Duck Down Music co-founder Drew Friedman is part of a very exclusive club. Duck Down stands tall along with Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, Strange Music and Sick Wid It, as part of underground and indie Hip Hop’s most revered pantheon. A college internship landed Drew at SBK Records in 1992, home to pop radio rap acts like Vanilla Ice and Arrested Development. Through some twist of fate, however, Dru was assigned to work with the more hardcore Fifth Platoon. It was during this time that he eventually donned the moniker “Dru Ha.” The White Plains, New York-bred Friedman entrenched himself deeper in the New York underground rap scene and linked up with a then-nascent Brooklyn emcee Buckshot Shorty. The latter’s rap trio labeled themselves as “brothers lyrically acting, combining, kicking music out on nations,” or Black Moon for short. After the group struck a record deal with Nervous Records in 1992, Dru Ha co-founded the Duck Down movement with Buckshot as an artist management imprint.
The company officially morphed their brand into Duck Down Entaprizes in 1995. Combining with dynamic rap duos Smif N Wessun and Heltah Skeltah as well as another trio called Originoo Gunn Clappaz, the rap crew of childhood classmates and friends were set to shine like their New York peers. And hopefully, juggernauts such as Wu-Tang Clan, Bad Boy, Busta Rhymes’s Flipmode Squad, and Roc-A-Fella Records. About his success, he had this to say, “I think when you’re 24 or 25 years old, most kids that age don’t look at the total big picture. Maybe you’d have a five-year plan, but I certainly didn’t have a twenty-year plan. I felt that in the immediate future that Duck Down would make its mark. But in terms of this many years, I had no idea.” In celebration of their massive impact on Hip Hop, “The Big Cheese” spoke with HipHopDX about his picks for the most important moments in the Duck Down’s history.
Duck Down’s Collaboration with Tupac on “One Nation”
Dru Ha: Certainly in 1995 to 1996, we were given the chance to go out to meet up with Tupac on the West Coast. I would put this in the top anything list because it was Buckshot, Smif N Wessun and myself. We got to spend a few weeks out there to work with him on the One Nation album. Tupac said that he wanted to do multiple releases of One Nation and that it wasn’t going to be one volume. To tie into Duck Down, he said that the first one was going to be on Makaveli, which was going to be on his imprint, and that the second one was going to be on Duck Down. So ‘Pac wasn’t in a mode to say “I promise,” but he recognized our movement and our label to say that we would do the second album on Duck Down. To have the experience was pretty incredible. To this day, I have our pictures up in my office of our time spent with him.
Smif N Wessun’s debut album “Dah Shinin”
Dana Scott: The emergence of Boot Camp’s renowned military diaspora came via Smif N Wessun in their debut album in 1995. They left little time to waste from the jump about their ambition in the album’s opening lyrics declaring “Smif N Wessun out of Bucktown, starting mad trouble” on the opening cut “Timz N Hood Check.” This also was the platform that marketed Duck Down’s core artist roster of Heltah Skeltah, OGC and Boot Camp patriarch Buckshot.
Duck Down’s “Triple Threat” Campaign: Buckshot & 9th Wonder, Sean Price, & Smif N Wessun
Dru Ha: We launched the Triple Threat campaign in 2005. We loaded up in the Duck Down van and headed down to North Carolina to meet up with 9th Wonder. We got to spend a few weeks with him, Khrysis and their team. We realized [that] 9th at that time and (his original group) Little Brother had a lot of success, and felt his production would compliment well over to Buck, Smif N Wessun, and Sean. Know we weren’t the first but we were one of the first to go to him outside of the Little Brother camp. It wasn’t like 9th was the household name that he is today. I like the fact that we recognized his talents, Evil Dee use to speak highly of him often and were able to tap into that early. It’s affirmed now seeing how big and influential 9th has become. Those three albums for Smif N Wessun, Sean Price, and Buckshot & 9th Wonder, it really redefined the Duck Down independent structure at that point. Like Sean Price launched his solo career off of that, and Buckshot did three installments of those albums with 9th Wonder. Even Smif N Wessun, it kinda got them into a recording mode over beats they were comfortable with, and it was their first time back with the name Smif N Wessun. That was a monumental period for us.
The Fab 5’s “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka”
Dru Ha: The early days of launching “Leflaur Leflah”the A-side, and B-side with “Blah,” that was the first official release on Duck Down/Priority. We were able to make two videos, which wasn’t done quite often back then, but it blew up. We got a lot of radio play, especially in NY on Hot 97. It gets harder and harder, and a lot of other artists can attest to this: when you have these groups on labels, [it’s tough] to maintain the credibility to the fans that the next group or act is just as good as the last one. The next one could potentially be watered down. But Heltah Skeltah and OGC, when they officially debuted, it was like “Man!” Two more groups from our camp instantly had credibility, and they introduced a song that had just as much popularity as “Bucktown” or “Who Got The Props?” It had that same type of impact with “Leflah.” That cemented our deal with Priority, which is a milestone as well because we went from Duck Down Management to Duck Down Entaprizes, or as we know it now, Duck Down Music.
The Adoption of the name “Duck Down” and KRS-ONE’s Influence
Dru Ha: Getting to work on the Survival Skills album, which was with Buckshot and KRS-One. For me, Kris was a major influence on my hip hop upbringing and what I listened to. Just an emcee that I loved, and I knew how much Buckshot respected him. Even during the early days knowing Buckshot at 16 or 17 years old, understanding and watching the influence that KRS had on Buck as an emcee was amazing. And then for me, back to my youth, growing up on Criminal Minded, it was surreal. When Buckshot formed his publishing company, he called it “Target Practice.” When we were thinking of names for the label, Buck came with the idea of Duck Down because it was like saying in this industry and in this hip hop game there’s a lot of shit flying around and you’re going to have to duck. We’d also be firing our fair share of shots, so you’d be ducking down too, and that played nicely off his name Buckshot. The target and absolutely his admiration for Kris, there’s no question that song had an influence on the name and all the things that Buck wanted us to stand for.
The Rise of Sean Price
Dru Ha: He definitely reinvented himself and changed the game in that era where there was a lot of “bling” talking. Sean really showed his situation at the time, by putting brutally honest lyrics out there that often had shock value, and people gravitated to it. Monkey Bars was a blueprint for how an artist can reinvent themselves. That album gained him new fans where there were some who didn’t even realize that he came from a group called Heltah Skeltah. We’ve seen it at shows where fans don’t even connect the two. That was huge for all of us.
Heltah Skeltah’s debut album Nocturnal”
Dru Ha: Heltah Skeltah was pure smash you up, beat you up, and lyrically stomp you in every sort of way (laughs). Being under the Priority umbrella, we had a substantial budget to record the album compared to our previous releases and we took advantage of it going to fancy studios lol Specifically remember Rock doing the intro to Nocturnal with Starang hollering “Here We Come,” knew we were about to unleash something powerful. The record is significant to us because aside from the Fab 5 single, this was the first official Duck Down album release. Nocturnal went on to sell a lot of records and continue planting the BCC flag. There were no complaints.
The Success of Kids In The Hall’s “Driving Down Block”
Dru Ha: I know it’s not what people would expect from Duck Down at the time, but those are the types of things that we took pride in, or do take pride in looking back over the twenty years. It’s not just 1993-1997; that was a sound, and that was Boot Camp. But we knew we had to spread our wings as a record label. That may not necessarily mean that every fan is going to like every Duck Down release but we wanted to draw a distinction between the group of Boot Camp, and the label. Like you could be on Duck Down but it doesn’t mean that you have to wear fatigues, hoodies, and Timbz. It was hard to break that mold because we were so encompassed by it. Kids In the Hall was a group that had some success on Rawkus and we felt would be a good addition to the label. I remember we had the single “Driving Down The Block” out and having it show up on (MTV’s) Total Request Live. We never had a group on TRL before, so we were blown away by it. Suddenly we were getting a lot of radio play, and licenses and the record took off. It showed that we could use our established relationships and experience to help break another act, and allowed us to step outside of our comfort zone.
B-Real of Cypress Hill’s solo album “Smoke N’ Mirrors”
Dru Ha: We got a call from a friend who was working with B-Real, explaining that B was interested and heard great things that we did as an independent label. Cypress Hill, who we completely admired and looked up to, both musically and as their own indie business It wasn’t like they stopped their movement. They were as classic as say a De La Soul and so iconic, so when we learned B-Real wanted to do something with Duck Down, and we really didn’t pitch it to him, we were honored We got together and put out his Smoke N Mirrors solo album, and that still performs very well for us. We’ve maintained a relationship with B over all these years, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Pete Rock and Smif N Wessun album collaboration “Monumental”
Dru Ha: The experience with Pete Rock and doing the album with him and Smif N Wessun, those things are really cool to me because again you got these artists and producers you’re always looking up to. Even as you’re entrenched in this business, if you got acts that identify you as being just as onboard to work with you, as you are with them, it’s mindblowing. It’s pretty humbling to have them want to work with you because you’re such a fan of theirs. Obviously, Pete Rock wanted to work with Smif N Wessun, but being able to put it out on Duck Down was a definite highlight.
The Signing of Statik Selektah
Dru Ha: The relationship that we’ve developed with Statik has been really incredible. We’ve known Statik for almost our entire twenty years. We used to go and do radio in Boston, and we’d make it a point to go by and visit with Statik. He’d always have turntables set up where ever he was, or he’d be working on his mixtapes. A real back-in-the-day mixtape. We made time, and he would find a way to track us down so either way we linked. We maintained that relationship over the years. About four or five years ago, we started putting out Statik Selektah albums and we’re going on our fourth one with him now calledLucky 7 dropping July 7. Our relationship has carried us in, it’s been a pleasure to watch him grow into such a well-respected producer, and he’s helped us with a lot of new artists that we consult for, or other new acts on the label we are trying to break in. Glad to be in business with him.
Tony Touch Power Cypha 50 MC’s Mixtape Freestyle
Dana Scott: Once upon a time in Hip Hop, at least on the East Coast, mixtape cassettes served as barometers to the listening public of which rap crews and artists were the forces to be reckoned with on the lyrical tip. In 1996, Brooklyn-based deejay and mixtape heavyweight Tony Touch had reached a personal milestone with the release of his fiftieth mixtape titled Power Cypha50. It showcased freestyles from NYC and LA’s top lyricists of the day including KRS-One, Wu Tang Clan, Onyx, Boogie Down Productions affiliate Heather B, Funkdoobiest, The Liks, Das Efx, Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, Kool G Rap, and The Gangstarr Foundation. Arguably, the most notable performance came from Boot Camp Clik. Heltah Skeltah, Smif N Wessun and OGC’s freestyle performance stood out amongst their peers on this tape, which showcased their humorous character, collectivism, and unrelenting battle prowess over some of dope instrumentals. It also gave shine to the depths of talent within the BCC in associates The Representativz and Illa Noyz.
OGC’s “Da Storm”
Dru Ha: Da Storm is still one of my favorite albums. The fact that they were the fourth group in Boot Camp and were able to make such a cohesive project is remarkable. I really loved the trio of Louieville (Sluggah), Starang, and Top Dog. There was an element of fun that they brought to the table, and each had such unique flow and cleverness. Put together they were a rare breed of a true group.
Working with Aaliyah on Boot Camp Clik’s “Night Riders (Remix)”
Dru Ha: Whether Mary J Blige, Sadat X, Raekwon, etc, etc, working with featured artists is always a thrill and having Aaliyah come to our studio session to do the remix for us was at the top of the list. Again it was humbling to learn that she was a fan of ours. You’re just kinda taken back when someone like Aaliyah is telling us that her and the family are Boot Camp and Duck Down fans. Smif n Wessun’s “PNC” Cook had the link with Aaliyah’s family but I’m thinking that they don’t even know who we are. I remember her telling us that she saw the “Operation Lock Down” video, and they were bugging out over it. More flattering to me because I wrote the treatment for that video.
Doing an independent deal with Koch (now E1 Entertainment)
Dru Ha: In 1998 we were dropped from our distro deal with Priority Records as they folded into Capital and with it, we lost our offices and our funding. There were a few rough years where we were back to working out of my apartment, and we actually had to do a deal with Rawkus so Smif N’ Wessun could record a new album, as we didn’t have the budgets. Meanwhile, we reverted back to selling 12” vinyl, one song at a time. After a few big releases for us from Smif n Wessun’s “Super Brooklyn” and Sean Price’s “Don’t Say Shit to Ruck,” plus the indie success of Buckshot’s BDI Thug album, we landed a new distro deal with Koch Distribution. After a few successful years with Koch, releasing the Boot Camp Clik’s Chosen Few project we were able to renegotiate and finally were operating as a true indie. Meaning we owned our records, funded our projects and even handled the manufacturing on our own. Under this deal, at a time where digital sales were just developing we were able to separate the physical and digital distribution rights. This was huge for us, as years later we were able to do a direct deal with iTunes that essentially eliminated any middle digital distributor, and it’s how our business operates to this day.
Forming 3D (Duck Down Distribution)
Dru Ha: In 2011 we had a chance to work with Talib Kweli and his Company Javotti, on an indie release titled “Gutter Rainbows”. Kwe’ was in between major deals and wanted to put out the project for his fans. Having a long standing relationship with Kwe, he allowed us to assist him in marketing and distributing the project but he didn’t want to confuse his fanbase that he was under the Duck Down name. I told him to let me think about the way around that and a day later I called him back with the solution that we would operate the distro under 3D which stands for Duck Down Distribution. We created new 3D email addresses and our team lead by our General Manager who is also my brother Noah, went to work. We were able to sell over 50,000 digital albums under the new umbrella, and Kweli has credited us in many interviews and articles with helping him learn the indie game and actually getting paid by it. Since we’ve introduced other acts under the 3D name and logo, distributing projects for De La Soul, Iron Solomon, and working with new acts like Nyzzy Nyce and Young M.A.
Squandering “The Fab 5” Without The Freddy Album
Dru Ha: Most of the guys didn’t want it to come out. I think with Heltah Skeltah and OGC, they were never officially a group. That was done more so as a marketing tool. Each group within Fab 5 wanted to put out their own individual albums. Heltah Skeltah just wanted to put out Nocturnal. Being so young at the time and still learning the business as we were going through it, if I was the music guy that I am today, with my type of experience, I would have never let a young Dru Ha walk away from putting out a Fab 5 album. I would have sat him down and I would’ve explained to him that you can’t just manufacture that type of buzz. The lesson learned was that when you have something you go with it, and that’s what we should’ve done. Obviously Nocturnal and Da Storm did very well, no l regrets on that, but they both of those albums could have waited a few months while a Fab 5 album would have sold a boatload off the success of the “Leflah” single.
Boot Camp Clik’s “For The People” album
Dru Ha: There was a sound that was associated with Boot Camp straight from it at that stage. It would have been great if everything had kept staying the way it was. But four or five years in music is a lot. Sounds change, and the artists start getting into doing other things. There never was a break up. Black Moon has always been Black Moon. It’s never been like Evil Dee, Buck and 5-Foot have gotten back together. I think there was a lot of splintering of people, like going in their own direction, experimenting, doing different things, working with different producers. Do I wish we could have created another four records like Da Storm, Nocturnal, Enta Da Stage, and Da Shinin? Yeah. But those albums, especially after we got down to Da Storm and Nocturnal were the beginnings of the outside producers like E-Swift, and people who were contributing tracks like Baby Paul doing more production than just Walt and Evil Dee. I wish we had gotten a Boot Camp album out that was like ten or twelve tracks that complimented that same sound the Beatminerz created. That would’ve been a great look.
Smif N Wessun Sued By Gun Company Smith & Wesson
Dru Ha: That hurt. As much as you try to spin it in our favor, again like we mentioned about the Fab 5, when you have something that working and you have to change it, there’s no way that was good for us. We didn’t have the legal team behind us, we didn’t have the label behind us. The label was Nervous, and they weren’t willing to fight it. It wasn’t like they were going “Okay we got lawyers and we’re going after this.” It was like everyone began running for shelter. You have this major corporation coming with patents and paperwork of all the copyrights that they hold. The one thing that you have going into these lawsuits it that you lose time. You may be right and win the case, but those things play out in court over years, not over can weeks. No one can put out music with any name at that. So it was an act of desperation to say we’re not going to stop recording, We made the best of it, and Cocoa Brovas had their nice run with their Rude Awakening album. Having to change the name didn’t help though.
The Missed Chance of Signing Eminem Early In His Career
Dru Ha: Eminem certainly was the right artist for us because he could hold the weight. Sometimes you see artists that are built up and are put in these positions that they’re not built for. Like not as good as they’re making them out to be. But he was. I think somehow, some way, if we signed Em, I think he would’ve found his notoriety one way or another. It might have taken a little longer. It might not have come as fast, but there’s no denying his impact, his ability, and his creativity. He’s one of the greatest of all time. I think with the Em thing, looking back and to this day is that he endorsed Buck and I as people. He went around and dissed a lot of labels of those who were going to sign him or almost signed him, but didn’t. He shitted on them, but he always gave me and Buck props. He knew that we did try to get the deal done, but we had to go to a parent company to get that money. We just couldn’t get the money that he was asking for so that’s called not really being an independent. You think you are but, you’re not. So a Top 20 moment is him calling us back a few years ago, and he personally made the reach out to us to make over “Don’t Front (I Gotcha Opin) and bigs us up within the lyrics of the record.”