Tracey Lee On Music, The Notorious B.I.G. & His New ‘ESQ. The Revelation’ Album
We caught up with rapper, attorney and Howard University grad, Tracey Lee. Recognize the name? If not, the sounds of 1997’s “The Theme (It’s Party Time)” probably will ring a bell. We got Tracey’s thoughts on the trials and tribulations of learning the ever-changing music business, a vintage Notorious B.I.G. story and his long-awaited new album. Peep the story.
words by Will Loiseau
How did you make the transition from an emcee who was active in the game to your current career in entertainment law?
It was a natural progression…it was the business itself. I went into the game just being an artist that wanted his music heard. I didn’t really think about the business aspect…that was the furthest thing from my mind which in hindsight should’ve ever happened. After the first album [Many Facez] I experienced things I never imagined. I thought everything would be all roses but I
started to learn the game. I started to understand publishing and the politics of the game. I began to see things that I really didn’t like. My natural feeling was anger but then I got wise and said let me learn the jargon of the contract I’m about to sign. I did some soul-searching for a couple of years and moved down to Atlanta. It hit me that I had to go to law school to give me a foundation of what the contractual aspect was all about. I graduated and passed the Bar exam and kept going from there. My motivation was about wanting to understand what I had gotten myself into and also to be able to be the eyes and ears for cats coming in the game behind me. I knew my mentality as an artist was pretty much the same as everybody else…I just wanted to get on.
What do you think is the most common mistake that artists today are making?
I think that artist now because of technology have more opportunities to be independent. With the internet and even from a creative aspect…I’ve seen people like my homegirl Bahamadia make an entire album on the phone. She made a video where she was sitting in a car and put a whole song together. That was not possible back in ’97. Things like that make it easier to go independent however I think signed artists who go with 360 deals are making big mistakes. 360 deals are around because records aren’t selling like they used to. Record companies feel like they’ve got to get their money somehow. In order for them to recoup their investment on an artist they’ve got to make their money back so their taking everything from show money to merchandising. Any stream of income that an artist may have…the label wants a piece of it. A lot of times the artists who sign these deals don’t fully understand the power that they have. They automatically think that the labels will manufacture somebody else…this is true but you have to understand your self-worth as well. There also aren’t enough checks and balances on the team that the artist has around them. You should have trust on your team but at the same time this is a grimy business. You’ve got to watch members of your team especially if they weren’t there from the beginning. I’ve seen artists now who don’t really pay attention to that part of the business.
What were the biggest mistakes you’ve made?
Lack of experience from myself and people I had around me. My brothers co-managed me but they had just as much experience as I had. That didn’t work. My other managers were in the game but still learning on-the-fly. I was the first artist on the label which was a division of Universal. The head of the label Mark Pitts had managed Biggie and came from under the Bad Boy system. He knew a little but it was the first time running a label.
Jay-Z’s most recent platinum album/mobile phone deal with Samsung was recognized by the RIAA and caught many in the industry by surprise. Did you ever see that coming?
I had a conversation with my wife about something like that and I give credit to one of my guys Derell Allen. He always said that when the records stop selling you have to cross-brand with a product in order to get your material in the hands of the consumer. It goes beyond music. People just weren’t buying music anymore…they were buying the brand. My friend was thinking on a smaller scale but when Jay-Z made that deal it made sense. I got the idea from doing parties in North Carolina and saw how they do day parties. I brought the day party concept to D.C. With day parties you solicit sponsorship in order to cut costs. One of the ideas was to create an atmosphere and space to present my music once I created a product that I wanted to put out while eliminating the middle man. I would no longer have to go through a radio station or find a DJ to play my music. The built-in audience is in the day party. With the sponsorship I bring in I not only have a place to play my music but a sponsor’s product to sell while giving the album away for free. That’s essentially what Jay-Z did with Samsung. They cut him a check for the album and they brand the phone and promote the artist. People buy the phone and get the music for free.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with one of the greats. Can you tell us a memorable Notorious B.I.G. story?
I never get tired of telling this story. This one time when we were in the studio recording…he had got to the studio before me and he was doing what BIG did. He had a bottle of the Hen rock [Hennessy] and rolling up some nice vegetables nahmean…just getting his mind right and getting ready to do what he does. We must have chopped it up for like 8 hours just talking about the business and things that he had gone through. He had schooled me on a lot of things. He put me on to more jewels about the business than anyone else at that particular stage in my career. As we’re talking, joking and laughing he would just black out and start rolling his body around to the beat that was playing in the background. There would be a couple of us in the room and he would just leave the conversation and just start rocking. He’d come back a few minutes later to interject and give his two cents or whatever, drink a little something and dip out and black out again. This goes on for 7 or 8 hours. During all this time, he’s not writing anything down. All of a sudden, he says, “I’m done. I’m ready to get in the booth”. I’m saying, ready to get in the booth and do what? I didn’t see you write anything down. At that time I had been writing. He said, “Nah, I can’t write it down. It confuses me. I got it in my head. I just wanna go in the booth”.
I’m like okay cool but then I’m thinking is this guy gonna just freestyle on my record? Is that what this is? He jumps in the booth and starts spitting the most incredible bars. To the average person it might’ve seemed like a freestyle but he had written the rhymes in his head. I do most of my work that way now. B.I.G. was the master of saying more with less. The way he bended his syllables…that’s the reason why he’s so clear and you can picture every word that he says. He had the unique style of taking a beat while he’s creating his lyrics and being able to fit a word and syllable in each pocket of every beat that he rhymed to. That’s totally amazing to me. That was the reason why he never wrote anything down. He was making sure that everything fit perfectly inside of the beat. A lot of times when I was writing before I would try and put so many words in a measure and it wouldn’t come out as clear. After I spit mine…I think he had two 8’s and I had a 16 in the first verse. When he spit his last sixteen, I had to come back. [Laughter erupts] I wasn’t going after him after that. He wasn’t playing fair. That was the most incredible experience for me being a signed artist.
What are your thoughts on New York’s current output of Hip Hop?
I’m not gonna put it all on New York because I don’t think it’s really that. It’s more the nature of the business. The mainstream has dictated which direction artists are moving toward. It influences the way artists work in order to get signed and eat. They are a lot of emcees in New York that are still spitting. I was just talking to Sean Price and he’s a lyricist. People in each state might get mad at the cats who try to conform to what the industry is trying to dictate. I’m glad that Hip Hop is universal but each region had its distinct sound. That’s what made it dope to me. Every part of the country now plays the same 20 songs. That didn’t occur 20 years ago.
It’s a microcosm of society. We’re moving toward the creation of one currency. That’s where it seems music is headed. That’s what’s wack and I think that’s what has people in New York, Philly and other places frustrated. The people are part of the problem too. If the people don’t stop listening they’re going to keep feeding it to you. The dollar is what drives all of this.
From listening to what you’ve put out so far it’s obvious that you’ve continued to perfect your craft. What do you want to say in particular with this new project?
The first thing is to understand the evolution. I think it’s important for cats in my position to show maturation. A lot of cats who’ve been in the game for a while feel like they still have to create something that is like what the younger generation creates. That’s not necessarily the case. If it’s dope then it’s dope and the younger cats will get into it. You might lose them if you try and dumb down to the kids. The kids won’t believe you! They’ll ask, “Who is this old dude trying to talk our language?” They can clearly see you’re 40-plus years old and not living the lifestyle. I want to make sure that I tell my story from my perspective. The kids want to hear that too because they wanna know what might be coming down the pipeline. I’m not hating on what’s being put out there but I’m not feeling the lack of variety. There has always been dumbed down music even when I was coming up but at least there was variety. For every PM Dawn there was a KRS One. There’s no balance anymore. I keep it lyrical because that’s how it was for me coming up and I don’t know any other way. By keeping the music true and authentic to myself it’s able to resonate with the people.
What collaborations or features can we look out for?
For the most part, things are in-house. Shouts to my brothers R and F, The Reaps, One Step Beyond, MID. Young Guru, who people know for being Jay-Z’s DJ and engineer went to Howard University with me. DJ Blinks does a lot of production. Eric Roberson is on the album along with Butter who produced “You Remind Me” on Usher’s album and comedian Joe Clair. It’s gonna be refreshing and the people will enjoy it.
Where can the people hit you up at? Any performances?
On twitter @traylee. You can buy the ‘ESQ. The Revelation’ album at traceyleemusic.com/music/. We have a Tracey Lee fan page up on Facebook and the company page at Facebook.com/lleftent. All of our information can be found at www.lleftent.com. We plan on reaching up and down the east coast with listening parties that will include performances. Be on the lookout.
-Thank you for taking the time to rap with Rapper’s Delite