It feels like Smif-n-Wessun have changed their name more times than Diddy. From the original billing of the Brownsville, Brooklyn duo to Cocoa Brovaz, to Tek & Steele and back, this early ’90s hardcore Hip Hop outfit’s albums might be alphabetically scattered in a record store, but their impact stands strong. The pair has been among the most active members of the Boot Camp Clik, and as Buckshot veered off to do collaborative and experimental projects and Ruck transformed into Sean Price, S-n-W simply stayed the course. While past projects may have appeared more stale compared to BCC peers, Monumental aligns them with legendary producer Pete Rock for strong dividends in a project that’s the group’s best in 15 years.
Monumental feels, in many ways, a celebration of Tek & Steele’s career. Guests are not there because they’re needed, but rather it shows that unlikely supporters like Bun B or Memphis Bleek fit well into the Smif-n-Wessun world. Although there are only three unassisted moments on this album, they are some of the better. “Go Off” has the energy needed to match a song about losing control in times of needed. Pete Rock lays out a simple chopped sample loop with great drums and accented scratches. Throughout the album, Tek and Steele talk about three things: the streets, Hip Hop and the status of their evolution. “Roses” calls on fans to acknowledge the pair’s work more than ever, and Monumental certainly makes a case as to why. “Time To Say” is a more inspirational track that revisits the street soldier taps that rallied the BCC in the first place, by almost posing the question, “how much do you want us?” No, this work does not overtly hint at retirement or hiatus, but as great solo albums like 24K Smokeand Welcome To Bucktown went largely unnoticed, it’s time to audit the love and importance of a group every bit as significant as street rhyme ’90s fellow duos Mobb Deep, Capone-N-Noreaga and Tha Dogg Pound. Pete Rock’s scattered rhymes add a Hip Hop context, but the rhyming-producer’s greatest lyrical asset is his legendary voice, reminding all those nostalgic sound lovers just who mastered the track.
Like Black Moon, it’s been difficult for Tek and General Steele to shake Da Beatminerz’ absence on their projects. If anybody could fill those shoes with care and credentials it is Pete Rock. The Soul Brother’s Babe Ruth sampling on “Do It” pulls Rap back into the early ’90s on a record that feels straight out of the pre-Giuliani-era, complete with a rare Hurricane G appearance. The title track’s (“Monumental”) careful sampling plays a Brooklyn street montage, complete with double-parked cars in front of project housing, sweeping shop-keepers and rumbling F trains. The horns, stabs and choruses employed by the Mt. Vernon icon are different than those sounds he’s used for other emcees, making this project feel like Tek and Steele’s lyrical vision was beautifully executed sonically. “Roses” feels like a modified interpretation of Dah Shinin’ blueprint. The lyrics are about sincerity and high-stakes street living. P.R. lays out a crying-sample and resonant drums that make any listeners’ Tims tap on the dirty pavement.
Sixteen years later, the magic of Dah Shinin’ still unravels some of its street wisdom in every play. Tek and Steele have had some solid works since, where they tried new things, while also tried to retain their core. Monumental comes at just the right time, and certainly presents an album that has more excitement and punch than any work since. It is crowded with guests, but Tek and Steele still hold court at their own party. With Pete Rock providing an album’s worth of detailed sounds, the group has the foundation that they’ve lacked since the ’90s. Moreover, Smif-n-Wessun reclaim a place at their own family table. As Black Moon and Heltah Skeltah’s brands remain focused on solo works, this pair stomps the Boot back into 2011’s cement in reminding us all who, along with Jay and Biggie, made Brooklyn so audio cinematic throughout the 1990s.