Tracey Lee hit the hip-hop scene heavy in 1997 with The THEME (It's Party Time) and it moved the crowd. The Philly native and Howard University grad ran in the same music industry circles as Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, R&B group Shai, and D-Dot The Madd Rapper. When his music label dropped him in 2001, he was humbled, but not defeated.
The passion for music never left Lee, but his mission to learn the business changed the trajectory of his life. In an exclusive interview with AXS, Lee offers sound advice and new music. Lee spoke with AXS on Monday, November 24, 2014.
Signed to Universal Records out of Howard University in 1996, Lee was in the music mecca at the right time. Howard University was where Sean Combs touched down, R&B group Shai was discovered, and music industry heavyweights found each other.
When I was in the game as an artist back in 96/97. I was coming in green I was coming in from the aspect that I just wanted my music to be heard. I wanted people to put their ear in it and love what Tracey Lee, the artist, was doing. And that was really the extent of it. I didn't really think about the business aspect of it which was what I should have done.
You live and you learn. Hindsight is 20-20. Through my experience as an artist and not understanding fully the business and not feeling like there were people with my best interests working around me, I felt it was important to take a step back and learn this from the business side. Understand the jargon of what's inside of a contract. Not only for myself in future, but for the people coming behind me.
I felt like I did not have that type of guidance at the particular time. I have flipped this a thousand times. I don't blame anybody for it...whereas I used to blame, now it's like a lesson learned and something I had to go through to get me to this point right now.
Raised in the city of brotherly love, Tracey first fell in love with hip-hop at 9 years old when he heard Sugar Hill Gang’s, "Rappers Delight". Tracey then wrote his first rhyme when he was 11 years old and knew he wanted to be an entertainer and successful emcee.
I was attempting to get signed since I was 14 years old. I was fixated on getting a record deal...getting a record deal. I sent a demo to Salt-N-Pepa's label. It was probably raggedy, made in somebody's basement. When I went to Howard I thought that dream was dead. So I was focused on going to college and getting a regular job.
I was at Howard from '88 to '92. My first semester there, I ran into Derrick Angeletti, also know as D-Dot...The Mad Rapper, a intricate part of me getting my deal. I saw him rhyming on campus one day, him and this dude named Chyna Black. From that point on, it went from me wanting a record deal to giving up, and back to wanting to get signed.
It sparked something in me that said, 'This is my destiny. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.' And I never lost the itch.
After graduating from Howard University with a degree in Communications, Tracey inked a recording deal with Bystorm, a subsidiary of Universal Records founded by music industry executive, Mark Pitts. The Theme, which settled on Billboard’s Top 100 for thirty-seven weeks, was an immediate smash and catapulted Tracey to stardom overnight.
All praises due to Howard university...a lot of things flowed from Howard University. Sean "Diddy Combs", Mark Pitts (Diddy's understudy), Derrick Angeletti, and a lot of other great people were there. Mark Pitts and I came in together.
Puff went to Uptown and started Bad Boy. Mark was working for Puff, and landed in a situation where he was managing the late great Notorious BIG. From that point he (Pitts) went and got a deal with Universal Records called Bystorm, I was the first hip hop artist that he signed. That was on the strength of knowing me from campus and Derrick Angeletti basically being in Mark's ear like 'Yo, I think you should sign him.'
When they were pursuing me, I was also signed to Carl Martin who was a member of the group Shai, and he had a deal up under MCA. Mark got me out of the situation with Carl and got me signed to Bystorm. It was a life long dream come true. My name was L rock before I got signed and then Mark and DDot were like call yourself Tracey Lee. Be who you are. It was great.
Many artists are hustling, trying to get on, but they bypass furthering their educations, thinking it will hold them back. Many legends in the music industry have college degrees. Lee speaks about how going to Howard University impacted his entry into the music industry:
It was the greatest networking. School is not only for the educational value, but it is also the greatest networking tool that I have encountered in my life. Because without me going to Howard University I would have never met these great people.
Getting down to business
As a rising star in hip-hop, Tracey had the opportunity to be a part of some amazing collaborations with award-winning artists such as Busta Rhymes, Kanye West and the popular "Keep Ya Hands High" collaboration with Notorious B.I.G.:
That was the most incredible experience for me as a signed artist. During our session, BIG taught me more about the game than I had known at that particular time. He was the first artist that I witnessed write without a pen and paper, which inspired me to eventually write lyrics in my head (without pen, paper, Blackberry, Android, iPad, etc…). His skill-set on the mic is unmatched to this day.
With his album, Many Facez garnering attention, Lee admittedly took his eyes off his business:
During my negotiations, at that particular time, I didn't have much money. So, I went out and got a lawyer. Wasn't an entertainment lawyer, it was a lawyer. So that was the first mistake. ..because this particular lawyer did not specialize in the entertainment field. He understood contracts, but didn't understand entertainment contracts, specifically, the contract of a record deal. So, when you start talking about percentages and publishing, I'm sure now, looking in hindsight, that that stuff went right over his head.
I wound up signing away 50% of my publishing for $10,000.00. For you to sign away something that could be residual income for the rest of your life, that doesn't weigh out. These are the things I wasn't paying attention to because other things were masking the situation.
By masking the situation I mean, the carte blanche treatment...the limos...the women...the show money. Luckily, I had sense enough to put some money away. But these are the things I allowed to blind me to other aspects of the business.
For example, not only with the lawyer situation but with my management. I don't think that I went through the proper process to getting a manager that could talk in my best interest with he label, that could get me endorsement deals.... I didn't do my due diligence because I had my crew co-managing me along with D-Dot, which was like a conflict of interest because he was also the guy that brought me to the table with the label. So he's working with me, but also mingling with the label. Now that I'm looking at it, those two entities should be separate.
I didn't pay attention to this because I was focused on the music. Which in an ideal world that's how it should be, but this is a business and the reality is you should probably focus more on the business than the music.
When it all fell down
When I was signed to Universal, we actually had created a new album called Live from the 215. Everything was done on the album, it was about fourteen...fifteen songs, maybe more than that, about seventeen songs on there. It had guest appearances from the likes of The MADD Rapper to Kurrupt to Black Rob. It was done in like '99. We serviced something for the streets with a song called "Go 'head," and put out a single called "We like".
Shot a video for it down in Atlanta. Brian Barber, the video director for Outkast shot the video. Had Ludacris in the video, this was at the beginning stages of his career, and also Lil Jon was in the video at the beginning stages of his career, so we were setting ourselves up to be competitive in the marketplace. Put the video out, serviced the video, I think about September or October, by January they gave me my walking papers.
The first quarter of 2001, saying, 'Your services are no longer needed here.' And it came out of the blue. I was like, 'Wait a minute. We just put all this money into this record and we're ready to put it on he shelves and you drop me?'
But now, I understand, from a business perspective, that things are done in quarters. They needed that as a write-off. They've got so many acts under their umbrella, they need to balance the books. Everything can't win...so they need to put money into things that are winning.
At the time, I was coming out with my second record, they also had Nelly and they also had Cash Money. Those were the cash cows so anything else...If they could get a coupe of singles... if they throw it up against the wall and it sticks...then you milk the cow 'til it's dry and you drop 'em.
They have to balance their books, and I can say I was a victim of that. But I can say that record didn't get a fair shot, it wasn't distributed, it wasn't properly promoted.
Back then, I didn't understand that, but now I do.
Once I got dropped, to be quite frank, I went back to my mom's house. I stayed there about a month or two, and then she came up to my sleeping quarters which was the attic. It was laid out. I was starting to get a little comfortable and she said, 'You know, you gotta go.' I said, 'Huh?' She said, 'I don't care where you go, but you've gotta get out of here.' And that was the greatest thing she could have done.
Lee moved from his mom's home to room with his brother in Atlanta. While there, he started working for a furniture company moving furniture. One day a fan recognized him, as he was moving his TV or couch, saying he'd just seen his video recently. Undoubtedly, a humbling experience. Even more humbling was the day Lee's money ran out. He was already considering law school, to learn the inner-workings of the music industry, and his brother had left for grad school.
I'm a very spiritual person. I'm talking to God every day. Like show me the way, give me some guidance, show me what I need to do.
It just clicked. It just dawned on me. I was still working on my music at the time. I had made a record called, "Ready willing and able," I paid for it out of my pocket...well actually I paid for some of it. Then my good friend, Marlon Wayans, who also went to Howard, he funded half of what I was trying to do.
I started distributing the record on my own...I was my own entity. Now it dawned on me...based off of all I'd gone through, 'You need to certify yourself, you need to evoke acclimated to all that goes on in the business sense. Not just for yourself, but for everyone who needs proper guidance. Who better to give it to them,than somebody who had mild success at what they're doing? They'll respect you for it because you are them.'
That's when I decided hey about 2001, that I'm going to go to law school. But I was like hey, how are you going to pay for it?
This is a testament to God and what He has done in my life. I was down to like two dollars...I went to church and I put my last two dollars--I didn't know where my next money was coming from--in the plate, and I said, 'Lord this is all that I got. So I'm trusting You to show me the way and be able to provide,' and all that other stuff.
I swear to you the next week, I get a call from Wayne Barrow, who is Mark Pitts' business partner. Saying, 'You have some publishing money at Universal, I don't know how much it is but you might want to give them a call.' I give them a call, they say, 'Yeah you have a check that's been laying here for a couple of years.' They send me a check and it's about 65-70 thousand dollars. So I took that money and I used that money to go ahead and transition. I moved to Louisiana and went to Southern University to go to law school.
That's how Lee went from music artist to attorney. He encourages young artists to not be blinded by the fame, and to study the business more than they study their rhymes. His key points are:
- Do your due diligence. Know what you're getting into.
- Make sure your management has no conflicts of interest with respect to representing you.
- Know the industry.
- Understand what you're signing.
- Hire competent legal help.
- Tap into multiple streams of income (e.g., digital streaming, endorsements, merchandising, etc.)
- Be wise with your money.
- Always make good music.
- Consider going independent first, to leverage your position in the industry when dealing with labels.
Lee decided to return as an independent artist under the LLeft Entertainment label, a company he co-owns with his wife, Lori Nelson Lee. On ESQ. The Revelation, Tracey worked with fellow Howard alum Eric Roberson on two songs, "Howard Girls" and "The Hunger". DJ and Grammy award-winning Engineer, Young Guru produced "Devil’s Advocate". Guru also did the scratches on the single entitled, "Pro Bono."
The album also highlights two up and coming artists; Bryan Pace, who performed and produced "Weight and Vision," and Ms.Cherokee aka Em Cee, who performed on "Back Home." The inspiration for ESQ. The Revelation comes from Tracey’s love of the art and culture of hip-hop, as well as his spirituality, which he attributes to guiding him on this path to fulfilling his God–given duties. His final inspiration comes from his daughter, Tanner Lee. “As she begins her journey in life, I want her to see what her daddy does not what her daddy used to do,” states Tracey.