Published Sun, December 12, 2021 at 1:00 PM EST
Like many aspiring rappers coming of age in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s, Tracey Lee realized the power of the city’s DJs, who are considered by many among the best of all time. The Fresh Prince had Jazzy Jeff. MC Marvelous had Cash Money. Schoolly D had Code Money. Steady B had Tat Money. In addition to providing a powerful musical connection in the studio, the DJ helped Philly rappers in another significant way.
“Because the DJ presence was so strong in Philly and that’s what we were known for, it provided a foundation for the show,” Tracey Lee says. “Philly MCs always put on a fantastic and a dynamic show to me because the DJ is so strong. It enabled that kind of chemistry [between the rapper and the DJ], and the showmanship to illuminate even more because you can play off of something or somebody that are spinning these records.”
Tracey Lee kept all that in mind as he crafted what would become his debut album, 1997’s Many Facez. Much of the project is street-centered and shows off Tracey’s lyrical and storytelling abilities. But he became famous for “The Theme (It’s Party Time),” a festive, feel-good track. Built off several samples, including “Mt. Airy Groove” a 1982 cut by Philadelphia R&B group Pieces Of A Dream, “The Theme” stands as Tracey Lee’s biggest hit and his signature song.
“In Philly, it was a home run and I knew it would be,” says Tracey Lee, who was joined on stage by DJ Parlay. “When you first hear the scratches, it's automatic. They know where that’s coming from. But stylistically in regards to the performance, of course the hook is call and response all day. Even, ‘It’s party time.’ That’s a go-go reference right there.”
Tracey Lee’s aunt lived in Temple Hills, Maryland, about four miles Southeast of Washington, DC, the epicenter of go-go, and was a fan of the music. Then, one of his classmates showed him the video of Go Go Live at the Capital Centre, a landmark 1987 go-go concert in Landover, Maryland. It was a transformative moment.
“Oh my God,” Tracey Lee says. “That is what turned me out. That’s the tape that made me be like, ‘Oh, I'm definitely going to D.C. I'm definitely going to Howard.’ It just turned me on to another culture.”
While studying at Howard University, Tracey Lee met Deric “D-Dot” Angellitie and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, then-emerging producers who took him under their wing. The future Bad Boy Entertainment superproducers crafted “The Theme (It’s Party Time)” and D-Dot served as associate executive producer of Many Facez.
“D-Dot and Amen-Ra taught me how to make records,” Tracey Lee says. “I can give you the bars and all that other stuff. I can do all the acrobatics. I could do the double and triples, all of that. But how many people can make records? That's a science. It's a science. That's what D-Dot and Amen-Ra taught me: how to make records. Period. So we make records, and records last a lifetime.”
Another standout from Many Facez is “Keep Your Hands High,” an oft-sampled and referenced duet with The Notorious B.I.G.
“I'm forever joined at the hip with the big fella,” Tracey Lee says. “I'm glad to be in that position because, Number One, not many can say that. Number two, he hit me with the fire, fire feature. Number three, just our conversations, man. He taught me a lot about the game at that particular time. He showed me some things that I had never seen before from an artist that was at the top of the food chain.”
Biggie’s outlook on the future wasn’t what Tracey Lee expected.
“He wasn't trying to rap forever,” Tracey Lee says. “He was looking from a business perspective and that's something I had never thought about back then. I wanted to be the illest MC in the world. But he's like, ‘Look. After I fulfill my [contractual recording] agreement, I’m out. I've got some other things that I'm doing.’ Not to say that he would stop rhyming, but it’s just other ventures within the game that you don’t discover until you’re in the game and until you get past a certain point. I was at the beginning stages of that, so to be able to get that from somebody who's the crème de la crème at the time, it resonates a little more.”
Even with the success of “The Theme (It’s Party Time)” and Many Facez, Tracey Lee’s career soon sputtered. He got in the game a little later than most MCs, so by the time he and Universal Records parted ways in 2001, Tracey Lee was 31. He had lived life, going through the struggles of being a college student and then an emerging artist waiting for his deal. Then he touched stardom, enjoyed a hit song, and traveled the country.
It took Tracey a while to focus and when he did, he enrolled at law school at Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He graduated and is now the only rapper that he’s ever heard of that went from a major label deal to becoming an entertainment attorney.
Now based in Maryland, he represents a wide range of clients whom he helps navigate through the music industry. Tracey Lee still releases music, too, including his acclaimed 2020 LP and accompanying book, Glory. His new single “Butter Soft” has already gotten play on Urban AC stations in Washington, DC and New York. It’s the type of song, similar to LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl,” that could be viewed as “mature rap,” something that would appeal to someone in their 30s and 40s as much as a younger listener.
“I just think it widens the scope and it gives more seasoned artists an opportunity to create a lane for themselves and [reengage and expand their fanbase],” Tracey Lee says. “Now you can go into these markets and get shows and all that other stuff. It widens the scope and gives cats that are more seasoned an opportunity to get out here and still stick with their fan base.”