MC Lyte, the original, the prototype, the first black woman to invade the hip-hop spotlight and lay down rhymes as hard and fast as anyone before or since, is back. And Da Undaground Heat Vol. 1 Hosted by Jamie Foxx, with its tongue-ripping rhythms and stripped-down textures, makes it plain that even after her four-year hiatus, Lyte stands supreme as the queen of this scene. Longtime fans will recognize the style immediately: her husky timbre, sometimes purring, sometimes preaching; that confidence that invites others to strengthen themselves through her positive energy; the bare-bones beats that give the message the full play it deserves … “That's how I like it,” Lyte says. “To me, that's real hip-hop, not when a rapper has to fight against the tracks. A lot of people like to camouflage their lyrics with a bunch of music because they're not saying anything; I like it open and sparse because I want you to hear what I'm saying.” Still, a lot has changed since she first burst out of Brooklyn with “I Cram to Understand You (Sam).” Back then she was too young to vote but old enough to scatter macho MCs who dared to get in her way. At 5'4", she was short—so what? By the time she put out Lyte as a Rock (1988) and Eyes on This (1989), everyone who cared about telling the truth was looking up to her as she tore down dope dealers, hustlers, and thugs. She topped the rap charts with her first single, "Cha Cha Cha," and memorably put the lie to the violent life in "Cappuccino." All that was just the beginning. Act Like You Know followed in 1991, and then in 1993, Ain't No Other launched "Ruffneck" as the first single by a female rapper ever to go Gold. Switching labels in the mid-Nineties, she welcomed Missy Elliott onto "Cold Rock a Party," from Bad As I Wanna B in 1996, then brought her back, along with LL Cool J and Giovanni Salah, for Seven & Seven in 1998. And then the albums stopped. It's a familiar story these days: a breakdown in her relationship with a major label, which led to talks of signing with Will Smith's company, Overbrook, which stalled when his distribution deal went south. At that point Lyte hooked up with iMUSIC.
“What I like about iMUSIC is that they give me control,” she emphasizes. “We brought them a finished album, we own the master. Of course, on all my albums I've had a lot of control, but the difference is that if I was with a so-called 'major' label, they would have pressed me to record with well-known producers. You know, 'Let's go with someone who can assure us of bona fide radio songs.' With Da Undaground Heat I wasn't thinking about radio; I was thinking about recording just for me and my fans.” The young, New York-based production team, Maad Phunk! (Ruff Ryders, Fabolous, Flipmode Squad), proved her ideal creative match. “They really remind me of the Neptunes,” she says. “When I first worked with the Neptunes, they were so excited to work with someone they had listened to for years, who could help them find their way. That's what Maad Phunk! brought to it, this new feel of helping me get my message across while adding their youthfulness to it.” Lyte attacked the project with unbelievable intensity. In just two or three days she wrote all the lyrics at home, then brought them to Jamie Foxx's Foxx Hole Studios in Tarzana, California, and cut the whole project in a breathtaking four days. After two days of mixing and a third devoted to mastering, Da Undaground Heat Vol. 1 Hosted by Jamie Foxx was done.
Though conceived and finished in record time, the album explores an array of topics with a mixture of thoughtfulness and blunt honesty. Interspersed by congratulatory messages left on her voicemail from Janet Jackson, Da Brat, Biz Markie, Queen Latifah, and other luminaries, these tracks present Lyte in roles that reflect the complexities of her character. On "Boy Like That" she's a big sister, offering advice on edging through the minefields of love. She and Foxx pull down the shades and kindle some sultry heat on "Where Home Is." On "U Got It," the vibe is raw and physical—with a punch-line moral at the end that slaps reality back into the picture. And on the first single, "Ride Wit Me," Lyte invites her listeners to celebrate as she takes back her hip-hop crown. "It's all real," she insists. "But it's also like acting. Who wants to see an actor play the same role time in and time out? Nobody! So I don't think I have to stick to one format forever. You should be allowed to show all of the dynamics that exist within your own personality. With this album, I went to all these different characters because they are all a part of who I am." Music itself is just one facet of MC Lyte. Over these past few years, she has expanded her acting credits to include television guest star appearances on The District and Get Real, and a lead role as Cervantes, a corrections officer in the award-winning independent feature film Civil Brand, scheduled to show at the next Sundance Festival. She's become a prominent radio host, with a weekend show over the Sirius satellite network. She's committed her time, money, and energy to worthy causes, from Rock the Vote and Rap the Vote appearances to fundraisers for anti-violence efforts and AIDS awareness. Voiceover projects have kept her busy too, doing commercials for Nike, McDonald's, Pepsi, Wherehouse Music, and even recording phrases for Tia, one of the dolls in Mattel's Diva Starz collection. ("She says 'Cool-O-Matic,'" Lyte says with a laugh.) Of course, she's also stayed busy with musical projects between albums. You can currently hear Lyte put it down with Will Smith on Willennium, with Angie Stone on Moby's album, 18, and perform on a “Jammin” remix for the Bob Marley tribute album, Chant Down Babylon. A few years back she became the first rap artist to tour for the USO, performing for troops stationed in Italy, Greece, Sicily, and Sardinia—an audience she intends to reach out to again in the near future. But for now, Da Undaground Heat Vol. 1 Hosted by Jamie Foxx is top priority—not just for MC Lyte, but also for everyone who knows that music and truth go hand in hand. “It's important that artists let their listeners know what they're thinking about,” she says. “That's one of the reasons why Eminem is so successful; aside from his flipping words so eloquently, he has an uncanny way of wearing his heart on his sleeve. I've never met him, but through his music I know his daughter's name. That's important. And that's what I'm doing with Da Undaground Heat. If someone supports me by buying my record, I need to give something valuable back to them.” The heat is on!