by Alex Shtaerman
While champions of New York City’s most infamous borough will likely point to the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z in highlighting Brooklyn’s profound Hip-Hop heritage, it is also worthy to note the importance of a slightly grittier rap pedigree that is arguably even more emblematic of the borough’s true essence. Groups like Black Moon, Smif N Wessun, Gangstarr and M.O.P are all responsible for crafting some of the most timeless BK theme music ever recorded, capturing the personality of the most well-known and most notorious city-district in the United States in a way that has over the years become synonymous with raw rhymes and hardcore beats.
With the release of their latest LP, The Album, Bucktown’s dynamic duo Smif N Wessun continue to build on a legacy that began in 1995 with the release of their landmark debut Dah Shinin’. As Hip-Hop slips deeper and deeper into mainstream mediocrity, partners in crime Tek and Steele continue to stand firm offering an alternative for fans checking for skills and substance as opposed to the latest 50 Cent / Kanye West fiasco. “There’s a lot of things going on in Hip-Hop and this is just another doorway or another entrance into another aspect of the whole grand scheme of things”, explains Steele. “So when you listen to this album, the album is inspirational, it’s enlightening, the music is uplifting”.
RIOTSOUND.COM: I remember watching the BET Top Ten countdown sometime in ’94 and Black Moon was in the number two spot and Smif N Wessun came in at number one with “Bucktown”. Can you describe what it was like during that time when Black Moon, Smif N Wessun and the entire Boot Camp Clik first came to prominence?
TEK: It was “fresh on the scene”. That was a new experience; it was so new that it’s hard to put into words [what it felt like]. It was just excitement, that’s all, you know, that was how it was. That’s something where you still have those memories fresh in your mind. It’s something that was beautiful.
STEELE: A lot of people call that the Golden Era of Hip-Hop. There were a lot of artists coming out during that time and it was just honorable to be a part of that whole new resurgence of that new energetic vibe into Hip-Hop. So for us, we were still young at the time, so we were just kinda having a party, you know.
RIOTSOUND.COM: The new Smif N Wessun album was recorded in Sweden over a period of about three weeks. What were your reasons for recording overseas as opposed to the US; was it a case of needing a breath of fresh air to get the creative juices flowing?
STEELE: That was a part of it. We always try to come with new and innovative ways to make ourselves current in today’s ongoing battle in the Hip-Hop industry and sustain ourselves as a group and be an individual artist, period. We always try to be trendsetters in what we do, we never try to fall into the mold of what popular consensus would like to say an artist is or what an artist should have or should come with or should rap about.
So we definitely wanted a breath of fresh air but more than a breath of fresh air we wanted to get back into the things that we know are important to us. So we went back to the essence, which for us is having few accessories and just really having the basic essentials that we felt we needed to make the album, which was Tek and Steele’s undivided attention in looking through the tracks and coming up with concepts and just bringing the raw quality music that you hear right now on this album.
RIOTSOUND.COM: What does this album represent as far as the direction you’re taking the sound of Smif N Wessun in?
STEELE: This album represents refreshment. It’s like being thirsty and walking through the desert. If you’ve ever been to a place where you feel like you’re far away from home and then you started to see that light that reminded you that you were closer to your neighborhood and closer to a comfortable environment, that’s what this album will bring you. There’s a lot of things going on in Hip-Hop and this is just another doorway or another entrance into another aspect of the whole grand scheme of things. So when you listen to this album, the album is inspirational, it’s enlightening, the music is uplifting, you could have a party to it or you could clean your house to it. You could get in your car and drive for miles to it. It’s a really solid, well-rounded album.
TEK: It’s a “press play” album, you don’t have to forward past anything.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Just to catch up on some history, your sophomore LP, The Rude Awakening, was put out under the Coco Brovaz name due to a lawsuit against you by the Smith & Wesson gun company. Do you feel that album was under-received because of that? I remember at the time the album dropped thinking it was among the year’s top releases and wondering why the industry media was sleeping on it and not giving it more shine; I guess it may have also been a case of the eras changing…
TEK: The eras was definitely changing man. But it was also a lot to do with the name change in going from a Smif N Wessun to Coco Brovaz. It wasn’t just slept on by the media, it was also slept on by a lot of fans because they were so mixed up, they didn’t know if Smif N Wessun was Coco Brovaz or who this group was. But it still definitely was a good-ass album.
STEELE: And at the same time there are people who never heard of Smif N Wessun and they was introduced to Tek and Steele through the Coco Brovaz album. There are people who are like – yo, I bought the Coco Brovaz album and it made me do my history and then go back and get Dah Shinin’. The whole thing is always evolving, like we say in the beginning on “Bucktown”, we say “360 degrees back home”, it just always takes you back. Even when you look at this album now, Smif N Wessun’s The Album, we’re looking at a photo album on the cover and you see us reflecting on the things that we accomplished in the past and getting to where we are going to position ourselves in the present.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Duck Down Records has gone through a lot of different transitions as well as a recent revitalization. Was there a point after The Rude Awakening dropped where the game was changing and you had some doubts about either the industry or about maintaining your position in Hip-Hop?
TEK: You always have doubts man but that’s where the word “faith” comes in, you have to learn what that word means. That and determination and just being resilient. We come from a school of soldiers, we never really look for the easy route to take so we’re used to taking the hard way. We’re used to taking the alleyway and the back streets; so it’s never really like a standard way of procedure for us. We just keep pushing forward; all we got is us and that’s how we look at it and we just keep pushing forward man.
RIOTSOUND.COM: As far as the entire Boot Camp goes, what’s the plan going forward? It seems like things have really been churning for the entire camp, with albums dropping, tours and everything else. What’s the overall picture looking like?
STEELE: As far as the camp go, we got the new [Boot Camp Clik] album in stores right now, Causalities Of War. We also getting ready to go back in the lab and work on the next album. We still got new artists that’s going to come out, like [9th Wonder and Buckshot] as far as Duck Down the label go. We about to shoot to Japan at the end of this month for Halloween and rock out there; then we’re going to hit up Canada, from there take it down to the west coast and then make our way back over this way. So its really just getting started, it doesn’t stop.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Having toured many parts of the world, where would you say you’ve been to, perhaps a city or country, where you didn’t think the people there would be very much into Hip-Hop but when you actually got there it surprised you how much the fans knew and were into your music?
TEK: It’s a lot of places across America that were like that. I mean, before we even got a chance to go overseas – like, you gotta think, we came into this game pretty young – so when we came into the game we’ve never been to L.A., when we came into the game we’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, we’ve never been to Phoenix, Arizona – so there were a lot of places that we have seen growing into Hip-Hop. It’s always fascinating to get around different environments and different neighborhoods that you’ve never seen or only seen from television. It’s always enlightening.
RIOTSOUND.COM: From your perspective, what has the legacy of Smif N Wessun been to Hip-Hop? How have you made your mark and what do you feel you brought to the forefront that may have not been there before?
STEELE: We brought in tims all seasons for ass kicking reasons man. We made it cool to be fatigued up and out in public with tims on and shorts in the summer. And plus we brought ground breaking music in with how we came out with Black Moon and Heltah Skeltah – introducing new groups and then having one power group [the Boot Camp Clik] to back all that up. So we introduced a lot to the game and we learned a lot from it.
RIOTSOUND.COM: When Smif N Wessun first came out, a big part of your sound was the production of Da Beatminerz; as far as your new material goes, how much does that sound and feel still factor into your music?
STEELE: I’ll say this, for us, we came into the game young. When we came into the game we didn’t know no producers besides Da Beatminerz; and before we was dealing with Beatminerz we was producing our own beats in the crib on our own little four-track machines and all of that. So for us it’s always good to meet producers. Like when we first met Premier in D&D Studios, that was crazy. When we did the song “1, 2 Pass It” [with DJ Premier], you look at the artists that was on that song, you had Mad Lion, KRS One, Fat Joe, Doug E. Fresh, Jeru The Damaja. That was another intricate part of [Hip-Hop] history that we was a part of.
For us, we always looking for that new and innovative sound and that sound that’s going to keep the people moving, which is what happened when we bumped into Da Beatminerz. When Da Beatminerz bumped into Black Moon and Smif N Wessun, them two little kids from Bushwick, they created a great moment in Hip-Hop when they made their music. Similar with A Tribe Called Quest and J Dilla and The Ummah and all that. Similar with the whole resurgence of cats doing Casio beats but adding that knock beat to it, that drum knock. For us, we’ve always been fans of good music and we move by a lot of music, we came up [listening to] a lot of different cats. KRS One, Chuck D, Kool G Rap, and if you travel out of the east, then you got my boy Too Short, Ice T, a lot of different and diverse Hip-Hop. So we just give it back how we get it.
RIOTSOUND.COM: What would you say to any up and coming MC that wants to keep their music true to themselves but at the same time have that ability to reach a sizeable audience, something Smif N Wessun has been doing for nearly a decade and half?
TEK: I mean, it’s basically just staying true to yourself. It’s loyalty first, death before dishonor. Keep it true with who you start out with. Don’t start out with one person or a group of people and then all of a sudden you abandoning and jumping ship ‘cause you think the grass may be greener on the other side. If you keep things true to yourself you’ll always have the right circle around you. Keep your circle tight and the music will speak for itself, just keep it right.
STEELE: And to add on to that, it’s no pain, no gain. Remember them clichés [like] family first and if you trying to be strong in this game you gotta keep it in your heart. If you keep it in your heart, you’ll have it made.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You got the new album in stores, what else should all the fans be looking out for as far as Smif N Wessun goes?
STEELE: Look out for the General Steele Hostile Takeover, the street album that’s out right now and available. Go to DuckDown.com, Amazon.com, all the different sites got it. Look out for the Duck Down in ’08, Special Teamz is out in stores right now, Sean Price got the Master P [mixtape] out right now. Look out for The Formula album that’s coming out, Ruste Juxx is also coming out and also a new Boot Camp album in ’08. Also check out BuckTownUSA.tv.