By K.B. Tindal
Hip Hop Vibe Staff Writer
The 90’s were an era in Hip Hop that will never be matched just like most eras in Hip Hop. One Philly native spitter that held his own with the likes of such artists as The Notoriouis B.I.G. bar for bar was Tracey Lee. True Hip Hop head you will remember his Many Faces album.
This album spawned the hits “The Theme (It’s Party Time)” and “Keep Ya Hands High” with The Notorious B.I.G. Tray then fell off into a land of Hip Hop obscurity. Well, eighteen years later he kicked it with Hip Hop Vibe on a wide assortment of topics.
Tray Lee is back with a new project, ESQ The Revelation, which is his latest album release. Along with the release of the album, he is doing a lot to promote it, in terms of making major appearances. He also has his new company, Lleft, that is giving back.
Writer’s note: “and if you think Tray has even come close to losing a step with the bars, all I have to say is, stop playin’, y’all ain’t ready!”
Read the entire interview below:
Of course I have to start off by paying homage to the Brooklyn legend Notorious B.I.G. and ask you what is your fondest memory of B.I.G.? Where were you and how did you feel the day we heard about his murder.
For me the fondest memory of the late great Notorious B.I.G. would be just being in the booth with him and listening to the knowledge he had in the game at that particular time. This was in 1996-97. Just to be able to work with someone of the caliber was beyond words. It was my greatest experience as a recording artist of my life at that particular time. That would have to be my greatest memories of him. Just him sharing the knowledge and sharing the jewels and to be able to go bar for bar with him on a record was incredible. As far as where I was on the night of his untimely passing, we were at the Vibe Soul Train party together. I would say 3-5 minutes before Biggie was shot me and him had actually left the Automotive Museum or something like that but we were leaving out at the same time and he looked at me and I was leaving the building and I had I guess a certain look on my face or a way that I was carrying myself at that particular time and he noticed and said, “Hey yo Tray what’s wrong?” I was like nothing na’mean and he was like, “Yo this was a fantastic party, the party was hot why you looking like that? You don’t need to be looking like you looking. Be happy .This is a wonderful time and a momentous occasion.” I say all that to say I’m trying to paint a picture here. It seemed as though Biggie was at peace and he knew something that none of us knew. For lack of a better description or if you are into spirituality like I am it looked like he had a conversation with God and everything was ok. For some reason I just had this disposition that I was not aware of at that particular time that something was going happen. I couldn’t predict it then but just going over the scenario in my head now it’s kind of crazy to me how that whole dialogue transpired. He was like, “Chill be happy we about to go to the Playboy mansion.” So we were headed to the Playboy Mansion after that particular party. He went to his right and got in his truck and I went to my left and got in the car with Mark Pitts who was his manager at the time. Then 3-5 minutes later Mark got the call that BIG had been shot. So to answer your question I was in LA right there with BIG 3-5 minutes before the fatal shooting. I was fortunate enough to be able to have had that conversation right before his untimely passing. R.I.P. B.I.G.
It takes a special kind of discipline to go back to college after having some success in the business. What made you want to go back and pursue a Law degree?
What made me want to go back to Law school was the predicament I had put myself in by signing my contract with Bystorm/Universal in 1996. At that time I had negotiated a deal through my lawyer but the frame of mind that I was in in 1996 I just wanted to get my music out there and heard and played. I wanted to be judged by the masses so they could hopefully see me as one of the illest MC’s out there. I was all about the bars and making good music and wanting to be heard all over the world. I had very little interest in making sure the business was straight. It wasn’t that I had no interest at all but that was really on the back burner. I didn’t want to get jerked totally. I knew some things but there were little intricacies about being a recording artist, publishing, recoupment and the budget and things like that I really just didn’t pay much attention to so I kind of left it in the hands of my lawyer. Now the lawyer that I had at that time wasn’t an entertainment lawyer. He was just an attorney. That was a crucial mistake that I had made. Considering the fact that I didn’t really have the money or I didn’t know that I could have used my budget or my signing money to hire a better attorney or at least an attorney that was acclimated with being an entertainment attorney. So I went with an attorney that was recommended to me by one of my friends at Howard University. For what he knew I guess he did an ok job but again I should have done my due diligence and hired an entertainment attorney. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to go back to law school because of that experience. I feel like instead of relying on someone to look out for me why not learn it myself, so I can not only represent myself but help others that are coming up behind me so I can provide them with the proper counsel.
What happened after your initial success? Why didn’t you follow up the success of Many Faces with another LP?
Quite simply I was dropped from the label. “The Theme” came from outta nowhere. No one knew my name; nobody knew where I was from or who I was affiliated with. That record dropped and just spread like wildfire. I don’t think the label was properly prepared for that. There was no set up, no introduction, no lead up to it or none of that. The record dropped and Red Alert got a hold of that joint and played it and the rest is history. He gave it a shot so shout out to Red Alert and the record I’m talking about “The Theme” (It’s Party Time) was produced by Derrick “D. Dot” Angelettie and Ron Lawrence at the time they were known as The Mystery System. The label saw the success of the single and immediately wanted to put out an album. That was the first mistake because I think people have to be properly set up otherwise you get labeled as a one hit wonder. Now fortunately for me “The Theme” went on to become a classic because you can still hear that record 18 years later and it still rocks. But it’s like the gift and the curse. That record was so hot and so much of a banger that people fell in love with the record and didn’t fall in love with the artist. They didn’t know who the artist was so when I dropped my album Many Faces, here’s the second mistake; I dropped it on the same day as Life After Death, Biggie’s second album. Come on now. That and the follow up to the Wu-Tang album were the most highly anticipated albums at that time. I dropped on the same day as B.I.G. so nobody was checking for Tracey Lee at that time. I had one hit record and nobody knew who I was. A lot of people thought it was Meth. You can’t drop a new artist with one record and no kind of affiliation on the same day as the late great Notorious B.I.G. That was the second mistake. I kind of saw what the label was trying to do because me and B.I.G. had done a record together and they were trying to capitalize on that but here’s the third mistake. They never advertised on the record because they didn’t have advertising rights. Whether it was Puff or Arista Records I don’t know but they didn’t give Bystorm/Universal advertising rights to say the Notorious B.I.G was featured on the album Many Faces on “Keep Ya Hands High” So there was nothing on the cover or on the actual vinyl itself or on the CD saying featuring Notorious B.I.G. So the only way you would know that Big was actually on my album was if you bought the album and listened to it or if someone told you by word of mouth that Big was on Tray’s album or if you heard it on the radio. If you can’t advertise that Big is on my record it serves no purpose to drop my album on the same day as Big’s because no one knows we’re affiliated so you can’t capitalize on the sales. That was the beginning of the end. We dropped the second single called “Give It Up Baby” which did not measure up and I did not want to drop that joint. I wanted to drop “Stars In The East” which I thought would have been a much better follow up. It goes back to why I went to law school because these are things you can negotiate in your contract. So I had the poor record sales in the first week, because that’s how things are measured in the industry. They don’t give an album time to mature because this is a business. If you don’t show certain numbers in certain quarters of the fiscal year they don’t have the patience to really work an album. They gave me a budget to record a second album and this was after Bystorm was able to leave Universal to go to La Face but Universal had an option and their option was that Bystorm could go to La Face but they were keeping me at Universal. I guess they did that for the potential factor. I don’t know why they would’ve thought that because they didn’t give the first album a shot. They were basing all of this on a single. So they kept me and gave me a budget for the second album Live From The 215 which I did complete. I did work with Kanye West at the beginning stages of his career on that album. I had Kurupt and Black Rob on there and Derrick “D Dot” Angelettie executive produced the album along with me and Mark Pitts had executive producer credit on the album. We did that album with lack of support from Universal because Bystorm was no longer there and that was my go between to have these types of conversations with the label. I found myself up at the label more than anybody who was on my team at the time. This is what also led me to going back to school. So we finished the album and shot a video for the first single. We released what was a white label for the streets called “Go Head” and we were preparing to release a commercial single called ‘We Like.” It had Ludacris and Lil John in the video at the beginning stages of their careers. It was shot by Bryan Barber who shot most of Outkast’s videos. It was a well done video and the song was hot. That was in September of 2000 and in January of 2001 I was dropped from the label. I just recently heard that Universal pulled the plug and told DJ’s not to play the record because they weren’t pushing the project. Even though they serviced the project they did that. They can afford to do that because we’re talking about business and fiscal years and quarters and write offs. So they can afford to spend this kind of money and write it off because at that time they also had Nelly and Cash Money to balance out their books. Those were their bread winners. That’s what it was and that’s what it is.
I know your brand LLeft Entertainment does everything from children’s books to film and television production, why did you think it was necessary to put out children’s books? Was it something you saw within the educational system or was it just a feeling you had that you wanted to achieve?
My wife and I started Lleft Entertainment to exploit all facets of entertainment. In regards to the children’s books, that was my Wife’s creation totally. She handles 100% of the creative aspect of that leg of the company. I do come in to negotiate any type of deals that may be on the table contractually in regards to books that she may publish herself. I can give you some insight as to why she decided to do children’s books and the educational system does play a factor because we want to encourage our children to read. I think with technology the way it is today people just don’t read anymore. They rely on spell check or emoji’s to express their selves instead of spelling out the words. Often there are times that when you give out information to people and the information is right there in their face, whether it’s on a flyer or in a paragraph or what have you and people will come back with questions that are simply answered if you take the time to read the information. I think that the main reason why my Wife wanted to make children’s books is because she wanted to display images that look like us. When I say us I mean like Black people. She wanted children of color and specifically Black kids to see images that look like them. There are not enough people of color in these books. So we wanted to fill that void. We feel like we have a responsibility to fill that void and even more so now because she just gave birth to our newborn baby daughter who is 2-1/2 months old now. So when she opens these books up she sees images that look like her. That helps with self-esteem and everything, especially when you’re talking about the development of a child. That was the biggest motivating factor for publishing children’s books.
I know recently you dropped ESQ. The Revelation, what kind of response did you get from people about the project.
ESQ.The Revelation is available at traceyleemusic.com for the hard copy and it’s also available at all digital stores. The response has been tremendous. For the people that have had an opportunity to hear it they love it. The people that have purchased it they love it. I haven’t had one (It’s alright) response. Everybody that has heard the album says it’s about time and it’s what we need. Specifically the demographic of my age group particularly loves the record because it caters to them. I guess with the evolution of Hip Hop there haven’t been many albums that cater to a certain demo and for reasons that I don’t understand I don’t know why that is. People love the record. There are some people that are like, “Damn Tray it took you 18 years. Why are you coming back? I don’t think you still have it anymore.” To answer all those people, I’m a student of the game. I am Hip Hop. I am the culture. I was born into the culture and this is how God made me. This is what I am and I can’t change it. It is what it is. I’ve studied everybody from 1979 like the Sugar Hill Gang and “Rappers Delight” up until now with Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Anybody of substance I study. I always use other MC’s as measuring sticks and sharpened swords so with that being said if you have doubts about if I still have it go cop the album. I’d rather you listen to and judge it for yourself than have me toot my own horn. So for those who have those doubts, I believe I answered those questions more than adequately. We are doing it independently; we are doing it off the muscle. I’m coming out of pocket for everything but I enjoy it much more than being on a label. It’s a lot of hard work and that’s something that I think a lot of artists don’t understand, especially doing it independently. There’s been nothing but positive results once people hear it. So for those who still have doubt and fear you have to press play on this album and give it a chance.
The 90’s were a timeless period in Hip Hop with really great music and visuals. What do you think about the changes in Hip Hop from then until now when it concerns the music and the visuals?
The 90’s were a dope era. The 80’s was a dope era so I have hard times deciding which era I like the most but I’d probably go with the 80’s but they were both dope eras. Comparing it to today’s visuals and today’s music from a popular culture perspective, I’m not really a fan. The main reason for the most part is that it’s wack. The main reason for that is because there is no diversity. Everything sounds and looks the same. That’s not to say that back in the 90’s we didn’t have wack music and wack visuals back then because we did. We did in the 80’s too. I think the biggest difference is that there was a balance. If you wanted silly rap you could get that. If you wanted conscious rap you could get that. If you wanted bars you could get that. If you wanted banging beats you could get that. We had a multitude of sounds. Now it’s, “Mustard on the beat.” [Laughs] If it ain’t Mustard it’s somebody that sounds like that. If it ain’t Ross or Meek, shout out to Meek, I always shout out Philly cats, it’s somebody who sounds like them. Young Thug, I’m not with it. That’s just my opinion. Everything sounds the same with the same topics of drugs, money, and misogyny. They all use one name in particular to describe women and we all know what that name is so I don’t have to say it. It’s like is that all we do? Is that all there is to us? It’s always the club the women the drinking and the drugs. I refuse to believe that that’s all my Black people are. With that being said why is that the only thing that we talk about? I can only come up with one conclusion; that it’s by design. They want to dumb us down. They want us programmed. They want us to think and act one way. They don’t want the images out there that show how multi-faceted we are as Black people. Then they have other people that come into the culture and display diversity and different emotions and it becomes genius for them. It’s like the whole beef about Iggy Azalea and Macklemore and Eminem; white folks come into the game and it’s not with just music but when they display diversity it’s cool but they only want us to display one thing one way to get recognition. They want us to be high out of our minds and it’s sad. We play right along with it instead of trying to control our own destiny. We still rely on other people’s money and because you rely on that you have to play their game. We always fall right into the trap like, “As long as I’m getting’ this money it’s all good. I gotta feed my family.” I get it but when does self-preservation come into play? When does self-knowledge and self-respect come into play? Don’t use money as an excuse to say you can’t get respect without money. That’s not true. That’s a fallacy. The images, the music and the visuals now are wack and that’s mainly because there is no diversity.
Which do you love more music or Law?
That’s an easy one, music. That’s what God gave me. That’s my foundation. I’m woven into the fabric. From the time that I can remember my mom telling me I was singing The Spinners, “I’ll Be Around.” I got my first Drum set when I was 4 and began playing lead for the Choir when I was 6. I played the Saxophone in Junior High to eventually becoming an Emcee. I studied the likes of Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, KRS-ONE, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, Ice Cube, Nas, Jay, and Pac. I studied all these ill MC’s. This has always been my joy and passion so hands down its music all day!
What’s your take on the recent outcome in both the Eric Garner and Mike Brown cases?
Come on man it’s all bad business. My thing is; are we surprised? I watched Rodney King get brutalized in the streets of LA on tape back in 1992 and they got off scott free. Am I sad? No and that’s bad that I’m not surprised because how is it that my people always get the short end of the stick in regards to situations and matters like this? The outcome is always the same with regards to justice. This has been going on for 4-500 years so the question is, what are we gonna do about it? Is there gonna be a continuous effort to combat the injustice? Are we just going to take a picture in a hood with our hands up and post it on IG and Facebook and feel like we are doing something? When are we going to make a continuous effort to respect who we are and our culture and change the images that we portray amongst ourselves and when are we going to start demanding justice from others by respecting ourselves first.. When are we gonna build and support our own businesses? When are we gonna start trusting each other and loving each other Black people? When are we gonna become a united front on a continuous basis and not when it’s just a fad? When are we gonna make it a lifestyle? I’m just tired of talking and marching only when it’s convenient. This has to become who we are. These are the questions and concerns that I have and as far as those two cases it’s heartbreaking and gut wrenching but my main concern is what the hell are we gonna do about it on a continuous basis and not just part time?
What do you think about the retaliation against the cops that got shot in NYC?
It’s inhumane and I’m not wit’ it man, period point blank. That’s what I think about going up to two random cops and shooting them and affecting the lives of not only them but their families in retaliation for the injustices in the Eric Garner and Mike Brown. I’m not wit’ it and I’m gonna leave it at that.
On a lighter note what’s next for Tracey Lee and how can the public keep up with you on social media?
I’m gonna keep continuing to push ESQ. The Revelation. There are also some things going on later this year and I plan on being at each and every one of those events for people to be able to experience Tray Lee again. Hopefully you will see me in a city near you on somebody’s stage. Other than that, just raising my daughter and enjoying my family. Stay tuned in 2016 for the follow up to ESQ. The Revelation. You can cop the album once again at Traceyleemusic.com and you can hit me on twitter at @traylee and on Facebook at my fan page at Tracey Lee and on Instagram at @TraceyLeeESQ.
Follow K.B. Tindal on Twitter @KBTindal.