Boss, Def Jam's first female rapper and 'Born Gangstaz' musician, dies at 54

A blanck and white photo of a woman in a large black jacket standing on a stage and speaking into a microphone
Rapper Boss, whose real name is Lichelle Laws, has died. She was 54. (Raymond Boyd / Getty Images)

Lichelle Laws, the musician who became Def Jam's first female rapper under the moniker Boss (stylized as Bo$$), has died. She was 54.

Laws's older sister Jovita Cheryl Moffett confirmed the rapper's death in a phone call with The Times. Laws died Monday at Ascension Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich.

No cause of death was revealed. Before her death, Laws lived with renal disease and suffered a "major stroke and seizure" in 2017, according to a 2021 GoFundMe organized by her sister Karyl Laws Addison.

Read more: Straight Talk From the Boss

News of Laws' death spread after fellow rapper Bun B mourned the "Deeper" and "I Don't Give a F—" artist on Instagram. Bun B (real name Bernard James Freeman) remembered Laws as "one of the best female MCs and a dear friend."

Bun B's Instagram announcement prompted tributes in the comments from additional hip-hop stars including Jermaine Dupri, Wu Tang's Ghostface Killah and Jadakiss.

Def Jam also honored Boss on Instagram, sharing a photo of the rapper in a matching brown Carhart ensemble and big sunglasses. In the caption, Def Jam said Boss will "be remembered as a pioneer in hip hop." The record label also extended its condolences to her family.

For Laws, gangsta rap was the name of the game. In a Q&A with The Times in 1993, Laws said the genre "really gets your blood rushing."

She added: "It’s exciting, it kicks you in the butt. Good gangsta rap makes me feel like I just parachuted out of a plane."

Laws, born in Detroit, began her career after moving to Los Angeles, where she said gansgsta rap was more accepted. After years of living on the street in parts of Los Angeles including Compton and Inglewood, Laws and her crew met a woman who let them live in her house for free. Then she began working on her music.

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Despite interest from other companies, Laws' demo made it to Def Jam co-founder and music mogul Russell Simmons. Simmons signed Boss to his Def Jam West roster in 1992. A year later, she released her debut and sole studio album, "Born Gangstaz."

The expletive-filled release featured popular songs including "Deeper," "Born Gangsta" and "I Don't Give a F—." Within two months, "Born Gangstaz" sold nearly 400,000 copies.

Laws' music featured references to violence, drugs and sex. She prided herself on talking "hard and tough," instead of sounding "silly." She often described other female rappers' material as "weak."

"They're acting," she told The Times. "Their hearts aren't in it. But my heart, soul and everything else is in my raps. That’s why I’m as bad as any of these male gangsta rappers."

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Still, Laws said that she had difficulty convincing male-run record companies that there was an audience for hard-core female rap such as hers. "A lot of men ... think women should be quiet and have babies," she said, before advocating for more woman power at the top.

Though a relative newbie in the ’90s, Laws had big plans for her music career and beyond: "One of my goals is to have my own company."

She added: "There are so many hard-core female rappers out there that need a chance, and I’d be in a position to give it to them."

In addition to lending her talent to artists including rapper AMG, West Coast rap group South Central, Krayzie Bone and LaReece, Boss' music appeared in a handful of movie and television projects, including Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" and Showtime's "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

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Laws was born Sept. 12, 1969, and had a "very proper upbringing," which included ballet classes in her youth and an education at Oakland Community College near Detroit. That just wasn't her style, she said.

"I didn’t start living till I got out of that proper s—," she told The Times. "That’s when the real me got out of the cage."

The rapper's family, which has set up an online memorial fund, will hold a public celebration of Laws' life on March 23. The location has yet to be revealed.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.