As we approach the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, it’s hard to think of women as just contributors to Hip-Hop when really the truth is that Hip-Hop would likely not have become a global force without women.
Even the often-told story of Kool Herc’s first hip-hop party in the South Bronx at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11, 1973, came about as the result of his sister Cindy Campbell’s idea to throw a back-to-school party.
Early on, women in Hip-Hop decided they wouldn’t be relegated to the background or as support to the men rocking the mic. There were B-girls deejaying, influencing fashion, dance, art, and battle rapping – loud and up-front.
The pioneers came out bold – Roxanne Shante, Lisa Lee, MC Sha-Rock, Wanda Dee, Debbie D., Sweet Tee, Mercedes Ladies, The Sequence, and the list goes on to today with young emcees like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B. Megan Thee Stallion, Ice Spice, Scar Lip, DreamDoll, Mumu Fresh and more.
This Sunday, June 4, at 8 p.m. MC Lyte will be hosting for the second year “I AM Woman” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in celebration of women in Hip-Hop. This year artists performing will include Rapsody, Kash Doll, Bahamadia, Mama Sol, and of course, MC Lyte – the first solo female rapper to release a full album.
We talked to MC Lyte about the 50th anniversary and what Hip-Hop would have looked like without women.
What does it feel like to witness this 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop? You’ve been an emcee since you were 12.
MC Lyte: It feels invigorating. It feels like there’s room and space. I feel like we’re at a crossroads. It feels like the importance of where and when you entered hip hop doesn’t matter. We all contributed. Period.
There’s no reason to identify people as old-school or new-school. The importance of the 50th is that it started 50 years ago, and it’s still going. So everybody’s participation is important whether it started it or helped to maintain it, or helped to propel it into other areas. I’m excited to be a part of anything that has lasted 50 years. Everybody has their own relationship to Hip-Hop – it’s almost like a person. We do know that it has inspired all of us in one way or another.
Take me back to the beginning. I know you were inspired by Salt-N-Pepa. You battled Roxanne Shante and Antoinette – which went on for years on Mr. Magic and Red Alert’s shows. Growing up in East Flatbush – how excited were you at the time about hip-hop?
When I first started in the area where I grew up in the ’90s, it was more about Caribbean music and rockers, reggae. At a block party in 1982, somebody played rap. Still, outside of that, my relationship with hip-hop started much earlier in Harlem with my older cousins playing cassette tapes and The Treacherous Three and the Cold Crush Brothers, Funky Four Plus one more, Sha- Rock, Kurtis Blow. My relationship started earlier on, but once I was able to procure a record deal and got my feet wet, Hip-Hop was all over the place. It was unstoppable. We went everywhere. It started in New York and sprouted out to New Jersey and Philly, Boston and Virginia, and Delaware. It was sort of like New York was the nucleus, and then it sort of bubbled out like a bomb.
How has Hip-Hop evolved as it relates to what’s going on in society now?
You have kids who are growing up who have known Hip-Hop since the day they stepped on the planet. They’ve never known a time without it – to see and feel it. I think Hip-Hop 50th gives everyone an opportunity to look back so they can see how this was built, who was involved prior to. Your favorite artist of today was inspired by someone else, and that person was inspired until we go back to the true roots and foundation of it all.
The way that its grown, Hip-Hop has become a respected format and genre of music, and not only that – we set trends. Fashion looks at what we do. Movies look at what we do. Sports and hip-hop go hand-in-hand. I don’t know if there’s a player that hits the court that doesn’t listen to Hip-Hop prior to getting there. During the game, you have a deejay playing music that’s encompassed in Hip-Hop.
You’ve written lyrics that were socially conscious, “Cram to Understand” and “Cappuccino,” how do you feel about the trajectory Hip-Hop has taken as it relates to lyricism?
I think it’s necessary to show the whole Diaspora of hip-hop and all of its nuances and genres. In the beginning, it was meant to reflect the communities that we’re from and speak to the communities that we’re from and give a glimpse of what’s happening in our communities to the world. It was necessary for an NWA, for a Naughty by Nature – necessary for Tupac. Listening to “Dear Mama” or “Keep Your Head Up.” – I haven’t really heard anything like that since. There are so many of those emcees that have come on the scene and moved Hip-Hop into a whole other direction. But it’s very necessary for the growth and the stretching that hip-hop has to do in order to stay alive.
How do you feel that women in particular – since the focus this weekend is on women in Hip-Hop – How do you think that Hip-Hop has survived because of women? What would the landscape have looked like if women weren’t in it?
If women weren’t in it, it would have been flat. Women give life. A woman who understands that that’s what her innate purpose is. Giving life in some sort of way – new thoughts, new concepts, new creations and I think we come from a place of truth and being able to nurture, teach, educate, and entertain.
I love where Hip-Hop is now because it’s not all for one person to do all things. It’s like being in a relationship where you’re expected to be everything – you couldn’t possibly be. That’s why your spouse needs friends. I think in Hip-Hop now, we have so many contributors now that one person can be one way. I remember when we came in, we had to have a song on the album that touched every aspect of Hip-Hop – it has now loosened up. When I put out an album, you had to have a socially conscious song, a party song, and a club song, and if you didn’t have an album that touched all of those things, then it wasn’t complete. That’s what NWA did. They did thematic records that allowed them to stay in one space for the whole album – you knew what you were getting.
Talk about the upcoming event at the Kennedy Center – “I Am Woman” – this is your second year honoring women in Hip-Hop.
We launched last year – Da Brat, Yo-Yo, Monie Love, Tierra Whack, Trina Remy Ma- we had some tremendous talent. We packed that bill, but we didn’t have a lot of time with each artist.
I think this year we will get to spend more time with the artists. – Bahamadia – representing Philly, Kash Doll from Detroit, and Mama Sol got a standing ovation last year, so she’s coming back representing Flint, Michigan. She will kick off our show.
It’s a celebration of women in Hip-Hop. I want to make sure with my platform that I shine my light on the women who make it what it is.
Photo: Michael Buckner / Getty