it’s twice as hard for women as it is for men to make it in hip-hop. And a lot of times women rappers have had to have men vouch for them. Please discuss how the power dynamics have been stacked against women. And do you think that in recent years women have faced less resistance and had more success with a DIY approach?
I do think because they’re able to create their fanbases on their own directly online without the filter of male executives, that allows them more control in some way. In the ‘90s, it was hard to be a mainstream rapper at all without being on a major label. Chance the Rapper proved you could have real popular success without being signed to a major label. We saw that in the 2010s, but that wasn’t the case in the ‘90s. It was hard for women if they weren’t signed to a major label or not putting out music through a male rapper or group. It was hard to get any type of recognition.
With Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, they weren’t coming out through a male crew or a rapper who’s at the top of the game – an example being Eve on Ruff Ryders and Remy Ma on Terror Squad with Fat Joe. It’s interesting how that dynamic happened. It was programmed to have that male co-sign. Whether people realized it or not, it kind of maintained a system where the man was in control. The rapper at the top was the guy, and everyone else was at a different level in terms of power. I do think it has changed. I hesitate to say women have so much control because there are still barriers. But they’re definitely creating their own lanes.
The book discusses how important image has been with women in hip-hop, more so than with male rappers. Some female rappers kept their clothing real casual and didn’t bring attention to their bodies. They wanted to be known solely for their rhyming skills. Whereas Lil’ Kim was a trailblazer in that she embraced her sexuality and being a sex symbol. Please talk some about image and marketability with female rappers.
I think the thing was women had to think about it. They had to consider how their body would be seen in a way that the male rappers didn’t have to. You didn’t have to be a handsome rapper [laughs]. Sometimes when you put that in the context of what’s happening now, it helps to shed light on how things have changed. I think style and image were always crucial to the package and the selling of a woman to consumers. People wanted that look. It’s not that the artists don’t want to look good – they want to look fly – but there was that extra step of, ‘You gotta look like Lil’ Kim’ and ‘pull a titty out’ and sell something. That was both spoken and unspoken.
Mia X talks about just being told, ‘You could lose some pounds.’ She talks about people were dropping hints she should change her image, and she didn’t want to do that. They had to kind of be told to change how they look. I think this book highlights women in hip-hop but also women in any industry in terms of blockades and the extra things women have to think about that men don’t have to. That in itself is a hindrance to putting out art.
A number of female rappers, Salt-N-Pepa, Da Brat and Nikki Minaj to name a few, have had a lot of commercial success. These women are all singular artists who have their own unique styles. But did you find some commonalities among the most successful rappers?
There were different factors when you compare what made Lil’ Kim popular versus Missy Elliot, who was pushing this real futuristic aesthetic and was visually thrilling and unique. I do think even with all of that, many of them did have that male co-sign, or they did have that partner in crime who was a dude. When you think about Lil’ Kim and Biggie, Missy with Timbaland, Foxy Brown with Jay-Z, Da Brat with Jermaine Dupri, they had that push from the guy.
It seems like now female rappers are as big as ever from a commercial standpoint. Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Lizzo and Doja Cat are all huge. Do you consider this a golden age for female emcees?
It’s almost scary because I don’t want it to go away. We had this influx around the early 2000s when Eve, Trina, Remy and Shawna were popping at the same time. Then there was a drought. I’m scared to acknowledge this as a new golden age. It’s definitely a new era of success for women. When people think of what the hottest songs are right now, there’s no way you can’t name Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B or Saweetie. They’re now the people who come to mind when you think of rap, and I think that’s pretty major. It does remind me of the Lil’ Kim/Foxy Brown era when those were the names you thought of.
It does feel like women are at the top of the charts and the dance challenges. I do think it’s a boom. I’m optimistic it will stay this way because social media is just part of our lives at this point. That is the access point for women that didn’t exist even six years ago in the same way. In the same way that a major label is an access point, social media can be an entry for women.
Anything you’d like to add about the book?
I would love if people who are younger or know someone who is younger to give this fun text that teaches them a little bit of history. There are songs that kind of appear out of context in the internet era. For example, “Cars That Go Boom” became a TikTok thing. Kids will hear that song, but they don’t know who L’Trimm is. I got to speak to them and add some context to the music you’re already hearing. It’s nice to get to that history and to get that sense that there’s a method beyond this music that I’m listening to, there’s a larger culture to be explored, and all these women played a role in shaping it.
Click here to listen to Hope’s Spotify playlist of the songs and artists mentioned in The Motherlode.