“You’re kidding I hope. Question mark. Stop playing,” she dictates into her smartphone, shaking her head. And Lyte isn’t playing; she plants her flag.
The veteran emcee was in Washington last month to highlight women’s contributions to hip-hop in a performance for the Kennedy Center. Lyte, a founding member of the institution’s Hip Hop Culture Council, helped organize “I Am Woman: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop,” a concert featuring Yo Yo, Trina, Remy Ma, and Da Brat , among others. For Lyte, bringing such powers together in one place was a decades-long mission: “It’s been a journey.”
A long. Born Lana Moorer, Lyte started writing when she was 12 years old. Six years later, her 1988 debut “Lyte as a Rock” was the first studio album by a solo rap artist. From there, his career took off: more records, DJing, activism, acting, businesses. Watch almost any award show, including last month’s Grammys, and you’ll hear Lyte’s voice liven up the ceremony as the announcer.
These days, Lyte is recognized before fans even see her face. “They know it’s me from the start. I’ve been in places where my back was turned and someone walked up and said, “I knew it was you. “What they don’t always know is that she’s more than ‘the lady who does the voice of the awards’.
Lyte’s confident flow and lyricism are unmistakable precursors to female rappers such as Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie. His staying power in hip-hop for over three decades now would surprise even his young self.
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ Says ‘Thank You’ to Black Women
Following the success of her debut album, the 18-year-old told a newspaper that her hosting career had a lifespan. “I don’t want to be a rapper in 10 years, that’s for sure,” she said. “By then, the next generation will be here. I want to be installed. I see myself singing, maybe, in 10 years, but not rapping. Rap is youthful music.
Lyte can laugh about it now. “I remember saying I was going to quit at 27 and I was going to get married and have kids,” she said. “And yeah, well, none of that happened. So I learned that it’s not my plan, it’s God’s plan. I’m still here.”
Here is hip hop. This is the Kennedy Center. Here is the inherited status.
When Lyte was young, so was hip-hop. There was “no restraint” then, she said. No one thought of doing anything but live, breathe and eat lyrics, rhythms and dance moves. That’s why, she says, culture is eternal and why she couldn’t see herself doing it forever. Young people will always find their way and make the genre their own.
“When you start getting older, there are other things,” Lyte explained. “You don’t agree…with the fundamentals of what happens day-to-day in hip-hop.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s only “youthful music,” as she thought it was when she was a teenager. Just ask the crowd heading to the Kennedy Center concert hall on a recent Friday night. There are plenty of aunts and uncles rocking head-to-toe Adidas, but just as many Ivy Park newbies and stilettos. When Yo Yo takes the stage and “throws it out the window” with the knees of someone half the rapper’s age, hip-hop feels less like a stopwatch than a fountain of youth.
Lyte sees it as a foundation – a fundamental part of who she is, but not all of her.
“Hip-hop is core, but it’s not really what I do every day,” she said. On a typical workday, the legendary emcee doesn’t even touch a microphone. She’s working on scripts, managing other artists, or playing a fictionalized version of herself on ALLBLK’s streaming show “Partners in Rhyme.”
“I can still be in the business that I love, but at a level where I can be more effective,” she said – that’s how she’s managed to stay relevant for so long. You can be hip-hop without constantly being in hip-hop, she added. “It’s like a treadmill. It continues and people get tired, they fall. But if someone is lucky enough to develop something else they love outside of a hit song, then you may have the willpower to stick with the genre for the long haul.
She pointed to tenacious rappers like Jay-Z. “He doesn’t do hip-hop every day, but it is hip-hop.” Add Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Ice-T, Method Man and many more to this list. The same goes for Lyte and the lineup of artists she curated for the “I Am Woman” concert. “We all do it when we feel like it,” she said. And it’s the sentiment that still brings Lyte to the mic.
“Hip-hop always pushes people to want to create. It always makes people want to learn the lyrics,” she said. “It always moves people.”