She’s a rap legend and founding member of the Kennedy Center Hip-Hop Culture Council.
This Friday night, MC Lyte hosts “I Am Woman: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop.”
“It is necessary and overdue,” MC Lyte told WTOP. “I am so glad that the Kennedy Center, for their 50th anniversary, decided to choose me to help curate a wonderful night where we get to shower love and attention on those emcees who rarely get the spotlight. … I’m looking forward to it because I’ll be immersed in a night of live performance.”
MC Lyte hosts and headlines a concert featuring Da Brat, Trina, Remy Ma, Monie Love, Mumu Fresh, Yo Yo, Mama Sol, Tierra Whack, Ra Brown and DJ EQUE.
“Da Brat has been a friend of mine since we met through So So Def and Jermaine Dupri when I was on tour with Kris Kross,” Lyte said. “Remy serves on our Hip-Hop Sisters Foundation. … I did a lineup for Essence Festival in New Orleans and Trina was on that bill. … I can call any of them up and say, ‘Hey, we’re heading to the Kennedy Center!'”
Born in New York City in 1970, Lyte grew up in Brooklyn before hip-hop blew up.
“If I were to take you back to the ’70s in Brooklyn, I don’t know if there would be much hip-hop,” Lyte said. “I got my dose of hip-hop in Spanish Harlem where my grandmother lived. That’s where I heard The Treacherous Three, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa and the Funky 4 + 1 More, which involved Sha-Rock, the first female emcee I ever heard.”
She said the burgeoning genre didn’t arrive in Brooklyn until the late ’70s.
“Once we get into the late ’70s where we have The Sugarhill Gang on mainstream radio, that’s when it kind of filtrated into Brooklyn,” Lyte said. “At that point, then I began to hear the ‘La Di Da Di,’ Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh, Salt-N-Pepa had a song ‘Showstoppers,’ Erik B. & Rakim, a lot of those in the early ’80s with Run-D. M. C. and so on and so forth.”
Listening to her idols, she began jotting lyrics of her own.
“I had a composition book, I’d write rhymes and poetry,” Lyte said. “In the seventh grade we would start banging on the desk, banging on the lunch table,” Lyte said. “We’d have our rhymes, we’d write them ahead of time. … Everybody would clap and support one another, it wasn’t a lot of battling at that time, we were all part of the same crew.”
Her classmate Eric Cole invited her to audition for the upstart label First Priority.
“He called me up and said there was a label that he just signed to and they were looking for a female emcee,” Lyte said. “We got on the Staten Island Ferry and I auditioned. … There were about nine or ten guys in a basement. … I opened up my rhyme book and producer Milk D came up with a track on the spot for one of my rhymes out of my book.”
First Priority partnered with Atlantic Records to make Lyte the first solo female rapper to release a full album on a major label with “Lyte as a Rock” (1988), featuring such catchy tracks as “I Am Woman,” “Paper Thin,” “10% Dis” and “I Cram to Understand U.”
“All of that was pretty much in my rhyme book already,” Lyte said.
Her next album “Eyes on This” (1988) featured her most iconic song “Cha Cha Cha.”
“King of Chill … wrote and produced ‘Cha Cha Cha’, one of the few songs that someone else wrote in my career,” Lyte said. “I thought it was corny. I was like, ‘Til this Mardi Gras?’ What the hell? He was saying stuff in this really awkward way like, ‘Well, well, well, I’ll be damned, might as well tell you who I am.’ It was awkward for me, but I’m glad I did it.”
She earned her first Grammy nomination for “Ruffneck” (1993).
“I went down with Teddy Riley with the Future Recording Studio in Virginia Beach,” Lyte said. “When I walked in … they already knew they wanted me to rhyme to that track with one of the gentlemen there, Aqil Davidson, part of Wreckx-n-Effect. … I live amongst all Caribbean folks … they call themselves ‘Ruffnecks.’ Right there the idea was born.”
She earned another Grammy nomination for “Ride Wit Me” (2003).
“‘Ride With Me’ was exciting,” Lyte said. “We did it with a production company, Mad Funk. … We did a video for it, a lot of folks showed up to support MC Lyte for the video, which I thought was dope. … Unfortunately, the guy in charge of all of the promotion passed of throat cancer literally two days before the record came out. … However, we still prevailed.”
In 2008, she made VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop with “Cha Cha Cha” at No. 54.
“When I see a song on one of those top-ranked hip-hop lists, I go, ‘Yeah,'” Lyte said. “I get riled up when I see nothing. When I go, ‘What? How did I not make the list at all?’ I don’t really care what song makes it. When it’s not there is when I notice.”
In the end, how does she want to be remembered?
“Definitely a trailblazer that spoke truth to power and gave back,” Lyte said. “We have a foundation called Hip Hop Sisters. We’ve given away over $1 million in scholarships over the last 10 years to young kids looking to further their education. Right now our partnership is with Dillard University. … Giving back is extremely important to me.”