“Let the Lyte Shine”*: How MC Lyte Illuminates Hiphop Culture
by Dionne Bennett. Ph.D.
MC Lyte knows how to be first. In 1988, she became Hiphop’s first woman artist to release a solo album Lyte As A Rock, one of Hiphop’s earliest and most significant albums. She was the first Hiphop artist to perform at Carnegie Hall, the first woman Hiphop Artist to have a gold single and a solo Grammy nomination. She is also the first woman to have been inducted into the VH-1’s Hiphop Honors (2006) and the first woman to receive BET’s "I Am Hip Hop" Icon Lifetime Achievement Award. (2013). She is one of early Hiphop’s most successful recording artists and remains an important figure in its history. She continues to record, perform, and dj and serves as a model and reminder that a woman emcee doesn’t always have to show her body in order to tell her story.
MC Lyte, Lana Moorer, was born and raised in Brooklyn and began rhyming as a teenager. MC Lyte recorded her first song - “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” (1986) - when she was only 16 years old. The song addressed the widespread phenomenon of crack addition by examining its impact on a romantic relationship. MC Lyte’s ability to combine seemingly disparate thematic elements -- including complex storytelling, unflinching assertions of her artistic excellence, brutal social critique, theories of love and intimacy, and the infusion of humor into, otherwise tragic, contexts -- which she presented at the very beginning of her career as an artist, became a part of her artistic practice and has enabled her to remain relevant throughout Hiphop’s short history.
MC Lyte is not only an important early Hiphop artist, woman Hiphop artist and New York Hiphop artist; she is, also, an important Brooklyn-based artist. She promoted Brooklyn on her first album, which included the song “Kickin 4 Brookyn” and continued to celebrate the borough in a number of subsequent songs. As a result, she played an essential, though often marginalized, role in establishing Brooklyn as one of the centers of Hiphop music and culture, a role that served as a foundation for later artists like Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Jay Z, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lil Mama, Joey Badass and Fabolous.
MC Lyte combined a deep, rich, strong voice with emotional vulnerability, insightful artistic and social analysis, and a playful sense of humor. She challenged narrow ideas about both Hiphop and femininity and took pride in her intelligence, lyrical skills, and ability to defy conventional expectations. She addressed a wide range of themes ranging from love, respect, and trust to art, knowledge, and power. Despite her beauty and style, which she expressed through current trends in hair, clothing, and jewelry, MC Lyte never leaned on her looks or used her body to sell her sound. In fact, it could be argued that earlier in her career she underplayed her beauty, without hiding it, because she was so determined to be respected as an artist and a person. As a young artist her body was dressed in the latest Hiphop styles, but her words conveyed timeless ideas about identity and expression.
Lyte As A Rock (1988) remains one of Hiphop’s foundational albums. In it, MC Lyte demands artistic respect as she articulates a philosophy of Hiphop aesthetics in songs like “Lyte as a Rock,” “I am Woman,” and “MC Lyte Likes Swingin’.” She displayed her willingness to challenge other emcees with “10% Dis,” a battle rap that frames the importance of originality and authorship in the Hiphop arts. She, also, directly addresses her identity as a woman as she examines relationships and gender dynamics in songs like “Paper Thin” and “Don’t Cry Big Girls.” MC Lyte does not allow herself to be defined by her gender, but she doesn’t avoid or marginalize her identity as a woman. She demands to be seen in all her complexity as both a woman and an artist.
MC Lyte followed her debut album with ten more albums, which included a number of significant recordings. In 1989, “Cha Cha Cha” bcame one of the year’s top Hiphop singles and continued her practice of defining Hiphop’s lyrical standards, not only for herself but for any legitimate emcee. She continued her practice of using lyrics about relationships to convey broader ideas about gender and ethics in “Poor Georgie” (1991) in which she uses the nursery rhyme as the foundation of a narrative about desire and death. In 1993, with her album Ain't No Other she received accolades, including a top 40 hit and Grammy nomination, for the Hiphop classic “Ruffneck.” “Ruffneck” demonstrated the degree to which MC Lyte recognized her role as a desiring sexual subject, as opposed to anybody’s object, and represented a significant model of contemporary masculinity that, arguably, has never been more compellingly articulated before or since. In this way, she created a framework both for asserting the sexual authority of women in general and Black women in particular, and for describing and defining a standard of masculinity that remains central within and beyond Hiphop culture.
Her distinctive voice and lyrical skills have led to a focus on that aspect of her artistry, but MC Lyte is, also, significant for her contributions to the development of music videos and dance music. While she has been clear that her talent as a lyricist is the most significant aspect of her artistry, her music videos throughout her career consistently demonstrated how a woman recording artist could have an engaging physical presence without presenting herself in any way as an object. In fact, her long-standing aesthetic practice of wearing stylish but casual and body-concealing clothing while wearing carefully designed hair styles, a tastefully made-up face, and fashionable jewelry created an aesthetic standard in music and music videos for women of all backgrounds and genres who intend to enjoy their beauty and bodies while also being taken seriously as artists.
MC Lyte’s collaborations with artists like Janet Jackson, Jermaine Dupri, Sean Combs, and Missy Elliot led to songs like “Cold Rock A Party” and “Keep On, Keepin' On” (1996) which were international hits and contributed to what has become Hiphop’s essential role in the development of dance and pop music. In fact, in 2004, “Cold Rock A Party” was included in one of the Dance Dance Revolution video games. In 2006, the independently produced “Ride Wit Me” was nominated for a Grammy and BET Award and marked the third decade of MC Lyte’s role in creating dynamic and successful Hiphop and dance music.
MC Lyte has developed her art as emcee into a brand and expanded into a range of other art forms and industries. She has become an actress, an author, an in-demand celebrity DJ, a businesswoman who founded her own entertainment company, and an international speaker at universities and events.
MC Lyte has become a leader off stage as well as on. From 2011-2013, she became the first African American president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Recording Academy (the Grammy Foundation). In 2013, she was chosen to serve as a U.S. Ambassador for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund "iLead" (Inspiration | Leadership | Education | Aspiration | Determination) tour of South Africa, which focused on youth empowerment.
MC Lyte puts her money where her music is. She has institutionalized her empowerment politics by founding the Hiphop Sisters Foundation, which presents two $100,000 college scholarships every year. MC Lyte and The Hiphop Sisters Foundation do not leave the brothers behind. In 2014, the foundation began the #EducateOURMen scholarship initiative, which she promoted with the song “Dear John.” The song, a collaboration with Common & 10 Beats, presents a video featuring images of Black fathers and their children, and features lyrics in which MC Lyte expresses a deep empathy with Black men. Her words and work challenge prevailing notions of how Black women and Black men see, speak about, and interact with each other.
By devoting so much meaningful creative labor to asserting her own identity and philosophy as an artist, MC Lyte also asserted to the world that Hiphop emceeing is an art form. She did this relentlessly, unflinchingly, and courageously at a time when the work and art of the emcee, and Hiphop culture in general, were widely disparaged and artistically devalued in much of the media, including parts of the black media. Her contribution to the social conversation about Hiphop art and culture has been grossly underestimated. Those of us who casually recognize emceeing as an important art form have a responsibility to also recognize that MC Lyte was one of Hiphop’s earliest, most committed, most consistent, and most effective artistic advocates.
MC Lyte's commitment to the integrity of Hiphop art and culture, combined with her ability to achieve commercial success in the early years of Hiphop, helped shape the culture in general and helped establish artistic integrity as a foundational principal within Hiphop culture at all levels of success and recognition.
And of course, MC Lyte’s contribution to promoting the work and art of women Hiphop artists simply cannot be overstated. While many of us are legitimately disappointed that more women have not achieved significant recognition in Hiphop culture, those that have owe a debt to MC Lyte. Furthermore, women artists who have been less artistically thoughtful than MC Lyte about how they represent their bodies and sexualities have much to learn from her. All women artists in every medium can learn a lesson from MC Lyte about the importance of demanding respect for one’s identity and labor as an artist, of asserting one’s humanity and subjectivity as a woman, and of defining one’s own aesthetic standards while refusing to be defined or diminished by others.
MC Lyte is currently in her fourth decade as an established Hiphop recording artist. She released the album “Legend” in 2015 and is releasing new media through “SpotLYTE” in 2016. Very few of her contemporaries – male or female - who began their Hiphop recording careers in the mid - to early- 1980s have continued to release new music and even fewer, arguably none, have done so with MC Lyte’s level of success.
Yes, MC Lyte put the work in and hustled hard. She never left us. She has encouraged us in terms of education, entrepreneurship and philanthropy while giving us hits and examples that reflect our realities.
Yes, Lana Moorer, you are the Lyte! Still Shining! Congratulations!