Often when the subject of women and hip hop is brought up in conversation the context is either the mainstream promotion of misogynistic lyrics, music videos that demean and over-sexualise the relationship between men, money and women, or general male dominance in the genre’s sphere of the music industry. In these conversations it’s not rare for people to write off hip hop as perennially sexist, materialistic or aggressive simply because of one or two tracks they’ve heard, or even just because of what they’ve heard others say about the genre. This ought to be challenged.

When it truly blossomed in the 1990s hip hop was powerful, provocative, and original. Just like jazz had done in the early 1900s, and punk had done in the 1970s, hip hop tore apart the status quo regarding what music could be and who could make it. Naturally, as with all new genres of music, those who didn’t catch on denounced what was really a diverse and multi-headed movement as a homogenous force of disturbing noise. The box that it was put into by many was represented by, arguably, all of the worst things about certain work identified with the genre: the gun-toting gangbangers, the celebration of excessive wealth, the objectification of women.

More than thirty five years after it first came about, this perception of hip hop still pervades. Its ubiquity still serves to blind so many to some of the music industry’s finest artistry of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As well as neglecting the emancipatory power of hip hop, and the influence it has had in allowing a significant sect of a whole generation to express and identify themselves, this view also undermines the role of women in the growth and elaboration of the genre. So for International Women’s Day 2015, in the interest of breaking open the box and considering one of the under- or mis-represented groups inside, here are seven tracks to prove and celebrate the artistry of women in hip hop. Coincidentally, this list can also serve as a celebration of quintessential 1990s music video tropes.

Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.

Queen Latifah’s flow is indisputably one of the best in hip hop history. The way the bars roll, pause, stretch and tease in U.N.I.T.Y., coupled with stellar production quality and challenging, provocative lyrics makes the track one for the hip hop hall of fame. The video is also fantastic: silhouetted sax-man, Queen L for some reason spending half her time in a crane-suspended cage, and the other half standing in a street surrounded by crowds of dancing randomers, and all the while motorbikes zipping around doing wheelies. What more could you want?

Lauryn Hill – Doo-wop (That Thing)

After The Fugees split, Lauryn Hill came out with the phenomenal solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Miseducation is seamless, with each song carefully leading to the other, and common themes and motifs running throughout. It can thus be enjoyed either as a set of individual tracks or as a path-breaking whole. The soulful Doo-Wop, perhaps the strongest song of the album alongside Killing Me Softly, gained Hill two Grammys.

Salt-n-Pepa – Shoop

Salt-n-Pepa’s reputation has perhaps been unfairly tarnished by the extensive overuse of their single Push It on adverts, TV series and movies. Sometimes overlooked is their incredibly fun 1993 single Shoop. Some might question the message in the lyrics and the song’s video, but musically it is undeniably great, with punchy rhyming and clean b-boy breaks.

Brandy feat. MC Lyte, Yo-yo & Queen Latifah – I Wanna Be Down (Remix)

Brandy may have stirred up an easy-going early 90s R&B hit with I Wanna Be Down, but when Atlantic Records commissioned a hip hop version it took on a powerful new form. Queen Latifah (third verse) brings her patently assured style, but MC Lyte (first verse) and little-known one-time Ice Cube protégé Yo-yo (second verse) steal the show here, each taking advantage of the rhythmic freedom granted by the track’s slow tempo.

Erykah Badu feat. Angie Stone, Bahamadia & Queen Latifah – Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop) (Worldwide Version)

If you can get past what many will consider an irritating chorus, this song is full of treats. Love of My Life is Erykah Badu’s remake of the first ever hip hop song to be released by an all-female group, The Sequence’s 1979 Funk You Up. You may recognise Funk You Up’s main lick from Mark Ronson’s recent single Uptown Funk, which adapts it into “Uptown funk you up, uptown funk you up”. Badu is one of Neo-Soul’s most influential artists, and on this track she has featured Angie Stone, an equally influential artist and original member of The Sequence. Their verses are interestingly different in style, as are Bahamadia and Queen Latifah’s, giving the track a stylistic diversity that is often not found in any of the artists’ individual work.

Sunshine Anderson – Heard It All Before

Arguably more Neo-Soul/R&B than hip hop, Heard It All Before is nevertheless of the same pedigree as the songs featured above, and the vocal melody that plays over the Isaac Hayes-esque adaptation of Natalie Cole’s I Can’t Breakaway is relentlessly catchy. Unlike many songs that you might label ‘catchy’, the strength of Heard It All Before lies in the fact that it isn’t just the chorus that you’ll want to hum along to; it’s every verse, every line.

Neneh Cherry – Buffalo Stance

Buffalo Stance’s lo-fi high-school feel hasn’t really stood the test of time as well as the above songs, but it is featured here because it’s backed by what could perhaps be described, in entirely non-hyperbolic terms, as the best music video of all time. It looks like something that the Saved by the Bell characters might have made were they to have spent a week in the projects before being given a few e’s and the controls to a cutting-edge visual effects studio.

This list is a tiny snapshot of women in hip hop. If you have any suggestions of more great tracks, please share them in the comments box below.

Image Credit: Neneh Cherry, performing live by Manfred Werner Tsui