My Rhymes Were Tight, But Not Quite Lyte : Tell Me More NPR Producer Jamila Bey wanted to grow up and be a hip-hop legend.  But she remembers the only thing legendary was her defeat.
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My Rhymes: Tight, But Not Quite Lyte

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

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The BET documentary My Mic Sounds Nice was recently featured on NPR’s Tell Me More.  The retrospective explores the role of women emcees in hip-hop music and how the genre has evolved.  As young girl, NPR Producer Jamila Bey thought she had what it took to break into the emerging industry.  Then she went to the battle ground and found her mettle was too soft and so where her rhymes.

The soundtrack of my youth was positively hip-hop.

Despite my deep and abiding love for Ira Gershwin (George’s music was great, but without his lyricist to turn those fantastic phrases, it would have just been pretty music!), I loved being a young girl at the heyday of the genre.

Latifah told me that I was a Queen.

Salt-N-Pepa told me that it’s my thing and I can do what I want to do.

I couldn’t quite make out everything that Oaktown 3-5-7 had to say, but they spat it fast and it was indeed, Supersonic!  But the voice that really made me move wasn’t the ladylike tone my teachers constantly admonished me to use.

When I heard the vocal blast that was MC Lyte, I was hooked on hip-hop!

The first time I heard Lyte I was in sixth grade and was certain I would never fit in anywhere.  I wrote bad poetry and listened to sad lyrics and I moped and slouched everywhere I went.  I turned on the television and heard her proclaim “I’m a slave, I’m a slave, I’m a slave to the rhythm… I am the Lyte!”

I was transformed!

Lyte was a girl who dressed like a modern-day gunslinger, monochromatic in ankle-length coats and short hair.  She didn’t wear a lot of makeup and was definitely not girly!  And that voice!  It was husky without sounding nicotine enhanced.  It was deep and rich and while obviously female, it wasn’t like any girl I’d ever heard!  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Lyte was my inspiration. I was going to be the next big thing in hip-hop. I was going to bust out of Pittsburgh right on to ‘Yo’ MTV Raps.’

First stop, Ammons playground.

Not long before the streetlights came on and we had to be home, kids would gather at the monkey bars across the street from my house to engage in rhyme battle.

The most fearsome rhymer was a slightly older girl whose nickname was the same as mine. She had already claimed “MC Mimi,” so I poorly chose my rap name to sound like hers.

I was “MC Me!”

One brisk autumn afternoon, it was my turn. All the lyricists gathered in the circle, and I hopped in the middle ready to showdown!

Check, check, checked my imaginary mic, and let it fly.

I remember saying something about President Bush and a line including the phrase “…you’ll be a begga like Noriega!”

But MC Mimi made mincemeat of my little U.S. drug policy rap.  I still remember all the kids oohing while she explained she hadn’t “heard a word,” and that my rhymes were “absurd.”

Then Mimi finished me off.

“Your rhymes’ so light you should fly away like a bird,” she blasted.

And she did it in Jamaican patois.  Pretty exotic to a bunch of kids who had never been outside of Pittsburgh!

I never picked up an imaginary mic again.

Instead, I returned to my newspapers and magazines and joined the debate team.  And there, I occasionally rhymed a sentence to drive home my point.  Like MC Lyte, I was a wordsmith.

I just couldn’t do it to a beat.