There are tons of underlying factors that determine an artist's success. From industry politics to distribution deals completely vanishing, we've seen and heard them all — solidifying this idea that talent alone can't create a superstar.
Fort Greene's Paula Perry seemingly had everything going for her. She had cut her teeth as part of Masta Ace Incorporated, had a deal at Motown, and had DJ Premier lined up for her first single, "Extra, Extra." And yet, even the most hardcore Hip-Hop fans might be unfamiliar with her criminally underrated debut, Tales From Fort Knox, which came out in 1998.
Like so many kids growing up in Fort Greene in the '70s, much of her life was defined by traumatic experiences involving drugs and violence. She vividly recalls the day when she herself was almost the victim of gun violence.
"I actually had a bullet come right over my head through my window when I was looking out," Perry says. "I had to be about 15 at the time. Somebody was playing around aiming at the trees."
Perry's first introduction to Hip-Hop came via the park jams where DJ's tapped directly into the light poles to power their booming systems. Although she described herself as a shy kid, she later felt inspired to try her hand at MC'ing after being inspired by Masta Ace and his cohorts and Cold Chillin' Records, and meeting both Eric B & Rakim in person..
"We used to go into a little shack where they had a little studio," she says of the iconic duo. "Me and my partner, Nikki, used to just play around with it and had a group called 'The Jigjaboos.' "I started taking it more seriously than she did," she admits. "When I was in high school, I started having to battle. When I was in the ninth grade, I had to battle the 10th graders and the 11th graders because they like, 'Well, who this new fly girl in the school thinking she can rap?!'"
"I was always hardcore — that gangster rapper for Fort Greene."
Perry's career took shape when her cousin introduced her to Masta Ace. After he was struck by her ability on the mic, he invited her to the studio to record. In a three month period, Perry went from a virtual unknown to touring the country as part of Masta Ace Inc.
"It gave me the opportunity to travel the world, get some fans, and just to experience the life in Hip-Hop," she says. "Everybody was for each other — male and female — equally."
Like so many artists during the late '80s, Perry's career as a solo artist involved a lot of shifting pieces between labels. She began at Mercury, then moved to Loose Cannon, and finally Motown.
"Once I put out 'Paula's Jam' then it became, 'All right. She's officially in the game,'" she says. "Every time I went to one label, it would fold. So I just got tired of that."
Perry was still able to release her debut solo project, Tales From Fort Knox on Cleopatra (with help from Dennis Mathis) — boasting assists from Masta Ace, Lost Boyz, DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Nikki D, Bahamadia, Heather B, and Rah Digga. The all-women posse cut, "Six Pack," remains one of the hardest posse cuts of all-time.
"We wanted that raw, street feel," she says. "I didn't want to pick anyone that Lil' Kim had on 'Ladies Night.' I wanted to do something totally different."
Perry acknowledges that she hopes there will be a return to an era where skill — specifically as it relates to women in Hip-Hop — has more value than other attributes.
"It's like they selling sex more than they're selling the actual music," she says. "I just wish it doesn't have to be like that anymore. We all need to be equal to the men."