MC Lyte Was 12 When She Wrote “I Cram To Understand U”
While other 12-year-old kids struggled to write a short essay for homework, MC Lyte wrote a classic rap record about falling in love with a drug addict. Though it took several years of practice and revision for “I Cram To Understand U” to become an actual record, Lyte’s hit song off her debut album remains a remarkable feat of songwriting and one of rap’s finest cautionary tales about drug addiction.
Tracing Lyte’s family lineage helps explain how she launched her career at such a young age — her stepfather owned the First Priority record label and her half-brother Milk D was a member of the pioneering rap group Audio Two. But Lyte’s desire to write her own lyrics really started when she heard another famous female rap act of the day. “Salt-N-Pepa meant everything to me. They were the only reason I thought I could be an MC,” Lyte said in a 2008 Vibe interview. “To hear Salt-N-Pepa made me say, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Once Lyte decided that rap was her true calling, she brought her desire to MC with her everywhere she went. Even the overly structured school day of a middle school student couldn’t contain her creative spark. “In junior high I used to bang on the lunch-room tables and rap,” she recalled in Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique.
“The boiler was making noise while we were recording and we had to wait for it to stop.”
As rap consumed her day-to-day life, Lyte quickly went from a novice to a serious rapper. “Being a female MC back then was just my life,” she said in a 2011 interview with Vibe. “It’s like asking how does it feel being black. I didn’t know anything else.”
Embracing MCing as a central part of her existence paid early dividends as Lyte saw her storytelling ability improve exponentially in a short time. Songwriting is often a difficult, complex process that takes many artists years to master, but Lyte penned one of her most beloved records before becoming a teenager. “When it [‘I Cram…’] was finally pressed for record, I was 16. It was actually a rhyme that I wrote when I was 12,” she told Vibe.
According to Lyte — who demonstrated emotion and wisdom well beyond her pre-teen years on “Cram”— her own experiences witnessing addiction around her family helped her craft such a mature song. “My mother used to work at North General Hospital in Harlem. Whenever I would go there would be a slew of heroin and crack addicts,” she said. “I would never want that for myself or any other young person that I knew so I was going to make it my responsibility to tell people about drugs so that they could avoid them at all costs.’”
Although Lyte may have demonstrated an immediate gift for writing, she needed some assistance with her vocal delivery in the years between writing and recording “Cram”. “I did a lot of work with George Lucien, who was actually the father of [some of the members] of Full Force,” she told Vibe. “He would tell me to learn a song that I really loved, which was a Salt-N-Pepa song.”
“Being a female MC back then was just my life. It’s like asking how does it feel being black. I didn’t know anything else.”
Showing an unusual level of dedication and focus, Lyte memorized the song and practiced her delivery countless times while Lucien critiqued her delivery and pronunciation. “I would literally say it over and over again,” she told Vibe. “George would coach me on how to make my voice sound strong and how to pronounce the words to where someone else would feel it.”
Once her skills were album-ready, Lyte started recording her Lyte as a Rock debut. As is often the case for artists just beginning their careers, she remembers the janky recording setup for some of the sessions with affection. “I just remember [“Cram…”] being on a four-track Tascam. The boiler was making noise while we were recording and we had to wait for it to stop [laughs],” she said.
Five years after initially writing “I Cram To Understand U”, Lyte’s album was ready for the world. Only 17 and still unable to vote when Lyte as a Rock dropped, she demonstrated a keen storytelling ability on her first album that many older rappers couldn’t rival. The perfect combination of fierce lyricism and gritty, hard hitting beats, Lyte as a Rock is a brief, powerful listen loaded with classics like “Lyte as a Rock”, “Paper Thin”, and “10% Dis”. Even though all of these songs sound great 29 years later, “I Cram To Understand U” may still be the best song on the album.
“I was going to make it my responsibility to tell people about drugs so that they could avoid them at all costs.”
Speaking to the crack epidemic that engulfed many black communities in the 80s, Lyte discussed the drugs in an honest, first-person style that listeners could relate to. Using the story model of romance gone wrong, Lyte rapped about her love interest Sam’s decent into addiction, her initial denial, and her eventual anger and heartbreak, spitting lines like:
They say you spend your money on her and you’re with her night and day
Her name starts with a C and it ends with a K
I strain my brain lookin’ for a name to fit this spellin’
But I just couldn’t do it cause my heart kept yellin’”
Using a love story to connect with her audience was a powerful choice. Addiction is an important and complicated subject that deserves our attention, but when presented in a dry and factual manner, many people will tune it out. Lyte didn’t give listeners an easy out with “I Cram To Understand U”. She took a complex social issue that destroyed many black communities in the 80s and discussed it through the universal theme of love, thus humanizing addiction and giving listeners a new way of approaching the conversation.