MC Lyte’s debut single “I Cram To Understand U” is a cautionary tale. On the track, Lyte starts a relationship with a boy from her neighborhood named Sam. She soon suspects Sam is cheating on her. He is. But not with another woman.
He’s cheating on her with crack.
The song, which was produced by Audio Two – Milk Dee is Lyte’s half-brother – is one of the greatest debut performances of all time. On the track, Lyte displayed a boldness, bravado, and vocal prowess that was rare for rappers coming out of Brooklyn. She also showcased a keen knack for storytelling – an adept ability to build tension.
She was 16-years-old when “I Cram To Understand U” was pressed up by her stepfather Nat Robinson’s label Priority Records in 1986; she was only 12 when she first wrote the song.
Although young, the lyrics came from her own life experience. In a 2011 interview with VIBE, MC Lyte said:
My mother used to work at North General Hospital in Harlem. Whenever I would go there would be a slew of heroin and crack addicts and everybody there at the rehabilitation center that was a couple of floors down. I would have to come into contact with these addicts and I would think, ‘Wow, what a jacked up way to be.’ I would never want that for myself or any other young person that I knew so I was going to make it my responsibility to tell people about drugs so that they could avoid them at all cost.
“I Cram To Understand U” ended up being the first single for Lyte as a Rock, which was released two years later when MC Lyte was only 17. (She would turn 18 a couple of weeks later.) The year the album was released, 1988, is seen as hip-hop’s zenith: within a six month period, Strictly Business, Long Live the Kane, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Follow the Leader, Straight Outta Compton, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and Straight out the Jungle all dropped.
Despite releasing amongst that murderous row, Lyte as a Rock was still able to become a landmark album for hip-hop. It’s the first solo rap album to be released by a female rapper. And despite her age and physical stature – the album’s cover features her bodyguard Big Foot towering over her – Lyte rapped with a ferocity and confidence not seen by many female rappers at the time. (On “10% Diss” she viciously went after Antoinette for taking the kicks and snares from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’:” “Beat biter, dope style taker Tell you to your face you ain’t nothing but a faker.”)
MC Lyte would go on to have a long career in hip-hop, one that would transcend music and expand into other areas of entertainment. She’s executive produced movies; managed artists, like Lil Mama; given motivational speeches; and acted. Still, we know her first and arguably foremost as the shorty with the fire lyrics and fiery persona who took no mess and was “capable of painting a bazillion raps.” Lyte as a Rock helped highlight an era. The album represents and embodies the heart and soul of a teenager from Brooklyn with the doorknocker earrings and tracksuits, who carved out her spot and laid claim to her spot in the world.
On Friday, November 30th, Lyte will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the legendary album by giving a special one night only performance at the Sony Hall Theater in New York City. Leading up to the show, Okayplayer was able to speak with MC Lyte about the making of the album; its impact and relevance 30 years later; her thoughts on the beef between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj; and her own legendary battles with Antoinette and Roxanne Shante.
Check out the interview below.
First of all, I am just elated that Lyte as a Rock has been able to stay around and be such a part of “The Golden Era” of hip-hop. When I look at all the albums that were released that year alone, it was just like a birthing of a new type of hip-hop. We had all listened so everyone before us, and it was just our turn, and we came and came so differently, so unique in our own space. So it feels good to be a part of that. And as far as where hip-hop has come, it’s exciting to just see how long it’s lasted and all of the subgenres that exist now. I mean, it’s all hip-hop, but it’s hard to define it all as just hip-hop because there’s so many different versions of what’s happening right now.
I was 17 when it was released. But it was the year that I turned 18. The lyrics were in a rhyme book for several years prior to getting to the studio. I started writing in that book probably about when I was 12 or 13. So to see lyrics that I had written prior be appreciated in such a way, you know, there’s nothing like it. I guess it just goes to show that when you’re speaking truth, or when truth resonates with others then I guess it could be considered a classic because it never goes old.
I’d leave it where it is. I’d leave it back in 1988. There’s something nostalgic about the time and that era, and releasing with Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Rakim, it just feels like a space that I want to be remembered for coming with a record like that. I think today there would just be so much competition and it might get swallowed up in all of the melee. Yeah, I’d rather keep it in right there in ’88.
Well, interestingly enough, I think they’ve come to a place where it’s quieted down. I think they’ve come to their own resolution, which is good, because I would imagine that that’s the most truthful place for them to come from. As far as their beef, you know, I beefed. I had several beefs coming up in hip-hop. Roxanne Shante and Antoinette were some of my beefs. There is an understanding that when you come into hip-hop, it’s free game. This is the arena like no other, the genre where you have to say you’re the best, mean it and believe it, and, sometimes, you’ll be tested. Sometimes, that’s what people feel they have to do when they feel as though they have a title and they’re trying to defend it.
[Nicki] was the only one that was getting all of the shine, and all the attention, and all the guest spots on everybody’s record, and so the last two years has been a little different for her, with Cardi coming up. It’s sometimes hard for people to make space for other people. I just think it’s a learning curve for a whole lot of people because there were a lot of people in waiting and then here comes Cardi, and it’s like, “Whoa! How did this even happen?” But it’s a new era, you know, and how people get to the top is different.
The thing is, we can ask the same of all of the guys that have gotten into altercations where people have actually jumped up on the stage and punched somebody in the face while they’re performing. There have been all sorts of things dating back to the ‘80s – people jumping up and snatching other people’s awards that they’ve won. It’s like really been a tumultuous circumstance in terms of violence that has existed in this particular genre. Do I think that it should come to that? No! Absolutely not, and there are ways that I imagine beefs can be worked out.
Three weeks ago I had an hour conversation with Antoinette on the phone, and we got to a deeper understanding of how we even got there. We’re in our forties! We’re in a different space and time in our lives, and Cardi is young. She’s been praised for being who she is, and that’s off the cuff, and that’s saying whatever she feels. You can’t look at clap at what it is that she’s done thus far and get mad because she did that when she was pushed to a breaking point. I was always told when you see someone acting like that, look at what all of that anger is going towards. Buttons were pushed, and that’s the result. But I am hoping that beyond just them now calling a truce that they’re able to turn around and actually get along.
I wouldn’t separate it from all artists as it relates to hip-hop, because this is the genre where we speak truth. This is where we’re supposed to be the news of the hood, and that means either educating others about what happens in the hood, or educating the hood about a subject or topic that’s not so easily understand on a level that people will care. Remi is my sister, and so to see her take a stand is outstanding. However, she’s not alone. Both Cardi and Nicki have used their platforms to tell the youth to vote. I just want to keep it all in perspective in terms of what we expect from people at the level of where they are. There is room for growth, and the more that you experience, the more you see on your journey, the more opportunities you have to shape and mold who it is that you want to be.
[Laughter] That is hilarious! Out of all that you just asked. I’m going to answer it by saying: yes, I would give a cease and desist letter. Yeah, we have nothing parallel. There’s nothing similar in our thinking or approach. We’re just so polar opposite.
Married life is definitely for grownups. Like, it’s nothing to play with, and you have to be ready to see you, because really, your mate is a reflection of who you are, and you’re extremely lucky if you find someone that you love and trust to show you YOU. Imagine, I’ve been an artist since I was 16. So I’m spoiled. I’m used to doing things my way, how I want it, all of that. All of what it means to be me – my identity rolled up into what I think it should be and very ego driven. Being married there’s no room for ego, so this has become an opportunity for me to grow and to expand, and I’m thankful that I have someone that I trust that I can actually do that with.
As far as how it plays on music, I just think, in general, my life has changed so immensely, and there’s a consciousness that exists far beyond what it is that I could’ve imagined when I even made Lyte as a Rock or Eyes Are the Soul or Act Like You Know. I was very conscious when it came to having an anti-drug message. However, I think that was about it. I hadn’t experienced enough to know spiritually the vibration that exists and how I was tapping into something, but now seeing that I want to bring about a different result and a different type of energy. I can do something different about it, and that’s the great thing about being an artist and having music. I mean, you can change your mind about how you want to present something, and either your fans will move with you or they’ll drop off and you’ll acquire new ones.
I am working on music, and I don’t think I ever stopped. I am working on this project now with Warren Campbell, and he and I have been friends for a really long time. He has such a great tapestry of music throughout the years and I am a huge fan. He actually used to be part of the A&R team when I was at Keith Sweat’s Elektra, so to be able to work with him in this capacity is excellent. It’s amazing, and the process by which he makes music is just very different from anything that I’ve experienced before. And then as far as acting, I just did something with Justin Simien, a new movie that he has called Bad Hair. It just wrapped a couple of months ago, so I imagine it will be out sometime next year. I also did another movie with Malinda Williams called Last Exit.
K-Rock is still my DJ. We perform all the time so there’s not much that we need to brush up on. However, it is going to be great for me being in New York City, my hometown.
Samantha Hunter resides in Westchester, New York and has written entertainment and lifestyle features for Essence, SoulBounce, Inspirer, Haute d’ Vie, Black Westchester, DELUX, and VH1.com. Her family and friends say she’s always going somewhere, but you can find her on Instagram at @Sapodillic.
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