Pieces On A Chess Board: MF Grimm Talks "Sentences"

The journey of rapper Percy Carey has been nothing if not tumultuous. Better known as M.F. Grimm (or one of a host of other names, including GM Grimm and Jet Jaguar), the wheelchair-bound Carey was paralyzed in an attempt on his life in 1994, and sent to prison for 15-years-to-life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws six years later. Carey managed to get his sentence commuted to a mere three years, and now that he's free and clear, he's returned to his first love: making music. But Carey is also trying his hand at a new vocation: making comics. Carey has written an autobiographical graphic novel called "Sentences," a 128-page book to be published by DC Comics' Vertigo in September of this year. Carey spoke with CBR News about his journey from rapper to comics writer.

Born and raised in Manhanttan's Upper West Side, Carey always had a fondness for music, and was working as a professional musician as early as 14 years old. As far as Carey is concerned, becoming a rapper was a forgone conclusion. "My mother, she bought me some turntables when I was a young kid," Carey began. "I'm born and raised from Upper West Side, and at that time, that's where Rocksteady crew is from, a lot of well known graffiti artists, breakers and DJs are from my area, so I had no choice. I just started to be an MC and just started rocking." Carey counts King Sun, Afrika Bambaata, Sundance, Grand Master Flash and Grandmixer DXT as some of his early influences, and attests that growing up in the Upper West Side in the eighties, rap was as much as part of life then as computers are to the youth of today. "Now it's a commodity, but back then it was really a part of life."

Carey quickly made a name for himself as the Grimm Reaper, and was approached by several major labels. But the rapper's fast track to success was derailed when a series of attempts on his life left him in a coma. Carey was shot eleven times in total, and when he did emerge from the coma, he was paralyzed from the neck down, deaf, blind in one eye and unable to speak. Carey has decided that the details of the incident are better off lost to time, but he did speak to how the event affected him both as a person and as an artist.

"Life is nothing but a chess game, man, and you realize you're just pieces on the board," Carey said. "I look at it this way: Instead of totally focusing on the situation itself, the outcome of the situation was a test within myself. It was a test between me and the creator, to show me my purpose on the planet, and I needed to sit down and learn patience and go on the path to learn and acquire a certain amount of knowledge that I was too ignorant to try to get while I was still walking. So I realized I was paralyzed anyway, but now I'm paralyzed physically. You know, before it was mental. I have to say it was really just the fact of me, my temptations, and obviously not getting in tune with the world correctly. I learned a lot from it. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing, because of the knowledge that I have today."

Doctors were not optimistic about Carey's chances for recovery, but the artist counts his blessings that he had such a devoted support network. "Obviously, I had a lot to think about, regain, and concentrate on," Carey said. "I have to say I was fortunate, because I had a lot of people who cared about me, loved me in my corner, and gave me that emotional support and that energy to get me through everything I was about to face. A lot of therapy -- a lot of physical therapy, mental therapy, an equal balance of both. I'm still recovering. Just recently I can feel my entire body from head to toe. It's been 13 years I've been paralyzed, so I'm learning 'never say never' and 'nothing's impossible.' I'm reluctant when I talk about rehabilitation or recovery because it changes every day. I wake up and I have feelings and sensations that I didn't have yesterday, or I've always had and it just took me time to remember."

Carey's personal tragedy has had a profound effect on his music. "For me, it's been my blessing," Carey said. "No matter what the circumstances that I'm going through in my life, whether it's poverty or any type of physical ailment, I'm able to translate that appropriately, as far as I'm concerned, with my pen and my paper. And I can express myself to the point where those that listen to my music, they can at least feel my emotions. I do music that I love, and I do music that hurts. From my perspective, I try to write things that are joyful. You know, you gotta be joyful, or they will feel that there's no joy in what you're saying."

Much like his physical recovery, Carey's return to the music business was also an uphill battle. "I was a recording artist, of course, before I was shot, and I was a journalist for an R&B-hip hop magazine," Carey explained. "So I kind of was already getting my foot in the door and established as a recording artist, trying to get what's considered a major deal. And actually, once I was shot, my deals fell off the table because the majors stated they didn't know how to market me, because I'm in a wheelchair. So, basically, nobody wanted to buy something from a guy in a wheelchair -- who wants to hear that?

"All my deals fell off the table and I had to figure something out," Carey continued. "I was in a wheelchair, I needed to figure out how to provide for myself. I was trying not to do wrong, there was just some adjustments I needed to make, so I decided to start my own company." And it was thus that Day by Day Entertainment was born.

"I started basically a management company at first," Carey said. "I worked with Fatman Scoop, Rock Raida from X-Ecutioners, Dr. Butcher and a few others, and just started doing it that way." Carey became so adept at negotiating deals with other labels that his clients encourage him to start a label of his own. "And then from there, I had to deal with trying to get distribution. We pressed up our own material all the time; going to the stores and calling stores." But when that proved untenable, the next logical step was to make Day by Day Entertainment a one-stop shop for up-and-coming recording artists. "So I started my own independent distribution company, and I've been doing it ever since."

But the next couple of years were anything but smooth sailing for Percy Carey. In 2000, Carey was arrested on narcotics and conspiracy charges and sentenced to 15-years-to-life in prison. Carey only wound up serving three years of his sentence, and he has a unique perspective on his incarceration. "It was a cool experience," Carey said. "I say that because, I had the chance to take a bitter situation like that, a negative situation, and somehow I came across people who... the only way to meet them was under those circumstances. I've met people that can run Fortune 500 companies, but they made one mistake in their life, five minutes, no matter what it was. I've met brilliant surgeons and scientists and mathematicians, and they're all sitting in jail."

It was his friendship with these extraordinary prisoners that kept Carey focused during his time in prison. "They showed me the right way, and that was to keep my head in law books and learn," Carey said. "Learn how to defend myself appropriately, and learn, of course, my rights, and the constitution of the United States, and the state of New York, and how it coincides with me, and use it to my advantage." The rapper's relatively short stay in lockup was due in no small part to the counter-suits he filed from prison.

"I can't make it as gloomy as I want to," Carey continued. "There was a lot of terrible times in there, but mostly it was other people going through them, and just seeing people suffering, it's not a good feeling. It was the closest thing I could say of me going to college, you know? A lot of learning. You had to learn to live, you had to learn to stay alive in there, you gotta learn the system, you gotta learn the rules. Actually, it helped me with my business, it helped me learn how to negotiate and make deals, things of that nature. There's a bartering system inside a prison, you don't have money, so you deal with stamps, you deal with cookies and cigarettes and coffee. You learn commerce, trade."

Music wasn't Carey's only constant through the years. He's also a longtime comics aficionado. "I've always been into Superman and Batman ever since I was a baby," Carey said. "But that didn't even feel like a cartoon or a comic, they just felt real." Carey is a DC man at heart, but it was the Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno "Incredible Hulk" television series that first drew a youthful MF Grimm into a comic book store.

"Sentences," the autobiographical graphic novel Carey has written, was the brainchild of Vertigo editor Casey Seijas. "We became friends, and [Seijas] brought it up about me just trying to do a comic," Carey said. "I was like, 'My life is boring. I don't have anything to really write about my life.'" But Seijas countered, "What, are you crazy? I listen to all your songs, that's all you do. It's the same thing, just write it down."

"I'm thankful," Carey continued, "because I'm 36 years old, I haven't been through much, but I've been through some things, and what I've been through, it's helped shape me at this age to be comfortable with myself. And I really couldn't see a future that far into it, but now, thanks to DC Comics and Vertigo, I do see a bright future, and I'm not going to let them down. I'm going to develop myself, hopefully, and become a great writer. I hope to have the same impact in the comic book industry as I did in music. That's a transition that I have to prepare for, and hopefully I live up to what I'm saying."

Carey had to learn not only how to put together a comic book, but also a story in a general. The writer cited books like Robert McKee's "Story" and Denny O'Neil's numerous books on comics writing, as well as the works of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Chuck Dixon, Rick Veitch, Len Wein, Julie Schwartz and Paul Levitz as just a few of his influences. "I combined everything and started learning my own little style," Carey explained. "I learned to develop my own style from watching and studying people who I consider great writers. And I just came into my own."

Thanks to Vertigo director Karen Berger and editor Casey Seijas, Carey realized that combining his words with pictures was not a concept that was altogether foreign to him, as he'd been doing it for some time with his album covers. "I have one, 'Downfall of Ibliys,' where there's an angel laying in the middle of a ghetto, and there's nothing but destruction all around him. I have the Statue of Liberty being crucified. My artwork, it's the same way as working with Jim Lee or Jock, it's almost the same formula, you just have to apply yourself to it, and that's what I've been doing."

Artist Ron Wimberly lent his talents to "Sentences," and Carey worked closely with his collaborator. "Casey Sejas, myself and Ron, we get together," Carey said. "We'll sit down and we'll go over all the details. To get appropriate layout, Ron and I would walk through Manhattan and we'll just go around where I grew up and, you know, he's a scientist at what he does. Ron reminds me of Darwyn Cooke. He writes and he's an illustrator. I admire people like that." Additionally, Carey is writing a soundtrack for "Sentences," and Wimberly will provide art for the album sleeve.

"It's from five years old up, until the present time," Carey said of the purview of the project. "It's detailed, but it's not very detailed to the point where every single second of my life from five years old, it's just gathered bits and pieces of stories throughout my life, and some of the things I've been through that shaped me into who I am today. I touch on from five, teenage years, twenties, all the way up to now."

"Sentences" is just the beginning for the burgeoning writer. Carey told CBR News that for his next project, he'll be venturing into the DCU proper. "It's a little too early for me to go into the details, but I am entering the DC Universe," Carey said. "It's a dream come true. I'm a DC guy. I don't know if there's a lot of us like me, but I'm very loyal to DC and to Vertigo. They took a chance with me, and I appreciate that, and I wanna show that and not just run around. I'm really about loyalty."

"I keep bringing them up, Denny O'Neill and Julie Schwartz, I really wanna bring back that feel of the Silver Age," Carey continued. "I saw how they got together, and it was like a way of life, DC was a way of life, and I really wanna bring that essence back."

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