“You know, I never did it because I always thought, like, I would end up fucking a female rapper and fucking the business up,” Rick Ross said last year on Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club show. This was his explanation as to why he had never signed a woman rapper to his label Maybach Music Group. “I just, I gotta be honest with you. You know, she looking good. I’m spending so much money on her photo shoots. I gotta fuck a couple times.”
That Ross, or pretty much any male music executive, would feel privy to sex with his signees isn’t surprising given the music industry’s deep-rooted problems regarding sexual harassment and exploitative producer-artist relationships. But the idea that a label would be spending so much money on a woman artist that she’d have to make up for it some way, that it’s not a built-in part of any artist’s development, is part of a larger myth that a woman rapper’s look is both integral to and a burden on her ability to even get signed.
While it historically hasn’t been easy to be a successful woman in hip-hop (“It’s always been and still is a male-dominated field,” said Pepa in 2015) the number of woman rappers signed to major labels has been dropping since the 1980s. When Cardi B signed to Atlantic Records in 2017, she became one of only four woman rappers on the roster (along with Lizzo, Missy Elliott, and Snow Tha Product), compared to the over two dozen male rappers already with the label. In a 2017 survey of 15 hip-hop labels, Pitchfork writer Sheldon Pearce found that none of the rosters were more than 36 percent woman artists and that none of them had signed more than two rappers who are women. And so for years critics have asked: where are all the women rappers?
But women rappers haven’t gone anywhere—they just aren’t getting label attention at the same rate male artists do. Some of the best rising rappers, like Chicago poet Noname, the iconically filthy CupcakKe, and New York’s Junglepussy to name a few, release their music themselves. Quite a few young artists, like Young M.A for example, aren’t even interested in being signed right now, preferring the freedom that comes with releasing music on their own terms. “I don’t want to feel like I’m obligated to fit [into] a box to be successful,” she said in a Rolling Stone interview last year.
Because then there are rappers like Dej Loaf, signed to Columbia, and Tink, once signed to Epic and Timbaland’s Mosley Music Group, whose debut albums have languished at those labels despite them releasing several free mixtapes, a not uncommon move for many young women artists. “Sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you,” Angel Haze tweeted in 2013 before leaking their debut studio album, fed up with the fact that the label wasn’t releasing their new music.
While there are reasons women may not want to be signed, the disproportionate number of male rappers versus women rappers on many label rosters is a problem. And when it comes to figuring out why women rappers struggle to get signed and supported by big labels, the answer often comes down to money. Mainly, the money that goes into making women rappers look their best: their hair stylists, their nail artists, their wardrobes, their makeup.
“Women are viewed differently because we cost more money, number one,” Nicki Minaj’s former manager Debra Antney told Vice in 2014. “A guy could look like Cyclops’ twin and get up there and make it. He just throws on a T-shirt and some jeans and he’s fly. For us, it’s the whole glam squad—the hair, the makeup—all these things that you have to have.” Former Vibe Editor-in-Chief Mimi Valdés echoed Atney’s sentiment in 2007: “That’s why labels only release a new female MC every few years... They’re just too damn expensive!”
“Just the expenses, the touring and the glam and so many extra things that come with being a woman that need to be taken care of, I think for most labels looking at the females that were in the game, it just became too much,” Trina said about the slow perceived decline of women in hip-hop in Ava DuVernay’s 2010 documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop.
But the idea that women rappers “cost” more than their male counterparts starts to feel suspect when you consider the fact that Young Thug appears on album covers in personally selected custom couture, Migos was recently sued for $1 million by a stylist who says the rappers failed to return $20,000 worth of designer clothes they wore in a music video, and Wiz Khalifa says you can always catch him, with a little help from his stylist, in Saint Laurent jeans (which run around $800 a pair). So how true is the myth that women rappers supposedly cost more money than men, thus leading to labels backing away from signing them?
“It’s just silly to say that a record label in the business of selling music would not sign a female artist because it’s going to cost a little bit more money or the notion it costs more,” Rayna Bass, head of urban marketing for 300 Entertainment, a record label that has included artists like Fetty Wap, Young Thug, Migos, and more, tells Jezebel. “We have to hire stylists and barbers for some male artists and others we don’t. Some need a lot more help in that the area than others do, so it’s just different for every artist.”
“Every client is expensive because every client has to get hair, outfits, even if they’re a guy,” says Mikiel Benyamin, who formerly styled Cardi B. “At this point, let’s say any rapper in this industry, of course they’re going to want to get their hair done just to look polished for the carpet.”
“You can give a woman a $50 pair of jeans and she will make it look like it’s $2,000,” says the Chicago rapper CupcakKe, who is currently unsigned but says she is exploring label deals at the moment. “But nowadays guys are like, I’m not wearing a pair of $50 jeans. If you gave that to a guy, he’d probably look at you crazy. [They’re] like, I have to have this Louis Vuitton belt for $2,000 and I have to have these Gucci shoes for $2,000. I think [men] might even be more expensive actually.”
There has long been this idea that male rappers need less money to get dressed up, that they can kind of just show up as themselves as opposed to women who need more “work.” But there is a lot of money, effort, and professional styling that goes into the development of male musicians.
When it comes to styling artists, the rule is generally that, if they’re making an appearance that is for work (a music video, a photoshoot for new album artwork) or is work-adjacent (a red carpet appearance, a front-row seat at a highly photographed fashion show), the label is going to pick up the tab. Typically for rising artists, the label or management company will not be paying for the makeup or clothes they’re wearing to the club in their down time. Stylists are usually paid per event unless someone is, for example, doing a promo tour and a makeup artist or stylist might be put on retainer for a couple months.
Artists receive styling budgets on a scale that varies widely depending on the status of the artist and what exactly they need. Bass, who worked at Def Jam Records before coming to 300, says she does budgets per quarter which are determined on a case-by-case basis. For a gender-bending fashion plate like Young Thug, the styling and clothing budget for a single video can run $5,000 to $7,500, Bass estimates. And if she knows that he’s going to be shooting three videos in the next four months, she says she’ll then request around $20,000 for the looks and styling in those videos alone.
“If you’re going on Jimmy Kimmel or if you’re just going to a listening event... it will scale based on how much we need to spend,” says Rahim Wright, co-founder of the marketing and branding agency 740 Project, which works with artists like Migos, Kevin Gates, Shy Glizzy, and most recently started working with the rapper Cuban Doll. “It depends on if you’re just starting out. I see some people [paying per look] $5,000 to $10,000, but then some people are doing $500 to $1,000. There are barbers you can get for $10, but then there’s barbers who cost $200 for a look.”
You’ll find the same variation in makeup. “There are certain artists that I grossly undercharge just because I support them and then there are artists that have the correct budget,” says Atlanta makeup artist Morgan Marin, who counts Dej Loaf and Love & Hip Hop’s Jhonni Blaze as clients. Though she admits she’s worked for free before, for an ad campaign she says it can cost $1,000 and for music videos, while it depends on how many hours you’re working on it, she would charge between $500 to $1000.
And these budgets don’t even include the amount of free clothing, jewelry, products that artists often receive. “On the clothing side, it’s one of those weird things where the richer you are, the more free shit you get,” says a marketing director for an artist management company who wishes to remain anonymous. “There’s a lot of brands that just want their stuff to be worn by certain artists and I’ll get random emails like, ‘Hey, we have giant packages of brand new clothes that aren’t released that we’d love to send this artist. Is that okay?’ Nine times out of 10, if it’s a brand the artist actually fucks with, of course the answer is yes.”
“They’re getting a lot of free clothes,” Benjamin says, laughing. “That’s just how fashion is. Even stylists in general—we definitely pay for things, but we also definitely work with brands.”
So building up artists is expensive work, but those in the music industry who directly manage and market artists are quick to stress that breaking anyone, men or women, rapper or not, is going to be expensive. It’s not as simple as men cost less, women cost more.
“We signed Cuban Doll and we were just like, man she has so much potential. We never stopped to be like, well maybe we’re going to have to worry about her makeup,” Wright says. “Rappers, they need pretty much all the same things. There’s only a few minor items that really switch up when you’re talking about a female artist.”
“If you’re looking at the nuts and bolts of a styling or glam budget as to whether or not you want to get into business with someone you probably aren’t in a situation to get into business with anybody,” says an anonymous artist manager whose worked across genres for over a decade.
There seems to be no issue, either, with these labels investing time and money in female pop and R&B artists who too need professional glam squads for red carpet appearances, videos, and photo shoots. Def Jam, home to Kanye West, Big Sean, and Desiigner, has no women rappers on its roster now that Iggy Azalea has left for Island Records, but they do have eight women pop and R&B artists, including Jhené Aiko and Alessia Cara. Jay-Z’s Roc Nation is host to several women artists like Rihanna, Willow Smith, Justine Skye, and more, as well as far more male artists like J.Cole and Vic Mensa, but the only rappers signed who aren’t men are Rapsody and Neisha Neshae.
“Hair, makeup and styling fees can be high for both male and female artists and if it’s not one of those its travel, security, accommodations, entourage, etcetera,” a marketing manager for a major label who asked to remain anonymous wrote in an email to Jezebel. “And plenty of female acts are signed regardless of the expenditures that come with their brand/aesthetic, so wouldn’t say rap in particular is different/higher.”
Despite the fact that budgets for women and male stars vary wildly, and what’s considered expensive for one level of artist is cheap for another, the idea that a woman rapper’s appearance is as important to her success as her music persists. Because of this, there’s the belief that women “can never be off,” as the anonymous marketing director put it.
“I just don’t think it’s fair to lay that at the feet of the female artist and say like, ‘You guys are too expensive to sign,’” he says. “It’s way bigger than that to me, it feels like it’s everyone. It’s the community, it’s the society, it’s the industry itself not being willing to accept that female artists can just put on sweatpants and show up to an interview just like any male rapper could.”
“I would never put that on a woman, on a female artist, and say, ‘Hey you’re female so you have to look X, X, Z’ or “You have to do this.’ I do feel like there are female artists that are breaking through that are not necessarily glamourous,” says Bass, who stresses that music is an industry that’s tougher on women. “Look at SZA. Look at Solange. Not to say they’re unglamourous, but in the traditional sense of what R&B and urban female artists in the past, what the standard used to be, I think they’re really defining it on their own terms. I look at pictures of SZA on tour every night and I’m like, ‘She looks beautiful,’ but in ’98, it might have been like, ‘What the fuck?’”
For many labels that want commercially successful artists, they undoubtedly see stars like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj—two women who love and look great in a strong look—and want to replicate that even if they don’t reflect the spectrum of what other women rappers can look like or what art they can make. “They flew me out and we had a conversation, but their idea was that they were going to pit me against Nicki Minaj,” UK rapper Lady Leshurr told The Guardian about turning down an Atlantic Records deal. “It was like: ‘She’s the biggest female MC and you need to take her down,’ and I wasn’t feeling that at all.”
When labels treat you and your peers like interchangeable pieces on a chess board, constantly in competition with each other, it’s no surprise that artists like Young M.A or Noname want to stay independent. And one of the reasons women rappers aren’t being signed at the rate of men may very well be that the industry is still operating under this assumption that there can only be one popular woman MC at a time. Or there’s the assumption that female rappers are constantly dueling for that single spot, which is so prevalent that Nicki Minaj had to dispel rumors, after she already publicly supported Cardi B and the two were on a song together, that Cardi was secretly put on the track without her knowledge.
“I think if you’re a guy who’s a rapper, all you have to do is prove that you can rap and it’s good,” says the anonymous marketing director. “If you’re a woman who’s a rapper, you have to prove somehow that you can stand up against an A-level act like Nicki Minaj and be able to beat that on your day one.”
“There’s obviously rampant sexism,” says the anonymous artist manager. “I just can’t imagine that the glam is the reason [for not signing a rapper] and to be honest I can’t imagine there’s any other reason other than [rap] has been a male-dominated thing for so long and it’s taken Roxanne Shanté and Salt-N-Pepa and Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim to sort of break down barriers.”
“Straight off the bat people say, oh that’s a female rapper? She can’t rap,” CupcakKe says. “I know female rappers that are 10 times better than any male in the industry right now. But I definitely think the doors are starting to open more [because] I see a lot of female rappers coming up now.”
We know that women in rap can not only go toe-to-toe with men in their industry but also artists in other genres, as we saw with the massive success of “Bodak Yellow,” which memorably kicked Taylor Swift out of her coveted Number One chart spot. And we know that the reality is female rappers are out here despite the common misconception that they’ve disappeared, working on the margins of an industry that has, for decades now, underestimated their talent and mainstream appeal.
And whether they’re wearing makeup or not wearing makeup, preferring Adidas track suits over Versace, the idea that women rappers are more expensive than men is ultimately a fallacy. The money is there and available for the artists who labels want to support and develop. We know this because Quavo, Future, Lil Yachty, these men have stylists, barbers, and appetites for Balmain denim and they’re often not paying for it all themselves.
“You have to invest in people, in artists,” says Wright. “To have something like costs hold you back from engaging with an artist... then I don’t know, you should rethink your whole philosophy because it costs money to make money, period.”
Correction: A previous version of this story used the incorrect gender pronoun for artist Angel Haze. Jezebel regrets the error.