It would be hard to find a crowd more eclectic than the one gathered April 8 at the 9:30 Club. Packed tighter than fruit preserves, the hiphop heads, buppies, alternakids, and just plain curious Joe Blows stand waiting for the show to start. Outside, a line as mixed as the crowd inside has wrapped itself around the side of the building. These kids are here to see somebody get funky one time. But who could draw such a group into such a relatively tiny space?
Unfortunately for Tracey Lee, it ain’t him. No, these folks are here to experience Baduizm by way of its founder, Erykah Badu. And when the show begins not with delicate croonings or scintillating strings but with some mixmaster cutting wax across twin turntables, the crowd isn’t ecstatic.
But Lee doesn’t really care. He came to tear the roof off this muthafuckaor at least that portion of the roof that hangs over the hiphop heads in the crowd. You can tell it from the way he takes the stage more amped than two power plants. His crew stands to the side, strutting and dancing, cheering Lee on. By the time Lee hits his third song, more than just the hiphop heads in the house are feeling it. The energy he’s spitting out makes even the stiffest of men nod their heads in submission.
When Lee launches into his hit single, “The Theme (It’s Party Time),” the crowd is his. Lee hasn’t had a record deal for long (Universal just released his debut album, Many Facez), and he’s still amazed that he actually got put on. You can see it in the way he smiles and sings part of the sampled hook, “It’s party time! Whoa, it’s party time! Having a party!” After all those years of reading the hiphop magazines and saying, “One day it’ll be me,” finally he’s the one.
“Anything I do nowif I see a piece in Vibe, if I see a piece in the Source, if I hear my joint on the radioit’s, like, ‘Damn.’ I’m still in amazement,” says Lee. “I can’t believe I finally made it. It’s, like, ‘Oh, shit.’ It’s still a shock to me, man.”
Fifteen years ago Lee was like a million other kids, bobbing his head to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and Dimples D. In those days, kids would take their boomboxes outside and break dance on cardboard. Or on summer nights, they would sit on their porches, way past sunset, and blast some DJ’s hiphop mix show.
About half those kids were called. They saved up money from cutting grass or carrying grocery bags for old ladies and went to pawnshops and bought two cheap turntables and a Gemini mixer. They would spend whole days cutting up their parents’ records in cheap imitation of Jazzy Jeff or Grandmaster Flash. They would listen to LL and memorize his words, verse for verse, and anytime they passed a vacant mike they would snatch it up and utter a quick, “Yes, yes ya’ll.” All indicators point to Lee being one of those kids.
“I got started rhyming like everybody else,” Lee recalls. “The first phase was the Melle Mel phase. Whatever he was saying I was with, whether it was ‘New York, New York’ or ‘Survival,’ whatever. Then I went through the LL phase. Rakim and G-Rap were simultaneous, along with KRS-One. Those three were killing me at the time.”
But hiphop has come a long way from the days of B-boying and Sugar Hill. It’s even come a long way from the complex flow of Rakim and G-Rap. Lee is very much aware of this, and despite the party-hearty tone of “The Theme,” if there’s one message that comes across from the rhymes he spits on his album it’s that something is very wrong with hiphop today.
If you flip over to the B-side of Lee’s first single, you get a wholly different tone. Gone are the party-time hook and ass-shaking drum track that powered “The Theme.” Instead you get “Repent,” a seething attack on commercial rap that features a growling bass line and a torturous drum track. “My shit is old school,” growls Lee, as he lashes out at those who pimp the art.
An anti-commercialism stance is never popular in a society fueled by commercialism. It isn’t easy to justify either, given the fact that an artist who doesn’t sell records may well find himself delivering pizzas. But the problem isn’t so much that artists want to sell records, it’s the fact that many often hurt the art in the process. “I won’t say that I don’t wanna go platinum,” Lee raps on “Repent,” “but what’s plat if niggas with crates won’t play my wax, son?”
But Lee doesn’t just hold the artists responsible. Many Facez takes more than enough jabs at the nemesis of MCs everywhere: the business. He asserts that some artists come into the game with good intentions and with an honest love of hiphop but get turned around by trying to sell records.
“It might not be their fault,” Lee says. “I don’t totally blame them. It could be the industry. It could be the people A&R-ing their project. What I’m learning about this game is that there are a whole lot of people who affect your project. You just gotta be careful.”
Lee is the first one from his camp, RNF (Real Nigga Flow), to get signed. Another group in RNF, the Reaps, has also been signed to Universal. And One Step Beyond is waiting in the wings. The members of RNF hooked up at Howard University back in 1991 and just vibed off each other’s style of rhyme.
“It was basically a bunch of young brothers that was all about hiphop and perfecting their skills,” Lee recalls. “That was the common bond. It wasn’t hard to find one another, whether it be in class, whether it was just somebody saying, ‘Oh, I heard my man over here rhymehe’s nice.’…It just so happened that we clicked as friends.”
Lee has indeed finally made it. A few years ago, he was freestyling on Howard’s yard, taking out wack MCs who dared to step up. Now it’s all about international tours and hopefully a gold album. But still there is that need to balance the commercial success with the desire to put out a rugged, cutting-edge record. It’s a question that Lee, like most artists, will probably grapple with for much of his career. But for right now he’s simply trying to make phat records and leave his mark on the game. It’s a tall order to fill. But if Lee doesn’t believe he can do it, who else will?
“My purpose in this game is to make good music,” Lee asserts. “I’m not in it for the groupies. I wanna leave a legacy like Stevie
Wonder or Donny Hathaway. I’m in it so 20 years down the line niggas is telling their kid, ‘Hey, this nigga right here, back in my day, he was the shit.’”CP