When MC Lyte broke into the hip-hop world as a pioneering solo female rapper, she wasn’t thinking about making history. Like most aspiring artists, she wanted to be on the radio.
“I was a lover of hip-hop. I went to the hip-hop clubs. I started rapping in elementary school … at 12, I started keeping my own rhyme book with poetry and things like that in it,” Lyte recalls, noting that in her first audition for a record company, company executives came up with the music and she put down her lyrics. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Will this be successful’ … I wanted to get it played on the radio. I thought if I did that I’d be cool and I could just walk away from it.”
Instead, Lyte says, once that happened, there needed to be a video, and then the new goal was to get her music distributed all over the world. Lyte’s critically acclaimed 1988 album, Lyte as a Rock, was the first album by a solo female rapper, and Lyte is considered one of the genre’s pioneer feminists. She notes that hip-hop and rap have gone international as well—in a way they weren’t back in the 1980s, when she got into the business.
“Many years ago, I would go to all of those places in Germany and, you know, Italy, and all of these countries where all they did was listen to American hip-hop,” Lyte says. “Now they’ve made the switch over into really embracing it themselves … and they have their own hip-hop and they’re rapping in their native tongue. It’s a whole ’nother expansion for hip-hop.”
The global appeal of that music, and its permeation into the culture of every country, is one of the reasons that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is partnering with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the hip-hop community to produce the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap.
There’s a Kickstarter campaign underway to raise $250,000 for a box-set compilation, including nine CDs with more than 120 tracks, and a 300-page book with extensive liner notes. There will also be essays by artists and scholars, and never-before-published photos from the museum’s hip-hop collection.
“It definitely made sense that a place such as the Smithsonian would be involved and be at the forefront of something so major and significant,” says Lyte, who was part of a star-studded advisory board that developed the anthology.
The board included Chuck D, Questlove and 9th Wonder as well as scholars Cheryl Keyes from UCLA, Mark Anthony Neal from Duke, industry veterans Bill Adler and Bill Stephney, plus journalist and music critic Jeff Chang.
“Sitting in those rooms with all of that music trying to decipher what was actually going to be included … hearing the titles and artists and saying, ‘Oh! This is so necessary.’ Yeah, it was a contentious process,” Lyte shares.
The museum’s curator of music and performing arts, Dwandalyn Reece, calls the anthology a truly collaborative effort. The museum has a hip-hop exhibition, but Reece says there’s only so much space, and difficult choices had to be made about which objects to include. Same deal with the anthology.
“Fifty or so people gave [us] a list of over a thousand songs and said, ‘Pick your top 100,’” Reece says, laughing. “When we pared down that list, then as a committee, we actually sat down for an entire day, and everyone had their own top priority list, and then we just talked shop. Someone would say, ‘Well, we really need to have this.’ And what’s important is this is not a Hall of Fame or best of. This is an anthology that’s telling the story and history of hip-hop.”
In addition to the music, those contributing to the Kickstarter campaign will have a chance at a host of rewards, depending on which level one contributes at. There are illustrated hip-hop trading cards and an original digital remix by 9th Wonder, and if you’ve got $10,000 lying around, you can get a guided tour of the museum by Questlove.
Reece says that hip-hop and rap, and the history of this music, define America.
“It’s very wedded in African-American tradition and also reinvented for a new age and bringing new things. … So the history of African-American music is a lot of the mining and reinventing and creating new innovations that have really changed the shape of American music, and that’s ongoing,” Reece says. “It’s the voice of a generation—actually a couple of generations now because of the story it’s telling and its global impact.”
MC Lyte says that people should remember that this is a body of work that represents the first 40 years of this culture, so it’s like a time capsule.
“What this anthology did for me is represent a portion of time when hip-hop was created, and all of the voices and all of the stories are very vital to the culture. … When you listen to the music of this anthology, it will vividly paint a picture of what was on the minds of the youth at that time. And I think that’s extremely important because it’s nothing like what’s on the mind of the youth today,” Lyte says.
Despite the social issues of the day, between the police killings of black people, the erosion of voting rights and the violence tearing up cities from Chicago to Baltimore, she thinks that all of that isn’t being explored in some of today’s rap and hip-hop.
“I think mainstream hip-hop today isn’t dealing with the social issues that we deal with, and those who are dealing with those issues in hip-hop today are not being promoted to the mainstream,” Lyte says, mentioning J Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Rhapsody as exceptions.
Lyte says that she thinks hip-hop used to be a vehicle for social change to incite people to think, but that today it is strictly entertainment.
“I think the record companies have switched their agendas. … And I don’t think the focus is about showing how well rounded an individual is with their music,” she says. “It’s more about ‘OK, how can we entertain’ … and they leave what hip-hop is really capable of on the table.”
Reece wants people to think about the power of the global impact of hip-hop.
“It’s the voice of the generation that’s the moment of the now,” Reece says. “There are a lot of compelling voices out there. … We want to be entertained … but be relevant in a way that sometimes is a struggle.”
The Kickstarter campaign continues through Nov. 16 at 5 a.m. ET. The anthology is slated to be released in December 2018.