Women In Hip-Hop: 7 Trailblazers Whose Behind-The-Scenes Efforts Define The Culture
Since its inception in the early 1970s, hip-hop has largely been a boy’s club. However, women like Funky 4 + 1’s “Mother of the Mic” Sharon “Sha-Rock” Green, who’s celebrated as the “first female rapper,” along with DJ Kool Herc’s sister and “hip-hop’s first promoter” Cindy Campbell, have been part of the culture and movement since from the jump.
Arguably, real change happens behind the scenes, in studios and boardrooms where six- and seven-figure deals get negotiated. Yet the pool of women calling the shots in hip-hop has been even smaller than those letting it rip on stage.
In honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, here’s a look at seven women who have worked tirelessly to push the genre forward — from label heads to executives and producers.
The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” is often credited for helping to usher hip-hop into the mainstream. The Chic-sampling track was produced by a history-making female executive: the late Sylvia Robinson, founder and CEO of Sugar Hill Records. The label also released Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s landmark single “The Message.”
Robinson was no industry novice by the time she founded Sugar Hill Records. She was half of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia (whose “Love Is Strange” is now a classic), and scored a hit in 1973 with the sensual solo single “Pillow Talk.”
“She could see things,” Doug Wimbish, Sugar Hill Records’ in-house bassist, told Billboard about Robinson’s creative prowess. “Somebody might come up with an idea, and she knew how to take key elements out of it, magnify it and turn things into a recording.”
After Sugar Hill Records dissolved in the mid-’80s, Robinson launched Bon Ami Records with a little-known rap group called the New Style. Their debut LP was met with disappointing sales, but they relaunched years later under a different label as Naughty By Nature, proving that Robinson’s musical ear and shrewd business sense never stopped working.
Throughout her 50-year career, “Godmother of the music industry” Sylvia Rhone has championed the voices of some of the most influential female rappers, including Missy Elliott and MC Lyte — the first GRAMMY-nominated female hip-hop artist. In 2009, Nicki Minaj even name-dropped Rhone on “Still I Rise” off her now-iconic Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape.
The 71-year-old Harlem native began her career as a secretary at Buddah Records, and worked her way up to CEO of Epic Records and Chairman/CEO of the Elektra Entertainment Group, the first Black woman in either role. In her role at Elektra, Rhone made headlines as the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company-owned record label.
Earlier this year, Rhone was honored for her history-making contributions at the Recording Academy’s annual Black Music Collective event during GRAMMY Week, telling the audience “it’s nights like these that keep me revitalized. They serve as a powerful reminder that hip-hop was a calling.”
Juliette Jones: From Intern To Groundbreaking Exec
Juliette Jones︱Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Grit Before the Gram
A self-proclaimed “accidental executive,” Juliette Jones handed out tapes at a club and interned for five years — including a career-altering stint at New York City’s iconic WBLS radio — before securing an entry-level gig at the now-defunct Jive Records. Fast forward over two decades later, and Jones has worked at every major label, from Capitol Records to Warner Bros.
Before landing at Jive though, Jones applied for a receptionist role at Atlantic Records and was turned down, so being named Atlantic Records’ executive vice president of urban promotion in 2012 must have been a full-circle moment. During her 10-year tenure at Atlantic, Jones has played a significant role in helping artists like Cardi B, Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, the late Nipsey Hussle break new ground both on the music charts and in the culture.
“When I got access to the labels, the rock stars to me were the executives, not the artists,” Jones said in a 2020 Hypebae interview. “I love working with artists and promoting their art, but I appreciate the talent behind the scenes as well.”
These days, Jones is making waves as Chief Operating Officer at Alamo Records. The label is home to Lil Durk and Rod Wave, who each scored No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 in 2022.
Ethiopia Habtemariam: Motown’s Miracle Worker
Ethiopia Habtemariam︱Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Fast Company
As a 16-year-old intern at Elektra, Ethiopia Habtemariam was so in awe of Sylvia Rhone that she penned a fan letter to the famed music executive — who, at the time, was the label’s chairman and CEO. That level of boldness Habtemariam displayed at such a young age continued throughout her career.
Habtemariam skipped college to work as an assistant in LaFace’s production department, and met LaRonda Sutton, a then-general manager at LaFace’s affiliate Hitco Publishing. When Sutton accepted a job at Edmonds Publishing, she took Habtemariam along for the ride. Habtemariam’s time as Edmonds’ Creative Manager eventually led to a position at Universal Music Publishing Group. As President of Urban Music and Co-Head of Creative, she signed Ludacris, Justin Bieber, J. Cole, Chris Brown, and other artists.
When presented with the opportunity to breathe new life into Motown Records, Habtemariam was up for the challenge. Three years after being appointed Senior VP, she was promoted to President of the iconic label and quickly forged a partnership with Quality Control, which boasts Migos, Lil Yachty, and City Girls as signed artists.
“I heard people say, ‘Oh, she got the job just because she’s a Black woman and they’re just trying to cover their asses,’” she told Billboard. “Even if that was the case, it’s on me. What am I going to do to make an impact and assure that other people get these kinds of opportunities in the future? Plus, I love proving people wrong.”
Habtemariam announced her departure from Motown Records in late 2022. Though she didn’t reveal what her next endeavor would be, her next move will surely be just as impactful.
WondaGurl: Prodigy Producer To Legends
WondaGurl︱Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images
WondaGurl was still in high school when a beat she created for Travis Scott was passed along to none other than Jay-Z for the “Crown” track off his 12th studio album Magna Carta Holy Grail, which picked up six GRAMMY nominations in 2014.
A year later, Nigerian Canadian producer, who cites Timbaland as her biggest influence, scored two top 15 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with Rihanna’s trap-inspired “B— Better Have My Money” and Travis Scott’s “Antidote.” Those hits off a wave of more A-list collaborations, including Drake’s “Used To” featuring Lil Wayne and a handful of tracks off Lil Uzi Vert’s debut album (e.g. “The Way Life Goes”).
As the protégé of fellow Canadian producer and GRAMMY nominee Boi-1da, the now 26-year-old producer received the Jack Richardson Producer of the Year Award at the 2021 Juno Awards — the first Black woman to win in that category. She also became the first woman who isn’t a recording artist to take home the Producer of the Year award.
Natina Nimene: Hip-Hop’s Celebrated Strategist
Natina Nimene︱Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Billboard
Named one of Billboard’s Hip-Hop Power Players, Natina Nimene celebrated her 10th year at Def Jam Recordings with a promotion: EVP of Promotion & Artist Relations. Under her leadership, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label launched a five-album rollout that included Ye. All five LPs generated nearly 400 million first-week streams.
Nimene has also worked closely with Pusha T, 2 Chainz, Logic, YG, Big Sean, Fredo Bang, and Jeezy. “Natina always goes hard,” Jeezy said to Variety at the time of her promotion. “She always looks out and I trust she’ll get the job done. She understands radio promo and the culture as a whole. Ask around — everyone knows and loves Natina.”
In addition to her work at Def Jam, Nimene sits on the National Museum of African American Music’s advisory board and is a member of the Universal Music Group Task Force for Meaningful Change.
Crystal Caines: Producer Who Can Rap And Control The Micstro
Crystal Caines with ASAP Ferg (right)︱Rob Kim/Getty Images
The first beat Crystal Caines ever made can be heard on A$AP Ferg’s “A Hundred Million Roses,” which led to more production and engineering credits on the rapper’s debut studio album, the critically acclaimed Trap Lord. Caines’ thumbprint is on the Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony-featuring “Lord,” as well as “Shabba” and “Fergivicious.”
The Harlem native, who also boasts rapping skills of her own, has also linked up with household names like Jack Harlow and M.I.A and up-and-comers such as BIA, Ransom, Nick Hook, Johnny Cinco, and BbyMutha.
“I feel like most producers lean on trap because it’s what’s winning right now, but that’s the difference with me as an artist and producer, so I focus on creating the new and not creating the old,” she said in a 2017 HipHopDX interview. “I want to move the culture forward by being who I am.”
What’s more, Caines doesn’t shy away from sharing the spotlight with other talented female producers like WondaGurl and Trakgirl, the latter of which has worked with R&B stars Jhené Aiko, Omarion, and Luke James. Both WondaGurl and Trakgirl produced Caines’ “Play Tough” and “Black Jesus” tracks (released in 2015), respectively.