Step into the old-school machine and hit rewind, all the way back to 1988. Almost 20 years ago, hip-hop was relatively young and so was my schoolbus driver. For 45 minutes every morning and afternoon, the radio was tuned to a Top 40 station, and my sixth-grade ears were filled with not only Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Madonna, but also the rappers that were hitting their stride and cracking the pop charts. This was years before luxury turned into lyrical content and still a little while before gangsta rap exploded, sending volleys of firepower from East Coast to West. I remember the first hip-hop of my childhood being feel-good party music with a community-building bent if there was anything political at all. Female MCs cracked the game early. The songs I remember best are Roxanne Shante laying down rhymes about abusive relationships, pre-Hollywood Queen Latifah laying into disrespectful thugs who catcalled at women on the street and Salt-N-Pepa deriding two-timers. And right up in the middle of it was MC Lyte, with her debut release Lyte as a Rock that same year -- spitting rhymes about AIDS awareness and anti-drug screeds on top of houserocking beats. Fast-forward now to 2007, when top-selling female hip-hop artists like Trina and Li'l Kim are all about the Bentley, the bling and the blow jobs, flashing skin on MTV and BET to take home the awards statues and the platinum records. It's a trajectory that seems to have run backward. Where have all the right-on sistas gone?
It's no shock that I'm not the first to put Lyte on the spot about where all the fiery female MCs have gone. After 20 years in the game, the Brooklyn girl is quick to point out that the mainstream isn't the only stream to swim in, and it's not just the women singing a different tune to climb the charts.
"Yeah, I'm often asked about that during interviews, and I always feel a little distant from an answer to that," she says on her cell from a voice-over taping in L.A. "Because I know many a female MC who is totally conscious of her surroundings and speaks on those things. In regards to what's being pushed in the mainstream, in videos and recordings, it's a whole 'nother thing, with sex helping to sell the product. I think that's the whole scheme of hip-hop. And I think it's not just females -- it's across the board."
In recent years, Lyte has been fighting the good fight on the ground if not on the charts. AIDS awareness has been one of her passions since the early days of the epidemic, and she's traveled and spoken extensively on it. Her Myspace page has a blog post as recently as last week encouraging people to get tested. She's written a book of poetry and ruminations that's in the Smithsonian, and she's planning to start work on a memoir at the end of this month. Her latest effort, the self-released double album Back to Lyte, shows she's still on form.
"Back to Lyte is simply hip-hop," she says. "It says what it is. And I'm back working with authentic hip-hop producers, like DJ Premier [who's worked with Jay-Z, Mos Def, KRS-One, Christina Aguilera and Branford Marsalis, to name a few]. We made no attempt to get club play or radio play." She says, although she allows that a more accessible record may be in the works as well.
"Hip-hop is always going to be here," she says. "It's just a way of life. It's great to see it's proven itself. And new artists who come into the game and the ones that are here that are constantly creating something new and fresh ... there are always a few gems who come in and totally change the landscape, production-wise or lyrically. And those are the moments we count on."
In the end, Lyte is in a place where she's keeping her eyes on the kind of prize that matters -- talent and taking care of business. Her hot list of female MCs to watch hardly dovetails with the glossies, but it's clear that after plenty of time in play, she values the girls who TCB with talent and a message.
"There's Neb Love in L.A.," she continues. "Eve. [Da] Brat -- she has one of the nastiest flows on the face of the planet. And I'm definitely waiting for Lauryn. You know, we have a hip-hop sistas group on Myspace, over 200 MCs, DJs, journalists and attorneys who get on the phone with us to help out," she says. "The talent is being cultivated without the mainstream, without needing the mainstream to tell us what's hot and what's not. We've been able to define that for ourselves since before there was a Source or a Vibe or an XXL. It's about having the girls accept the challenges and meet them and not acquiesce." MC Lyte
8:15 p.m. Sat., July 7
Essence Music Festival, Louisiana Superdome, Coca-Cola Superlounge
ÒHip-hop Moves to Higher GroundÓ panel discussion with Dr. Cornel West
11:25 a.m. Fri., July 6
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center