By Tom Russell
Among the first hip-hop recordings in the late 1970s were the Funky 4 + 1, fronted by five MCs including Sha Rock (Sharon Green), who is possibly the first female MC. A hand or two would do to count the female hip-hop acts from then until 1987, when Lana Michele Moorer spat her first rhymes as MC Lyte:
He said, ‘Hello, my name is Sam’ I said, ‘Hi, my name is Lyte’
We dipped and we dapped and we chit and we chat
About this and that, from sneakers to hats
He said, ‘Look, I’m in the mood for love
Simply because you’re near me’
‘I Cram to Understand U’ was released as a single on First Priority Recordings when Lyte was sixteen. It’s a tale of a lover lost to drug addiction and is the centre of her 1988 album, Lyte as a Rock.
Lyte sings Sam’s wooing couplet (quoted above), drawing from the jazz standard ‘I’m in the Mood for Love’, which was written by Dorothy Fields (one of the great lyricists of Tin Pan Alley). The song was published 1935 and introduced by Frances Langford later that year in Every Night at Eight, a film about a trio of female singers trying to break through on a TV talent show. So that’s neat, but what’s really cool is that Lyte takes Sam’s words away from him, rooting them entirely in this other tradition: hip-hop.
MC Lyte consistently subverts hip-hop, using techniques essential to the genre. For the beginnings of hip-hop, we need to look briefly at Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, The Sugar Hill Gang and DJ Kool Herc: born alongside the culture of b-boys and b-girls (breakdancing) and graffiti writing in the Bronx, they established the scene of DJ breaks sampling and MC rapping. The block parties of New York in the 70s saw DJs isolating the breakdowns of R&B, disco and soul songs to mine their beats, over which an MC would rap, mostly about partying, or boasting their rhyming skills and dissing anyone who would care to challenge them.
Lyte and DJ K-Rock incorporate the substance of other work, quoting and sampling, making it their own. ‘I Cram to Understand U’ samples strings and brass punches from ‘Joy’ by Isaac Hayes, but Lyte’s lyrics cut away from any sleepy security of the original. ‘Paper Thin’ samples a guitar loop from Prince’s ‘7 Days’, punches from Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Shining Star’, and double-times the beat from Al Green’s ‘I’m Glad You’re Mine’. The sounds are filtered and levelled, chopped up and looped, completely re-crafted and laid down for Lyte’s irreverent rhyming:
That dream is over you gotta sink it.
And I tell all of you like I told all of them
What you say to me is just paper thin.
As an affront to her competitors, she rewrites Franki Valli and the Four Seasons’s ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ as ‘Don’t Cry Big Girls’, and in ‘Paper Thin’ she also riffs on Percy Mayfield’s classic, made famous by Ray Charles, ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ – though it’s Sam (the antagonist and ex-boyfriend in the song) who is kicked out by Lyte.
Lyte and K-Rock mash up an intertext of masculine idealizations and stereotypes to create intensely personal tracks soaked in the antagonism of the sample ripped from its comfortable context, and the dis. Hip-hop is other music re-worked, and Lyte’s anger hits hardest at the lifting, the simple theft, of one of her brothers’ beats:
Beat biter! Dope style taker!
Tell you to your face you ain’t nothing but a faker!
‘10% Dis’ samples that very beat (by her older brothers Kirk and Nat Robinson, aka Milk Dee and Gizmo, aka ‘Audio Two’, who had a moment in the spotlight with this beat in their often sampled song, ‘Top Billin’), while Lyte rants over the top:
Never am I dissed, and never ever shall I be
Ain’t a MC alive that can deal with me.
The boast and the dis fill the album. Lyte’s rap is personal – this is no purely artificial construct but a means for her to put together her own identity, tell a little of her own life story, and to do all of this in face of the detractors and exploiters that surround her. The dis too, not just the narrative rap of ‘I Cram to Understand’, tells the story of MC Lyte, authored by herself:
Others write your rhymes, while I write my own
I don’t create a character, when I’m on the microphone
I am myself, no games to be played
No script to be read, and no scene to be made.
Her claims to superiority are self-fulfilling: the dopeness of her rhymes and jibes – ‘Who’s the frog, the bump on the log?’ – is right up in front while she’s spitting and dissing. In ‘I am Woman’, K-Rock throws out some nick-names, which Lyte dismisses until she hits it right:
The Queen – nah that’s too corny
The Sexy – nah, that gets the guys too horny
The Best – now that sounds conceited
But what’s true just has to be repeated.
This self-labeling has humor to it – a slight distancing from the words she’s putting out. Far from ‘dontcha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me’, and certainly not ‘nothing but a gold-digger’, Lyte has found her voice, and uses it for much more than the ‘Oo-ooh’ that Grandmaster Flash asks of all the ladies in the house. Gwendolen Pough gives in-depth consideration to the linguistic foundations of black womanhood in her study, Check It While I Wreck It, looking at hip-hop’s struggle to disrupt the language of the patriarchal public sphere. In a culture which assigns all too readily to women the status of either ‘bitch’ or ‘ho’, MC Lyte lets her voice do the talking.
Speaking about the birth of her interest in hip-hop in an interview with The Source magazine, Lyte says, ‘My love for hiphop started really early . . . and then later, I heard Salt n Pepa and I was like wow, this feels like something that I may be able to get into’. In 2008, now long in the scene, she performed alongside her early idols, (and two younger acts – Yo-Yo and The Lady of Rage) at the BET hip-hop music awards:
By the tone of my voice, you can tell I am a scholar
I’m also the leader of the hip-hop followers.
Lyte broke the ground for acts like Queen Latifah and Shelly Thunder, Mary J Blige and Missy Elliott, whose style she (modestly) regards as ‘sort of a hybrid of me and Salt n Pepa – coming by way of me’. She currently heads up a myspace forum, Hip-hop Sisters, sharing her experience with newcomers: ‘the knowledge that they can come into is really dope on that call’. And she released her ninth studio album in 2006:
‘I’ll rock a party from Friday to Saturday night
48 hours done, and I still hold the mic
I try to put it down and say that I’m through
But they give it back to me and say, “Continue”
MC Lyte was way out ahead as a female MC, and told us so from the start. She still rocks the circuit. Listen to a record of hers sometime. Get too close and you’ll be overwhelmed. She’ll ‘bring it to you hardcore’ – but this is still a party, you’ll be dancing all the way home:
How many times I gotta warn you
About the light? It’ll blind your sight
But the rhythm will still guide you through the night.
MC Lyte, Eyes on This, (Priority / Atlantic Records, 1989)
Salt n Pepa, Hot, Cool and Vicious, (Next Plateau Records, 1986)
Yo-Yo, Make Way for the Motherlode, (East West Records, 1991)
MC Lyte, Lyte as a Rock, (First Priority Music / Atlantic Records, 1988)
Gwendolyn D Pough, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, (Northeastern University Press, Boston, 2004)
Ewuare X Osayande, Misogyny & The Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop, (Talking Drum Communications, Philadelphia, 2008)for the beginnings of hip-hop (and the coining of the word): Steven Hager, Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti, (St Martins Press, 1984, out of print) or the chapter ‘Hip-hop’ in Adventures in the counterculture, (High Times Books, 2002)
 The Source, March 17, 2009 – http://www.thesource.com/2009/03/women-in-hip-hop-mc-lyte