30 years later, 1988 still stands as rap’s greatest year. The lyrical molotovs of Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton, the post-modern (and pre-lawsuit) free-for-all of sampling, the national spotlight of a new show called Yo! MTV Raps and much more. To celebrate 30 years, Rolling Stone’s Best of ’88 explores some of the greatest songs from those explosive 12 months. See our other entries on Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock, EPMD, Run-DMC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Slick Rick and Biz Markie.
The teenaged Lana “MC Lyte” Moorer was a radical force slaying machismo in the late Eighties, a braggadocious rhymer breaking up the male-dominated Yo! MTV Raps playlist and providing some of the era’s coolest blasts of venom. Her 1987 debut, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” viewed drug addiction through the metaphor of a cheating lover and “I’m Not Having It” took lyrical aim at lotharios. But her early masterpiece was “Paper Thin,” a hook-free takedown of philanderer, a celebration of having boundaries and one of 1988’s funkiest songs.
Lyte says she wrote the lyrics back in ’82, but they were given new life by fellow First Priority Posse member producer King of Chill, who teamed Prince’s guitar with Al Green drummer Howard Grimes and blasts of Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section. Covered and reinterpreted by the next generation of rap stars, including Bahamadia and Missy Elliott, “Paper Thin” was an iconic bursting of pop music’s macho bubble. You can hear Lyte today on the recently rereleased Golden Era all-star comp Top Shelf 1988.
Rolling Stone caught up with Lyte and crammed to understand the legacy.
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In 1987, “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” blew up. How did your life change immediately after?
Well, I tell you what, I graduated six months early and so during that period prior to going to school in the fall I worked as a messenger on the New York City streets. And after dropping “I Cram to Understand U,” there was no reason to stop. We still hadn’t gotten a major record label deal. We were still just an independent. So I was still working, delivering packages. I went into this one building — I think it was the Graybar Building — and I went to the mailroom to deliver a package, and as soon as I walked in this guy said, “Oh my God, it’s MC Lyte!” I was floored ’cause I didn’t know that anyone knew what I looked like. But I found out shortly after that either Word Up! or Right On! had printed a photo of [Lyte’s DJ] K Rock and I, and so anonymity was out the door. It changed very quickly, to answer your question. It was like night and day.
Were you a bike messenger or were you driving?
No, I was a foot messenger. I went in for the interview thinking that I was going to drive a van because I had my license and I thought I was ready to go and they were like, ‘Mmmm, you look a little too young to drive one of our vehicles.’ It was the greatest experience. I got to know the streets of New York like never before. You want to know anything about New York, I know it.
And the Sinead O’Connor collaboration happened just off the strength “Cram to Understand U?”
Absolutely. She wanted me to rap on her song and say “shut the fuck up.” She was like, Don’t leave that part out. I need you to say that part. And so I arranged some lyrics that said that part.
You wrote “Paper Thin” well before you went into the studio. Do you know how long you had it in your pocket?
Honestly, probably ’82. Yeah, it’s really weird, but I had a bunch of rhymes. [Ages] 12 to 14, I probably really wrote and really concentrated on it. And then when I went to George Wingate High School, I was in the co-op program, which means I work one week and I went to school one week in the city at the World Trade Center. And so I didn’t have much time to rhyme. It really left my mind completely and I was all about working and making my money and going to college at Norfolk State University. And so when I got the call from a good friend of mine, Eric Cole [of the Alliance] to come, they had an audition happening for a female MC on this independent record label, I went with him but I just took my rhyme book. I hadn’t really concentrated on it for many years. That whole Lyte As a Rock album was about the rhymes that were in my book, meeting up with the producers and the producers sort of choosing tracks that they thought would fit the lyrics.
You were 12 or 13 when you wrote “Paper Thin.” Was it based on a real relationship or was it just picking things out of the ether?
No. I mean I didn’t have my first boyfriend until I was 14. But it was just pulling things from what I had seen, what I had heard. It’s amazing what a kid can learn in the company of adults and just listening to them talk. There’s really no science to it. It’s just me speaking what I felt: “When you say you love me, it doesn’t matter.” I don’t even know if anyone had said they loved me at that point. It just felt like the right thing. It felt like the thing that I would say if someone had said it
Tell me about making the music video.
Well, it was down at the [New York Transit] Museum in Brooklyn. We shot the bulk of the video there and then we actually went to Astor Place, did the external stuff. It was fun. It was a quick shoot. We probably went from about 9 in the morning till about 7. It was very different from “Lyte As a Rock,” because “Lyte As a Rock” was a 24-hour video. We worked 24 hours around the clock for that video ’cause there were so many different setups. But with “Paper Thin” it was quite simple. Had a train full of people that that I knew and that were very supportive of my career, so they came in.
Who are some of the people who ended up in the video?
Well, April Walker, who has Walker Wear, one of the top hip-hop designers, was in it. We had Swatch who was one of the premier hip-hop dancers. Jazzy Joyce, who was one of the first female DJs, and who today is legendary. I had my dancers, Leg One and Leg Two. I had my publicist that played a part. My manager’s wife was the homeless woman. And of course Big Ced, Cedric [Thorton, music journalist] was the guy in the video that I was dating and he was cheating and I had a funny feeling. Oh, and D-Nice was at the end.
Is it is that MC Serch in the video?
Yes. We all partied at Latin Quarters and Union Square. He was that dude and we would just be, “go, white boy, go, white boy. He was extremely present in the culture and so we love them for that. As a matter of fact, [3rd Bass’ Daddy] Rich, his DJ, used to be my DJ. I used to be in a group called Pure Elegance and he lived on the same block as one of the other MCs, so we snatched him up and he was our DJ.
Whose Jettas were those in the video?
Mine! It was my Jetta, [Audio Two MC] Milk’s Jetta and [Audio Two DJ] Giz’s Jetta. We all went out and bought the same car. But they were variations, we could tell each other’s car apart. I think Milk had a stick shift and I think he didn’t have the running boards on the bottom. And then there was a difference between Giz’s car and mine. We knew our cars apart. So there was no chance that we were walking to the wrong car the end of the night.
When you made this video there was no Yo! MTV Raps.
Channel 31, Video Music Box.
That was your intention, to get on Video Music Box?
I guess so, yeah, and all of those little tiny independent video channels around the nation.
The Yo! MTV Raps reunion at Barclay’s in Brooklyn earlier this year was incredible
That was something else, boy, seeing all those all those people up there. It definitely inspired me.
The amount of legends in that room seemed unparalleled.
You know what, let me tell you something, when you say that, it reminds me… ’87 in Latin Quarters at any given time you could be — I’m going to tell you from my POV. I looked towards the stage, there’s Eric B., there’s Rakim. I look towards another side and there’s Slick Rick, there’s Dana Dane and Herby “Luv Bug” [Azor]. I’m sitting right next to Chris Rock. A fight breaks out, everybody runs. We come back next week. So when you say “all the legends,” it’s like I’m so used to seeing that in a very intimate cool setting like Latin Quarters. And the fight was always mandatory, it was a stable situation that happened about one o’clock in the morning.
Did you ever hear the Bahamadia cover of “Paper Thin”?
Yes, I sure did. I thought that was a great job. She’s got mad skills, so to have someone like her cover the song and show homage is spectacular.
And then there’s the Missy version on Timbaland and Magoo’s “Cop That Shit.”
Yeah, you know, Missy, every time we get a chance to really talk, she starts quoting lyrics of any of my songs, so she’s definitely a fan — as I am of her.
When did you realize that this was a iconic song that that’s going to travel across generations?
Honestly, I don’t think I ever did. It just it just did what it did without me knowing.