Now they wanna see him
- James McNally
- Hip Hop Connection
- September 09, 2007
1989, the South Bronx. Percee P, 19 - a dweller of the Patterson projects since the age of three - has been getting a little shine. It maybe seems about time.
He's been rapping a decade and, before that, observing hip-hop's meteoric development - since 1973 - in the park directly below his eighth floor window. Not that it was like watching that shit on a TV screen.
You see, Percee's got an uncle, Jesse. And Jesse goes by the name Cooley Breeze. And Jesse's got a friend, Terry. And Terry goes by the name T La Rock. And this bunch of friends Jesse had when Percee was a kid, they went by the name of the Undefeated Force. And this was before T had even dreamt of breaking any bells, so, you'll understand, Percee has some kind of lineage in this.
There he'd be, a whippersnapper at his grandma's house, 997 Morris Avenue. Jesse'd be there, Terry'd be there, and the rest of the crew - a gathering of somebodys, pockets doubtless fat on feminine phone number scrawl, even if they weren't overflowing with dough; self-made somebodys, who could perhaps just as well have been nobodies were it not for this remarkable outburst of invention called hip-hop.
Percee would get ushered out as soon as the cheeba arrived, but something amidst the fug of jam tapes must've stuck.
'Cos here Percee is, 19. His own man, getting his own little shine, no longer a wax virgin. Last year - thanks to a kind word from his friend Aaron D - Percee and his boy D-Nique cut a record called 'Let The Homicides Begin', and it appeared on a compilation called 'BQ In Full Effect'. Hank Love played it. Red Alert played it. He was up there on the radio next to Salt-N-Pepa and Kid-N-Play - all the Ns. But Percee clearly wasn't them. His flow is relentless and intense in its internal rhymes and rhythms, and he wields chemical reactions like weapons, deadly and funky.
And now Percee's sitting here in Patterson projects watching Video Music Box, having had a little start, having got a little shine, unaware that he's about to play the second move in a long game that will ultimately crown him the great lost rhyme genius of golden era rap.
A KID CALLED ROB - THE BATTLE WITH LORD FINESSE
"Lord Finesse ain't even know me then," says Percee. "I made a record before he did - he made his first record in '89, I did mine in '88. But basically it was just people in the project hyped it up. It wasn't like, 'Who's Percee P? I wanna battle him' - it wasn't like that. It was just dudes that we knew. Everyone's coming round saying, 'He wanna battle you' to the point where I go outside and say, 'Who's this dude looking for me?' So I go around his project - Forrest project - me and my partner D-Nique, like:
'What's up - you ever heard of Finesse? Well tell him Percee P was looking for him.' And I'd kick little rhymes for them just so they could tell him, 'Yo! This kid was spitting some rhymes!'"
What happened next?
"Like, a week later, I was at my man Woo's house. We was just watching videos, sitting around listening to hip-hop tapes. Next thing we know: 'Yo! Woo!' He looked out the window and it was AG with Lord Finesse [Note: AG then went by the name Dre Smooth and, though he was from Patterson, rolled with Finesse]. 'Yo!
Perc' up here?' 'Yeah, he in here.' I looked out the window - there was lots of people out there. It was like, 'Yeah! It's finally gonna happen!' - 'cos they'd all been talking about it in my projects. D-Nique was like, 'Hold on, let me go get my radio'. And I had this 45 King beat tape I used to always carry around with me, just to write rhymes to [Note: The battle was conducted over a 45 King loop of 'Funky Drummer']. But the smartest thing we did, before we went to the battle, my man Dave went and got his camcorder, so that's how we got it on tape. Otherwise it woulda just been a fable, like, 'Yeah, yeah, we had a battle'."
What was your frame of mind?
"Well, I was confident, because I believed in my skills."
Watching the footage [which is on the DVD SBX, unedited] it's crazy because an ice cream van just turns up, with its jingle blaring for about ten minutes...
"That's stuff that goes on in the 'hood. 'Cos any time you see a crowd you gonna have somebody who's trying to make money. So the ice cream truck saw all these people standing around, just pulls up... But it really was disturbing us because of the din."
Did that throw you off? [Note: not long after its arrival, Percee seems to stumble and you can hear Finesse chiding him off camera.]
"I mean, I was rhyming, but I was like, 'Damn, people are not focusing because of this.' But I just kept going. We should've said, 'Yo, let's take this somewhere else - let's go over here. We'll hear the rhymes more clearly.' And added to that too, I'll say that when I battled him, I shoulda been doing what he was doing. He was rhyming towards the camera, I was rhyming at him. So his audio seemed to me more louder than mine, because he was rhyming at the mic - and I should'a did the same thing. Even though I was battling him, I should'a been saying the rhyme to the camera so people could make sure the audio was caught. I don't think I was heard clearly always."
You and Finesse had very different rhyme styles.
"Yeah, but you know what? I would still say the same thing - the third verse of my battle was my first record 'Let The Homicides Begin'. The second verse is 'Lung Collapsing Lyrics'."
THE STYLE YOU HAVEN'T DONE YET
It's tempting to say that watching Percee P and Lord Finesse in the Patterson projects battle is like seeing rap DNA encoded. As with all great moments in rap history, you inevitably want to read more into it than there perhaps is; to see it as a splitting of the species, the definition of all that's to come. As such, on one side you have Finesse, the Fisherman hat rocking daddy of '90s punch-line pugilism. His rock-hard, no-shadow-of-a-doubt self-assurance and smart, remorseless jibes setting the scene for everyone from Chino XL to Big L. On the other, there's Percee, tall and statesmanlike.
A rap surgeon. His relentless flow, more jazzy, less punchy than the Funkyman's, and concerned primarily with twisting out your brain rather than creasing you up. In his transformation of hard science into guerilla warfare you can hear future trails leading to everyone from Organized Konfusion and Ras Kass to Edan and Company Flow. Sure, Finesse might have edged the battle on the crowd-response tip - as punch-line pugilists often do - but it doesn't make Percee's performance any less astounding.
But the idea of the rap year zero is often a fallacy. Before Percee arrived on the hip-hop record, there was Kool Keith - certainly no father to Percee's style, but still an intelligent emcee with his head in a science book, whose influence has been felt immensely by the brainiac rap pack. And before that, both men had direct forebears in terms of flow and intelligence - and the same, of course, goes for Finesse. So we shouldn't think of Percee and Finesse as daddies of anybody's style. More, funky uncles. Just like Jesse.
When you started rhyming did you let your uncle know, or were you quite shy with it?
"My oldest brother and them, they knew. And because my mom's got six kids, my brother under me - Freddy, we're only one year apart so me and him used to rhyme together. We were called The Vicious Two MCs. I gave him his name: Royal King G - RKG. He still use KG to this very day. And we used to kinda sing out our routines like the Force MCs and Cold Crush style - back and forth."
So how did you start developing your own style?
"Listening to people like Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous Three, T La Rock, of course... Fearless Four - you heard them? They was on some next level, the type of words they was using, the bigger vocabulary. I like the song called 'Fearless Freestyle'. It was on the same record as 'Problems Of The World' [Their 1983 single, produced by Kurtis Blow.] It was just a non-stop record, all of them rhyming real long rhymes, then straight onto the next emcee. But stuff like that and Melle Mel on BEAT STREET - you know how he's just using a lot of words and sounding intelligent. I looked up to that, like 'This is dope!'
"So I started going to school and looking at the words a bit more. In science class the teacher would say something and I'd be like, 'Oh, let's flip this into a rhyme'. Then as time went on, I started developing my patterns and flows and cadences, you know, adding my signature, patent it - put the 'P' on the end, and people know it's me when I'm spitting."
Though your output was quite sporadic and you didn't have an album back then, do you feel like you've been influential?
"Yeah, I can see. And I can listen, and hear it. And people tell me about certain artists: 'Yo! Listen to the flows! You was doing that!' People say it when they heard Big Pun, God bless him. But they say he almost sound like my flow, if you listen to my verse on 'Yes You May' [From Lord Finesse's 'Return Of The Funkyman'] next to some of his stuff. I'm not disrespecting him, because I think he was a dope lyricist, but I heard some things. And he probably had to hear me, because he got on from Fat Joe, and Fat Joe was down with Lord Finesse - and he was from the Bronx...
"Plus, I got Hip-Hop Quotable in THE SOURCE and I was on Stretch & Bobbito when artists was trying to get their names out there - he probably heard me! So a lot of times, yeah, I feel like I probably have influenced people."
BACK TO THE LONG GAME
Sometimes things just don't pan out how you might expect. That tall, statesmanlike kid with the wig-twisting science? He didn't exactly lose his shine. But while his opponent in that battle turned in two LPs in three years, Percee ducked out of sight for a moment, only to resurface a couple of years later - via an appearance on that same opponent's album - with another quick-fire burst of future-rap fable, before slipping back into the shadows to regroup. Each assured move, like a random rap bullet-point punctuating the '90s, though doing nothing in the short term to leverage him into a position of rap-based financial self-sufficiency. So, the bullet-points:
* 1992: Two guest verses on Lord Finesse's covetable sophomore, 'Return Of The Funkyman'.
* 1992: The highly collectable Percee P & Ekim sure-shot 'Now They Wanna See Me', featuring 'Lung Collapsing Lyrics'.
* 1995: A ferocious guest appearance alongside Kool Keith on 'You're Late' (arguably the best track on Keith and Godfather Don's 'Cenubites' EP).
* 1996: Shazam X produced solo shocker 'Don't Cum Strapped'.
Then in the mid-'90s fate - and Percee - conspired to play the move that would set the cogs in motion towards some kind of belated recognition (and, notably, something that looks by comparison like a frenzy of creative output). Percee was out of a job, but he had a large collection of old school jam tapes, so he decided to hawk them on the street: "I was just looking at it as survival. I'm like, 'I need to get some money, I ain't got no job, so this is my job.'"
So, setting up shop outside Fat Beats - figuring their clientele, mid indie-boom, would be more receptive to the L Brothers at Harlem World, than would, say, that office girl who's dipping into Virgin on her way to Starbucks to pick up the cassingle of 'I'll Be Missing You' - Percee found that people would be like 'That Percee P?' when they asked his name. So, soon his own greatest not-quite-hits compilations were getting hawked alongside the Cold Crush. And as a result, 'Let The Homicides Begin' has to be one of the most widely disseminated sub-2000 pressing late '80s New York rap records that's never had a repress.
But it was also a great way for that tall kid with the wig-twisting science to make connections with a generation of artists who seriously revered him. It's how he met Jurassic 5 - with whom he recorded the neo-fast rap classic 'Day At The Races' alongside Big Daddy Kane. And it's how he met Madlib, Wildchild, DJ Romes and Peanut Butter Wolf, with whom Percee made an enduring bond. He's now left Patterson projects for California and is an integral part of Wolf's Stones Throw's touring family. And Percee's debut album - the aptly titled 'Perseverance', produced by Madlib - is finally about to drop via Stones Throw, 19 years after Percee popped his wax cherry.
"Maybe it wasn't meant for me to come out years ago," he rationalises. "Maybe it was meant for me to see how long I can last. And maybe me doing that can inspire other people to say, 'Damn, this dude - even though he been around so long, he never came out. Look how long it's taken him to get where he's at, but he's still doing tours and doing shows.' I never switched up style to get in with the record business. I waited for a label that wanted me to do what I wanted to do; rhyme how I wanted to rhyme. Put out the songs that I wanted to do."
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+ Our cassette store day tapes Jaylib, Quasimoto, PBW & DF, Vivians, Ssaliva, Dem Hunger, Sun Araw & Matthewdavid
+ Vivians – Mndsgn and Koreatown Oddity
+ The Nice Price Sealed original tapes by De La Soul, RBL Posse, Blowfly, The Time and Souls of Mischief at Stones Throw's Cassette Store Day
+ Stones Throw Hip-Hop night – LA, Nov. 19 and SF, Nov. 22