MC Lyte is tired. You can hear it in her voice, the same smooth alto that made the rapper a hip-hop legend. It’s the end of a long day of interviews, sound checks – general boss behavior – and she could use vocal rest. She’s not getting it, though. Because even as she sends a text, she’d rather talk than type. That voice can’t stop, won’t stop.
“Are you kidding me. Question mark. Stop playing,” she dictates into her smartphone while shaking her head. And Lyte, 51, isn’t playing; she’s planting her flag.
The veteran emcee was in Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the contributions of women to hip-hop in a show for the Kennedy Center. Lyte, a founding member of the institution’s Hip Hop Culture Council, helped create “I Am Woman: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop,” a concert featuring Yo Yo, Trina, Remy Ma and Da Brat.
For Lyte, gathering such powerhouses together in one venue was a mission decades in the making: “It’s been a trip.” A long one. Born Lana Moorer, Lyte started writing at age 12. Six years later, her 1988 debut “Lyte as a Rock” was the first studio album from a solo female rap artist.
From there, her career took off: more records, DJ’ing, activism, acting, businesses. Watch most award shows, including last month’s Grammys, and you’ll hear Lyte’s voice moving the ceremony along as the announcer.
These days, Lyte gets recognized before fans even see her face. “They know it’s me off the bat. I’ve been places where my back has been turned, and a person comes around and goes, ‘I knew it was you.’ ” What they don’t always know is that she’s more than “the lady that does the voice on the awards.”
Lyte’s confident flow and lyricism are unmistakable precursors to female rappers such as Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie. Her staying power in hip-hop for more than three decades now would surprise even her younger self.
Hot off the success of her first album, the 18-year-old told a newspaper that her emceeing career had a shelf life. “I don’t want to be a rapper in 10 years, that’s for sure,” she said. “By then, the new generation will be in. I want to be settled. I can see me singing, maybe, in 10 years, but not rapping. Rapping is youth music.”
Lyte laughs at that. “I remember saying I was going to stop at 27, and I was going to get married, and I was going to have some kids,” she said. “And yeah, well, none of that happened. So, I have learned it’s not my plan, it’s God’s plan. I’m still here.”
Here is hip-hop. Here is the Kennedy Center. Here is legacy status. When Lyte was young, so was hip-hop. There were “no holds” then, she said. No one thought of doing anything else besides living, breathing and eating lyrics, beats and dance moves.
It’s why, she said, the culture is everlasting and why she couldn’t see herself doing it forever. Young people will always find their way in and make the genre their own.
“When you start to get older, there are other things,” Lyte explained. “You fall out of tune … with the fundamentals of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis in hip-hop.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s solely “youth music” as her teenage self believed. Just ask the crowd heading into the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on a recent Friday night. There are plenty of aunties and uncles rocking head-to-toe Adidas, but just as many newbies in Ivy Park and stilettos.
When Yo Yo hits the stage and “throws it out the window” with the knees of someone half the rapper’s age, hip-hop appears to be less a stopwatch than a fountain of youth. Lyte sees it as a foundation – a fundamental part of who she is, but not all of her. “Hip-hop is at the core, but it’s not really what I do every day,” she said. In a typical workday, the legendary emcee doesn’t even touch a mic. She’s working on scripts, managing other artists or playing a fictionalized version of herself on ALLBLK’s streaming show “Partners in Rhyme.”
“I still get to be in the business that I love but at a level where I can be most effective,” she said – which is how she’s managed to stay relevant for so long. One can be hip-hop without constantly being in hip-hop, she added. “It’s like a treadmill. It just keeps going and people get tired, they fall off of it. But if someone is lucky enough to develop something else that they love outside of a hit song, then you can have drive” to stick with the genre for the long haul.
She pointed to rappers with staying power such as Jay-Z. “He ain’t doing hip-hop every day, but he is hip-hop.” Add Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Ice-T, Method Man and many more to that list. Same goes for Lyte and the lineup of artists she curated for the “I Am Woman” concert.
“We all do it when we feel like it,” she said. And it’s the feeling that still gets Lyte to the microphone. “Hip-hop still moves people to want to create. It still moves people to want to learn lyrics,” she said. “It still moves people,” she said.”
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