During the late 80s and early 90s, male emcees dominated the “golden age” of hip-hop, especially in NYC, but one woman had the talent and the guts to go head-to-head with the guys. Brooklyn-born MC Lyte became the first solo female emcee to release a full-length album with Lyte as a Rock in 1988, which was met with critical acclaim shortly afterwards.
More than two decades later, Lyte is still pushing the boundaries and sticking to her “hip-hop pioneer feminist” roots. She is the founder of the Hip Hop Sisters, which describes itself as “a non-profit foundation that promotes positive images of women in ethnic diversity, bringing leaders together from the world of hip-hop, the entertainment industry, and the corporate world.” Lyte has also been busy traveling for speaking engagements and performances across the country.
Brooklyn Radio got a chance to speak with the busy artist about her eighth studio album, which is due to drop in 2015, and what it was like being back in the studio.
What was your first introduction to, or experience with, hip-hop?
The first I think was probably Curtis Blow maybe at my grandmother’s house where they would listen to hip-hop. And if it wasn’t him, maybe it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or the Treacherous Three, or something of that nature. All of the uptown emcees in the Bronx.
So your family was into hip-hop before you got involved?
Yeah, my older cousins listened to hip-hop, and so, it was really a mainstay in Spanish Harlem where I would go on the weekends. And that is where I really got my fill on hip-hop. I’m from Brooklyn, so we listened more to reggae, much more of a Caribbean culture happening. So, once in a blue moon, we’d have a block party or something is when we would hear hip-hop.
How do you feel as being touted as one of hip-hop’s pioneer feminists?
Oh, well – hey! I guess that’s a great thing. I don’t know. I’m just me, and I am a woman. And I do stand for not being taken advantage of and stepping up to the plate when it comes to speaking out against misogyny, so I guess that would make me what you just called me.
Can you tell readers more about the signature scholarship initiative, which was the inspiration behind your hit “Dear John” with Common and 10 Beats?
Oh, absolutely. With “Dear John,” I had a poem that was written in my phone as a matter of fact, and when the producers started to assemble the track, I just thought, “Wow, wait a second. I think I have something for this.” And I just started mulling through the words, and it wound up not being what I had written, but it certainly was a great inspiration for it. And I just felt like so many things going on that’s really, you know, sort of stopping the flow for young men of color especially.
So, I just wanted to give them some words of encouragement, and that’s pretty much how it was built. And then, the president of the foundation, Lynn Richardson, she and I took a trip down to Dillard University, and we sat and we met with the president there, and he told us that really it was a shortage of men on the campus. And immediately Lynn’s brain began to churn and work, “Hey, wait a second. Maybe we need to help facilitate some supplemental scholarships for your men wanting to attend Dillard.” And so basically, that’s how it was born.
Your latest single “Ball” features Lil’ Mama and AV. What about this track speaks to you as an artist?
Oh, goodness. There’s so much energy to it. I love it. It feels youthful. It’s high-paced. I love the lyrical flow. It’s a little different from what people are accustomed to hearing me do. And then to have Lil’ Mama, you know, I am a fan of hers. I think she’s extremely talented, and she just needs the proper platform to be able to showcase her skills and really have people get involved and participate in her journey from the standpoint of her being a viable artist to this industry.
What can fans expect from your upcoming LP release slated to drop in 2015?
Well, we have a collage of things. We call it “new and true.” So, the new music that’s presented, which “Ball” is reflective of that, is everything that’s happening today in hip-hop in terms of production. Sonically, it fits right in with what’s happening today, but yet, it’s not a departure from MC Lyte to the degree that I sound strange on it.
So, it’s like sticking to your roots?
Yeah, you know, probably some tracks out there that I would certainly sound crazy on, and people would go, “Ooh, no. That doesn’t fit at all.” And it just fits. The new sound that’s encompassed on this record fits. And then for the true music, and “Dear John” plays a part in that body of work, is true to the organic instrumentation and really what people are accustomed to hearing MC Lyte on. So, I think with this record, there’s eleven tracks. I’ve got some really special guests, you know, people who are special to me that are guests on this record. I’m just excited about it.
I am too! How does it feel to be back in the studio after ten years?
All that time. So good especially the studio that I was in. It was a great learning experience. There’s about eight or nine guys there that make up the production team. They’re all musicians, and they all range in age from about twenty-two to about, I don’t know, forty-eight. And it’s a well-rounded sound for me to have all of those voices and all of that talent in the room. I love collaborative efforts, and that certainly was one.
And nobody held back. Everybody participated and spoke up. “Hey, you know, I think it should go more in this direction.” Or “What about this?” Or “No, you know, people are used to hearing Lyte like this. We gotta give them some of this!” They were very opinionated and very acquainted with who I am and what I’ve done, and I like the fact that they did their investigation and their studying prior to having me come into the studio.
They did you justice. Will there be a tour in conjunction with the album release?
Yeah, I’m sure. I’m actually really on tour now. I’m doing a plethora of things: speaking, DJing, performing, hosting. Every weekend I’m doing something different. But I think with this record, it would really excite me to do something on an intimate level with a band and a smaller crowd, so that I could really take my time and go through new and old.
Ah, new and true. You said on Twitter today, “If it sounds difficult, do it. Challenges make us stronger.” What’s been one of the greatest challenges of your career?
I guess really sitting down and committing to doing another music project. I think for so many years, other avenues have been built for me, and so, to really step away from those other avenues and commit to doing a full-on album was a bit challenging. Or it has been challenging in the past, and, I think, it wasn’t until last year sitting with the team and everyone saying, “We need a new Lyte record.” And really making time within the schedule to go in and record it. Once we were able to do that, then it made it much easier.
Is there anything else you’d like to share or promote?
Well, I guess if anyone is interested in learning more about the foundation, hiphopsisters.org, and as far as the videos and all the music, MCLyte.com, and get ready for the album next year!