Tragedy Khadafi has been one of Hip Hop’s unsung heroes for over 30 years. Born Percy Chapman, his hard-knock upbringing in Queensbridge, New York is true to his moniker. But Marley Marl, sound architect of the legendary Juice Crew, offered Tragedy a bright future as his young protege during the collective’s ’80s heyday.

After his career peak with his debut album Intelligent Hoodlum in 1990, Tragedy launched his 25 To Life imprint, which brought fellow Queensbridge natives Capone-n-Noreaga to the world with their seminal debut album The War Report in 1997. However, Trag also experienced career and life hardships, including a stint in prison and an intellectual property battle with his former mentor.

As Tragedy details in his latest single “Story Never Told” from his new album Immortal Titans, his longstanding beef with Marley grew from business disputes and Lords Of The Underground’s formation which Tragedy claims Marley jacked from him. DX spoke to Tragedy about why he believes his fallout with Marley was a blessing in disguise.

How Marley Marl Added Tragedy To The Juice Crew

HipHopDX: You were with Marley Marl on The Rap Attack Show hosted by Mr. Magic on WBLS in New York. What year did you put out your first record?

Tragedy: Yeah, but before even being with Marley I came out with [DJ] Hot Day and Super Kids in ‘85, ‘86. And we put out a record before our actual commercial release “Go, Queensbridge” called “Live From The Skating Rink” [editor’s note: the record title is “Live From Hip Hop U.S.A.’]  before I even got down with the Juice Crew.

DX: This was a dedication to one of the old school skating rinks in the Tri-state area like Skate Key in the Bronx, Empire in Brooklyn, or Laces in New Jersey?

Tragedy: Yeah. It was called Queens USA — United Skates of America. It was on Queens Boulevard way back in the day. That was one of the main biggest skating rinks we had out in Queens.

DX: How did you link up with Marley Marl?

Tragedy: You can’t have somebody in your neighborhood at that level of stardom and not hear about him. People around the world were hearing about him, so obviously if you’re in the same projects you’re hearing about him. And being an aspiring artist, you find out that “Yo, that’s the gate right there, that’s the key.” I basically found out where he lived and posted up in his hallway everyday or by the staircase and waited for someone to come to the door. I did that for a few days and I didn’t really get nowhere. So that got me to the point where I just knocked on the door and was like “Yo, you gotta hear me.”

DX: When he heard you, did he react positively and want to put you on?

Tragedy: Yeah, it was automatic once he heard me. But that was a whole process because it took a couple times for me knocking on the door, and before that every time I would go to spit, he would like brush me away. So, I did that about three times. Then I believe around the fourth time, I just started spitting and he just stood there listening. You know, Marley is not a really expressive person. He’s really laid back, but he was kind of like “Yeah, come in.” [laughs] He told me I did my job at that level.

DX: Were you named Tragedy even back then?

Tragedy: Yeah, well the funny thing is at that time my name wasn’t Tragedy. It was Jade Ski. That was also my graffiti name. And I hooked up with Marley for a record that was called “Coke Is It,” which was kind of like a reflective third-person story, but it was really about my whole life. But I sent in the record as “The Tragedy” and he kept cutting that up, and based on the way I was living as a kid, people caught on and were like “Yo, you’re rhyming about your story.” So, from the record, they were like “Yo, you’re ‘the tragedy.’”

DX: From that point, you obviously had your friendship and connection to Mr. Magic.

Tragedy: Once I hooked up with Marley and got inducted, I was among [the crew], the giants. At first, I was real quiet, nervous. Imagine being around all your idols that you look up to. It’s kind of overwhelming. I was sort shy about it at first, but eventually, I started opening up, warming up and getting comfortable around them and built a good relationship with Magic. He dropped a lot of jewels like I was a little brother.

DX: But this was around 1986 when Shan was there and before Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane got involved in the Juice Crew?

Tragedy: Well, I believe G Rap was involved, and this was right before or after Kane got involved. Because you gotta remember Kane didn’t come out right away. He kind of had to stay in touch, and play the back for a minute.

Tragedy On What Inspired His “Intelligent Hoodlum” Persona

DX: Your debut album Intelligent Hoodlum in 1990 had Marley Marl producing and lots of production from a young Large Professor. Can you talk about what made you become politically conscious with Minister Louis Farrakhan speech excerpts, Five Percent Nation rhetoric, along with the singles “Black and Proud” and “Arrest The President” on it?

Tragedy: It was a lot different than people may think. It’s interesting that you say that I was obviously in the Five Percent rhetoric, but that wasn’t even the case. What it was at that time in Hip Hop, you had Rakim as such a major influence and other artists who used “godbody” language or phrases, and people just assumed that you were a part of the Nation.

But really at that specific time, that’s how we talked because it became a major influence in Hip Hop so much that it went beyond the actual science of Islam. The streets just jacked that language or lingo of it. For me, I was more or less becoming conscious because I was down with the Juice Crew. When I got down with the Juice Crew, they weren’t fully blown, and then I had gotten incarcerated. And when I got incarcerated at age 16, I went to a max prison and that’s when I got used to a certain level of consciousness.

Like I said, prior to that I was just about Hip Hop and surviving in the streets, and that was my world, that was my life. And some of that entailed crime and doing other things that I’m not exactly proud of, but it was part of my survival at the time, what I knew. So, I got accustomed and introduced to reading about certain people who I had know idea of. Prior to that, I thought all black people were hustlers and killers and gangsters. But when I went upstate, one of the first books that helped me open up to reading was Manchild In The Promised Land by Claude Brown, which an old-timer had given me. That was his way of opening me up, and the next book he gave me was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. When I read that by Alex Haley, it changed my life. But even them, I wasn’t under any particular religion or spiritual category or label. I was just conscious of my origins as a black man.

DX: It seems like your song “Arrest The President” is more relevant today than its release 28 years ago.

Tragedy: Any problem or any situation, if it’s not fixed, it’s gonna become a greater issue. And that’s why, it’s more relevant now because it hasn’t really been dealt with. If you look at it, it never will be in the current state of government. When I made that record, I was just coming into consciousness. And when you address a problem, you want to get to the head or source of it. It’s funny because I was so intelligent, but in my ignorance I looked at it as “Alright, he’s the head of the country, he’s the head of the westernized world, and he’s the boss that has all these problems and should be held accountable or responsible.

I addressed it in that manner, through maturity, you realize in awareness and wisdom that arresting the president is not going to stop or fix the problem. You start realizing that it wasn’t really about the president — it was all about the presidency, the institution of the presidency. There’s layers, not one individual. You get rid of one, and you got many others to the fact that there’s an institution than accounting to one specific individual.  

Tragedy Laments The Greatest Lesson From His Business Dispute With Marley Marl

DX: You went from the politically conscious fold on Intelligent Hoodlum back to more hardcore content and launched your own 25 To Life imprint during the early-to-mid ’90s. What caused that transition?

Tragedy: I started to realize that the world around me was changing. There were a lot of groups who were coming out with more aggressive approaches to problems and struggles. The individuals around me started to change, and I know that was based on many things. It was based on laws, drugs, and all of those other things influencing the minds of the people, and things and their views began to change. I noticed that. And like I also said that to attack the president would be premature without attacking the presidency. It gave me a different scope of looking at things. A lot of things were happening at that time.

I had traveled to Germany, and the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany had been torn down, and I witnessed something that blew my mind. I saw children in the winter who had no clothes on, really — no shoes or socks, hungry and dirty, and they were all white children. That blew my mind because I never had that type of experience. In my ignorance and lack of knowledge, I thought the only poor and oppressed people were black people, or people being so-called minorities. It opened my scope of what struggle was.

All these things are going along with the riots in L.A., which affected me a great deal because I got arrested out there in L.A. right after the riots. I mean, the buildings were still smoking. But I got arrested and I’m taking all of this in, and my frustration is built up, my aggression is being built up. The world around me was changing, and I wanted to come with something that more aggressive. Then I dropped my second record which was Saga Of A Hoodlum.

DX: Many fans began to call you Intelligent Hoodlum instead of Tragedy during that time. Were you okay with that or not?

Tragedy: After Intelligent Hoodlum, everyone started calling me Intelligent Hoodlum. That was never really my name. It was a concept that I got from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X because he has a chapter in that book called “Hoodlum.” I realized that I didn’t have to be a street person from the street, that I could use what I learned in the street, and use that tenacity and ambition and focus it in a different direction. So, that wasn’t really my name, but I was on a big label and they marketed it, and people just ran with the whole thing. Again, when I dropped my second album, even though it had more No. 1 Billboard hits on it, I didn’t get the response from the public I wanted. And I kinda felt that Intelligent Hoodlum wasn’t really me. It was a mindstate, and people were forgetting Tragedy. So I went through a spell or period when I didn’t want to do music. When I would write, it wasn’t coming out the way I felt it, and I said what can I do?

DX: What helped you surpass the writer’s block moment?

Tragedy: I was feeling the need to come back to the game. Basically, I left it, and I was living down South, bought a house down there. I was sitting outside in my backyard by the pool, writing songs and crumbling them shits up, throwing them away and feeling no more affection for what I was writing. One thing about me is that if I don’t have the passion or conviction, I just don’t do it. So, I go back to the ‘Bridge to kind of find myself. To me, it was like Muslims when they make Hajj and they take their pilgrimage when they go back to the Kaaba. That was basically what I did, in essence.

DX: What was the outcome from that trip back home to Queensbridge?

Tragedy: I was still corresponding with Marley, going through our tensions like most artists do coming up under somebody and becoming aware of their power as an artist, and their value. Which most of the time when you get into a deal or situation early on for each involved is you’re coming through a glorified production deal, which we thought were labels at the time in how we were getting it.

I’m coming up under a business situation that’s not necessarily benefiting me as it’s benefiting other parties. I’m going through that frustration because every time I want money from the label, they’re telling me that I gotta go through Marley. And during that process, I had mentioned that to Marley when we went to BET — this was when BET was in Washington D.C. — I said, “Yo, if I ever start a group, I’m gonna call them Lords Of The Underground.”

So, we go to BET, we came back, then I go to L.A. to do some recording. I came back and went to Marley’s crib, and there are some dudes in the crib and the studio. I’m like, “Yo, Marley, who are these dudes?” He said that’s DJ Rated R and my group Lords Of The Underground. So I’m like “What?!” Then he kind of walked off, and I’m thinking, “Yo, that was my idea.” Not my idea for that group because I didn’t know them but I told him, and he kind of like just jacked me.

At first, I was real angry about it. But then I had left for down South to my crib, I started looking at it from a different perspective. If my mentor, someone I had looked up to as being one of the greatest minds behind Hip Hop had to take my idea then maybe I’m onto something. I stopped looking at it as a negative and looked at it as a positive, and it gave me the confidence to go further.

DX: So you found this as a blessing in disguise?

Tragedy: When I look back, it was all steps that needed to happen so I know what my worth was and the value of my vision for my creativity, because I didn’t have that.

Stream Tragedy Khadafi’s new album Immortal Titans right here. Follow him on Instagram @tragedy252 while you’re at it.