Rapping, Woman To Woman

MC Lyte released her first album Lyte as a Rock in 1988. i i

hide captionMC Lyte released her first album Lyte as a Rock in 1988.

Getty Images
MC Lyte released her first album Lyte as a Rock in 1988.

MC Lyte released her first album Lyte as a Rock in 1988.

Getty Images

Farai Chideya leads a discussion about the women of hip-hop with Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, and rappers Monie Love and MC Lyte.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now you get to meet the makers of hip-hop: MC Lyte, the first female rap artist ever to log a gold single and the first rap artist male or female to play at Carnegie Hall; Monie Love, who's sitting right here with me, English-born rapper who broke through in the early '90s by appearing with the likes of Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul. Both ladies have been nominated for Grammys. How you folks doing?

MONIE LOVE (Rap Artist): Great.

MC LYTE (Rap Artist): Good.

MONIE LOVE: Hey, Lyte.

MC LYTE: Good morning, Monie. How are you now?

MONIE LOVE: Very good, thank you.

CHIDEYA: This is so great. I'm really excited and everyone in the office has just been so excited about this. I guess, MC Lyte, I'll start with you and then Monie. Thinking to what I just said to Tricia, have women kind of slid back in terms of having free expression in the commercial world? MC Lyte, what do you think about that?

MC LYTE: Yeah. I kind of think there's not many regular, you know, female emcees that have the mike commercially right now. You have to be either hyper-sexualized or a complete buffoon, you know. It's like you've got to sit between those two worlds, but if you're making too much sense, I think that's when you're counted out.

CHIDEYA: Okay. Monie?

MONIE LOVE: I would definitely be inclined to agree with my sister in rhyme right there. It absolutely has become so (unintelligible) for that matter. It has become so narrow, the area in which a female emcee, a woman can fit within hip-hop in a legitimate manner.

You do totally have to be - you have to be practically on the pole, really. You know what I'm saying? Let's just really say what it is. You have to practically be on the pole to be like, oh, you know, that's - oh she's good or whatever. You know, meanwhile, the room, the planes(ph) that is set for men is so huge. And it's partly, I'm wondering, if it's partly to do with how women are perceived in their videos, also. I'm wondering if it's to do with that also why it then, in turn, becomes, well, you have to be kind of like that to be marketed even if you're not just a video girl, even if you are the girl that's on the mike. You still have to have quite a lot of that going on. It seems this way.

CHIDEYA: You know, Monie, I, you - what you're saying really resonates with me and one of your hits was "Monie in the Middle." And we have a bunch of your music, different folks' music cued up. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Monie in the Middle")

MONIE LOVE: (Rapping) Brother, what is with you, you can't take a hint? I need to shove a sprint between your eyes for you to see, you and me were never meant to be, your homeboy likes me, I like him, too, get out the picture. I get your point but I'm not rolling with the punch. I scrunched up the letter you wrote me in lunch. At 5th period, I pay no notice to your motion, my work is on the table, my pen's in locomotion, every time I turn around, you're looking at my…

CHIDEYA: So Monie…

MONIE LOVE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …where did you start rhyming? You know, English-born, were you rhyming on the streets in the U.K. and then came to the U.S. to - give us a little background on yourself.

MONIE LOVE: Okay. I'm keeping it as short as possible. I actually was secretly influenced by MC Lyte because MC Lyte and I attended the same high school when I attended high school in Brooklyn for a period of six months when I…

CHIDEYA: Wow.

MONIE LOVE: …moved to the United States. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Did you know that, Lyte?

MC LYTE: Did I know what?

CHIDEYA: Did you know that were an influence on her?

MONIE LOVE: Did you that you secretly influenced me (unintelligible)… No, no, no. That you secretly influenced me…

MC LYTE: That we went to high school together? You tell me that every time I (Unintelligible). No, I'm joking.

MONIE LOVE: But that happened. She didn't know at that time that I could rhyme. And I went back to London after being in school in Brooklyn with Lyte, so like six months, I went back to London and then continuing to listen to - she hadn't put anything out yet but I knew that she was an emcee; everyone in school did.

And when I got home, I - got a cassette tape like somebody would tape off the radio in New York and then we get like 50,000-generation tapes with eggs and bacon all over it.

(Soundbite of music scratching)

MONIE LOVE: We could still hear the music. And I heard sand(ph). And without anybody telling me who it was, that was just like it says, (unintelligible) I knew it was Lyte because I know her voice because I went to school with her for seven, six months, you know.

So between Lyte and also Shante, between the two of them, I became less of a bathroom toothbrush emcee and I came out as, I'm an emcee this is what I do. I'm good with words and I can put them to music and this is what I do and I write my own lyrics.

MC LYTE: Amen.

CHIDEYA: Lyte, how did you get into rhyming publicly? I talked with various women, some of whom did battle rhymes and ciphers, some of whom didn't. Were you the kind of person who just started performing on stages? Were you performing for friends? What did you do?

MC LYTE: I think in the beginning, I was banging on desks at school with the rest of the guys and there was a gentleman who used to write my rhymes for me. And I think one day, I decided I want to try this on, on my own.

Until this day, I mean, if you know any emcee that writes, they have a special way that they do it and they've been doing it that way for years. They put their hyphens in certain places and things of that nature and I still write the way that he taught me.

So at that point, I was just rhyming for the kids in school, and that was when I was about 12. And then, I think, my first appearance, I was paid $75, that's right. Actually, it was a hundred…

MONIE LOVE: That's it, money.

MC LYTE: I had $25 over the way to my management but that was my first appearance in front of a crowd and I think, at that point, I was 16.

CHIDEYA: Wow. Well, in case you're just tuning in, we are doing a special roundtable on women in hip-hop. We were just hearing from MC Lyte and Monie Love, rappers who are both Grammy nominees. We've also got Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America."

Tricia, let me come back to you. When you here these two fabulous women talking about how they actually reverb(ph) off of each other as young as high school. What does it say about the culture of the time where people really were - it wasn't - rapping wasn't just something that other people did. It was something that you could do too.

Prof. ROSE: Right. It wasn't an industry; it was a way of expressing yourself in your community in community. That doesn't surprise me but it's incredibly exciting to make that connection. And, you know, I don't know if MC Lyte remembers, but I interviewed her for "Black Noise" back when I was a graduate student, which is when I started to write on this. It's just tragically a very long time ago. But - so it's just really exciting to be on the air with her and Monie Love. Both of them are extraordinarily talented.

And, you know, it's both exciting that we're doing this show. But it's also a little bit sad to me to think about women with this level of talent, who are not at the center of a genre that is desperately in need of talented emcees for goodness sake.

I mean, it's not that I think rapping about sexuality is a problem, it's about the kind of sexuality and the oppressive limited way that women's expression is being contained. So that young women, who are the next generation of Monie Love and MC Lyte, are not likely to imagine themselves as people who can participate in these much more meaningful and serious ways as artists and as community members, because they think their avenues of participation are related to what's profitable.

And once they believe that that's the track for them, then they pretty much have to figure out how to sell themselves physically. They're not interested in advancing their art because it doesn't really get them anywhere. And the women who don't fit this model, either for a variety of reasons, they don't see themselves in the culture as well.

And this is a tragedy both for the communities, for young people who need creative ways to deal with their life, but also for women in general and for black women in particular who have distinctive stories to tell. We desperately need to hear what these artists(ph) have to say and we need to create more space for them.

CHIDEYA: MC Lyte, you look great by the way. You're here in our…

MC LYTE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: …L.A. studios. And, you know, just very simple, elegant, hip-hop gear. When you go out and you meet a young girl who has only seen the video vixen aspect of what women in hip-hop are, how do you relate to someone who, say, 15?

MC LYTE: Oh, goodness. How do I relate to them? I guess, just by being myself, you know, I talk to them and - the interesting thing about it is a lot of them, at least the ones that I speak to in schools, a lot of students, they don't like what they see. They don't like what they hear. It's amazing how popular the songs have become yet none of these young kids, girls or boys, are for that type of music.

They think it's disrespectful. It's actually the older, it's the more mature adult that, you know, the 20-something that appreciate those works when you're at a club and, you know, you see how to get down to it or whatever. But these young kids that are in school, they're actually insulted by what they're hearing on the radio and they're not the ones asking to hear it.

So I think at this point, you know, the slots on radio are being bought by the - record company.

CHIDEYA: There's been a lot of investigations of payolas?

MC LYTE: Absolutely. So they're a little wiser than what we give them credit for. But, I think, in this way that we're giving space in the form for this we need to do it for the female emcee that is saying something conscious, you know, saying something that does represent who she is in a world of other women who she can represent, who we don't see reflected in hip-hop right now. So we need to create a space for that.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. And if you can be brief because I want to go back to, at least, one more thing before we leave. I'm going to start out with you Lyte and then, you, Monie, and then, you, Tricia, who should listen to, one or two names, folks that you might not have heard of or you may heard of that you wanted tune in too.

MC LYTE: Oh, I would certainly say Jean Grae, and I would certainly say this time around for ease because she's a class act, and I'm really looking forward to seeing exactly what she's going to talk about on her next album because I think she addresses topics that we need to hear.

CHIDEYA: Monie?

MONIE LOVE: She took the words right out my mouth, honest to goodness, took the words right out my mouth.

CHIDEYA: Jean Grae, a South African-born rapper.

MONIE LOVE: Absolutely, and it's like - we said this earlier in the discussion that it's the same that once you're a woman and you're focused on the art and of hip-hop and you're really saying something that actually makes sense. And like Lyte says she stopped making too much sense. She's been in the trench line for years. She's not a new jack at all. Even though some people may hear her name for the same time during this conversation, Jean Grae is not a new Jack.

She's totally sharp. She's got sharp skills and she's earned, you know, the right to be recommended by someone like Lyte or by someone like myself, you know what I mean? And in addition to that, Eve - when Eve stars came out, I pulled her to the side and I said to her, you got lyrical skills. I'm really proud of you. And that's exactly what I said and she was very, like, behooved to me to have said that to her. She felt some type of sisterhood and solidarity among like emcees and female emcees.

And that's another thing that doesn't exist today because whereas I can give you a light-hearted story about myself and Lyte, I can also give you a story of a similar nature about me and Latifah, or me and Ashanti, or me or Salt, Pepper or Spin or - and that doesn't exist today either. It's like all of these women seem to be fighting for the same position like…

CHIDEYA: But, Monie, I'm going to - I'm going to cut you off here.

MONIE LOVE: Yeah. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Only because we're going to continue with you after a break. I want to give - this is going to be all we have time for Tricia. I wanted you to have a chance to step up and tell us what some things to listen to, might be some influences.

Prof. ROSE: Well, I would definitely go with Eve and Jean Grae for sure. They really are extraordinary. It doesn't surprise me that Grae is international, right? Because the domestic pressure is not as great. The two others I would add would be Bahamadia and Medusa - would be two other women I would add. You know, again, underground. There's really nobody who's getting promoted in the mainstream that most people can easily go find.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, that's going to have to be it for this. But MC Lyte, since you were so gracious to stop in, I hope that you won't be a stranger and you'll come back to NPR West someday and talk to us more.

MC LYTE: You got me.

CHIDEYA: All right. So MC Lyte joined me here in our NPR West studios. Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of "Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America." We're going to come back with more Monie Love later. But Tricia, MC Lyte, thank you so much.

Prof. ROSE: Thank you.

MC LYTE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And next on NEWS & NOTES. Stick around. We've got more ahead with Monie Love and from hip-hop to opera, we'll hear about another woman who dominated a very different stage.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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