Hip-hop began in the Bronx around twenty-five years ago. Too bad most of us weren’t there. Percee P was however, and he’s bringing back that old New York rap — right in front of Fat Beats.
“I stand right in front of their door and sell my CD,” divulges The Rhyme Inspector of his hand to hand distribution of Now and Then, a greatest hits compilation released in 2001. The CD features gems like his first single, 1988’s “Let the Homicides Begin” with D-Nique the Hypnotic Performer, and “You’re Late” with Kool Keith and Godfather Don (from the 1996 DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito compilation The Cenobites). And with names like Pharaoh Monch, Aesop Rock and Jurassic 5 gracing the track list, Now and Then may finally make the youngest old school cat in hip-hop a household name.
Percee began rhyming in 1979 at age ten. He grew up in the Boogie Down’s Patterson Projects, and by middle school was known as one of the dopest MCs in the Bronx. Before he finished high school, he was a New York legend. Percee went to elementary and middle school in the Bronx, but went to high school in Manhattan, where an influx of students from all over New York took word of his assaulting battle rhymes — some opponents were left crying — back to their boroughs. Percee’s flow — he lays words end to end like dominoes, forming tight angles around whatever beat he’s on — was innovative against the simpler rap style popular in the early eighties, and was instantly influential all over the city. Two of the many MCs admittedly influenced by Percee were Prince Poetry and Pharaoh Monch, who both went to high school with Percee. Pharaoh appears with Percee on the aptly titled 1992 track “Lung Collapsing Lyrics,” on which Percee pushes the limits of breath control.
Walk into any given hip-hop show in New York, and chances are you’ll see Percee there selling his music. “I met Cut Chemist like that,” recalls Percee of his meeting with Jurassic 5’s DJ. At the time, Percee was selling his songs on tape. The meeting resulted in the last addition to Now and Then, a freestyle joint with Jurassic recorded live at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. “This photographer Barney Kulok,” remembers Percee, “approached me and said that he wanted to take some pictures of me for free so he could build a portfolio of hip-hop artists.” Percee complied, then took it a step further: he hooked Barney up with promoter Rocky LaMontagne, so Rocky could introduce Barney to several of the performers he worked with. Rocky liked Barney’s work, and together they developed Project MOVEMENT, a video, photograph and writing project that aims to reform media driven stereotypes of hip-hop. In appreciation for the hook-up with Rocky, Barney bought them two tickets to a J5 show where they spotted Cut Chemist in the lobby. After some reluctance, Percee went to introduce himself to Cut Chemist, using the guise of selling tapes to make the intro easier. “I told him my name was Percee P,” informs Percee. “[Cut Chemist] was like, ‘The Rhyme Inspector Percee P! “Let the Homicides Begin” is one of my favorite records of all time!’” DJ Shadow had hipped Chemist to the song, from which Shadow clipped Percee saying “Napalm! When the bombs activated it mutilates your leg and arms!” for Endtroducing’s “Napalm brain/Scatter Brain.”
The same scenario happened when Percee met Stones Throw Resident Wild Child. “I was at a show and I tried to sell him a tape,” says Percee. “I told him who I was and he said the same thing…’You’re Percee P? The Rhyme Inspector?’” The two wound up collaborating on Wildchild’s recent debut single, “Knickknack 2002.”
Let the Homicides begin” was first aired on New York’s WNWK by station jocks Hank Love and DNA, and became an instant underground hit. Soon after, Red Alert started spinning it on KISS. The success of the song led to a friend setting up Percee’s most famous battle, against DITC denizen Lord Finesse. “It was a tie,” Percee says of the outcome. “But you’ll have to judge for yourself.” Those who want to (believe me, you want to) can, thanks to Edan’s mix CD Fast Rap, which features the rare clash.
In 1990, Lord Sear invited Percee to become on of the first guests on the nascent DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show. Lord Sear first heard of Percee years earlier through Percee’s brother Dice, a well-known local MC. (Dice was taught how to rhyme by their uncle MC Coolly Breeze, then in a crew called the Undefeated Four with T La Rock.) This marked Percee’s first on-air appearance. Impressed, Stretch — then A&R at Big Beat Records — called him the next day. “He told me the head of Big Beat was interested in signing me,” remembers Percee. “They gave me a deal and I released my first EP in ’92, Now They Wanna See Me. That had “Now They Wanna See Me” with DJ Ekim… I wrote his verse on that song, and “Puttin Heads to Bed” and “Lung Collapsing Lyrics” with Pharaoh on it.”
The same year, Lord Finesse recruited his former battle opponent to fill two guest spots on his sophomore effort Return of the Funky Man. Percee appears on “Kicking Flavor With My Man” and “Yes You May”, home of the freestyle Percee kicked on his first appearance on the Stretch and Bobbito show.
Currently Percee has no label backing, but is unfazed by this. “I don’t want to sacrifice being Percee P in order to fit the mold at a big label,” says Percee, content in carrying out guerilla marketing lessons learned from the best of teachers: the MCs and DJs who held jams outside of his building in the Bronx. “They would tape the performances, then sell the tapes at the next jam,” remembers Percee. “There were no records, magazines, internet or radio, so if you got known you earned your spot.” Percee was also recorder ready, and counts several old school jam and battle tapes in his mobile inventory. He was selling and trading the tapes on the internet until recently, when he closed the site for reconstruction; it should be up again shortly.
Percee continues: “I have much more respect for pioneers like Cold Crush cause they had it much harder. They were out there dragging around their own equipment and risking getting robbed just to perform. That’s part of why I’m doing things this way — I even burn each CD myself at home.” His grassroots appeal has made him somewhat of a tourist attraction. “People from all around the world come to Fat Beats to buy music,” says Percee. “Some people stop by just to meet me or take a picture with me.”
With a recent tour with Jurassic 5 under his belt, Percee seems poised for breakthrough success. Still, Percee represents “old school” like an aerosolled Lee jacket and he has plenty to say about the state of the culture he watched emerge. “You could look at Rakim wearing the chains and maybe think he was a hustler,” Percee prompts, “but if he was he didn’t talk about it. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five talked about crime and drugs but they didn’t glorify it. Now, all these rappers talk about is ‘I’m a thug’ and they sound ignorant cause they know better… When Public Enemy was out those so-called thugs was playing ‘Don’t Believe the Hype.’”
“We need to teach youth, black youth especially, the true meaning of our culture,” Percee insists. “Most people think what they see on TV is true, so because of these videos people think black men are thugs and black women are hos. We need to preserve the history,” comments Percee, adding the ominous warning: “If we don’t, we could be written out of it. Right now a lot of white people are moving into the Bronx and since hip-hop started in the Bronx, five hundred years from now people could easily be led to believe Kool Herc was a white man with braids.”
History played a large part in the making of Now and Then. “I know that a lot of people are going to hear about me through the stuff with J5 and Wildchild” says Percee. But in the spirit of hip-hop’s dying crowd participation element, Percee put a lot of his hard to find classics on the CD “so all the younger heads will know the words at my shows.”