Meet The Author Honoring Women in Hip-Hop —Whether They Make Top 100 Lists Or Not

Photo: Courtesy of Twelve.
This week, Apple Music revealed its list of 100 Best Albums of all time, according to the music streaming platform. The usual classic hip-hop albums revered by critics made the cut: Illmatic by Nas, Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, Ready To Die by Notorious B.I.G and Jay Z’s The Blueprint (more recent additions include Travis Scott’s Astroworld and Flower Boy by Tyler The Creator), just to name a few. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City made it to the number seven spot. Out of 23 hip-hop albums in the top 100, only two are by Black women: Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly and, taking the coveted number one spot, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill. It’s fitting (and a bit shocking) that a Black woman in hip-hop actually earned the crown atop a list like this, but the validity of this list is being debated all over our timelines, and Hill’s album is garnering undeserved hate for its top billing. It’s precisely moments like these, when it’s clear the contributions of women in hip-hop (aside from a few exceptions) are undervalued, that made writer and digital content creator Nadirah Simmons want to write her debut book, First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed the Game
If you’ve followed along with Simmons’ career — or paid attention to her socials — over the years, you know she’s always been vocal about her love for hip-hop. You also know she’s a proud advocate for preserving her other favorite subject, Black history. That’s precisely why, in 2018, she founded her digital media hub, The Gumbo, a safe internet haven for the voices of Black women who, like her, are quite fond of hip-hop. So when the time came to write First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed the Game, it was a no-brainer that the theme would involve women in hip-hop. 
After 2023’s history-filled hip-hop 50 celebrations, Simmons knew her material needed to honor the women she held such deep reverence for and the culture they shared a love for, but with a different approach. First Things First is not your average hip-hop book. You can tell just by looking at its vibrant cover art, designed by Monet Alyssa, and pages filled with all-too-creative games, charts, and breakdowns in each chapter. Fashioned like an album tracklist, First Things First reads more like a memoir coupled with an abundance of intriguing hip-hop facts and offers hits, deep cuts, and even interludes that educate readers on the need-to-know info about some of their favorite artists and unearth the names of women overlooked in hip-hop’s multifaceted history. 
“I wanted to make sure it was personal,” Simmons tells me over an afternoon Zoom call. “I love history, but I also know I have memories, especially with hip-hop, connected to very specific moments, very specific conversations, very specific people. And I wanted to bring that out of the person when they were reading [First Things First]. I wanted them to feel like, ‘Oh my God, I might have a moment like this in my life where I heard this song, and it made me feel this way.’ Or, ‘Yeah, I remember when I wore this outfit. I thought I was the coolest because my favorite artist also wore the outfit.’ I really wanted to bring those emotions out of people when they were reading it. Just kind of give them something different. Especially after we had a year of so much history, I wanted to give a different tone and voice when I was talking about [women in hip-hop].”
Simmons, a New Jersey native and former member of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s social media team, says her book opportunity arose unexpectedly after helping out fellow author and creator Shea Serrano (Hip-Hop (And Other Things)) with a virtual book event a few years back. After Serrano’s editor approached her with the idea, Simmons quit her job in TV, moved to California, took a break from managing The Gumbo, and threw everything she had into crafting her ode to the hip-hop ladies who’ve made cultural-shifting impacts worldwide. 
Though not an all-encompassing account of every influential hip-hop lady, First Things First does celebrate the notable firsts of women in hip-hop who have surpassed the standard and broken barriers across music, fashion, TV/film, art, and every other facet of the culture. From the big-name legends — Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj — to the lesser-known icons — Cindy Campbell (the Mother of Hip-Hop who organized that famous Bronx back-to-school jam in 1973), ESG (responsible for one of the most sampled cuts in rap history, “UFO”) — to the new school queens carrying the torch — Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion. Simmons’ book reframes hip-hop history by pushing women’s unmatched achievements in hip-hop and music to the forefront where they belong, no matter if they make arbitrary lists or not.  
In conversation with Refinery29 Unbothered, Simmons breaks down the inspiration behind First Things First’s unique theme and the importance of documenting the integral role women have played in hip-hop’s legacy.
Photo: Raymond Colon.
Unbothered: In the past decade, a dozen or so books about women in hip-hop or hip-hop books written by women have been published, be they fictional stories or historical accounts. Why did you decide to hone in on highlighting women in hip-hop’s important firsts as the theme of your book? 
Nadirah Simmons: The thing about the first is sometimes we get so caught up in the idea of, well, this person was the first to do this, and they were the first to do that. But I always find myself talking about people in that sense when it comes to the impact that they've had, like the chapter about Missy [Elliott], the first woman in rap to go to the future. Obviously, she didn't go to the future [literally], and that's why there are so many figurative [firsts in the book]. But to see the things that these women have done and the impact that they’ve had, I really wanted to show and highlight that. That's the kind of stuff for me where I'm like, to see all of the impact is amazing, but I want people to know where the foundation is. So yes, they're the first, and that's how we get to that point, but it's less about saying, “This person is here, and they're the best, and they're the very first person.” It's really understanding the lineage and the legacy of a lot of people. With men in hip-hop, we get to see that very frequently. We get to say they did this, and that influenced this person to do this, and we always get to connect those dots. With women outside of the really big names that we always hear, a lot of people aren't really aware of how much impact women have had. Not just on women in hip-hop but everyone in hip-hop as a whole, and I really wanted to connect those dots in that way.
What made it necessary that you write this particular book?
NS: I felt like, not to be cliché, but I always think about myself and trying to learn my history, and it's very difficult. It's very hard as a Black woman in America to figure out where I've come from, what my roots are, or where all my family members are from. I know that so much of that is because our histories weren't being documented, our stories weren't being told, or people were afraid to tell their stories out of fear of what the repercussions could be. And now, when that happens, you get to someone like me, and I might not know as much as I could have known if the ability for us to document and tell our stories and to have access to documents was a possibility. 
It's so funny because I started coming up with ideas for the book prior to hip-hop 50 and wrote it all throughout [the anniversary]. But even thinking about the fact that we saw so many great people highlighted, I also thought, there's always going to be more people to highlight. Even I said that in my book, like, I couldn't put everyone in here. It's just not possible. But I don't want us to get to a hip-hop 60, hip-hop 70, or hip-hop 80, and we're not talking about specific people because nobody documented them. That was the same reason I created The Gumbo. I want someone, if they don't know about a Gangsta Boo or why a Millie Jackson is important, they're able to type her in online, and now there's a whole history, a whole article, something explaining it to you, and there are links to the music, and you're able to have a foundation for understanding the impact that these women had. 

I couldn't put everyone in here. It's just not possible. But I don't want us to get to a hip-hop 60, hip-hop 70, or hip-hop 80, and we're not talking about specific [women in hip-hop] because nobody documented them.

nadirah simmons
In the introduction, you explain that the book reads like an album’s tracklist, complete with interludes. What purpose do those mini-chapters serve in comparison to the main chapters?
NS: I wanted to break it up so that you got an idea of what you were getting into. I also love that the interludes are kind of like how they are on an album. They're in line with everything, and they match the theme, and they let you know where you're going next. I wanted it to feel like, all right, let's have a quick convo, and then I'm gonna bring you back into this. It was also a good way for me to ease people in and talk about people who you might not know about.
I love the interlude about Foxy Brown where you discuss discovering how she celebrated her sophomore album, Chyna Doll, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. What other random facts did you learn about women in hip-hop while writing this book?
NS: The crazy thing is I feel like I learned so many facts that they're not coming to my brain right now, but one of the things is [interior designer] Courtney [Sloane], and learning that when Queen Latifah and her mom first got their house, she was who they called. As a Jersey girl, I try to know as much as I can about [Jersey folks] like Lauryn [Hill] and Queen [Latifah]. Like the randomest of facts, I wanna know. So the fact that I had never heard of this person prior to research, and then also knowing that she's doing the Vibe [Magazine] office, different music executives’ offices, and setting up all of these different spaces, that is really cool that this exists. 
‘First Things First’ is all about the hip-hop ladies who changed the game. Still, you also acknowledge the intersectionality of artists of other genres who have influenced hip-hop in some way, like Millie Jackson, who’s considered rap’s first “mother.” Why was it important to make those connections in the book?
NS: Oftentimes, the conversations around hip-hop can be very rigid or confined to the genre. So when you think about hip-hop, when you think about rapping, people were rapping prior to 1973. Yes, Cindy Campbell threw that first official party, but there are so many examples of rapping and rhyming and people doing a lot of different things that existed before that party happened. I really wanted it to be clear just how much of a connection and how long and how wide this legacy spreads because there are so many intersections that I feel like, why not better understand? 
Another thing I love about the book is that there are direct quotes from interviews you conducted with some of your subjects (April Walker, Kierna Mayo, Joicelyn Dingle). How many people did you contact for interviews?
NS: A lot [laughs]. That was the hard part about writing a book during hip-hop 50 — everybody was so busy, and I understood that. But that's also what influenced me to stick to the approach that I had for the book. Like yes, take all of these historical facts and take what you know, but how can you talk about this in a way that's just a little bit different from what we may have heard or seen? With that in mind, I knew I could talk to Miss April because she'd done an event with The Gumbo before. She's so great and always so supportive. I knew that I wanted to get a firsthand account from her, especially because she's someone who is within the space of hip-hop, but she's not in the music space. I [also] talked to the founders of Honey Magazine because I'm like, this is something that I want to hear firsthand accounts of them in the present day. Like I really wanna know how they feel about the legacy that they left and how they feel about the work that they created. Because I can go online and read a bunch of things and put stuff together and cite my sources, but I don't feel like they would've been as strong. [Those chapters] would've just been another biography if I didn't talk to those women, and I really think I needed that for them. 

If you love pop culture, hip-hop, TV, film, and fashion, I want you to read this book because I really want you to learn from it. I also want anyone who has the desire to know more about [women’s] contributions to damn near everything in this world.

nadirah simmons
You also cite a handful of works by women authors about women in hip-hop and music — Clover Hope’s The Motherlode, Kathy Iandoli’s God Save the Queens, Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright, Joan Morgan’s She Begat This — all of which exist in the same generational space. How did those books assist you throughout your book-writing process?
NS: Oh my God. I read so much. The thing about those books is I feel like they're all so important, and they're all so crucial, and they're all by women that I really look up to. I felt like I needed to be in the right mode when I was writing the book. Like sometimes, when you're getting ready to play a sport, you turn on your favorite artist. For me, that was like getting myself excited and [having] a little pep talk. And also, obviously, I learned so much from their books too. But [their books] really helped me feel at ease with my writing 'cause I was very anxious at first. I was like, “I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how to do this. I can't believe they asked me to write this.” I had all those emotions, so sometimes, there would be days when I would go to the library and wouldn't even write. I would just pull those [books] up and read and learn and get inspired. But there's so much knowledge in all that those women have done, and I felt like, why would I not read those or engage with any of their work while I'm doing something that's in the line of the path that a lot of them have paved? 
It’s not lost on me that the book begins with Cindy Campbell, the woman responsible for why we celebrated 50 years of hip-hop last year, and it ends with Cardi B, a woman who’s advanced the rap game for women so much in recent years. Were those chapters ordered that way on purpose?
NS: Not at all. There was a point in between those months of [the manuscript] getting edited and copy-edited where I realized I had moved stuff around. So something might've been chapter 13 here, and I was like, oh, I'm just gonna move it here because I feel like it would be better suited to be in this particular section of the book. Then it kind of just ended up that way because initially, I was like, okay, I'll start with the beginnings, and then I'll end with all of the new girls. But then I was like, oh, some of the new girls fit in other sections, so that's just how it's gonna be. So it certainly was not intentional because, by the time everything got pieced together, I was like, oh, that's the last chapter. Okay, cool. That's where it'll fit [laughs].
Ultimately, who did you write First Things First for?
NS: I had to get to a place where I was writing the book for myself because, for a period of time, I was trying to write the book for everyone. Which then became me trying to include every single thing and every single thought and every single accolade and every single update and all the most recent stuff. And [my editor] was like, “Nadirah, people are going to win awards, do things, things are going to happen after this book goes to print, and there's nothing you can do about it.” He said, “Someone's going to love this. Someone's going to say, ‘Well, why didn't you talk about her in this? Or where's this?’ That is going to happen. But you have to write the book that you wanna write, and you have to write it with the perspective that you have.” So that was my initial thing. But if you love pop culture, hip-hop, TV, film, and fashion, I want you to read this book because I really want you to learn from it. I also want anyone who has the desire to know more about [women’s] contributions to damn near everything in this world to feel like, this is why I wanna read this. And that's why when you pick up the book, and you're sitting there and reading it, you're gonna see an April Walker, and then you're gonna see a Lil’ Kim, and then you're gonna see Heather B and a TV. You're gonna see all these different things and be like, “What is this book about? Lemme open this up and read.”
Simmons’ first book, First Things First, is available now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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