To this day MC Lyte is still “probably the dopest female that you heard thus far” and will go down in history as one of if not the best female emcee(s) to ever pick up a mic. Think of a landmark hip hop event and she was probably there on the front lines. Lyte came in the game at a very early age linking up with Audio Two (And unlike every bio states those are NOT her brothers) when they were seeking out a female MC to add to their fledgling label. Her career took off from there and she hasn’t looked back dropping classics like “I Cram to Understand,” “10% Dis,” “Poor Georgie,” and “Cha, Cha, Cha” and blazing trails on her way to becoming the first female rapper to ever receive a gold single, be nominated for a Grammy and the first solo female rapper to be honored/inducted into VH-1’s Hip Hop Honors Hall of fame.
Today, Lyte is far from the highschooler that came to the studio with just a rhyme book and a dream. She’s a CEO, author, actress, philanthropist, DJ, public speaker and all around nice person. Read on to learn more about this hip hop pioneer.
HalftimeOnline: How did you come up with your MC name and did you go by any others before settling on Lyte?
MC Lyte: At first it was Sparkle. Then Red because I used to keep my head red. Then I settled into Lyte. I was looking in the “Dictionary of Thoughts” and it was very positive things like “The truth is the light,” “the light is truth,” and “one of the first creations by God.” I thought that would be huge for me so I took Lyte but I didn’t actually choose MC. When the first record that was pressed I wound up seeing the credits and it said MC Lyte and I was like what’s that? They said well we thought you needed a title and we didn’t want to make it Lady Lyte or Queen Lyte or any of that. And this was before Latifah but at that time they choose MC and I’m very thankful for that.
HalftimeOnline: One of my favorite songs is ‘Top Billin’ by your brothers, Audio Two. In that song Milk says”Mom and Dad they knew the time” which is really true because you guys were the first family in hip hop with you and your brothers MCing and DJing and your parents running the label. How did that situation come about?
MC Lyte: Actually Milk and Giz are totally like my brothers but they are not my blood brothers but I was basically raised within that family.
HalftimeOnline: Wow, I’m pretty sure everyone thinks they are your brothers!
MC Lyte: Their father Nat Robinson was pretty much like a dad to me but the only blood folks in the music family are actually those three, Milk, Giz and Nat Robinson. But in every way possible I felt like I was part of my family. How it turned out for the guys was they wanted to do a record and Nat Robinson had a whole lot of money due to being part of some really monumental moves in not only entertainment but the technology world so he was able to fund their mission. Within it they decided they wanted to start a label and a good friend of mine that I went to elementary and junior high school with called me up, because we used to rhyme together, and said they were looking for a female MC and did I want to come by the studio. He literally came and got me from Brooklyn and not in a car when I say came and got me he walked to my house! Then we walked to the train station and took it to the Staten Island ferry downtown. Then we took the ferry over to Staten Island and the Robinsons picked us up and took us to the studio and that’s where it all happened.
HalftimeOnline: During that early part of hip hop I’m not imagining a lot of folks encouraging their kids to get into rapping like that. In your household what kind of encouragement did you get, especially being so young and entering a male dominated genre, when you started your career?
MC Lyte: Prior to my career of choice my mom was very encouraging in the areas of art. She had me in art class, acting class, voice class, dance class, she took em to museums, she took me to art shows, exhibits and theater. I saw Dreamgirls on 42nd street with the original cast, Dracula and Cats. I was always given the opportunity to see much more than my neighborhood had to offer. As soon as I decided it was something I wanted to do like that she, in the best way she could, facilitated a platform that allowed me to do so. I’m very thankful to her for that. She used to write plays and act when she was in high school and I guess i was able to help her continue that mission through her daughter.
HalftimeOnline: We did an interview with O.C. and he said that artists feed off of each other and if there is no good art out there you don’t have anything to feed off of for you to be creative.
MC Lyte: Ha! That’s true.
HalftimeOnline: Now you came out at a time where it was probably the most fruitful with everything starting up and a lot of creativity out there. How did that help you create something unique and what got you to the point where you said my stuff can stand with the rest of the music out here?
MC Lyte: I didn’t give any of that thought. I just showed up to the studio with a book of rhymes and a book of poetry and matched lyrics that were written in ’82 to beats that were constructed in ’86. it was that simple for me. I didn’t try to be different I just was and I didn’t acknowledge it until well after it was done. Now I can actually look back and say wow I was different. Look at what I was talking about compared to what was being spoken about at that time. I did recognize that my voice was different. Well, maybe not even my voice but the way in which I delivered rhymes was very monotone and I was told that and not in a positive way. It was like “She’s too monotone!” or “is that it? Where’s the excitement”
Mc Lyte: Get the excitement from the meaning. I don’t have to fake excitement for you to understand what I’m talking about. All in all that really wasn’t my mission. I wasn’t like listen to this and see how different I can be I just did what I did.
HalftimeOnline: That’s probably the best. A lot of criticism of some music today is that people are trying to be something else instead of just rhyming or singing about what you know and letting the authenticity come from that rather than mimic something.
Mc Lyte: You know what’s incredible is knowing that the for entire first album of mine I didn’t have music. I just wrote from an introspective point of view. When you think about it 2Pac at times wrote to music and sometimes he didn’t. When he didn’t that’s when we got the “Dear Mama’s.” Music influences, fortunately and unfortunately, the content. So there are times with songs like “Poor Georgie” that when I heard it, it made me feel like oh my god this is a story about a man who has some deep problems and deep issues. That allowed me to formulate “Poor Georgie” but there are other songs of mine which just say party. That’s cool too but i think what’s great is that I, and many others from my era and beyond, have a well balanced scenario. I’m not partying 24 hours a day so I should be able to give you some of me that exists in other realms. I think that’s what we’re missing. But back then I think I just went for it. I think many artists should try writing without music. It helps you get in touch with your deeper sense of self and be able to tell the truth.
HalftimeOnline: You were saying that the music influences your content. Even though you wrote the rhymes beforehand were there times you would hear the beat and want to change it to really fit the music or do you feel so strong about the content once it’s on paper that the beat can only accentuate the lyrics?
MC Lyte: Later on yea but for the first time out with recording the first album I just showed up with my rhyme book. Literally, Milk & Giz were like “What you got?” and I would start rhyming and then they’d be like hold up a second we got something for that rhyme right there. With the first record, “I Cram to Understand You,” I said it to them and Milk put it together right there. It was only a four track. It was a TASCAM so it was only so much you could do. So he concocted that right there on the spot and I wasn’t going to be the one to say, “Oh this doesn’t sound right on that.” I didn’t know.
HalftimeOnline: How instrumental was King of Chill in your development as an MC?
MC Lyte: King of Chill wrote “Cha, Cha, Cha” but he wasn’t as involved in the development as Milk. Milk & Giz were the ones who sort of pushed me to go deeper as a writer and deliver more in the execution. With King of Chill and I it was a bit different than how Milk, Giz and I would work. What I mean by that is King of Chill wasn’t as hard on me as Milk and Giz to the degree that I don’t recall us having spats about how I would deliver a rhyme. I could be more free in my delivery with him than I could with the other guys.
HalftimeOnline: How did you link up with Prince Paul?
MC Lyte: I’m not sure if I met him through Daddy-O and Stetsasonic or if we knew him first but it all came way by First Priority Music. I do remember Prince Paul introducing us to De La Soul.
HalftimeOnline: One of the things I read was that your first tour was with Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and a bunch of others. What was that experience like just being on tour in general and also with so many other A-list acts?
MC Lyte: Oh man, I wish I could bottle it up and look at it in it’s entirety. Like with anything there are certain moments you just remember but it’s miniscule in comparison to the amount of things that actually happened. When I think about being on the road with all of those people I think about all of the dressing rooms that were lined up. You could literally go down the hall and see Fresh Prince in one room, Biz in another room, and Latifah with Treach because I believe he was out with her on the road at that point but Naughty by Nature hadn’t been born yet or if they had they hadn’t been released. I think he was doing “Hip Hop Hooray” or “O.P.P” during that time as part of his breakout of her show. Then you had A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School were the openers for that tour. I just remember the energy. Hip Hop was fresh! And the camaraderie that went into it. It was a sense of family. We all had security guards but they weren’t for the purposes of keeping us from people backstage.
HalftimeOnline: I’m just imagining how live that show was in general. With the energy and the level of artists and competition I would think that if one artist killed the set it would just raise the next performer’s game.
MC Lyte: Yea it does because everybody wants to succeed and do well, everyone wants the crowd to scream for them as much as they did for the act before but we had a certain understanding that the better everyone was the better the show would be in its entirety. If someone didn’t do well it did not just look bad on them but bad on all of us. There’s no way to separate yourself from it.
HalftimeOnline: To me when you came out you were already a complete MC. You had lyrics, you had stories, you were “Killin’ everybody in sight,” battle rhymes, etc right off the bat. When did you personally feel hip hop was something you could do as a career?
MC Lyte: I don’t think i realized that until it was. I didn’t say oh now I could make this a career. I think I was already in the midst of it and I was like, “Oh shit, what else do I do?” or “What else can I do?” I think it was at that point I started to look for other ways to be creative. That’s how I wound up doing voice over work, the acting and all of that other stuff.
HalftimeOnline: When You put out joints like “I Cram to Understand You” and “Poor Georgie” how much of that decision was based on your belief that these things needed to be covered and discussed in the public sphere.
MC Lyte: To a large degree I knew I needed to talk about drugs and the effect it had on people. In Brooklyn there were weed smokers, dope dealers and people dying. In Harlem, where I would spend my weekends, there was heroin and you’d see people nodding out in the middle of the damn street. You would see people with holes in their arms or their legs because they couldn’t find anymore veins to put something into. In Queens there was crack and in Harlem as well. I just knew my mission would be to try to educate my generation about the usage of drugs, selling it or being the drug dealer’s girlfriend and you wind up shot or in jail because of it. So I did make a conscious effort of that at a very young age. That’s why I made songs like “I Cram to Understand You,” where I’m in love with a man who is in love with crack, “Poor Georgie,” and “Not with A Dealer.”
HalftimeOnline: I saw you confirmed that you and LL co-wrote your verse for “Self Destruction.” How did that come about and why didn’t he just jump on the record?
MC Lyte: You know what that’s an interesting question. During the process of the recording of that song a lot of people were in the studio so you were getting a lot of input like, “Yea, that’s hot!” or “Let’s make that better [like this].” The rhyme I wrote myself had a lot of statistics like, “One out of every…” and I think they wanted it to be a little cooler. They were like nah Lyte you don’t want to hit them with statistics that may not be interesting enough for them. So I remember at the time Kris (KRS-ONE) and LL were in the studio with me and L came with a rhyme. By the way that wasn’t the first time “funky fresh” was used he used it in one of his records before. That kicked it all off. Once he said it both he and I went to work on what would turn out to be one of the prolific verses in the record. He didn’t write the verse it was me, LL and Kris. As we went through the rhymes it was more like how can we make this the hottest thing we can make it. Why LL wasn’t on the record I don’t know. Maybe he had made a conscious decision not to be. In the end he wound up being apart of it just not one of the people on the front lines.
HalftimeOnline: You’ve been apart of the Stop the Violence Movement, the tour we mentioned earlier, the last Arsenio Hall show, the final Yo MTV Raps and just a ton of landmark hip hop events that won’t happen again. How does hip hop culture as a whole get back to those monumental days.
MC Lyte: I feel like what I experienced in those days is invaluable. To tell someone about it or to try to share the moments it seems so small in compared to what really was. I think in order to get back to the essence to what it really means to love hip hop is to avoid a hunger for money. It’s a hunger to be heard and it’s a hunger to tell a story. Two events just happened in the past quarter [the first was] the Hip Hop Gods tour, which I got to be apart of in Los Angeles at the Nokia. It was remarkable. It reminded me of days of building at the New Music Seminar and how it used to be a room full of people who wanted the education and wanted to be in the midst of the people trying to be heard. The other event was Hip Hop Sisters. We had three days of events. The first day was the search for the top female emcee, which gave those emcees an opportunity to be amongst other women who had a similar story and a similar mission. The second day was a panel where we talked about the business and what it means and how much further we’ve come in terms of information. We talked about what it means to be an artist. It doesn’t just mean you picked up a mic and started rapping. It means being able to protect yourself in all kinds of ways whether its your publishing or with management, record labels or promoters. It’s about knowing contracts and if you don’t having a team of lawyers and people who are trying to help you move from one phase of your career, which is your dream, to the actual fruition of performing and releasing music. Then we moved into the performance on Saturday. To hear the testimonies of the women who went through this three day process it was eye opening for me. Yesterday, we had our monthly Grammy board meeting [L.A. Chapter], where I’m the president and chair, and people in the room talked about ways for new artists to become involved and putting them into a state where they want to participate and [understand] that the Grammies is not just a show. There are several prongs to the organization and if you are serious about your craft you really need to be apart of it. Its being able to reach out to the younger generation that really needs this information. It’s the Hip Hop Gods tour, the Hip Hop Sisters event and what needs to be in place today for artists to release music. Its a community that they can be apart of and that’s what’s missing from hip hop today.
We had that community back then. We had a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that existed within music. That’s what we need rather than singular moments of success for these artists. Sure sometimes artists have their camp but at times they are being eaten up by their camp and don’t even realize it. That or they’re too afraid to step out of their camp and ask, “What am I supposed to get for publishing?”, “What are my mechanical rates supposed to be?”, “What am I supposed to be getting a show?” or “Who am I supposed to be paying?” Then they are too afraid to ask questions within the camp because then they might be, “Oh you don’t trust us?” It’s so insidious how evil can run rampant even within one’s own organization or the organization they are apart of. I would say the camaraderie is missing. Then again maybe its not and I’m just not apart of it so I don’t know. Haha!
HalftimeOnline: I doubt that, Haha.
MC Lyte: My intuition tells me the same shit is happening today that was happening back then on the inside. Now we are in a position for this next round of hip hop folks to actually be leaders and not just a bunch of followers. We come from the days of leadership. For instance, if I asked you who is a leader in hip hop you would say?
Halftimeonline: Probably depends on how we are defining it as in a leader in terms of setting trends or someone I’m actually looking up to?
MC Lyte: I guess we could get specific like that but in general if someone was to say to me who is a leader throughout our time I’d say Martin Luther King. I wouldn’t have to say do you mean in hip hop or do you mean in trendsetting. Overall, I would look at him. When I think of leaders I think what are they leading people to. Automatically, when I think of leaders I think of positivity. I think you’re leading us out of something dark into something light that makes some sense and brings some clarity. However, the truth is someone can be a leader in trendsetting. That’s great but trendsetting to what degree? What’s hot in clothing or cars? At that point to me that’s just further confusion for the next generation because they think they need that to be somebody or to be heard or to have a voice. And that’s not the case. So when I think of leader I think of a different realm of leadership.
HalftimeOnline: Honestly, I think we have lowered our standards on leadership and are accepting leaders of a lesser quality.
MC Lyte: Ooh. Wow, you said that.
HalftimeOnline: I really think we have lowered our standards as a culture. You said Martin Luther King and if you look around there is nobody on that level. It’s not even close. I think people have expected less of their leaders and that is unfortunate.
MC Lyte: When I think of when a crime happens or who is going to show up in the face of all that can be defaming is Reverend Al Sharpton. He’s going to show up.
HalftimeOnline: That’s true. He’ll be there.
MC Lyte: First off if I’m pulled over on the side of the highway it’s a set up. There’s no reason. I don’t break any laws. I don’t have weed or a gun in my car or anything. So if for some reason I’m pulled over or I’m running through some complications or something unheard of happens. I know that he is a leader within the community that I could call to ramp up some sort of awareness campaign so people know that I’m innocent. He gives a voice to the voiceless. To me that’s leadership. So until in hip hop we have someone who is ready to go the stakes for someone else who doesn’t have a voice then they are leading some shit I don’t care about.
HalftimeOnline: Lastly, I really like what you are doing with the Hip Hop Sisters Network in providing a platform and putting on events like you discussed earlier. I think that’s a great way to give back. What does that mean to you to be able to support those trying to follow a similar path as yourself?
MC Lyte: It means everything. It makes it all worth it. To me the brighter my light shines the more I am able to do for the community. I work as hard as I do to garner attention so that I am able to help those less fortunate, those who for the moment don’t have the shine and are in a quest for the next level and finding it difficult to get there because at this point no one cares. It’s my mission to be able to create a platform to gain some attention from whoever at that point.