Rapper MC Lyte was born Lana Moorer on October 11, 1971 in Queens and raised in the East Flatbush.
She began rapping when she was 12, learning from her brothers Milk and Gizmo of the rap group Audio Two. Her father, Nat Robinson, started the First Priority record label in 1987, and her brothers appeared on her first three albums.
Her first single, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” — a song about a woman who has to compete for her man’s attention, but her competition isn’t another woman, it’s crack cocaine — became an instant cult classic. The single, released when Lyte was still a teen, set a standard for adult, hard-core rap that has rarely been equaled since.
Her first album Lyte as a Rock was released on First Priority Records in 1988 and produced by her brothers. It’s notable for its narrative songs, like “10% Dis” and “Paper Thin,” that tell fleshed-out stories featuring doomed but interesting characters. Despite the assertive, in-your-face persona Lyte shows in her music and onstage, the artist is known for her soft-spoken demeanor behind the scenes.
Lyte’s follow-up Eyes on This was released a year after her debut, when she was just 19. It featured production by Grand Puba and the hit single “Cha Cha Cha,” which reached number one on the rap charts. Lyte took a courageous stand against violence in the haunting song “Cappuccino.”
“I only write about what I go through,” Lyte said in an interview. “Or things I’ve learned along the way.”
She became an anti-violence spokesperson, namely for the Stop the Violence campaign, which took her into schools to speak to kids. She also appeared in public service announcements for the Rock the Vote campaign, which featured her song “I’m Not Having It.” She appeared in PSAs for Musicians for Life and supported various AIDS charities. Lyte became the first rapper to perform at Carnegie Hall at a 1990 AIDS benefit.
Lyte hired R&B producers Wolf and Epic, of Bel Biv Devoe fame, to produce her third album, Act Like You Know, released in 1991. The result was a smoother, more soulful turn for the artist. Despite the commercial success of the singles “When In Love,” “Poor Georgie,” and “Eyes Are the Soul,” Lyte’s fans despaired that their aggressive, street-smart diva had softened her style.
On her fourth release, 1993’s Ain’t No Other, Lyte returned to her harder-edged rhymes, much to the relief of her fans. KRS-ONE contributed a few lines at the album’s start to introduce it, and Lyte laid out an aggressive affront to disrespecting rapper Roxanne Shanté on “Steady F. King.”
The single “Ruffneck” was produced by Wreckx ‘N’ Effect and nominated for a Grammy award for Best Rap Single, and earned the first-ever gold certification for record sales by a female rap artist. She spent the summer of 1994 on a sold-out tour, opening for Janet Jackson. She also made an appearance on Jackson’s song “You Want This.” She teamed up with fellow female rappers Yo Yo and Queen Latifah to create the hit remix of singer Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down.”
Though Lyte enjoys listening to message-driven rap, she told Billboard, ” evidently core hip-hop fans don’t want to hear that. They want to party, so I gave them fat beats and fat lyrics about me.”
Lyte’s fifth album Bad as I Wanna B found her with a heightened sense of responsibility for the music she made, and the impact it had on her fans.
“It once was considered ‘cool’ to curse on rap records, to ‘prove you were the baddest,’” Lyte admitted in an Essence interview. “Now I feel responsible for what comes out of my mouth.”
That said, she practically began the album with an expletive but toned it down as the album played out. She earned her second gold record for “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which appeared on Bad As I Wanna B. She teamed up with the female R&B group X-Scape on the song, which won a Soul Train Award and was featured on the Sunset Park soundtrack. That album also contained Lyte’s hit single “Cold Rock A Party,” which featured Lyte teamed up for a duet with hip-hop diva Missy Elliot.
Elliot was featured again on Lyte’s 1998 release Seven & Seven on three tracks, “In My Business,” “Too Fly,” and “Want What I Got.” Artists Giovanni and L.L Cool J. who produced the track “Play Girls Play,” also lent a hand. She hired producers the Neptunes to handle and co-write “Closer,” “I Can’t Make a Mistake,” and “It’s All Yours,” which also featured vocals by singer Gina Thompson.
“I have always believed in collaboration,” Lyte said. “Some of my best work has been when I’m vibing with others.”
Beyond recording records and releasing increasingly popular singles, many female MCs began to diversify in the late 1990s. Lyte went to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. She has appeared in such television sitcoms as Moesha and In the House, on the drama New York Undercover and plays a recurring role as Lana on the show For Your Love. She also appeared in the independent film A Luv Tale.
“I know I can do both,” Lyte said. “But hip-hop is my first love.”
After the success of the “Cold Rock A Party,” Lyte began doing voice-overs. Hers was the voice behind a national advertising campaign for Wherehouse Music. She was the voice little girls heard after Christmas of 2000 from the African-American “Chat Doll,” named Tia, manufactured by Mattel. She founded her own management company, Duke Da Moon Productions, which handled the groups Isis and Born In Hell, a Brooklyn rap unit.
She also signed a three-year deal with Sirius Satellite Radio. who hired her to host a musical show that airs three times daily. She also hosted a talk show for Sirius, interviewing black celebrities and entertainers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Vivica Fox, and Tisha Campbell.
In 2001, Rhino Records released a collection of MC Lyte’s work in 2001 called The Very Best of MC Lyte.
Looking back on a career that started when she was just a teenager, Lyte is able to find pride and a valuable lesson in her experiences.
“I’m proud of how long I’ve been in the business,” she said. “Of course, when I started I never imagined some of the things you have to go through. But anything you do in life is about meeting the challenges. What I tell any young people who want to get into this business is you have to be prepared to never give up.”
MC Lyte forged the way for other female MCs to find their path in the often-sexist, male-dominated world of hip-hop. Lyte became the first female rap artist to achieve gold certification for her single “Ruffneck.” In six albums, she produced four number one rap singles.
MC Lyte, we acknowledge your enormous talents, and we honor your contributions.
February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites– past and present– who have contributed to America’s fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.
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