MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: how to stop your relative from using you as their own personal ATM.
But first, some say it all started with Don Imus. His comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team cost him his job a few weeks ago. But other folks argue. The debate's been going on in the black community for a decade. It's about hip-hop. Is it too raunchy, too raw, too violent? Most especially, does it demean women?
In this week, we're going to take a closer look in our series, Hip-Hop Under Fire. And to kick it off, we thought who better to talk about this than one of rap's reigning queens, MC Lyte?
(Soundbite of song, "Cha Cha Cha")
MC LYTE (Rapper): (Rapping) Kick this one here for me and my DJ. In full effect, MC Lyte is back. And better than before, as if that was possible. My competition, you'll find them in the hospital. Visiting time, I think it's on a Sunday. But notice…
MARTIN: MC Lyte is considered the first woman to achieve the same rap cred as male rappers. But she is also a trailblazer in other respects. She was one of the first rappers to perform at Carnegie Hall, for example. And now she's on NPR. She joins us by phone from Los Angeles. MC Lyte, welcome.
MC LYTE: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: How do you decided as an artist what words you want to use? For example, you have a cut called "Shut The F Up," and you use the H word, which is, you know, the word that got Don Imus in trouble, a word commonly used for promiscuous women or women who sell their bodies. And yet, you've also been a voice against the sexism and misogyny that many people see in hip-hop.
MC LYTE: When I did that particular song, that was very early on in my career. I was young, you know, from the hood, and this is how we communicated with each other. Once you grow and you hit a certain level of maturity, you understand that word has a lot of power. And what I think happens is in most cases with young MCs that step on the scene, they don't really understand the power that they have. And then once they begin to get the accolades and get the fans, then they understand they have power, but they don't really know how to use it and how to harness it and make it work for them and work for others in a positive way so that they're - you're not take, take, taking. It's actually a give-and-take circumstance.
MARTIN: But it was your decision to use those particular words. Nobody was pushing you to do it…
MC LYTE: No…
MARTIN: …because you thought hey, that's going to make it hot and edgy.
MC LYTE: …I mean. Absolutely, not. That was the way I communicated with other people in my community.
MARTIN: The hip-hop - some action group involving Russell Simmons, Reverend Ben Chavis, suggested that three words should be bleeped. Then they want to make it clear that they're not asking artists to stop using those words, but that record companies and broadcasters should make alternate forms of tracks available with those words bleeped. The three words being the B word, the H word and the N word. What do you think about that idea?
MC LYTE: That's how it was in the beginning. I don't see how that ever got - or who got rid of that in the first place. Because I know when we started this whole thing off, that was unacceptable. It's not just on the radio. I mean, B and ho and all of that - and ass - all of that is being said on television. So I'd like to know when did it become okay for those things to be used in broadcast?
MARTIN: Of course, you know that Don Imus' argument - or at least the argument that some are making on his behalf - is that he just thought he was being hip, and that's why some people attribute the coarsening of the culture - if I can say that - to hip-hop. They say, you know what…
MC LYTE: You know what? Don…
MARTIN: …y'all are the ones that made it okay.
MC LYTE: Not all the money, all the bling in the word could make that man hip. He is what he is. And hip is not it. So what he should do is bow out - he made a grave mistake - and just keep it moving. You can't blame it on hip-hop. In order to even bring himself to say something like that, it goes way beyond and way deeper than hip-hop music.
MARTIN: But what you make of the argument - and, forgive me for chuckling, because I'm just reacting to you saying it would take a lot more to make him hip, because I'm just trying to picture that. But what do you make of those who do say that hip-hop bears some responsibility for making it okay to use these words?
MC LYTE: It's a case-by-case scenario, and I guess the only way is for you to put your own ethics in. You know when you're saying something that you ain't supposed to be saying. At that point, it's up to you to get your own ethics in. If not, you'll pay the price. And that's what Mr. Imus is paying right now.
MARTIN: As I understand it, rap music sales are off a lot since last year. Do you think that the industry is paying a price for dissatisfaction with the way…
MC LYTE: Yet, you know, I…
MARTIN: …with the way that women are depicted? Particularly, there was a survey, for example. The University of Chicago had this black youth project survey, and something like 66 percent of young black females agree that rap music videos portray black women in bad in offensive ways, and 57 percent of young black males agreed. So I'm wondering what do you think that the slide in sales has something to do with people just generally saying, you know…
MC LYTE: Yeah.
MARTIN: …I've had enough of that.
MC LYTE: I think people are bored. I think people look pissed off. I think people are tired of the fluff, because, you know, honestly, we look to hip-hop to paint a picture of accuracy. And also, we look to be able to relate to the lyrics. And most fans come from like-minded people. When Nas speaks, the people who, you know, he generates some sort of feeling from are into Nas and probably have a lot of the same thoughts where they agree with him.
There's a lot of things that are being said by rappers today that nobody agrees with. So I'm understanding now that the music that's being sold and hip-hop radio - though they say hip-hop lives there, and people do lie about where they live - is not out to satiate the African-American community. They're going after someone else who could care less about the things that are being said because they're not the ones being affected on a daily basis.
MARTIN: Are you conscious of that in your own work? You're conscious of the fact that your audience is beyond that the black community now, and were you always?
MC LYTE: Yeah. I mean, one of the first collaborations I did back in '87 was with Sinead O'Connor. So I was completely aware that it went beyond just my hood and who I could affect. And, I mean, three weeks after my first record deal, I was in Denmark, performing for a crowd where none of faces look like mine.
MARTIN: There's a lot of talk about who is responsible for the state of affairs that we find ourselves in, assuming you're critical of where the industry is now. Some people say that, you know, the record executives are pushing that particular style of rap - the particularly, you know, male-oriented hardcore, women are very sexualized. Other people say that if that's the vision these artists have, and they need to express it, then they should be free to do that. What do you think is true?
MC LYTE: Nine times out of 10, a lot of MCs - though they may speak a whole another language to some - that they're speaking to people who understand them. Now when they begin to travel and see that other things exist and other things deserve priority, you'll begin to see a lot of the content change, and they become more aware of what's going on around them.
So I'm definitely an advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. However, what I don't like is everything is focused on this type of music. Because, like, this type of music had one little face, and now it's sort of overgrown. And no other hip-hop music or hip-hop lyrics content is being exposed. And I just think it's unfair to all of the MCs that are out there that are speaking of something that could inspire in a positive way.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is? Because, you know, as I mentioned, you've been in the industry for a long time. And, you know, you've done a lot of things. I mean, you toured with the USO, for example. You'd think that now that, you know, rap and hip-hop are even more accepted as mainstream musical forms - if I could use that term - than they were when you started out that there would be more room for different kinds of expression, not less. So you feel it's narrowing. Why is that?
MC LYTE: Well, I think it's all a money game. Back in the day when I came out, it was like, okay, what record executive was going to sign something that was new, fresh and different from anything else? That's why when you listen to the hip-hop back in the day, you can hear Heavy D, Rakim, KRS-One, Chuck D, Latifa, MC Lyte and know the difference between us all, because we all are very unique. Now, every record label's in a race to find something that is just like something else that worked.
MARTIN: If we were to get together a year from now, do you think that anything will be very different than it is today?
MC LYTE: You know what? I've got to be optimistic. There's no other way for me to look at it, or I might as well sit my ass down and bow out if I think of it being any other way than getting better. So I'm going to do my part, and hopefully everybody else will, too. They'll realize that everybody has a responsibility, and there's not just the radio to edit, the record companies to edit. But no, how about the artists who really understand what it is that you're doing to people? You are affecting people.
MARTIN: So where do you think we should go now? Where do you go from here? What's your message to your peers in the industry? And what's your message to the public who are buying the records or who are - at least have a choice of whether to buy them or not?
MC LYTE: Yeah. Well, you know, what I would definitely say to artists would be to, you know, search your soul for something that people can connect to. You know, life is not one big party, although you may go to one occasionally. You know, speak on some stuff that people can identify with and people can relate to, and that's where the magic happens, where you make fans of you and not fans of the song. That's one.
Two, if I were speaking to the audience, I would say you don't waste your time doing things you don't want to do. I know if you're liking on somebody or digging on somebody, you want to spend time with them. And if you don't like somebody, you're trying to get away from them. When you hear music that's not appealing to your ear, turn the station. Not for one second should you let that station get that rating for a song that you're not in agreement with and that doesn't leave you feeling good. And the same thing goes with any video channels or, you know, movies, whatever it is, I would say to know that your vote counts.
And if you're leaving your station, your radio station or your television on that same station while there's something going on that you don't agree with, you're giving your vote that that's okay. You're sending a message to the advertisers that you're enjoying watching that. So I would just say to pick the initiatives and turn.
MARTIN: MC Lyte, thank you so much for joining us.
MC LYTE: Thank you.
MARTIN: MC Lyte on the phone with us from Los Angeles.