Where does one begin with a hip-hop pioneer like MC Lyte? Since her 1988 debut album, Lyte As a Rock, she has not only broken boundaries for herself but for every female MC who has emerged after.
By Bianca Gracie
Along with record-setting accolades (the first female rapper to achieve Gold certification with 1993’s “Ruffneck” and earn a GRAMMY Award nomination), MC Lyte has shown women are more than capable of building an empire that isn’t boxed into rap’s historically misogynistic standards. Her ventures include hosting award shows, acting, and being a radio deejay. Now, MC Lyte is stepping into a director’s chair for the first time to helm Break Up In Love.
The short film, set for a 2021 release, is based on consciously uncoupling: “Some relationships can end really bad energetically, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” MC Lyte tells me. “You were together, and you loved one another at one point. As long as someone didn’t do something that was so tragic to make you not like them anymore, there is such a thing as people realizing this isn’t working.»
“I’m ready, to be honest,” MC Lyte continues. “So let’s do this in a way where we’re showing respect and the admiration that may still exist. Just because people will laugh and get along doesn’t mean that energetically they belong together as a couple.”
When MC Lyte first began her career, she thought it would end at age 27. She would move on from music, settle down, and maybe have kids—not knowing hip-hop would take her this far. Just call it divine order: “I didn’t take the time to think about how long this is going to be around,” she says. “I just knew hip-hop felt good.”
You turned 50 in October, which is a golden year. What are some lessons that helped you come into your own?
Oh, goodness. First off, to never hold yourself back from saying what needs to be said. So that just means being able to be aware of all of what exists—that may be in a career choice, in a relationship, in a friendship—but just understanding what it is, and then making a decision from there. Perhaps we don’t need to spend that much time with a friend because there’s nothing to gain. All we do is talk about stuff that doesn’t matter, or this relationship isn’t serving me, or this career isn’t allowing me to show my full potential. It’s the coming into the acceptance of what is the truth and then being able to make better decisions.
I think all of my 40s got me ready for that. Yesterday is different from today, and today will be different from tomorrow. There’s ebbs and flows, not just with money, but with energy and with spirituality. Some days you need to intake more energy, and on others, you need to give out more energy. So you’re not looking for the balance, but ready for it so that it just flows nicely.
With each decade of your career, you keep challenging yourself with new career paths. Were you a bit nervous to direct your first film?
I’ve never been afraid of new zones, which has led me to being an actor, being a music supervisor, being a DJ…
You’ve worn many, many hats.
I’m never fearful in that way. I remember as a kid, I would see my mother come in from a belly dance class with all the little things around her waist. She wasn’t afraid to try anything, and she’d go alone.
I haven’t shot [the film] yet, but I do know through pitching that I have an eye, and I’ve had it for a long time. I’ve written a lot of the video treatments people have seen, and I’ve been on many sets. I watch movies three times: one because I’m enjoying it, two because I want to see the choices the actors made, and three is I want to see the set design and the cinematography.
I’m guessing your work with directors helped you prepare for this.
Absolutely. I think if a director has a great team, there’s not much for them to do except communicate to the actors and help them be all that they can be in that character. It’s almost like a camp counselor—you’re leading them on a hike, but they got to do the hike. You can’t carry them on your back.
I’m not saying I’m going to be perfect. I’m sure there’s going to be so many more things for me to learn and mistakes that will be made. But I’m willing to put myself out there because I believe in it.
Being a hip-hop pioneer, you’ve seen this genre mold and evolve. What are your thoughts on its current state?
I’m just glad it’s still here. Everyone can be satisfied with an element or subgenre of hip-hop, whether you’re a backpacker, you like reggae, pop, or what they deem “gangster.” There’s so many varying degrees of what you have to satiate oneself with hip-hop. I just love it, and more is being created. I’m glad no one thinks they own it because no one does. So that gives the freedom and liberty to anyone to contribute to the genre as a whole.
Lyte As a Rock targeted misogyny in rap music. Unfortunately, that still hasn’t changed since its release.
We’ve just grown accustomed to having to do what we can to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged, and to be considered. It’s still an uphill climb. But I think as it relates to hip-hop music, we have come really far. I think this is our first year we’ve been willing to accept more than one female MC on the front lines. So we’ve got Megan [Thee Stallion], Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Tierra Whack, and Rapsody. We’ve got this amalgamation of all of these [women].
Even if you don’t have music per se, you have me as a DJ and doing TV. Salt N’ Pepa has their new biopic coming on Lifetime. Queen Latifah just got on a new CBS drama [2021’s The Equalizer series reboot]. You still feel the existence of all these women in some capacity or another, which I think is fantastic.
Is there any advice you’d give to those women rappers who are trying to create a space for themselves?
I would just say be uniquely you and continue to do what feels good to you. However it is that you dress, whatever your whole package is going to be, let it be your own. Don’t try to emulate others. I’d hate for you to have to go through all of that to see on the backside that it really isn’t beneficial. All good things come to those who are original. Even if you get a lick off copying somebody else, it’s not going to last for long. Everybody will see it, and you’ll be exposed.
Exactly. It’s such a cutthroat genre.
The truth resonates. I would just say to surround yourself with good people who are going to tell you the truth about your sound, your lyrics, what you’re wearing, your plan for next week. You need those people that are going to say, “Girl, that don’t work,” or, “I think there’s something better than that.” You want them to tell you beforehand—no friend lets you crash and burn and stands on the side and goes, “I was going to tell you.”
Who do you think will be the next legend in hip-hop?
I really enjoy Tierra Whack. Not only is she a great talent, but she’s a great person. I can say the same for Rapsody, [who] I think is just getting started. The album she dropped [last year] was her third. She’s such a powerhouse for the content and the subject matter she addresses. I just love her style—not style as in dress, but that too—but her way of being is something to be proud of.
Photo provided by Red Bull PR.