Guiding Lyte

Hip-hop pioneer M.C. Lyte didn’t mince her words on her highest-charting single, “Keep On, Keepin’ On.” While the song was an unapologetic celebration of female sexuality, 25 years later it also provides a window into the mindset that has seen the legendary artist not only secure a place in rap history, but leave her mark in other creative fields.

“Only the strong survive, only the wise excel,” she declared on that 1996 release, and it has certainly proven true in her case. Having added actor, voice artist, author, speaker, artist management executive and philanthropist to her credentials, she credits that multi-hyphenate career to a mix of diligence, determination and willingness to learn that she encourages others to embrace as they pursue their dreams.

Since becoming the first female rapper to release a full album, at just 17 years of age (a single, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” came out a year earlier), Lyte has matured into a well-respected stateswoman of the industry, earning a Lifetime Achievement Award for pointing the way for others. Twice nominated for a Grammy, she was recently named in the Top Ten female rap artists of all time, lauded as “an absolute trailblazer in the genre.”

Lyte has released eight studio albums, written and contributed to five books, and appeared in more than a dozen movies and on countless television shows, including a starring role in the reboot of New York Undercover. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and the White House, and spoken to graduating classes and corporate executives.

But while her career may be a testimony to the fact that dreams can come true, she emphasizes that they don’t just happen. “Don’t expect to hit a lever and just, you know, wake up in the world you want to be in,” she says. “You say you want to be in, you have got to work towards it. There’s not a single thing that I do that I didn’t study, from voice-over to acting, to being a hip-hop artist. I studied the craft before I did it.”

Learn about whatever it is that draws you, she says. “Go look into it. You might even discover through study and research that you don’t want to do that thing. And then you can stop wasting your time playing around with it and get down to something that you really, really want to do.”

I had a message
Lyte’s drive to make a difference can be traced back to her earliest days in music. Her first concert was Rick James (“my absolute favorite”), when she was only nine; Mom took her and covered her ears for much of it. She grew up around the easy listening sounds on the jukebox at the bar where her mother worked, “but it wasn’t until I went to Spanish Harlem and spent time with my cousins did I learn about hip-hop.”

It opened up “this whole new world of what feels like talking, but it’s to music. And so, for me, I was much more about talking than I was about singing or whatever. I had a message that I wanted to get out and it seemed the easiest way was through hip-hop.”

Illumination has been a constant theme. She started out as MC Sparkle, with a partner called Dazzle. By the time she came to release her first album, she needed a new name. She chose Light, “from a book of philosophers that I liked everything that they had to say about the light: the truth is the light; the light shall lead you through darkness. All these fantastic analogies as it related to light. So I said, ‘I am just going to take it and change the spelling.’” Released in 1988, Lyte as a Rock has since been hailed for its “potent historical impact on a generation of women MCs.”

Indicative of her determination to make things happen, Lyte took summer courses so she could graduate high school six months ahead of schedule, against her guidance counselor’s advice to stay and enjoy the season. It’s a decision she now second-guesses.

“It’s amazing how we, as mature adults, can say to younger people, ‘Take your time, enjoy that. It won’t always be like that,’” she reflects. “It’s hard to understand that at that age… I would just say not to take things for granted, specifically time and experiences.”

You say you want to be in, you have got to work towards it.


I learned some great things
Lyte’s career diversification was encouraged from the get-go. Her first manager told her, “We’re going to build your name so that your popularity is not dependent on a hit record.” That opened her up to “the spectrum of possibilities of everything that I had always wanted to do.”

She learned early on “that you can do it all, you just have to plan and strategize so that you’re giving yourself to one thing at a time and not spreading yourself thin.” First, she was asked to do voice-over and commentary for VH1 and MTV. Those gigs tapped into her original plan, which had been to major in communications and get a job in radio.

Through actor friend Malcom-Jamal Warner she was put in touch with an agent that told her she needed more than a good voice to do voiceover, so she went to a two-day workshop to learn about the industry. “I jumped into the class and I learned some great things and techniques that I still use to this day.”

I am an avid believer in, if you’re going to do something, you need to study it.

Same thing when she was encouraged to pursue DJing; she reached out to friends for advice, bought herself a computer and took some classes to learn the tech side of things. “I am an avid believer in, if you’re going to do something, you need to study it.”

Then there was acting, something she had wanted to do since watching Tootie (played by Kim Fields) on TV’s The Facts of Life. Taken to all the Broadway shows by her mom—“the original Dream Girls, 42nd Street, Cats, you name it”—she “wanted to act. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it, when I was going to do it.”

She studied with David Kagen for a couple of years, crediting him for the way “he brightened the way up for me to be able to see what it was that I was doing, how it is that I could better all of that.” She is grateful “to every coach, every acting class that I’ve ever taken. They’ve always shown me a way, which has helped to make my life, I wouldn’t say easier, but it gave me more clarity.”

Among those she names as inspirations and helps along the way is LL Cool J, whom she met when she guested on his TV show. “He wound up producing two songs on my album during that time, but he would come to my room and he would play me some tracks… I just loved seeing the liveliness of his life,” she says, catching a glimpse of what it might be like to one of the “Renaissance people.”

“It was a sitcom, he’s working on an album, he’s working on my album, he’s traveling to New York City because he’s putting together the tour for when he’s hitting the road,” she remembers. “I just loved the entrepreneurship and enterprise, making things work: pop, pop, pop.”

You can do it all, you just have to plan and strategize.

I need to see it
Having benefited from others’ encouragement and equipping, Lyte is big on paying it forward; she was one of the co-founders of the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation, which provides annual college scholarships. “Broadening their minds will help broaden their horizons,” she says.

They have since expanded their financial support to include guys. Lyte speaks proudly of their first male graduate, who went to Goldman Sachs and has recently fulfilled a dream to work in entertainment by getting a job with Rock Nation. “I’m just so excited for all of them in the lives that they have ahead of them.”

Lyte hasn’t finished exploring new territory. Having appeared in front of the camera and provided a voice off-camera, she has recently stepped behind it to direct her first short film. Once again, she reached out to people she knew to help her learn the ropes. “I called all of my friends that were directors and I was like, ‘OK, listen, I need to know this, that and the other. Do you have a deck, because I need to see it, I need to see the detail that you put in it so that I understand what I have to do when I am trying to be compelling.’”

Just don’t be afraid to ask, she advises. Tell people you need them to share their vision and experience because it is going to help you get to where you want to go. “OK, someone says no. It’s all right; get up and go. Don’t let that be your end.” Not surprisingly, Lyte doesn’t have much time for people who want to box you in. “Shake anyone who says that you can only do or be one thing,” she advises. “Because no matter how strong we may think we are, where we have people around us, they kind of have a way of infiltrating our own thoughts. You can fall victim to having your mind swayed, that perhaps you won’t be good at this because you’re good at that.”

Take someone who works with numbers during the day and plays bass at night. “Why not? Who says because you work in an analytical space that you cannot be creative, or vice versa?” Don’t let Lyte’s list of achievements fool you; it hasn’t all been an easy ride. There have been some major bumps along the way, “hiccups where I had forgotten who I was, forgotten what I was doing, why I was doing it,” she admits. “There were a lot of things that I had to work towards getting a better understanding (of), so that I could fall back into line with who God made me to be.”

There have to be some ebbs so that you can truly appreciate the “magnificence and blessing” of the flows, she says. “Ebb and a flow is what life is all about. And so I take all the ebbs graciously.” Through the harder times, she is grateful for the people who helped her get back on track.

I say, Don’t wait
Lyte’s success is not only a result of her talent and willingness to learn, but a splash of assertiveness, knowing what she wants. Such as when she is asked in this interview which three people, dead or alive, she would like to have a private dinner with—and says she wants to have four guests.

That extra chair granted, she names Michael Jackson (“but I don’t need to see him eat; on the dance floor”), Cicely Tyson and Malcom X (“because that’s where it is going to get deep”). And then she decides to leave the fourth place open “just in case,” a decision that illustrates her willingness to explore new options that present themselves.

As someone who has made a practice of seeking out waymakers to help her along the road, what would she say to people who may have something to offer others but are sitting on the sidelines?

“I believe people don’t understand the impact that they could have on another’s life. And that just comes from believing in yourself and actually having the self-esteem that it takes to understand that what you have is worth something, the knowledge that you have can prove worthy to someone else.

“So I would just say to those who are on the sidelines, ‘Wait no more. This is the time to get involved and to make a difference in someone else’s life. Get up off the bench. It’s time to play the game and it’s time to pass it forward.’ You know, there are young people in desperate need of leadership. For whatever reason, they just are not equipped for this ride in 2021. So I would say, if you have something to give, don’t hesitate. Get in the game.”

My mom and my dad made a way for me. They acknowledged me in a way that made me feel loved, which was extremely important. A lot of us take for granted that our parents raised us; they didn’t have to. Lucky for those who were raised around love and care and all of the things that it takes to make a well-balanced child… or nearly balanced.

From an interview with Louis Carr