Nearly a decade before Eve would become the “belle” of the Ruff Ryders, Flatbush born Lana Moorer, then still in her teens, was dropping lines like “hot-damn ho here we go again, suckas steal a beat, when they know they can’t win.” The line, intended for rival MC Antoinette, is from “10% Dis” which appeared on MC Lyte’s debut Lyte as a Rock. The younger sibling of hip-hop producers Audio 2 (Milk and Gizmo), who recorded one of the great hip-hop singles with 1987’s “Top Billin'” (“Milk is Chillin’, Giz is Chillin’, what more can I say Top Billin'”), Lyte emerged in 1988 with a striking bravado which earned her as much attention as her position as one of the most significant female MCs in the game. Less given to visual style than the “original video hos turned feminists” Salt N’ Pepa and possessing none of the seriousness — some would say pretentiousness — of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte reveled in her flow. This flow was so distinct that she could legitimately be considered alongside many of the classic early hardcore acts from the East Coast such as Kool G Rap and EPMD. The Very Best of MC Lyte documents MC Lyte’s legacy as one of the most affecting voices of hip-hop’s initial “New School” phase.
What legitimized MC Lyte early in her career was her sharp wit and willingness to go mic-for-mic with all comers as she does on “10% Dis” with its memorable chorus “Beat biter! Dope Style taker / Tell you to your face you ain’t nothin’ but a faker.” MC Lyte would take her “still on wax” battles with largely forgotten and thoroughly forgettable Antoinette to the next level with her “underground” classic “Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe)” which appeared on her second recording Eyes on This. The song begins (fittingly) with a sample of the “Queen of Raunch” Millie Jackson (“I think it’s time I start feeling bitchy. I’ve been nice too long. Yup, its definitely time I get nasty.”) and a reference to “10% Dis” (“hot, damn, hoe”). Clocking in at nearly six minutes Lyte issues an encyclopedia’s worth of insults like “In 10% I popped your head in a microwave / I’m into blenders / So you better behave” or more viciously “You get around like a cab, now that’s too bad / Everyone has been in you, isn’t that sad / Bodily vibrations? Don’t make me laugh / Weight Watchers is waiting, here’s a free pass.” Lyte’s lyric “Do not talk shit ’till you write your own rhymes” is one of those drop the mic and stomp off the stage moments.
Such energy can be found throughout her first two recording. Her debut Lyte as a Rock is one of the most underrated debuts in hip-hop history. It was the 12-inch release “I Cram to Understand You” (“just like a test, I cram to understand you”) in late 1987 that first drew attention to Lyte. The song which details Lyte’s relationship with “Sam” was one of the first tracks written for the “crack age”. While the song seemingly capture Sam’s romantic indiscretions with the mysterious Miss C, in truth Sam is not so much “hitting that ass” as he is “hitting the pipe”. “Sam” later becomes a metaphor for a failed relationship on the tick-tocking “Paper Thin”. The video for the song which was shot on a NYC subway begins with Lyte and crew (including then boo D-Nice) heading down into the Astor Street station only to find “Sam” slumming with another honey. As Tricia Rose suggest in her essay “Bad Sistas” the scene allows Lyte (with a nod to Ray Charles) to read Sam (“My name is Lyte is your name Sam? / Cause if it is step off, grab your coat and get lost . . . and hit the road Sam, don’t come back no more, no more, no more, no more”) with the weight of her street credibility in full display.
By her third CD, Act Like You Know (1991), Lyte has softened from her trademark brashness with tracks like “Poor Georgie” which samples Toto’s (with Cheryl Lynn) “Georgie Porgy”, Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are”, and The Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You”. The song is another example of a dysfunctional relationship as this time the crack head Sam becomes “George” who is inflicted with lung cancer. “Eye are the Soul” with its anti-Lyte R&B swing, chronicles the demise of a local “crack head”, “baby-girl” prostitute and HIV carrier. The track was one of Lyte’s few attempts at “social commentary”.
Lyte returns to earlier form on “Ruffneck” the lead single from her fourth release Ain’t No Other (1993). Given the relative success of Eve, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliot and Salt N’ Pepa, it is almost unbelievable that the song was the first single by a woman rap artist to achieve Gold status. With lines like “Karl Kani saggin’ timbos draggin’/frontin’ in his ride with his homeboys braggin'”, Lyte places a alternative spin on tracks like Apache’s “Gangsta Bitch” and introduces a moment in hip-hop where female acts like Salt N’ Pepa would reinscribe the value of “authentic” black masculinity/sexuality on tracks like “Whatta Man” (with a requisite ‘Pac cameo) and “Shoop”. Lyte was able to find a mass audience for “Ruffneck” by dropping nods to Naughty By Nature’s Treach and Onyx’s “Slam”. Lyte would wisely continue to recreate herself within the contemporary landscape on 1996’s Bad As I Wanna Be with commercially successful tracks like “Keep On, Keepin’ On” which featured then So So Def staples Xscape and later with Puff Daddy’s remix of “Cold Rock a Party” which also featured Missy Elliot. Such conscious pop collaborations were unimaginable earlier in Lyte’s career, but they allowed for a mainstream success that would have been impossible otherwise.
There are some notable omissions on The Very Best of MC Lyte like the title track of Lyte as a Rock which was used so effectively by Gina Prince-Bythewood in her film Love and Basketball and Lyte’s classic collaboration with Positive K on “I’m Not Having It” which gave Positive K a legitimate street rep well before his commercial breakthrough with “I Got a Man” Overall The Very Best of MC Lyte is an effective summary of one of the most distinct hip-hop voices to emerge during its formative years as a viable commercial product.