LAME development started around mid-1998. Mike Cheng started it as a patch against the 8hz-MP3 encoder sources. After some quality concerns raised by others, he decided to start from scratch based on the dist10 sources. His goal was only to speed up the dist10 sources, and leave its quality untouched. That branch (a patch against the reference sources) became Lame 2.0, and only on Lame 3.81 did we replaced of all dist10 code, making LAME no more only a patch.
The project quickly became a team project. Mike Cheng eventually left leadership and started working on tooLame, an MP2 encoder. Mark Taylor became leader and started pursuing increased quality in addition to better speed. He can be considered the initiator of the LAME project in its current form. He released version 3.0 featuring gpsycho, a new psychoacoustic model he developed.
In early 2003 Mark left project leadership, and since then the project has been lead through the cooperation of the active developers (currently 4 individuals).
Today, LAME is considered the best MP3 encoder at mid-high bitrates and at VBR, mostly thanks to the dedicated work of its developers and the open source licensing model that allowed the project to tap into engineering resources from all around the world. Both quality and speed improvements are still happening, probably making LAME the only MP3 encoder still being actively developed.