'First Things First,' a new book from writer Nadirah Simmons, explores the often forgotten histories of hip-hop's most impactful women
Lifelong hip-hop fan Nadirah Simmons grew up listening to some of the most impactful women to ever touch a microphone and now her new book is reminding readers just how important these women have been to the genre.
From flipping through CDs like Lil Kim's Hard Core and Eve's Scorpion in her childhood home, to studying Nicki Minaj's early pre-Pink Friday tracks while rapping to herself in a mirror, Simmons grew up listening to ladies who've changed the game. And after founding hip-hop social club and platform The Gumbo in 2018, she's turned her passion into a career. Her new book, First Things First: Hip-Hop Ladies Who Changed The Game, brings readers along on that journey.
"When you think about Queen Latifah, she has done everything, and she still keeps hip hop at her core and at her roots. And when you think about Lauryn Hill to go into an award show and win as many Grammys as she did, what? That is crazy," Simmons, a former member of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's social team, tells PEOPLE of her new book. "To be able to put that all into place and highlight writers and designers and stylists and rappers and people that have been sampled, all of that stuff, that made me feel good."
The book reframes the 50-year history of hip-hop by compiling stories about the women who have trail-blazed their way into popular culture. But while it gives lots of space to the game-changing rappers themselves, the book also pays credence to stylists, designers and even writers who have helped tell the story of women in hip-hop.
"Hip-hop at its core, even with all the stuff that can come with it sometimes, it's fun and it's entertaining and it means a lot to people," Simmons says. "And I really wanted people to feel that. You're not going to feel that necessarily if I'm telling you a random story about this rapper's life or their upbringing; you're going to feel like you're reading a Wikipedia page."
That's why Simmons includes personal anecdotes alongside the history—to bring it leaping to life off the page as well as provide a point of connection for the reader.
"I wanted to be able to connect why I shaved all my hair off [to] why it was important to see Eve in that way with her hair shaved off," Simmons explains. "And what that connection meant and also how she was representative of style for so many people. I feel like those personal anecdotes, they add a little bit of humor, comedic relief and also make you think, 'What's my fashion moment? I didn't realize that this person is the reason we have this.'"
From match-ups of verses on Kanye West's "Monster" (in which Minaj sweeps the competition), to a text message exchange about Lil Kim, First Things First balances fact and fun with a personal twist. Before its release on Tuesday via Hachette, here are a few standout moments — some of which the author says are often forgotten when discussing women in hip-hop — covered in First Things First.
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'Yo! MTV Raps' and Sophie Bramly
Simmons' book is organized like an album with interludes, another element that will feel familiar to hip-hop fans. It goes into detail in "track 13" on the story of Sophie Bramly, one of the women who created MTV Europe and who Simmons writes "brought 'Yo' to MTV first" as producer and host.
In a story previously covered in Dan Charnas' book, The Big Payback: The History of Business in Hip-Hop, Bramly is credited for coining Yo! MTV Raps after the classic Public Enemy recordYo! Bum Rush the Show. The show premiered on MTV Europe in October 1987, before making its way to the U.S. a year later. It's responsible for "so many big moments in hip-hop that are still talked about today," Simmons writes in First Things First.
Yo! arrived only a few years after MTV premiered Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" in 1983, a major milestone for Black artists who were rarely featured on the network at that point.
"I think a lot of times, and that was my part of my reason behind [writing about] the 'firsts' is not to say like, 'Oh, you're the first, you're the best. And if you're after the first, then you don't matter.' But just to give people context for the lineage and how you can trace a lot of things back to women within hip hop," Simmons says.
Nicki Minaj's Performing Arts Origins
In the book, Simmons refers to Minaj, 41, — who has earned a great deal of "firsts" as a rapper — as "the first woman rapper to completely demolish two goated men on a track."
And while her verse on 2010's "Monster" certainly speaks for itself when pitted against West and Jay-Z, Minaj's history can be traced all the way back to her time at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City — a fact that Simmons admits she often glances over.
"Something I forget about with her is that she went to a performing arts high school," Simmons tells PEOPLE. "But you can see that in her performance. You can hear it in her tone; she has these alter egos...This is the foundation for who this person became."
Angie Martinez's 2006 Foxy Brown Interview
Celebrated radio personality Angie Martinez gets her time to shine in the book, where Simmons affectionately refers to her as "the first Latina hip-hop voice in the radio hall of fame."
And amidst the many highlights in Martinez's decades in the industry, including conversations with Tupac Shakur, Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G and even Barack Obama, one conversation with Foxy Brown in particular stands out.
The chat happened on Hot 97 in 2006, when Brown spoke to Martinez about the fact that she was having difficulty hearing on air with the host just a year prior. At the time, Brown relayed that Martinez "held me down with such dignity, class and respect." Her hearing trouble was later diagnosed as "severe and sudden sensorineural hearing loss in both ears," Simmons writes.
Simmons also writes about the care that Martinez took in "respecting and protecting" the musician on the show as she opened up about the disability. "I remember listening to that interview and her being so thankful that Angie handled her with care when she was there initially and realized she couldn't even hear on the radio," Simmons says. "I want to celebrate those things. I want people to hear those stories."
Celebrating Fashion Icon April Walker
Simmons also details the life and career of Walker Wear founder April Walker — who she refers to as the "first woman to have a dominant hip-hop brand" and helped style the likes of Run-DMC, Tupac, Method Man, the Notorious B.I.G. and many others. She also includes a firsthand discussion with Walker, detailing her ups and downs in the industry.
"She was really that first woman in that hip hop fashion space," Simmons says. "Not only was she a pioneer, [but] the people we see as pioneers are like, "Hey, I need some help with what I'm trying to do over here.'"
Beyond the Rap Milestones and Into the Home
Simmons' book reminds readers that hip-hop is made up of so much more than female MCs — women in television, fashion, media and even design, too.
One topic that left an impact on Simmons while researching for the book was the story of Courtney Sloane, the interior designer who has worked with the likes of Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige.
As she recounts in First Things First, Sloane designed Latifah's home for her and her mother when the rapper first found success, which ultimately "flung doors open for her design work in hip-hop" — including work at both the BET and Vibe offices. "I'm not thinking about who's designing Queen Latifah's first home when her and her mom closed on it," Simmons recounts, of discovering Sloane's work.
That discovery, not only of the trailblazing musical artists, but the people around them, is the animating spirit of Simmons' book.
"Oftentimes, I'm often thinking about hip-hop in so many other different ways," Simmons says. "I love the music, but it's so much more than just the rapping that happens."
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