Longevity in the hip hop world is a rare but coveted crown these days. Only a handful of performers have sustained long term careers in the face of all the upheavals that rappers have to contend with in the ’90s. And if you’re a woman trying to gain ground, you have to double your efforts to knock down stereotypes and produce rhymes that remain vital to both the street and hip hop’s all-encompassing commercial beat.
MC Lyte keeps knockin’ ’em all down.
She’s been on point for more than a decade now, combining meticulous wordplay with a signature wit and style that is completely her own. “It’s funny, but when I make a record now my producers will say, ‘let’s twist it this way or that, but with some of that old MC Lyte stock’,” she laughs. “When you’ve been able to last, there is usually a good reason for it. People like to see you draw from that part of you that has always connected with your audience.”
Reared in Brooklyn, Lyte is “connecting” on both coasts now, keeping her finger on hip hop’s pulse while she quietly pursues an acting career, as well. “I know I can do both,” she says. Landing roles in several situation comedies including Moesha, In The House, and the crime drama New York Undercover has helped her get more of a taste for the acting game. “But hip hop is my first love,” she says.
Nowhere is that passion more evident than on MC Lyte’s newest album, Seven And Seven. It’s Lyte throwing the dice at her all-time best, sharing the mic and production chores with some of hip hop’s hottest stars, as well as groundbreaking newcomers anxious to collaborate with the renowned microphone stylist. “There are a number of guest appearances on this album. I have always believed in collaboration. Some of my best work has been when I’m vibing with others.” Guests on the new LP include Giovanni, superstar LL Cool J, who produced “Play Girls Play,” a new producing team called The Neptunes, who helm many of the tunes, and Missy Elliott (who collaborated with MC Lyte on their past hit “Cold Rock A Party”). “Working with Missy is always great,” says Lyte. “We did three tracks together: ‘In My Business,’ ‘Too Fly,’ and ‘Want What I Got’.
On that we also feature Mocha, with Missy and I taking our usual turns at the mic.” Lyte was also excited to work with the new producing team, The Neptunes. “They’re two young guys that the label hooked me up with,” she says. “They guided and co-wrote three sizzling tracks on the album: ‘Closer’, ‘I Can’t Make A Mistake’, and ‘It’s All Yours.’ We also hooked up with Gina Thompson on ‘It’s All Yours,'” says Lyte. “Her vocals are spectacular. She was able to give the song just the right flavor it needed. These Neptune cats were very familiar with what I could do, and they knew just how to update my sound without sacrificing any of the things that make me unique.”
It’s precisely Lyte’s uniqueness that has enabled her to keep making viable hip hop records. As she prepares to drop her sixth career LP, she laughs as she remembers how young she was when she began to make up her first rhymes. “I was 12 years old. Now that’s going back.” Her first release was a cult classic, “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)”, which eventually led her to her first album in 1988, the historic Lyte As A Rock.
Her fierce style belied her modest demeanor offstage, adding to the Lyte mystique, which even in the face of female hip hop’s current, more sultry flow, has made Lyte one of the rocks of the genre. “There’s room for everybody’s style,” she says. “Every new movement has an audience that recognizes something in it. Something they identify with. That’s the key to hip hop. That’s what makes it great.” Lyte knew that early on, following up with the critically acclaimed sophomore disc, Eye On This, which exceeded everyone’s expectations. It spawned a number 1 rap single “Cha Cha Cha,” and the anti-violence nugget “Cappuccino.” Her third album, Act Like You Know, helmed by Bel Biv Devoe’s writers and producers Wolf and Epic, took a more soulful turn.
Lyte suped it up a bit in 1993 with Ain’t No Other, which critics praised as her return to harder rhymes. It was Lyte’s inspiring anthem to the boyz, the classic “Ruffnec k,” nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Single, that gave the rap world its first gold single even achieved by a female performer.
Lyte also became active in many social projects, involving herself in anti-violence campaigns, and doing PSAs for Rock The Vote, as well as contributing her time and expertise to several AIDS events. She also found time to collaborate with Atlanta’s X-Scape on the Soul Train Award winning, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which appeared on The Sunset Park soundtrack, the second gold single of Lyte’s illustrious career. In 1996 she released the LP Bad As I Wanna Be, featuring her crisp, tart style head-on with several of the tracks produced by Rashad Smith (Busta Rhymes, Tribe Called Quest, among others). The album featured the aforementioned duet with Missy Elliott, “Cold Rock A Party.”
It’s been an incredible ride for MC Lyte, and now with the release of the much anticipated Seven And Seven, she shows no sign of slowing down. “God gives us all a gift,” she says. “I think one’s goal should be to use that gift to one’s greatest advantage. If you can be true to yourself and your fans in this business, the rest is easy.”