In the early days of rap—the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s—male rappers and deejays dominated the scene. Women rappers, wrote Dominique Di Prima in Mother Jones, were “the underground of the underground.” Then, in the latter half of the decade, a wave of fierce, independent women took up microphones and turntables. Salt-n-Pepa, Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and MC Lyte demonstrated clearly that women could not only rap as hard and as entertainingly as their male counterparts, but that they could achieve real commercial success in the burgeoning rap music industry. In addition, as David Thigpen wrote in Time, “Women have shown that rap can be far more significant and flexible than its critics have admitted. And that makes it all the more difficult to categorize, ghettoize or otherwise dismiss.”
It would seem impossible to dismiss MC Lyte, who from her first single “I Cram to Understand U” to her 1991 smash album Act Like You Know has stood consistently at the front of the pack. Like some of her outspoken fellow women emcees, she has displayed an uncompromising attitude and a concern with social issues like safe sex and drugs. Yet MC Lyte is a storyteller—“one of rap’s most proficient raconteurs,” according to Spin critic Joan Morgan.
Born in the early 1970s in Queens, New York, Lana Moorer grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her father started the record label First Priority in 1987, and her brothers performed and did production work for the label. Known as Milk and Gizmo of the rap unit Audio Two, Lyte’s brothers went on to contribute to each of her three records.
With their assistance she recorded the single “I Cram to Understand U,” and its reception raised expectations for her First Priority debut album, Lyte as a Rock, in 1988. “I Cram,” about a boyfriend whose mysterious “other woman” turns out to be crack, announced the arrival of a major new rap artist. “Unlike the dozens of raps that are simply comic putdowns,” wrote Peter Watrous in the New York Times, “Ms. Lyte’s plaintive tone and her self-deprecating story add up to a complex emotional statement.” Along with this celebrated tune, the title track, “10% Dis,” and “Paper Thin” all became hits. “I Am Woman” quotes Helen Reddy’s seventies hit song of the same name without irony, and adds “if you want a battle, I’m well prepared.” The track “MC Lyte Likes Swingin’,” produced by rap guru Prince Paul, begins with a typically confident assertion: “I may come on strong but that’s what you like / You like a female MC who can handle the mike.” Lyte remarked in
For the Record…
Born Lana Moorer c. 1971 in Queens, NY; raised in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of a recording executive and a hospital rehabilitation program supervisor.
Recorded single “I Cram to Understand You” for First Priority; recorded first album, Lyte as a Rock, First Priority, 1988; scored first Number One rap single, “Cha Cha Cha,” 1989. Also worked as a fashion-model manager.
Addresses: Record company —First Priority Music, P.O. Box 004-537, Staten Island, NY 10304-0010; or Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
a Village Voice interview that many female rappers choose to be sexy and sweet “when they could really be smackin’ people with their rhymes.”
Musically, Lyte’s first album is relatively spare; its beats and samples are minimal and seem designed to emphasize Lyte’s raps rather than function as songs. In 1989 she moved further in the direction of popular success with Eyes on This. The album, which Rolling Stone called a “slamming, street-smart” effort, yielded a number one rap single, “Cha Cha Cha,” and two other top ten tracks, “Stop, Look, Listen” and “Cappucino.” The single “I’m Not Having It,” a safe-sex manifesto, was used in a widely-viewed TV commercial about AIDS. This song, as Michele Wallace remarked in Ms., “comes down hard on the notion that women can’t say no, and criticizes the shallowness of the male rap.” Similarly, “Please Understand” addresses itself to unruly men. “I’ve never let a man dog me and I never will,” Lyte told Deborah Gregory in an Essence profile. “It’s just not gonna happen!”
In 1990 Lyte went on tour with rap superstars Heavy D. and Kool Moe Dee. “On stage,” wrote Di Prima, “there’s no getting around Lyte being rough and ready to get busy.” Vanity Fair’s Kiki Mason wrote that Lyte “brings a gritty street presence to the stage, hurling her lyrics about drug abuse and difficult modern relationships at the audience.” Her recognition grew by leaps and bounds: she became the first female rapper to perform on Arsenio Hall’s talk show and at Carnegie Hall; the latter appearance was part of an AIDS benefit in 1990. In addition to playing concerts, Lyte toured schools and appeared at press conferences as part of Stop the Violence, an organization working to end violence in the black community.
As a leading woman of rap, Lyte is in an ideal position to communicate to a large audience her opinions on a variety of social issues. An ardent activist, she articulates her concerns about drug abuse, racism, and sexism through both her songs and her no-nonsense demeanor. For instance, Mother Jones quoted her response to male rappers calling women “bitches”: “If you allow someone to call you a bitch and you answer... you’re saying, It’s okay to call me a bitch, and you can continue to call me that. So it’s a matter of women taking a stand and telling them that they’re not going for it.” This “not going for it,” she suggests, might include boycotting certain rap records to drive the message home. As far as the strong language in her own raps is concerned, Lyte sticks to her guns. “My mother keeps asking me why I have to swear in public,” she told Mason. “But sometimes you need a shock so that people pay attention.”
“The new female rappers are creating buoyant messages that transcend the inert boasting so common in male rap,” Thigpen declared, echoing the sentiments of many critics who see positive role models in the new crop of women emcees. Ebony’s Renee Turner added that the “First Ladies of Rap” offer “a feminine view of urban reality.” Lyte has indicated on more than one occasion that she is aware of her responsibility as one of these role models. Of “I Cram to Understand U,” Lyte recalled to Di Prima, “It was just me putting myself in a situation that many other girls have been put in. I wanted to rap about it to show them that they’re not the only ones going through this, and that, yes, it is possible for somebody to fall in love with someone and not know they’re on drugs.... I put it in the first person to show the listeners that I can be whatever it is that I’m talking about.”
Unlike previous waves of female pop stars, noted Gregory, Lyte is “not the least bit concerned with looking ‘girly’ or creating an image that’s based on sex appeal.” Wardrobe has long been a marker of her independence, but by 1990 her visibility as a performer led her to change her look from sweat pants to tailored outfits. She insisted in her interview with Di Prima, though, that she wasn’t caving in to demands for a more “feminine” style: “That’s not Lyte. When I get dressed up, it’s because I’m pleasing myself, and I can afford to pay a designer.”
In 1991 MC Lyte released her third album, Act Like You Know. She recruited a number of well-known rap producers—Mark the 45 King, Dee Jay Doc, Wolf & Epic—to assist her standbys Audio Two and King of Chill. The sound on Act Like You Knowis fuller than that of Lyte’s previous releases, including a variety of R & B samples, heavy basslines, and funky beats. The first single, “When in Love,” chronicles “the stupid things people do when they’re in love,” according to a quote from Lyte in an Atlantic press release. The lyrics provide some startling examples: “Like pickin’ your lover’s nose!” Lyte uses her storytelling skills to describe the perils of AIDS (“Eyes Are the Soul”) and drunk driving (“Poor Georgie,” the video of which fared well on MTV). In “Kamikaze” Lyte blasts rap that doesn’t deal with real issues: “They try to keep me down because I talk to a beat / In other words I try to teach / But if I talk that Yang Yang s—t / Like You Can’t Touch This/That s—t’ll hit.”
Writing for Details, Brantley Bardin declared that the album’s “only real fault… is that with at least one message (if not six) per song, it verges on becoming the ultimate public service announcement.” Lyte, however, stood by her messages, remarking in the New York Times, “I tried to pick topics and issues that hadn’t been done to death by rappers. Then I tried to make it seem funny, to put the message in a palatable way.” As she told Rhonda Baraka in Tafrija, being a rapper affords both the opportunity and the responsibility to make positive statements: “so that’s your chance, whether it be an antidrug message or put a rubber on your willy, whatever the message is you can get it out. That’s what I think is good about being in the entertainment business.”
The ambitious multi-producer approach of Act Like You Know no doubt helped boost Lyte’s sales, but it left critics divided. “If you consider yourself a rap aficionado, let alone an MC Lyte fan, skip the first side of Act Like You Know, ” advised Morgan, who found the samples and arrangements of the album’s first half overwrought. “It falls way off and lands squarely in pop-rap hell.… [Lyte’s] voice has the eerie, anemic sound of a lost MC in a musical identity crisis.” Even so, Morgan admitted, “She finds herself on the second side, thank God, and comes back kicking shit harder than ever over fat, simple drum beats and some seriously slamming samples.” People’s Michael Small agreed that the album seemed like two uneven halves—the first “lush” and “curse-free” and the second featuring “simpler street beats” and “enough raunch and expletives to earn an R rating.” Small asserted that “by trying to have it both ways, Lyte risks pleasing no one,” although he conceded, “She’s a great storyteller.” Small’s review concluded by admitting that teenagers might like the album, since the “confusing middle ground” they experience in their lives matches that of the record.
James Bernard, reviewing Act Like You Know for Entertainment Weekly, found that the album “finds MC Lyte softening her image without losing her edge,” and that her stories of human desperation work because “rather than tossing around empty rhetoric, Lyte takes us face-to-face with these people, forcing us to look into their eyes.” Ultimately Bernard awarded the album an “A-” and asserted that Lyte’s voice, “with its lusty confidence, is the glue that holds this diverse collection together.” Sassy raved that the “record hits you with crazy hard beats, and Lyte’s rhymes talk about life from a distinctly girly perspective,” while Billboard lauded Act Like You Know as “a toughtalking effort that takes no prisoners,” calling Lyte’s style “tough but caring and, above all, smart.”
In the course of a few years Lyte has grown from a teenaged upstart rapping on her dad’s label to big-league star. She avoids the term “crossover” to describe her success; “Call it expansion,” she urged Dream Hampton of The Source. Despite the glamour, though, she remains committed to spreading awareness about social issues and—perhaps most of all—helping her fans see through the eyes of others. “I don’t think it’s my job” to be a cultural hero, she told Di Prima, but there is little doubt that women who follow Lyte’s career have an example of a strong, independent woman artist. “Sure, I consider myself a role model for younger kids,” she insisted in reply to Gregory, “but on the real tip—I’m just young and having fun.” Despite shying away from important-sounding labels, Lyte appreciates the company of other women emcees. “Female rappers are coming out with something to say,” she remarked to Turner. “And it is all beginning to open up, slowly but surely.” When asked about her potential longevity, she told Baraka, “I think all that it is is knowing where you came from and not being phony.”
A 1990 Mother Jones profile indicated that MC Lyte was “contemplating switching over to the business side of record making—not producing, but managing other acts. In the meantime she’s started managing a few models and plans to add to her client list as soon as she moves out of rapping, which isn’t quite yet.” By the release of Act Like You Know, mentions of possible career changes dropped from Lyte’s press coverage. Of course, given her accomplishments it would seem she could do anything she likes. And of course, as she noted in the same interview, “Nobody can force Lyte to do nothing I don’t want to do.”
On First Priority Records
Lyte as a Rock (includes “I Cram to Understand U,” “Paper Thin,” “10% Dis,” “I Am Woman,” and “MC Lyte Likes Swingin’”), 1988.
Eyes on This (includes “Cha Cha Cha,” “Stop, Look, Listen,” “Cappucino,” and “I’m Not Having It,”), 1989.
Act Like You Know (includes “When in Love,” “Eyes Are the Soul,” “Poor Georgie,” “Kamikaze,” and “2 Young 4 What”), 1991.
Also contributor to video Sisters in the Name of Rap, PMV, 1992.
Art Forum, No. 17, 1992.
Billboard, September 21, 1991.
Details, September 1991.
Ebony, October 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, October 25, 1991.
Essence, August 1991.
Hits, January 13, 1992.
Mean Street, November 1991.
Mother Jones, September/October 1990.
Ms., December/January 1990-91.
New York Times, January 10, 1988; October 16, 1991.
People, January 27, 1992.
Rap Pages, April 1992.
Right On!, January 1992.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1989; December 13, 1990.
Sassy, January 1992.
The Source, November 1991; December 1991.
Spin, October 1991.
Tafrija, December 1991.
Time, May 27, 1991.
Vanity Fair, July 1990.
Village Voice, January 19, 1988.
Yol, April 1992.
ysb, November 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Atlantic Records press release, 1991.
"MC, Lyte." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mc-lyte
"MC, Lyte." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mc-lyte