Music, like life, comes in cycles. This month, Duck Down Records is celebrating their 15th year in business. Throughout their early ’90s introduction – before the label actually existed, clear to their 2005 Triple Threat of releases, to this year’s album-heavy plans, the label and its Boot Camp Clik has weathered the storm. Looking at the first three releases out the gate – from Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun and Heltah Skeltah, to their ’05 incarnations to what this year holds, HipHopDX wanted to honor our New York brothers with a Cycle of Greatness retrospective, in understanding what it takes to truly soldier on.
Black Moon / Buckshot
Fifteen years in today’s Hip Hip might as well be a millennia. The output level for a new artist is often staggering; monthly mixtapes, new songs weekly and countless video blogs. The quantity over quality approach leads to artists reaching their creative peaks early, or not at all, before they fizzle out. How many so-called blog era emcees are making albums that fans will be cherishing in the 2020’s? How many artists will be around in a decade when fickle attention span challenged fans are onto the next week before the seasons change? While Duck Down Records may be in their fifteenth year as a label, the core members put their stamp on the game in 1992 with the classic single “Who Got The Props?”
Black Moon’s seminal debut the following year was not released on Duck Down Records either (it was the now defunct Wreck/Nervous Records), but that is just a formality. Enta Da Stage marked the beginning of their movement. Buckshot was the mouthpiece, 5ft Accelorator the ferocious sidekick and Evil Dee and his brother Mr. Walt (as Da Beatminerz) laid the foundation. Not to be forgotten, Dru Ha served as the executive producer, plus provided a memorable guest shot. The first pieces were on the board. Their timing was unfortunate though, Enta Da Stage was largely lost in the shuffle when New York City Rap peers Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan commanded the spotlight for their debut albums around the same time. KRS-One‘s Return of the Boom Bap, A Tribe Called Quest‘s Midnight Marauders and Enter The Wu-Tang were all released within three weeks of Enta Da Stage. Imagine having to choose between those albums at the store or in the tapedeck. Not to mention Buhloone Mindstate was still fresh and Snoop Doggy Dogg‘s seminal debut Doggystyle was around the corner. So like Gang Starr, Main Source, D.I.T.C. and other luminaries before them, it would leave them a smaller but rabid fan base and acclaim that was more critical than commercial.
Twelve years after Black Moon made the first “backpacker album” without anyone realizing it, Duck Down came back in a big way after ups and downs in the late ’90s. Buckshot was once again at the forefront, but this time teamed with the up and coming underground sensation 9th Wonder. At the time, many credited 9th and Little Brother with saving “backpacker” Hip Hop. So their teaming, while out of nowhere, couldn’t have been more appropriate. What better way to mark their landmark anniversary than another offering from the Brooklyn emcee and the North Carolina producer for Chemistry? The bass-driven Evil Dee sound was traded for soulful loops and some of 9th’s most championed beats. Core BCC fans were also treated to a short-run, remix album from Evil in Alter The Chemistry. After a confused solo step-out in The BDI Thug, Buckshot lyrically returned to his messages of wisdom, weed and wayward Brooklyn streets. Shorty commanded the show, as he had long commanded the Clik, and the Triple Threat jump-off was a serious all or nothing dice-roll in giving the Boot Camp Clik new troops and new supporters as 9th Wonder showed his versatility.
Their third album dubbed The Solution will be out this fall, a follow-up to ’08’s The Formula. Completing their working trilogy, Buckshot’s verses get wiser, as his respect level grows, not only for being one of Hip Hop’s archetypal backpackers (that would still punch you in the mouth), but as one of its most enduring businessmen. There aren’t many better examples in this genre of things coming full circle. Buck and 9th sounded like a 10 year marriage after one song together, Duck Down and Hip Hop? That’s forever.
Smif-N-Wessun might be one of the hardest groups in Hip Hop to figure out. They’ve always been down to bloody up a good pair of Timbs stomping someone out (see “Bucktown” and “Timbz Do Work”). But, when combined with Da Beatminerz’ production and their uncanny ability to make songs catchy and melodic, despite having what 50 Cent would refer to as “aggressive content,” the result was sometimes the most beautifully violent thing this side of a Quentin Tarantino flick.
Steele probably summed it up best on “War,” when he said, “When we came we was noticed / By the people was voted / The best duo to do it / The Source magazine wrote it / It was good for a moment / Then the industry hated / Said we too hard for the radio / Deejays wouldn’t play it / But they couldn’t deny it / ‘Cause the neighborhood love us / Smif-N-Wessun the truth / Do what we do for the public…”
During their initial run—when Boot Camp Clik members traded verses at a rate that made every solo effort feel more like a group compilation—it was easy to lump them in with the rest of the BCC. Many of us did, and it got to the point where they ended up taking The Source to task for allegedly never letting the infamous Mind Squad actually listen to Dah Shinin’ before giving it a 3 mic rating.
Look deeper into the patoais-infused lyrics, and it’s clear Tek and Steele had a purpose behind the beatdowns, such as ridding the neighborhood of informants and crooked cops (“Hellucination”). There was enough gun talk, and the occasional verbatim utterance of the phrase “we will fuck you up…for real” to make sure that no one ever mistook Smif-N-Wessun for a “conscious” Rap group. Alternately, you could find Tek promoting the virtues of self-improvement, friendship and calisthenics on the remix to “Wreconize.”
Catching the crew doing the “raise the roof” dance in the video for “Black Trump” pretty much summed up the three-year span Smif-N-Wessun spent as the Cocoa Brovaz. Between the name change and the lack of what they referred to as “dirty, plodding beats and bumpy bass” from Da Beatminerz, things definitely felt different, though not necessarily worse. So when Tek and Steele won the right to use their name back, those who held 1995’s work in such high regard were optimistic to see them as a part of Duck Down’s Triple Threat campaign a decade later.
As its name suggested, Reloaded was a bit of a return to form. The youthful aggression was tempered with 10 years of lessons learned in the studio, streets and boardrooms. Think of “A Hustler’s Prayer” as a recession survival guide—after all, Reloaded is a virtual how to manual on making a good album without blowing the budget. As “Tools of the Trade” proved, adversaries could still find themselves on the wrong end of a gun barrel or a pair of Timbs. But it also showcased a fun side that didn’t feel forced, with Tek more than happy to pop a bottle of Cliquot when the occasion called for it. Since their emergence in ’95, Smif-N-Wessun had quietly been occupying the grey area that lies between revolutionary and “gangsta.” You can make a solid argument that Tek and Steele helped draw the blueprint for artists such as Styles P and dead prez’ “Revolutionary But Gangsta” mantra. And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that stic and M-1 appear on “Warriorz Heart.”
In April of 2009, Steele confirmed that Smif-N-Wessun had plans to produce an album produced entirely by Pete Rock. In a lot of ways, this Mount Vernon-meets-Brooklyn collaboration seems like it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Aside from a mutual love of a good Roy Ayers sample, Pete Rock and Smif-N-Wessun are two of the best examples of how to not become a “golden era” castaway.
Pete Rock has reinvented himself at least three times—from his early days under the tutelage of Marley Marl, through his stellar work with CL Smooth, and coming full-circle by contributing to this decade’s emcee/producer du jour, Kanye West on his upcoming album.
Smif-N-Wessun literally and figuratively recast themselves after surviving a potentially career-threatening name change. And, if you’re an American Smif-N-Wessun fan, it should be noted that the country has been at war for two-thirds of Tek and Steele’s recording career. Despite the fact that the army fatigues were in style the first time around, and they’re retro now, few subjects are more relevant than both mental and physical wartime survival. So the military themes are more than just macho posturing. And this time around, fans can expect even more growth, as themes of family, self-improvement and other topics are integrated into the album’s subject matter.
Smif-N-Wessun managed to successfully avoid the “old rapper” label their one-time collaborator, 2Pac, once angrily tried to give De La Soul. Ironically, their longevity can be traced to a Posdnuos quote. Despite the beatdowns and long hours hustling, Smif-N-Wessun weren’t just hard; they were complicated. If their upcoming work with Pete Rock is as good as anticipated, they’ll be just as hard to pigeonhole now as they were in 15 years ago.
Heltah Skeltah / Sean Price
The Duck Down Records philosophy, especially in the ‘90s, began with a featured verse. Tek and Steele were heard on Enta Da Stage, and soon began crafting Dah Shinin’. Similarly, Ruck and Rock were heard on Dah Shinin’, and went fast at work on Nocturnal. This June 1996 album–the first fully-Duck Down release is the crowned jewel of “the Priority years.” Few Rap duos have the vocal chemistry of Heltah Skeltah. Whereas Rockness Monstah’s lyrics are almost stretched melodies, Sean Price has always been precise with short, stabby bars in a raspy-but-conversational delivery.
Nocturnal served as an album that added to the Boot Camp Clik spectrum. Released two months prior to O.G.C.’s Da Storm debut, Heltah Skeltah achieved a strong underground following, defying convention with the group’s beats and deliveries. The release lacked the Reggae influence heard in the previous two releases, but still carried a burning Brooklyn torch at a time with Notorious B.I.G. was trading his Carhartt jackets for Gucci frames, living the Rap dream. Entrenched in the Brownsville streets, Rock and Ruck used opportunities like “Understand” to never let the beats outshine the lyrics, while still packaging a sound (heard in “Sean Price” and “Grate Unknown”) that had to have influenced a celebrated underground sound three years later.
This release was Priority’s first dealing with Duck Down. Interestingly, despite working with the same big-budget label that was then backing Ice Cube, Master P and Ice-T, Nocturnal did not change the course one bit. The lone notable guest came courtesy of The Alkaholiks’ E-Swift, producing two cuts on the album.
Additionally, Da Beatminerz showed depth in handling Nocturnal, largely due to the non-fraternal member of the click, Baby Paul, leading the charge. The trademark percussion and filtered samples traded way to a sound that was more forward-looking, and less about groove. However, the main talking piece of the album, “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” is arguably the greatest Boot Camp Clik moment of all. And within that song, Heltah Skeltah’s future was revealed.
Nine years later, and Heltah Skeltah seemed akin to O.G.C. as a Boot Camp memory. Rockness Monstah had deferred to Interscope Records to record a solo album for House of Pain/Limp Bizkit’s DJ Lethal. That release had shelved, as meanwhile, Sean Price looked destined to join Numbskull, CL Smooth and Prince Po as ‘90s “other guy” status. When Duck Down announced its 2005 “triple threat” of releases, the buzz was focused square on Buckshot & 9th Wonder’s first album together – as well as Smif n’ Wessun’s name-reclaiming reunion, not on a rapper who had changed his name to his government. Nobody knew that more than Sean Price, who rhymed about it.
Monkey Barz was an underdog story of Hollywood proportions. Sean Price admitted to being the brokest rapper you know, clowned his wife’s cooking and bragged that he was the best in the Clik throughout the low-budget, low-concept album that beautifully played against Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane’s introductionary years, and Kanye West’s ego swelling on Late Registration. Besides Buckshot, no member of the BCC had made themselves more of an individual than Sean. His rhyme style was distinct, his sense of humor and candor shined through his verses, along with his ad-libs. Sean P was not to be fucked with.
While Sean Price gave new color, new dimension and new value to the Boot Camp Clik in ’05, Heltah Skeltah’s flag waved high as the duo would work together again in 2008’s D.I.R.T. release. However, the duo appears now led by Sean’s sharper-than-ever lyricism and his rich connection with fans. A bodega billionaire, many look deeply towards what Sean has already stamped his final album with the label: Mic Tyson. Not angry, just evolving, Sean’s 2010 parting shot has been hyped through various street videos and the tremendous showmanship on last year’s Kimbo Price mixtape. Like hometown neighbor Masta Ace, Sean P has made Heltah Skeltah the most tangible Boot Camp Clik act today, and fans and critics alike are expecting a show stealer come the fourth quarter. He’s brash, he’s outspoken, he’s a master of words – and he punches through school buses.
HipHopDX would like to congratulate Duck Down Records on 15 years of success, and dope Hip Hop, done independently. Salute!