My focus on female emcees ends today with a look at the debut album from a woman who is actually the inspiration for the majority of the ladies I wrote about this week: Lana Moorer, better known as the one and only MC Lyte.
Lyte began rapping at the young age of twelve: by seventeen, she became the first female emcee to release a full-length album, her debut Lyte As A Rock. She recorded it with the help of the rap duo Audio Two, who just so happened to be her brothers. (Rap newcomer and blogger punching bag Charles Hamilton is also related to MC Lyte; I guess hip hop just runs in their family bloodline.) Lyte became well known for her concise rhymes, attention to detail, and her motherfucking cursing, which only lent more authenticity to her bars, especially since she didn't rely on profanity as a crutch.
Lyte As A Rock is generally considered to be a ten-track hip hop classic, featuring a heavily sampled sound that would be damn near impossible to replicate today. MC Lyte quickly gained a wider following, soon eclipsing her brothers and moving on into the world of acting, although she does occasionally drop back in on the rap game every so often to say hello and bring us our mail.
Sorry these introductory paragraphs are so short, but it's been a long week.
1. LYTE VS. VANNA WHYTE
For the life of me, I have never figured out why this track made the final cut of Lyte As A Rock. It's a deejay cut as rap album intro, except it's annoying as fuck, and Lyte doesn't even appear until the very end, where she starts dropping name brands and model numbers of studio equipment as though she received an extra cookie for each one she memorized. Was Wheel Of Fortune even that popular with the hip hop crowd that producer Alliance thought he could wring a viable song out of it? Because he was fucking wrong.
2. LYTE AS A ROCK
Lyte As A Rock makes a complete u-turn from the bullshit opening number with some hard sampled drums (and a hilarious interruption right at the beginning, which I may only find funny as a grammar nerd). The chorus (and its use of a sound bite from Ashford and Simpson's “Solid”) is a bit tacky, but MC Lyte attacks the microphone with a focused intensity that rivals most of her male counterparts at the time. She ignores the fact that she is a woman, spitting her verses with a minimum of horseplay. Audio Two's musical backing, albeit a bit dated, is fucking refreshing in our era of overproduced beats, too. This should have been the intro.
3. I AM WOMAN
The beat is almost laughably dated. “I Am Woman” is one of the few songs on Lyte As A Rock where our host, albeit briefly, refers to her gender, although it most certainly isn't used as any sort of detriment or excuse. I would imagine that growing up surrounded by hip hop (thanks to her brothesr, anyway) helped her polish her flow, bit there isn't anything memorable to quote from on here, and is it just a coincidence that the lone song celebrating her femininity is also the shortest one on the album? Discuss.
4. MC LYTE LIKES SWINGIN'
The almighty Prince Paul provides the beat for this song (although he may not have established a separate identity from his crew Stetsasonic at the time: during the track itself, Lyte credits the instrumental to “Stetsa”), and it sounds exactly as a drum-heavy, scratched-to-high-heaven rap song should sound. Lyte is in her element, surrounded by a wall of beautiful noise. I am concerned with that title, though: even in 1988, “swinging” meant something entirely different than what Lana is allegedly talking about. Still, this was entertaining, at least.
5. 10% DIS
Probably the most well-known song in MC Lyte's entire catalog, but that doesn't mean that the praise heaped upon her verbal assault on rival rapper Antoinette is undeserved: this shit still bangs today. Over a Audio Two beat that only slightly deviates from their own hit song “Top Billin'”, Lyte dismantles her opponent, helping my younger readers understand why they've never even heard of Antoinette while MC Lyte's name continues to pop up on blogs worldwide. And she does all of this without ever actually naming her opponent, which makes “10% Dis” a far cry from the battle records of today. It's also good to know that Lyte also gets some use out of her brother Milk's “great big bodyguard”; does that mean he gets paid double? Whatever, this shit was nice.
6. PAPER THIN
The fact that “Paper Thin” is over five minutes long is misleading: Lyte stops rhyming at the halfway point, and the rest of the track appears to be the actual instrumental restarted, complete with the ad-libs we heard the first time through. But the part that is the actual song is pretty good. Lyte explores relationships in a fairly superficial manner, but most people look at them in the exact same way, so that's not a big deal: most folks go out on dates with the high hopes of seeing the other person naked at some point and, fingers crossed, sleeping with them. Lyte doesn't get that crass (although all of the stuff about sucking on her toes is close enough), but the main point is still there. The King Of Chill instrumental was still pretty good, even though it quickly wears out its welcome.
7. LYTE THEE MC
You only think the drums dominate this showcase of lyrical dominance over most other female emcees: when the track finally ends, you realize that the slow-rolling bassline, hidden comfortably in the background, pretty much makes this song. The hook is dull, and the title is awfully stupid, but MC Lyte does impress on here, spitting enough hot shit that you feel completely full when she leaves the booth and allows Alliance's beat to ride for an additional minute.
8. I CRAM TO UNDERSTAND U
Lyte describes a bad relationship with a guy who gradually unraveled into someone that she wanted nothing to do with. Attention to detail is important in a storytelling rap, and MC Lyte passes the test: hell, I felt bad for her when the very first hiccup occurred between her and “Sam”. The beat is understated, existing solely to help our host segue into different phases, until the very end, when it's revealed that the love interest is actually a crackhead. This shit was pretty good.
9. KICKIN' 4 BROOKLYN
Lyte kicks three quick verses for Brooklyn in less than two and a half minutes, using only a minimalist Audio Two instrumental (all drums, all the time) as her accomplice. Dated as fuck, but that means that new listeners will have no trouble deciphering her lyrics, which come with the sheen of being freshly polished. The boasts are elementary, but MC Lyte is just trying to prove that she's a better rapper than you are, so there isn't anything wrong with that, although new listeners won't necessarily gravitate toward this track for any reason.
10. DON'T CRY BIG GIRLS
Well, they can't all be winners.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Lyte As A Rock is a pretty sound debut album. MC Lyte chooses not to harp on her status as a female emcee (although she is a part of the elite, and she sure as hell brags about that frequently), electing instead to simply kick her rhymes. Lyte proves herself behind the mic with a polished, assured flow that would sound unnatural coming from a then seventeen-year-old had she not been so goddamn convincing. The beats on Lyte As A Rock, while mostly banging, are incredibly dated, and your level of enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much you like and appreciate old school rap. But even this far removed from its original release date, most of Lyte As A Rock still holds up, especially the tracks listed below. With the increasing number of inferior female artists in this mostly male-dominated musical genre (especially those who resort to shock value tactics or sexual healing in order to sell records), it's always refreshing to hear a woman who can hold her own behind the mic. Lyte As A Rock is just good music.
BUY OR BURN? You should pick this one up. It's consistently entertaining, and it may change your perspective on what hip hop sounded like back in 1988. Besides, it contains “10% Dis”, which is just awesome. So there's that.
BEST TRACKS: “10% Dis”; “Paper Thin”; “MC Lyte Likes Swingin'”; “I Cram To Understand U”; “Lyte Thee MC”; “Lyte As A Rock”