Despite having spent most of his formative years far beyond the Capital Beltway, Tracey Lee’s name rings out in Washington, D.C. Like thousands of other transplants, the city welcomed him with open arms, functioning as a springboard for an admirable career and livelihood. His 1997 debut single, “The Theme (It’s Party Time),” is still one of the few rap songs released by a D.C. resident, native or otherwise, to make an impact nationwide. Fresh home from a business trip overseas, Tracey opened up about his fascination with go-go culture, attending law school and recording with The Notorious B.I.G. — Harold Stallworth
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Buffalo, but raised in Philadelphia. But I’ve been in D.C. since I came to Howard [University] in 1988.
How long have you been rapping?
I wrote my first rhyme when I was 11 or 12. I mean, I fell in love with the music instantly when I heard “Rapper’s Delight.” I was probably 9 when that dropped.
You were living in Philadelphia at this point?
When “Rapper’s Delight” dropped, I was actually in Louisiana. My mom moved out to New Orleans for a second. Then we moved to Philadelphia in 1980. But when I first started rhyming I was already in Philly.
A lot people seem to remember you as a D.C. guy. What’s you connection to Washington?
It definitely stems from me going to Howard. But if you think about it, I’ve been in D.C. for most of my life. I came to D.C. when I was like 17 years old. I graduated in four years and [remained] out here until I signed my deal in 1996 with Universal. I moved around a bit. After I got my deal, I moved to New York. After that, I wound up moving to Atlanta for a second. Then I went to law school in Baton Rouge, back in Louisiana.
Which law program did you attend?
I attended the Southern University Law Center. Once I finished school, I was so engulfed in the culture here in D.C. that I returned. I became a man out here, so it was just a natural connection. People automatically assumed I was from here.
That’s not a common transition for a rapper. What made you decide to pursue law?
When I signed my deal, my main goal was to get on. I didn’t think about the business aspect. I didn’t think about how signing over 50% of my publishing is a big deal. It was those kinds of situations [that pushed me towards law school]. Even for my deal, I hired a lawyer who didn’t specialize in entertainment. He was a licensed attorney, but he didn’t understand the jargon of a recording contract. Right before Universal let me go, it dawned on me that I didn’t know enough about the business. That was the motivation for me to go to law school.
Who did you work with over at Universal?
I was signed to Bystorm Universal. Bystorm was a subsidiary of Universal, which was run by Mark Pitts, who also went to Howard University. He was an understudy, for lack of a better term, of Puff [Daddy]. Mark went from being under the Bad Boy umbrella and managing [The Notorious] B.I.G. to getting his own at Universal. I was the first hip-hop artist that he signed under the label.
Is that how your collaboration with B.I.G., “Keep Your Hands High,” came about?
Yep, it was because Mark managed him. He had been promising me that from the time I signed my deal. It took a couple of months, but he made it happen.
Were you in the studio with B.I.G. when he recorded his verses?
We built that song from the ground up. We did the session at D&D Studios in New York. That’s DJ Premier’s studio. B.I.G. was in the session before I even got there—indulging in libations and things like that. [Laughs] So I just jump right in, drinking a little bit and joking around. He’s telling me the war stories about him being a signed artist and what his plans were after he fulfilled his obligations [with Bad Boy]. He just dropped a lot of jewels on me within that eight-hour span. It was definitely a collaborative effort between the both of us. I bounced an idea off him and he ran with it. That was it, and the rest is history.
Were you surprised at all when Jay-Z remade “Keep Your Hands High” six years later on The Black Album?
Well, I was surprised that no one reached out to me about my publishing! I still haven’t gotten a phone call from anybody. I guess he made that song under Def Jam, and that’s under the Universal umbrella, so they cleared it with somebody. But they didn’t clear it with me, and I still own a piece of that publishing. You definitely want to write that in your story. So they can holler at us about cutting a check.
But from a creative aspect, I wasn’t surprised. Those were some of the greatest lyrics I ever heard B.I.G. spit. I’m not just saying that just because it was on my record. A lot of people out there will attest to the same thing. At first, I didn’t believe it. But after going back and really dissecting what he was saying—it was crazy. He was talking a lot of truth in that record, and the way he put the words together was incredible.
I’ll never get tired of telling this story. B.I.G. was the first person I ever saw… I’m not talking about a “top of the head” situation, but he wrote these lyrics without using a pen and pad. He took eight hours piecing it together in his head. He kept suggesting to me that he was ready [to record]. I was looking at him like he was crazy. He was like: “Nah, I can’t write it down. It’s confuses me. When I’m trying to spit it in the booth and read it at the same time, I can’t do it.”
At first, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now I understand because I adopted that same method. B.I.G. was ill because he had a way of choosing words. He learned how to say more by saying less. He used syllables better than anyone I’ve ever heard. So I always have to pay homage to B.I.G.
Being that D.C. is considered a go-go city—especially throughout the 80’s and 90’s—did that make things more difficult for you?
Not at all. The hip-hop scene was incredible man. A lot of people came through D.C. at that particular time. The go-go scene is just what it is. That’s the culture of D.C. and I respect it to the fullest. I respect the “bandmanship.” I love bands. This is one of the few cities that still really uphold the talent of a band.
The go-go scene was deep rooted here, but the hip-hop was crazy too. I ran into a lot of people at that time. Big Tigger was heavy on the scene out here. He had come down from The Bronx, but he had been out here. I think he went to the University of Maryland. I ran into him and Mad Skillz plenty of times in cyphers. A lot of artists came through here. That’s one of the reasons I got signed.
At Howard, we had something called “Cultural Initiative,” which organized a hip-hop conference every year. Anybody you can possibly name came through, from Tupac to Common to Pharoahe Monch to EPMD. I didn’t go to New York to get my deal. My deal came through being embedded in the culture here in D.C. Rightfully so, go-go is synonymous with the city. But the hip-hop scene was also very heavy back then.
You’re an entertainment lawyer now, right?
I’m very selective about my clients because I have so many things going on. I have an entertainment company with my wife called LLeft Entertainment. Our mantra is “when mainstream goes right, we go left.” We provide music, movies and television programming that give people an alternative to what’s in the mainstream. I think one of the problems is that [consumers] don’t have enough variety. In addition to LLeft, I’m working on a new album and practicing entertainment law. I just negotiated a deal for my sister for a reality show that will be broadcast on BET in 2014.
When are you planning on releasing the album?
We have a projected date of July 4th. We’ll probably push it back to get the anticipation up a little more. But in an ideal world, we’re looking at a July 4th date for Est. That’s the name of the album. It’s going to take you on a journey of what Tracey Lee has been doing. It’s pretty much an autobiography. I’m going to attempt to answer as many questions as possible with this album. It’s going to be entertaining too. We still like to party a little bit.