NOBODY CAN ACCUSE Rhyme Inspector Percee P of jumping in too early. After growing up at the epicenter of hip-hop, then recording with a dizzying array of artists for nearly two decades, the rapper is just now releasing his first full-length solo album with beats and production handled by the equally revered and insanely inventive Madlib. The first single from the album, "Put It on the Line," has circulated among vinyl addicts for the past year. It's a staunch reminder of how hard Percee hits: "I'm a sweet lover, but don't sleep, brother." No other MC has waited as long to record a debut, but what Percee's done in the meantime has made him a legend.
To appreciate how far the rapid-fire MC has come, one must understand the hip-hop environment as it was during the early 1970s. When DJ Kool Herc set up equipment at New York City parks to play music for the neighborhood in 1973, the pre-school-aged Percee was witness to the beginnings of what would become the dominant pop music of today. "When he did that," Percee explains, "it inspired [Grandmaster] Flash, [Afrika] Bambaataa and [Grand Wizard] Theodore to do the same around their way." These names, along with Jazzy Jay, Ricky Dee, the Starlight Crew, Disco B and the Fabulous 4 may be unfamiliar to younger hip-hop fans, but at the time they were superstars for their performances in nightclubs and at outdoor parties. "They weren't on vinyl, but they'd already made a name for themselves."
The second of Yvonne Harley's six children, John Percy Simon grew up in the Patterson projects where his mom still lives today. "My building was right in front of the park, so I could look out my bedroom window, see what people were doing and hear the music," he says. "My mom moved to the projects when I was three years old, so I actually saw all of this growing up. Around my immediate area in the south Bronx, you could stand on the roof and see other projects two blocks away or across the street from each other. So just imagine-all those projects had jams in their parks too. And that wasn't even the whole borough."
His family always called him by his middle name, so when he started rhyming in 1979, Percy became Percee, an emulation of older artists such as Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee. Percee learned to blazed ahead of the competition, and his listeners would just have to catch up.
The rest of the 1990s saw the bulk of Percee collaborations. He appeared on two tracks, "Yes You May" and "Kicking Flavor with My Man," with former rival Lord Finesse, then went on to work with the Cenubites, Vakill and Rhymefest from the Molemen crew, C-Rayz Walz and Jurassic 5. These tracks appeared on the compilation Legendary Status, released in 2005, but Percee had previously hustled them face-to-face.
He's fabled for standing outside the New York record store Fats Beats, peddling mixtapes, often to the surprise of other artists and fans. "People would say, 'What are you doing?" But to Percee, the do-it-yourself philosophy is absolute. He prefers to connect with fans directly because "only you validate your worth. People treat you how they meet you." In this fashion, he's made crucial connections (Wildchild, Cut Chemist) and seen burgeoning MCs rise (Jin, Immortal Technique). In his mind, being so accessible is common sense. "Some might talk about me in the past tense, but being out there let's people know I still rhyme. I put pride to the side just so people can hear what I have to offer."
Percee drives the point home by suggesting that the artist whose tape you turn down on the street might be signed tomorrow. Then your only option is to buy the music at record store (and record label) prices, when you could have had it direct from the source. In the same vein, he believes an MC's strength is based not on contracts but passion. "If [the industry] were to say, 'We're not signing hip-hop acts anymore,' how many people would still be rhyming?"
Finally finding the right label, Percee P joined the Stones Throw roster in mid-2003. Home to such indie-minded icons as Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib and the late Jay Dee, the label has a well deserved reputation for releasing high-quality music. Percee fit right in. "Madlib was a big fan of his from the early '90s when he was dropping legendary 12-inches with Lord Finesse and AG, and the Big Beat single 'Lung Collapsing Lyrics," says Egon, who runs Stones Throw alongside its founder, Peanut Butter Wolf. These singles cemented Percee's reputation as a top-form MC and have since influenced countless hip-hop figures, including some of today's household names. "Madlib met Percee in New York, then found out he was coming to L.A. to work with Jurassic 5 in 2002," Egon explains. During that trip Percee cut 'Knicknack' with Wildchild and 'The Exclusive' over a Dilla beat that went on the Jaylib album."
Hooking up with Stones Throw further reinforced Percee's renewal. From his point of view, signing with the label had everything to do with having his history respected and his future valued. "I had to be with a label who could present and pro- mote me well. Those guys support and give me motivation," he says. With such backing, Percee has an opportunity for greater reach. "My vision is global now."
And new school fans are finally discovering how relevant Percee is today. Through recent collaborations with Aesop Rock, Jedi Mind Tricks and Four Tet, and a tour with up-and-coming groups such as Maspyke and the AB's, his fan base has grown. "Percee's a cult-figure, and a well respected cult-figure," says Egon. "People have heard of him from their friends or heard a rapper mention his name. He's got guest appearances, whether with Lord Finesse on 'Yes You May' in 1991 or Edan in 2005."
But Percee isn't the guest anymore. After lending rhymes to other projects for 18 years, he's finally releasing his first solo album, Perseverance, produced entirely by Madlib. Prince Po, Chali 2na from Jurassic 5, and Vinnie Paz from Jedi Mind Tricks all take turns as guests on all-new material from the ubiqui- tous MC. Influenced by Percee's lyrical dexterity and industry stamina, these artists are returning the favor. The album is a significant chance to reiterate his skill for established fans, and an opportunity to showcase it for those too young to remember.
"My story is a comeback story," Percee asserts. "When I had new records out, it was good exposure, but then there was no album-this is my second coming."
Aesop Rock guests on "The Dirt," his third collaboration with Percee. Over a rock-influenced beat, the pioneer and the young upstart trade rhymes. "I want to come out with things people wouldn't normally expect from me," says Percee. "The Last of the Greats" features high-school friend, Prince Po. "We always talked about doing a song together," Percee explains. "He's one of the most underrated MCs, too."
He's clearly earned his legendary status as an MC, but the omnipresent Percee P sums up his journey in humble terms. "I was lucky to be there when it started. I've seen all dimensions of every era of hip-hop and I'm still here. That's perseverance."