by Alex Shtaerman
As one half of the legendary Brooklyn Hip-Hop duo Smif N Wessun, General Steele has long had an affinity for the borough that has, to a large extent, come to define his career. Few artists have brought to life the essence of Brooklyn’s gritty undercurrents with the kind of sinister realism exemplified on timeless Smif N Wessun tracks such as “Bucktown”, “P.N.C.” and “Bucktown USA”, among others. With the progressive gentrification of Hip-Hop well underway, Smif N Wessun, along with the rest of the Boot Camp family has sustained its unyielding grip on Hip-Hop’s hardcore audience by aggressively transitioning into a new era of prominence marked by frequent releases, nonstop touring and a proactive outlook towards fan-centric projects. One such project presently in the works is a highly anticipated Smif N Wessun / Pete Rock collaboration LP. However, bringing two Brooklyn hardcore legends in the lab with one of Hip-Hop’s all-time greatest producers is just one of several exploits being orchestrated by BK’s signature rap collective.
While a Pete Rock / Smif N Wessun album is forthcoming, General Steele’s new soundtrack LP,Welcome To Bucktown is out and in stores RIGHT NOW! Featuring guest appearances from Smoothe Da Hustler, Trigger Tha Gambler, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Blahzah Blahzah, the entire Boot Camp Clik as well as production from the likes of DJ Revolution, Ayatollah and Da Beatminerz, Welcome To Bucktown, simply put, amounts to only one thing: must have Hip-Hop. Inspired by the lifestyle portrayed in the 1975 Blaxploitation film Bucktown, Welcome To Bucktown is an updated interpretation that Steele hopes will bring fans “into the lifestyle… all inclusive of the soul of the ghetto, the soul of the community, the soul of the people”. Ultimately, “we’re trying to give you something to LISTEN TO that stimulates your brain”, explains the Boot Camp General. Recently RiotSound.com caught up with Steele to talk some Hip-Hop and explore the true essence of what it means to be from the borough they call Brooklyn. Check out the must read interview!
RIOTSOUND.COM: Right now you have a new LP in stores called Welcome To Bucktown. With this record you’ve essentially brought together some of Brooklyn’s most prolific MCs in embracing and, in a sense, paying tribute, to the vibe and energy that defined the borough through the 1970’s. For people who weren’t there to experience that era, what was the feeling in the air, so to speak, during that particular time?
STEELE: Well, let’s say this, Brooklyn is very rich in culture, that’s one, it’s a very big borough. Growing up in Brooklyn is just as tough as any neighborhood. I grew up around a lot of project buildings and I witnessed a lot of stuff; so pretty much it’s a tough upbringing. When I look at the movie Bucktownwith Fred Williamson and Pam Grier, it shows a little bit about the lifestyle. I didn’t grow up in the ‘70’s but my dad did and my uncle did and my aunts did, and I remember some of the elements of that. And then coming into where we’re at now, when I look out at Brooklyn [today], the only thing that has changed is that it just seems like it grew. Inside of Brooklyn now, the culture has expanded. You got people from all over the world who visit here. So now, it’s hard to be one way, you know, it’s hard to just be the tough guy on the corner or [play some other stereotypical role], there’s so many different options that you have to choose from here.
So when I give you my version of the things that I’ve experienced growing up in Brooklyn and things that I have seen traveling across the world, this is my presentation – General Steele Presents: Welcome To Bucktown USA. Brooklyn, for me, was my home, my birthplace and it was my first inception into the game when Smif N Wessun dropped [our debut] album in ‘94. The changes, as far as now, are going to be in the growth and development of the music. You got young kids now that’s setting the pace as you had young kids then setting the pace. But you also have a classic culture – I can’t say just [classic] music, because there’s so much more to it than the music. The music plays such an important part in the visuals that we see, and at the same time the visuals that we see play an important part in the music that we listen to. So this is why we had to call this LP a “soundtrack”. We had to make it something that would bring you into the experience of what this Bucktown USA thing is about. What is Bucktown? What is Brooklyn? What is the Bucktown state of mind? And we’re trying to bring you into the lifestyle of what this is and our version of that, all inclusive of the soul of the ghetto, the soul of the community, the soul of the people, the soul of the hustlers, the corrupt cops, the soul of the single mother and the kid that’s on the block trying to hustle; and we’re trying to give you something to LISTEN TO that stimulates your brain where you can begin to actually visualize the energy of it.
“I needed to have the same feeling of what I felt when “Bucktown” came out in ’94. Back then Brooklyn was crazy gritty, it was real grimy but it was also fast paced. It was moving, it was shaking and I remember bumping into a lot of these cats. I remember UG and Phantasm doing shows, I remember bumping into Smoothe Da Hustler and Trigger Tha Gambler”
RIOTSOUND.COM: So, with regard to the balance of themes you are touching on; to what degree would you say this record strikes a more nostalgic tone as opposed to using certain elements of the past to describe, or perhaps, more vividly actualize, the present?
STEELE: When we were kids we all remember something that either frightened us or made us happy. What I tried to do with this soundtrack is, I didn’t want to copy the sound of the ‘70’s, but what’s crazy and ironic about that, or cynical about that, is that most producers sample their music from the ‘70’s. If they sample from the ‘80’s they probably going to be sampling disco music, you gonna be dancing to disco loops. Most of the music from the ‘70’s is what we rhyming to now anyway; that soul music, or that rhythm and blues music. We babies to a lot of that stuff. Even when we listen to a lot of the music that’s on now, a lot of that music was borrowed from that [‘70’s] era.
I didn’t want to steal the ‘70’s sound, I wanted to give you a sound that made you feel like when you listen to ‘70’s music and you feel good. Whether it’s a sad song, whether it’s a ballad, whether it’s a song about struggles in the community or a dance song; when you listened to those songs it MADE you feel good. You felt everything, from the horns to the drums to the high hats, and then the final instrument, the voice. You was pulled in, you was intrigued by that, it took you to that time and to that place when they was recording that. Another artist that’s able to do that is Bob Marley. When he singing and he jammin’, you kinda start feeling like you West Indian, you know, you might start jumping around like “ay mon”, you know what I mean [laughs]… like start getting into the character. So when you listen to the songs that I’ve chosen [for this album], with the artists that I have chosen specifically for each song, it’s like I casted each artist for each particular song and was careful not to have over-usage.
When you listen to some music it actually takes you to THAT place. You can smell the buildings, you can smell the bricks. Right now we living in the microwave era but there’s still some music that “takes you there”. Like, I don’t be in the South but if I listen to certain artists they take me there. So when you listen to this particular soundtrack and you listen to the songs, the songs make you not want to stop listening because they go together. It’s like a puzzle, you listen to one and then you gotta follow the whole thing. Once you listen to the whole thing through you gonna be like “oh wow, I totally get it”. And then if you want to pick and pluck after that you can pick out different songs.So, as far as for nostalgic purposes, I wanted you to feel that, I wanted you to be aware of that and remember that because that’s the era that we eat off of. We eat good off that era, you know. So remember that we are babies of greatness and we are babies of great music. And at the same time I also wanted to pull it forward and give you something current. If you know Smif N Wessun or if you don’t know Smif N Wessun, I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a grimy rapper from Brooklyn. I like Timberlands, if you look in my closet it’s Timberlands from the top to the bottom in my closet. I need like a separate room for my Tims [laughing]… my Tims is kicking me out of the house right now. I’m a grimy kid from Brooklyn and I wanted [the music] to be grimy.
You can go listen to “Welcome (To Bucktown)”, you can check out “Bucktown State of Mind”, you can go listen to “I’m From Brooklyn” with the Smith Brothers [aka Smoothe Da Hustler and Trigger Tha Gambler]. I grew up in Brooklyn and I remember Smoothe and Trigger, they lived not too far from where I went to school at. Like we actually know each other aside from the rap stuff; I remember Shabaam Sahdeeq [from back in the day]. I always wanted to do a Smif N Wessun and Smoothe and Trigger song; why we never did it when we was out in the ‘90’s, ’95, ’96 or ’97? I don’t know. But this was the perfect time. So the artists [on Welcome To Bucktown] was casted specifically for the tracks. The tracks were picked and plucked and sifted through just to make sure that vibe and that feeling was there and present. At times I would just sit back and I would play the movie [Bucktown] and I would listen to the tracks and see if the tracks could blend in with the movie.
RIOTSOUND.COM: You mentioned how careful you were in selecting all of the artists that appear on Welcome To Bucktown. From your own personal standpoint, as you went through the process of putting this LP together, what were some of the most important criteria that you employed in choosing the MCs that actually contributed to this project?
STEELE: Well, for one, every person that’s on the record are extremely talented artists in their own right. In my opinion I think 99% of the artists that’s on there are classic Hip-Hop writers and performers. And I only say 99% because there’s a few artists on there that are new and they are also extremely talented as well but I can’t put them in the same category as cats who have been making records for years and who’s names are in the books. I needed to have the same feeling of what I felt when “Bucktown” came out in ’94. Back then Brooklyn was crazy gritty, it was real grimy but it was also fast paced. It was moving, it was shaking and I remember bumping into a lot of these cats. I remember UG and Tallman Phantasm doing shows, I remember bumping into Smoothe Da Hustler and Trigger Tha Gambler, I remember bumping into Shabaam Sahdeeq. I know these cats to be hard workers and I know them to be talented artists that DO NOT PLAY. All of the people that I just named, they do not play when it comes to these lyrics, so it was an honor for me to work with them. And, it was very important for me to work with artists who enjoy working with me. So it wasn’t like a forced thing, like “yo, I need you to get on my single and [blah blah blah]….” I don’t even know you duke, why do you want me to get on your single? [laughs]
STEELE: Make your own songs, you know what I mean?! You want me to tell them you hot? Nah, I can’t. You gotta pay me [laughing]. How much you giving me to do that? But [at the same time] when you look at a lot of crews across all the different states, crews mess with each other, they do songs together. A lot of times when you look at New York City, unfortunately a lot of artists just don’t do songs together. I don’t know what that is, that’s that New York bullshit we be on, like how Busta said it [laughs]. New York, we know we be on some bullshit, we love it though. We tough like that, mentality wise we crazy like that. I mean, we love the rest of the states too but I felt it was important for me to have some artists [on the album] that I actually like.
And, not to take nothing from none of the other Brooklyn artists, but I didn’t want to make this project into a compilation. If I would have put just any Brooklyn artists that was hot on there, you wouldn’t have got the message. You would’ve just thought like, oh, he has a song with so and so, oh word, a hot song, a hot song! You was wondering years ago, how come rappers don’t make albums anymore? They just make songs and singles and then they sell you some bullshit. You be trying to listen to an album, by track 3 you be finished, like “I can’t do this, where’s the one I like, where’s the one they play on the radio?” And then you gotta think like, why would I buy an album if the song that I like is on the radio all the time? I can just listen to the radio any given day, any time of the day and I’m going to hear the song I like. Other than that, you know, I’ll download it, put it on my iPod and I’m good.
But when you want an album, a good album, like when you have to get in your car and drive somewhere, you want to listen to a nice album that makes you feel like you going somewhere. You might be going from Brooklyn to Manhattan and you put my album on and it felt like you drove to Florida or some shit. It just made you feel like you just wanna stay in the car and look out the window [laughs]… you know what I mean. Just roll the window down and just enjoy the breeze, like that good feeling drive, not that grueling traffic drive shit. But if you want one of those [grueling drives], there’s a couple of songs on [Welcome To Bucktown] that’ll make you feel that way too. If anybody ever been pulled over by the police, you gonna love “Made Me Do It”. That’s produced by my boy Ayatollah and features 5FT, a person who is no stranger to the law.
“I know one thing, me and Tek work extremely fast and I know Pete Rock got heat, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem with us finding the right vibe. If we work diligently and stay on it, we can have something kicked off real fast”
RIOTSOUND.COM: In the beginning of our conversation you mentioned how in many ways Brooklyn hasn’t changed, but with that in mind, if we look at the situation over the last few years especially, there have been some significant changes that have taken place. Last year they were talking about closing down Astroland Park in Coney Island which is an absolutely timeless and historic Brooklyn landmark. There has also been a lot of development all around the borough. The Williamsburg neighborhood, for example, is looking more and more like Soho with each passing day. As a resident of the borough, what have you seen in recent years that you like, and also, what have you seen that you aren’t particularly fond of?
STEELE: I’m glad you brought that up because when I say that “it didn’t change”, that’s just me speaking out of the love that I have for the borough. It’s a lot of things that’s changed. I cried when they said they was closing down Coney Island [Astroland Park]. And then what’s crazy is that once [I heard that], me and Sean Price, we both took our girlfriends and we went over there and we got on the Cyclone [roller coaster] back to back, just to get that feeling. We went into the fun house, the scary house; we brought our kids, played games. We went there and really enjoyed it. We stayed away from the hot dogs though, we don’t do the sausage, it’s pork [laughs]… we had the cotton candy but the [sausage] links, we don’t do the links [laughing]. We gonna go to Nathan’s, we can do that, but we can’t do the links.
But [overall], the neighborhoods are changing. They have so many rules now that a lot of my friends that used to live in the project houses can’t live there [anymore]. If you got a criminal record you can’t live there. And if your family lives there and you go there [and stay there] and they find out that you living there, they gonna kick your whole family out. So I’m just watching how the project houses are kinda being – it’s like they want them back. It was initially for poor people but now because those are the most fortified living developments, it’s like, we need those back. We gonna take the projects from the poor people and all you people that like to sell crack and basically [all the] minorities, the underprivileged individuals, we gonna take all this back and we’ll make condos or co-ops or something of that nature. We gonna fix them up and sell them for more money, you know what I mean. Because a lot of people that live in the projects, they still paying like $800 for rent or $500 for rent for like four or five rooms. So you can see why it’s a necessity like, yo, we need to get the people outta here, because they living like [almost] for free. But what’s real is what’s wrong with that? If they’ve been somewhere for five, ten, fifteen or twenty years, if they mama lived there, they grandmama lived there, why not [have them stay there], let’s work something out.
Not to mention there’s a lot of [new] buildings that’s now going up. A lot of old mom and pop stores [are disappearing], even record stores; there’s like totally no record stores in Brooklyn [anymore], unless it’s a Best Buy or a Target or something like that, it’s extremely hard to find a regular record store. That’s why producers now, they gotta be the best resource guys because they go anywhere, Germany, L.A., and they just dying to find a record store. There’s still a few that’s sprinkled around here and there but it used be like three or four on one block, it’s a strip called Fulton Avenue.
There used to be a mall there called Albee Square Mall, it was there when – Rakim did a video [for “I Ain’t No Joke”] in Albee Square Mall. Then Buckshot came and redid Rakim’s song and he also did the video in Albee Square mall as a tribute [to Rakim]. And right now Albee Square Mall is totally gone, it’s been knocked down, they putting up some other kind of thing. They trying to fix it up and put up stores with all types of fancy clothes. But people, they ain’t really need none of that stuff, you know what I mean.
RIOTSOUND.COM: [laughing] So there’s definitely a lot of changes going on in the neighborhood, but aesthetically, the people are still here. Brooklyn is still kind of like a tough borough but the ethnicity has expanded a great deal. Neighborhoods are more diverse now than they used to be five or ten years ago, and it just makes your friends list more interesting [laughs]. The opportunities are still there but it doesn’t quite look the same. You gotta turn up the degrees, you gotta turn up the heat, you can’t always sit there and say that it’s gonna be the same opportunities and you gonna live in the same apartment. You gotta wanna move up and make advances. So Brooklyn is growing, there’s still trees in Brooklyn, we still got the great foliage [laughing]… we still got the brownstones, the limestones. One thing about Brooklyn is in the summertime, oh man, on the beautiful days in the summer, sometimes you can’t even drive because the blocks be shut down. And they be shut down because of block parties. The kids be on the street and they come out and bring the balloons, clowns, the music. A lot of times people may think that if you come to Brooklyn you gonna get shot…
STEELE: [laughing] Like, “I ain’t going to Brooklyn, I ain’t getting shot!” But if you come to Brooklyn you gonna be like “hold on, wait a minute, you got Black people and you got Black people with the White people?! The Spanish people with the Jewish people? What the hell?!” It ain’t like Lil Kim said! But certain spots it is, you can’t go in certain spots, it’s still the same. Like certain projects, if you go through there looking wrong, you might have a little issue [laughs]. Some spots you can walk right through and nobody is gonna pay you no mind, but there’s still them little corners, them little blocks that you probably shouldn’t go through if you just want to be real safe.
“if they come out with some crap, they gonna get chewed up around here, they gonna get destroyed. These seas are rough, these parts is rough around here. Ya’ll rappers out there, ya’ll stay focused, don’t think ‘cause the lady might have a skirt on she’s not gonna kick your butt. Don’t think ‘cause a dude look like a nerd that he might not be able to really get busy”
RIOTSOUND.COM: Getting back to the music side of things, in the near future Smif N Wessun will be releasing a collaborative album with Pete Rock, which is something that fans will undoubtedly be salivating over the months ahead. I know as a Hip-Hop head myself it’s something I’m definitely excited about and looking forward to. Can you fill us in a bit on the details of this forthcoming project?
STEELE: Listen, that’s supposed to be classified CIA documents, how did you get that information?
STEELE: You tell me they name right now, I’ll have his ass shipped to Alaska in the morning [laughing]. But yea, it’s official, we working out the kinks, the little red tape, we going through that and making sure that everybody will be straight and everything will be taken care of. Duck Down is on the job and it’s looking good man. I’m excited. We spoke to Pete the other day, he on the road right now and he excited. And it’s crazy ‘cause at first I was like “man, send us some beats, what’s wrong with you?!” Then I’m like, nah, we don’t want that, we don’t wanna do it like that. I’m gonna come to your crib, we gonna sit down [and do it] like we used to do it. He [Pete Rock] has a beautiful rug, I hope he still got it, it’s very comfortable. I like to be on the floor ‘cause that’s how I know I’m cool. If I gotta sit on a hard chair or somewhere like that, I don’t know if we friends yet, I gotta still feel that relationship out a little bit [laughing].
But, you know, I’ll go to his crib, records all over the place, we’ll chill, we’ll kick it, burn something, vibe, and we’ll CREATE something. He ain’t gonna send me no beat through the email and I then go, alright, here go the rap. We gonna sit down and we gonna get personal with this album. So I’m looking forward to that man. And, of course, when you buy the Welcome To Bucktown project, if you buy the CD there’s a secret message in the back of the CD… [whispering] I can’t tell you over the phone. But, uhmm… [laughs], definitely be on the lookout for that Smif N Wessun and Pete Rock album.
RIOTSOUND.COM: I know it’s still very early on, but is there presently a timeframe in mind as far as when the album might drop?
STEELE: It’s funny to say, but I know one thing, me and Tek work extremely fast and I know Pete Rock got heat, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem with us finding the right vibe. If we work diligently and stay on it, we can have something kicked off real fast. Now, the other part is, if we want to rush it out or not? Personally, me, I’m always trying to rush the shit out. I’m like, man let’s put it out on Christmas, let’s not wait until people forget. But then the other aspect of the business is that sometimes you might have to take it through the (product to market) process, the three month or the six month process and get the people ready, do the campaign, so to speak. So hopefully it’ll come out this year but you know what, it’s godspeed man. When it comes out that’s the day it’s supposed to come out, word. I know that once we get in the studio it’s going to be bananas ‘cause we all kinda have a lot of similarities. And pretty much everyone that’s on the job is humble, so I don’t think we gonna have any problems with egos clashing and no crazy stuff like that.
RIOTSOUND.COM: Since Smif N Wessun and the entire Boot Camp has always repped Brooklyn to the fullest, I want to ask you this question: Given the caliber of talent we have seen come out of Brooklyn already, it sometimes feels like it’s almost impossible for an up and coming MC to rep the borough because he, or she, gotta contend with the likes of Kane, B.I.G. and Jay-Z among many others, yourself included. Do you feel that it may be a little TOO hard for the new generation of Brooklyn MCs because they have so much to live up to?
STEELE: Well, I mean really, that’s the whole industry if you think about it. And it ain’t just rap if you take it a little step further. It’s hard as hell to make an R&B record nowadays. I can’t find a good R&B record to save my life. I gotta go to like Music Choice and listen to ‘70’s stuff and some of the ‘80’s disco stuff. But shit, I think that’s with anything man. Brooklyn breeds some of the hardest cats, male and female. Lil Kim is crazy with it; Foxy, Jean Grae, these people are not playing games with the lyrics. But you know what, if you want to be successful in this game, you have to be on top of your job. And one thing I can say about [almost] every artist in the game basically is they have their own flow. Even though you may say like, oh, all this down south music [sounds the same], you got people down south – like [Young] Jeezy don’t rhyme like Gucci Mane, Gucci Mane don’t rhyme like T.I., T.I. don’t rhyme like Busta Rhymes, Busta Rhymes don’t rhyme like Jay-Z, Jay-Z don’t rhyme like Talib [Kweli]. And Jay-Z said [on “Moment of Clarity”] “If skills sold, truth be told, lyrically I would be Talib Kweli”.
Like, we know who the sharks are, we totally respect these cats; Mos Def is an ILL artist, you know. Because Brooklyn is so big these cats are just poppin’ outta the trees and stuff like that. But then our sister borough Queens got some sharks out there too. And then you can’t take nothing from Harlem and damn sure can’t take nothing from the Bronx because KRS is from there, you know what I mean? But he was born in Brooklyn, so that’s just one for the books if ya’ll ain’t know that one. But in Brooklyn you gotta be strong to survive. And when you touching that mic – you’re absolutely right – you gotta remember Big Daddy Kane, you gotta remember even the cats that’s doing it now that been doing it for a while, like a Jay-Z. And Kane’s still doing it now too. I actually need to get him on a track, thanks for reminding me…
RIOTSOUND.COM: Kane is crazy live too. I’ve seen him live several times, unbelievable…
STEELE: Yo, I had an opportunity to interview him because I do a television show [Bucktown USA TV] with my partner Cynical , and yo, it took me like friggin’ 20 minutes to [get comfortable]. I was so nervous man. I was like, I don’t know what to ask this dude? My temperature went up, I started sweating, I was uncomfortable. And also, it was the beginning of me [doing the TV show], I wasn’t totally used to it. But I’m like, yo, I listened to this guy, I’m a student of this guy right here, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to be talking to him… you know what I’m saying? [laughs]
STEELE: It’s just when I respect someone so much, I humble myself to you and I totally appreciate what you attributed to the game. I’m not looking at you like an old school artist, I’m looking at you as a great artist, period. I big up Joell Ortiz too because Joell Ortiz did a song called “Brooklyn” and he had Kane on [the remix]. And that was the first song I heard Joell Ortiz on and ever since I heard that song I was like, yo, yea, I fucks with Joell Ortiz. That dude, he a young up and coming shark. So when you around here [in Brooklyn] you might end up as fish food ‘cause there’s sharks and piranhas around here. I’m running with wolves and I swim with the sharks, it’s a lot of things going on in Brooklyn. But a tree still grows in Brooklyn, so it’s a beautiful place to be from. And also [don’t forget] one of the greatest artists ever, my man B.I.G., thug in peace, rest in peace, you know.
There’s a lot of creativity that comes from these boroughs and there’s a lot of creativity that comes from Hip-Hop, period. Big up to Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, the whole Zulu nation spreading this thing out. We live in the information age so we’re just spreading it out. Also big up to K-9, he from Somalia, he just did a track with Buckshot. It’s phenomenal what we can do with this music thing. So I just hope that the artists that do come out, they know that. Because if they come out with some crap, they gonna get chewed up around here, they gonna get destroyed. These seas are rough, these parts is rough around here. Ya’ll rappers out there, ya’ll stay focused, don’t think ‘cause the lady might have a skirt on she’s not gonna kick your butt. Don’t think ‘cause a dude look like a nerd that he might not be able to really get busy.
Also, big up to the homie Torae, he coming out on Duck Down too, him and Marco Polo. He’s another one, a Brooklyn artist from Coney Island, who actually grew up – Buckshot’s family is from Coney Island and Buckshot, before I knew Buck, was a mentor to Torae. They was out there and Torae was like the little kid, eight, nine years old watching them. But Torae when he started rhyming, he never went and was like “alright Buck, you remember me, I lived on the block, give me a deal”. He worked up to it. So for any rapper that don’t think you gotta work towards it, then you already finished. Forget about that, we don’t do nepotism around here. And even though all my Boot Camp is family, they had to go through some rigorous training. And some of them – we even have casualties. All the family is still there but we have casualties nonetheless. So all you rappers, Brooklyn, Bronx, Boston, Nevada, wherever the hell you from, just bring your A-game baby!