Missing in action: Where have all the talented female MCs gone?

Ms Dynamite, Lady Sovereign, Shystie... Only last year it seemed there was a surplus of talented female MCs. So where have they all gone? Matilda Egere-Cooper takes up the trail
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Female rappers have never had it easy, and it's especially tough for the few in the Brit pack who have managed to make it without the smutty gloss of a Lil' Kim or the eclectic novelty of a Missy Elliott. But even these US giants will agree that it's been hard out there for a woman. No major female rapper has released an album this year, except for M.I.A – and she is widely regarded as far too poppy to classify as one of hip-hop's acclaimed sisters. As for Eve, the Philly MC-turned-clothes mogul and sitcom queen, she was the one shining hope when she released her club single "Tambourine" in the summer – until it emerged that her album was being pushed back to some time in 2008.

Take a look at the UK scene and it's all rather dismal, considering the boom of female MCs over the last few years. Lady Sovereign, the grime terror and protégée of Jay-Z who signed to Island Def Jam, has gone Awol. On her MySpace page, one concerned fan writes: "Hiya sov where are you I miss you? You [haven't] written a bulletin or a blog or anything. If I didn't know any better I'd think you were lost at sea or fell off the planet."

Ms Dynamite is another one who's been absent following the lacklustre response to her 2005 comeback album Judgement Day. She was in the limelight at the beginning of 2006 for assaulting a police officer. By the end of the year, she was being treated in hospital after being injured on the motoring reality show The Race. Musically, she teased fans with the A Little Darker mixtape last year, but her whereabouts continue to be a mystery.

The few who have re-emerged are yet to make their previous impact. Estelle is currently on promotional duties, having moved to New York to boost her career, while Shystie has become a television star in Channel 4's Dubplate Drama. Other previous hopefuls like Baby Blue, Tempa Tempa and Naila Boss are languishing somewhere on the underground, probably wondering where it all went wrong.

Even this year's second B.Supreme Festival – a celebration of women in hip-hop – is pretty low on the MC front. One of the main performers is Tor, a 26-year-old rapper who was once signed to Universal's Go Beat! imprint, but saw her records shelved. She believes that the decline of "femcees" comes down to their development and the industry's habit of only endorsing one at a time. "In the early days, being a female rapper worked wonders for me, but since the crash of female MCs, it's been quite hard," she admits. "I just found I wasn't developed as a young artist. I was a pirate radio MC, and then I got this five-album deal where I was expected to write songs. Pirate radio, you go on and you spit for hours. So I was going from that to having to make songs – for me as an artist in the UK, it's pretty hard. And in terms of being a female, it can be hard because there's only a certain amount of women they'll let through."

That said, even those who do get the green light, have to compromise. Many women MCs have needed to come off the back of male crews to get noticed; some have even needed to step up their lyrical prowess to prove their superiority. In terms of "development", sexiness has been the way to go. Jeans and Timberlands are traded in for skirts and Jimmy Choos. Then the music gets tweaked and ends up being far removed from what it was intended to be. The word on the street is that Ms Dynamite was told she couldn't release an entire rap album, and many other female rappers have followed suit to make the music seem that much more acceptable.

"I think people do tend to have very short memories when it comes to female rappers," says the black music specialist Jacqueline Springer. "They also often tend to have rose-coloured glasses when they talk about the 'happier days', like when Lauryn Hill released her album. People forget that Lauryn Hill had to make concessions on that album. She had to sing. She wasn't allowed to release an all-rap album – neither was Ms Dynamite."

Springer, author of a lecture entitled "How The Female Emcee Became An Endangered Species", argues that the dilemma female rappers face is trying to be accepted in the first place. Using the rumour of the Hill/Wyclef Jean romance that emerged after Hill released "Lost Ones" as an example, Springer says: "Even when you do have a rap album, or you do have an album by a female who does rap, people still cheapen or sanitise the message."

So what happens when you get a female rapper who fails to spice up her image and music enough to make it palatable for a broader market? It seems they exploit other avenues, as was the case with the 24-year-old Shystie. Signed to Polydor in 2004, her debut album Diamond In the Dirt didn't fare well in the charts, despite gaining widespread credibility on the underground. A year later, she appeared as a character in the video game Juiced. And when she was offered the chance to front the first interactive drama on television, Dubplate Drama, later in 2005, she was re-born as lead actress "Dionne", and has attracted a whole new fan base. She's currently preparing to release her second album Dear Diary in the new year.

Shystie explains: "I don't just want to do one thing all of the time – I can't do music until I'm 50 and 60, rapping on stage as an old woman. I want to do acting, I want to do fashion and stuff like that. It's not mandatory, but I think coming from a business side of things, it's better to do more things than just music."

Alternatively, going the independent route might well be the solution for rappers who don't want to branch out into other markets. Tor has launched her own label, Pinch of Salt Records, and has secured a licensing deal in Japan, and there's a wealth of rappers who are developing themselves on MySpace and working out deals of their own.

But let's not pretend – there is a lot of sub-standard hip-hop out there, whether it's by male or female artists. Judging by the number of female MCs who are set to drop records, 2008 will be a significant year – but they'll have to be good to prove that they can be a consistent force in the industry once again. "I think there's a few women out there who have shown women have a voice, and they've got skills and we have something to bring to the table," admits Tor. "But now's the time to be proactive."

The B.Supreme Festival takes place at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0871 663 2500), from 2 to 4 November