See that leather sofa over there? Sit back with this six-pack and a spliff that’ll have your mind twisted while we chit-chat. RIP Sean Price. Support truly independent journalism by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.
A quarter century ago, Duck Down Records began with Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal, an album too menacing and gritty for mainstream audiences. It was a classic that set the tone for the label’s future. In their prime, Heltah Skeltah’s Jahmal “Rock” Bush and Sean “Ruck” Price, were among rap’s deadliest duos, an unsung power coupling that deserves Mount Rushmore consideration alongside the likes of Outkast, Meth & Red, Tip and Phife, and Bun and Pimp. With his deep baritone, Rock could rip trees out of earth with vocals alone. And Ruck could rhyme words that the targeted force of a garrote. They felt unstoppable.
Heltah Skeltah were a faction of the Boot Camp Clik—a coalition of Brownsville AKA Bucktown’s hardest emcees. This was pre-gentrification Brooklyn, before the neighborhood’s character was swapped out for expensive lattes and supposedly woke trust fund allies. The Clik was composed of Black Moon (Buckshot, Evil Dee, 5ft), Smif-N-Wessun (Tek and Steele), Originoo Gunn Clappazz (Starang Wondah, Top Dog and Louieville Sluggah), and Heltah Skeltah. In ‘96, Dru Ha and Buckshot followed their success with Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ would transition Duck Down Management into Duck Down Records, bringing aboard O.G.C. and Heltah Skeltah.
Signing with Duck Down Records in ‘95, Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C. started out as a group that went by The Fab Five—a nod to the Beatles—releasing “Blah” on Side A and “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” on Side B. “Leflaur” made a surprise debut at number 80 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. The faction would split up into their famed groups and join Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun to form the Boot Camp Clik. “Leflaur” would become Nocturnal’s lead single.
Released on June 18th, 1996, Nocturnal brought sonics and themes that continue to resonate today. Masterminded by Da Beatminerz, the production ranged from horrorcore-slanted, concrete wall-rattling boom-bap to lo-fi curb stomps that somehow spurred introspection. Lord Jamar and Buckshot crafted the intro, “Here We Come,” which starts with Starang introducing listeners to the madness. The chants of “Here We Come” creep in the background making it feel like the voices are following you. The kind of score built to soundtracks Michael Myers stalking his victims.
Rock and Ruck are masters of detail and not only in the storytelling sense. On “Grate Unknown,” Rock described a body convulsing following a bullet to the spine, which earned the album’s parental advisory sticker: “I deliver a nine slug to your spine/And leave you on the floor, vibrating like a fault line.” Or take Ruck’s technical prowess on “Soldiers Gone Psyco,”: “My parabellum be swelling cerebellums when you’re dwelling. With Caucasoids, you’re void, my n**s rebelling.” In this world, Ruck and Rock didn’t need a pencil and pad to lyrically kill their opponents.
The duo rapped like extensions of one another. Rock thrashed through his verses, the haunting menace behind his voice turned bars jagged as rusty razor blades. To balance, Ruck’s verses played out like showcase ciphers with zero room for error. If Rock was the blade that ran across your skin, Ruck was the sting that followed. They were in complete sync.
Nocturnal was never meant for the casual rap fan, despite its later ubiquity on college radio. It’s dark — shrouded in enough violence to make anyone pearl clutch and look over their shoulder on a cold walk home. It conveys the daily struggles not only Ruck and Rock take on, but the rest of the Boot Camp Clik and those living in Brownsville too. Things that they have experienced, the ones that keep you up at night.
In two recent phone calls, I spoke with Dru-Ha and Rock to discuss the journey up to, and the making of, Nocturnal. We spoke on the first meetings between Dru Ha and Heltah Skeltah, the inspiration, and concept behind “Therapy,” the making of the “Operation Lockdown” video, and the infamous Hot ‘97 ban. During our conversation, the pride that stemmed from Dru Ha’s voice when speaking on Nocturnal was noticeable. Rock was far more relaxed, a veteran that casually looks back at his body of work as a fan of the culture. When the topic of Sean Price—who passed 6 years ago—comes up, nothing but love can be felt from the stories they shared. – Anthony Malone
Do you ever revisit Nocturnal on your own at all or is it something that you did and now you’ve moved on?
Rock: Yeah, I do. I revisit a lot of the old stuff, but I rarely ever listen to it all the way through. I’ll go to certain songs for certain moods, almost all the time.
You’re like a casual fan at the same time.
Rock: Yeah. As a fan, it’s dope hip-hop, as opposed to it being my first hip hop album, my first album and a landmark and special to me. It’s just dope, just the fan side of me. It registers as dope hip-hop, so I can have a moment where for whatever reason, one of the lyrics will pop into my head and then now I probably need to hear that song or that lyric is going to keep repeating itself in my head. I’m going to be quoting the lyrics all day getting on your nerves with it and shit like that, so I probably should just go ahead and listen to it to get it out of my system.
Nocturnal is a legendary record. When you were putting this album together, do you ever imagine celebrating his legacy all these years later?
Dru: You know, I definitely knew we had something special. Even back then and now that I’ve been in the business. That was actually the first official full length on Duck Down. I’ve been doing this now 20 something years or so maybe even a little bit longer. And you know, I didn’t know why I did get the sense that it was a very special project. You don’t know what you’re going to create after that, obviously, but at the time, I definitely felt like man, this is going to be a monumental type of of album.
Again, it was landmark for us. Because even though Duck Down had been established as a management company for Black Moon, and Smif-N-Wessun, we were directly involved, and obviously, all of us were a part of Dah Shinin’ and, and Enta Da Stage the same team of people. Those weren’t Duck Down releases. So this is the first one we came out with and Priority Records was our distributor. We put out the Fab 5, we put out the first single “Leflah” and “Blah,” and then this was the first official Duck Down project, so it felt special to me even back then. I don’t change that tune even today.
I feel like all this started one day at Nervous records. How did you initially end up with them?
Dru: [Laughs] Well, it did start at Nervous. Not for these guys, not for Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C., but for me and Buckshot it started at Nervous. That’s where we met. I was an intern. He had just signed a single deal with the label, Black Moon released a white label 12 inch right before or right after I started working there. “Who Got Da Props” was shortly after that, then Buckshot and I forged a very deep friendship. We formed Duck Down Management maybe a year into it. I say it like it all happens overnight, but it doesn’t. it’s kind of like us meeting each other, trusting each other, and working together.
Nervous was a very small indie label. So we kind of were, you know, I say an intern, but I quickly became head of the rap department up there. Like whatever that meant. And so I went, I went from intern to doing everything I could do and learning the business all at the same time. But all aligned with Black Moon and Buckshot, and then we eventually met. Buckshot eventually introduced me to Smif-N Wessun, we brought them in as management clients, and we did do that album on Nervous. We kind of felt after those two albums of Enta Da Stage and Dah Shinin’, there was more out there for us to have control. You know, it’s like the birth of that time period of No Limit, Loud records, and Bad Boy. It was all around us in the music industry of people having their own labels and their own identity, their own brand. Buck and I, we fell right in that right where we were focused on like alright, we’re going to do this for Duck Down.
Smif-N-Wessun brought Heltah Skeltah to the table. Top Dogg from O.G.C. is Steele’s brother and those guys were already kind of in their own group, you know, with O.G.C. and Heltah Skeltah. And so we met everyone and it was like no brainers for us because of how incredibly talented they were. And we signed them to Duck Down. And then we did our deal with Priority, and those became the first acts.
Working with Buckshot from the jump, what made you and him agree to work together as business partners?
Dru: We became friends first. And that’s kind of what I was alluding to earlier. I’m up there, trying to find my way through the music business, or like have an introduction to the music business that I interned for a couple of summers before, at SBK Records and SBK at the time was like Arrested Development. It was Vanilla Ice. I was working with a group called Fifth Platoon out of Queens. I was just learning a little bit about the business that way. And when I got to Nervous as an indie label, I was just eager to learn and understand more about the business. When I met Buck, he was just trying to really get his career going. And so he would be up at your office. It was a small office. And I would say he would come up to the office at least two or three times a week. I’m sitting in the front. When he came up there, he was just kind of like checking in, but he didn’t, he didn’t have much of a purpose. It wasn’t like scheduled meetings. So he would be in the city doing whatever he was doing and he was stopped by the office.
He and I would just spend a lot of time talking. He knew I had a lot of love for hip hop. At the time, I was actually an aspiring rapper, even though I knew even then that that wasn’t my calling. I still enjoyed it a lot. I loved that I had such a passion for music. So to be around Buck and to like start to meet Evil Dee and these guys and watch their process and be able to be in the studio with them, for me, it was like a dream come true. Living out like everything that I loved and at the same time you’re working and you’re getting things done. I think that Buckshot saw that passion within me that you know he felt comfortable in us starting to do business together. And the truth be told is that in the beginning, nobody was thinking about things like, a label or a conglomerate or even a management company when we first met. That was like, the furthest thing from my mind. It was more just about the music and being involved and being there. And it wasn’t until an opportunity knocked a year or so later, after some management for them didn’t go the way that he wanted it to go, that we decided to like to do it ourselves. And then and then it just moved quick, man. It’s just like, momentum, you just kind of figure it out on the fly.
You mentioned being an aspiring rapper. On “U Da Man”, off Enta Da Stage, you absolutely killed your verse.
Dru: Yeah, I appreciate that. A lot of people like that record. I survived that record. I had coaching and some help. But it’s like, I use this analogy a lot. I never think it gets old. And I say that, to rap is a lot like playing a sport. There’s a lot of people that play baseball, and like to throw the ball around in their backyard. Then you can become a rec player. And then maybe you get to play in college. Then you go on, you start weeding them out of like, all right, minor league, Major League… It doesn’t mean that the person that just played rec doesn’t still like to throw the ball around in his backyard. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t mean just because you’re not as nice as a professional that you don’t enjoy doing it.
So for me, and I love hip hop, I love rhyming in the car with my friends back then like little sessions, or whatever you would call it. We all were bugging out, but when you get around professional artists, right, the guys that would be the equivalent of Major League players, you quickly see the difference between yourself and them. I think today, it’s more personality driven. It’s more like: can you pull off the entertainment side of it today, your look and how cool you might be, but back then it really was about just the skill, the skill set was so apparent. For me, when I got around these guys and got into the studio with them and got to watch them record; I learned quickly that my role wasn’t going to be behind the microphone, that wasn’t gonna be it for me.
What was that moment that you realized that this wasn’t for you, when you decided to focus on management?
Dru: You know, I’ve got the opportunity to record on that record, it took a lot out of me in terms of getting that verse in right together, I was in another group. Even when I was in college, I was in a rap group with another kid. And he was actually really nice. I always thought that he could have made it if he had kept that path. But it probably was the private moments of like going for radio stations like like Stretch Armstrong and bobbito or wherever we might have gone on the promo runs and like everywhere, you had to go you had to freestyle or everywhere you had to go you had to have the next verse ready or something to go.
And I just knew that for me that wasn’t going to be it. I wasn’t good enough to have all that ready to go. It wasn’t like there wasn’t any moment, I also already had the job. I was also already my mind brain was just like, Hey, this is more of a hobby when I say aspiring, I wasn’t quitting my day job even back then. I was like, fucking let me just be in the business. Let me just be around it. And I think that’s the path I took.
Having dipped your feet in both realms, do you think that’s helped you in the long run to understand the business?
Dru: Absolutely. Even to this day, I can say I’ve done shows, I’ve been in the booth. I’ve been under pressure to get something done. Not that I’ve done a lot but I did it enough where I understand. And it’s funny, a lot of artists I work with today, they don’t really know a lot of my history. How I conduct my business, you almost become like the old guy in the room where you want to start saying, but when back in my day these kids didn’t really want to hear it. When time is appropriate, or there’s a situation, someone might say to me, “you don’t understand the pressure.” And I’ll be like, “No, actually, I do.” I can point to a show or a moment or whatever, like understanding that—Yeah, I’ve been there, not to that degree, why hold the weight? But yeah, there’s levels of understanding what it takes.
Initially, what was your vision for Duck Down Records?
Dru: Just sign incredible talent, and put out music that we love. And that really was the vision. Just like to put out authentic music that we like. Like real MCs, what we consider real MCs and music that that we were fans of, I think that that was what was most important to us at that time period.
Rock, you and Ruck were childhood friends?
Rock: Well, not really. We weren’t childhood friends. When we were children, we didn’t really know each other but we knew each other. We weren’t friends, though. Our mothers were friends when we were children. We weren’t close yet but we knew each other. It was like, we were kind of like playing cousins and shit like that.
Take me back before you two formed Heltah Skeltah. You both were running the streets as Decepticons, one of the most notorious gangs at the time, especially around here. What was it like growing up in Brownsville during that era?
Rock: I don’t know. I know, but I feel like it’s the same as… I feel like many cities have similar stories. Many hoods, many ghettos. It was with the shits so to speak. A little bit of everything was going on but I feel like Brownsville’s main commodity was robbers and stick up kids and shit like that when I was coming up. It was a dangerous place as far as you could get your shit taken from you at any given time. That was the climate, so you had to be… you either got your shit taken or you were one of the takers. That was life for a Brownsville dude.
But you had some people who hustled, a lot of people when the crack era hit, a lot of people did that too but I just feel like Brownsville’s robbery industry thrived more. But I don’t know because I didn’t fuck with the crack era. I didn’t fuck with that hustle, so some people may beg to differ.
The Whaticons were the wildest ones, and they had members from all over the place. How did they get such a notorious reputation?
Rock: Where do you get this information from?
There’s a video of General Steele talking about it.
Rock: Oh, all right. Well, the Whaticons are… what they were, they were their own entity. They were at the top of it all.. They were some of the originals. They were some of the most official. I don’t think that you could ever identify a wildest sect, not in Decepticons. I don’t think that’s something you can even quantify. They were some real ones, though. Some of the real ones.
I believe at a showcase that’s where you found out that Sean was nice at rapping. At this point, both of you were doing your thing solo, so when did you start rapping with him?
Rock: We started rapping with each other in the early ’90s. We stumbled across each other in this hole in the wall club in Brownsville and it wasn’t so much a showcase. It was just this club that they used to… it was one of the most dangerous clubs you could ever find yourself in. I didn’t usually fuck with that spot but for whatever reason I was. My homeboys, dudes that I was hanging with at the current time, happen to be Ruck’s homeboys. I had just met these dudes in my new school, but they happened to be Ruck’s team. And I was hanging out with them and I was like, what the hell.
I went to this spot and it was… dudes were in there rapping and everybody was trashed and that was the night I learned that Ruck and Sean were one and the same. I knew Sean as a kid. Ruck was a Decepticon legend that I heard of. I didn’t even know that they were the same person, and that was when I was able to put the name to the face or match the two names to the person and from that point on, because like I said, we knew each other as children so seeing him, it was like, “Oh shit, what up my n**a?” It was one of those dope moments and shit. And from that point on, I was already hanging with his crew so we kind of just naturally mixed together from that point on and he rapped and I rapped but neither one of us was going to go, “Yo, you think we should be a group?” I think we both felt like that was a little bit corny and we weren’t going to rush it.
We wanted it to happen organically so we just did dirt together first for a couple of years and shit, and then we officially formed a group.
Did you guys have any names in mind before Heltah Skeltah?
Rock: Yeah, we had a name before Heltah Skeltah.
I’m not sure if you want to let that name out.
Rock: Absolutely not.
How did the first meeting go down?
Rock: The first meeting was going to be at my apartment. In the city, I had a studio apartment and Tek and Steele, one of the two set them up over that’s to say, both of them set it up. And it’s funny, because the story goes that Sean came to my apartment. And he was looking —you know, how they had your names on the front to ring the buzzer or whatever—so he was looking for “Ha”. And he didn’t, he didn’t see any “Ha”. So he ended up leaving again, with no cell phone or whatever at that moment in time. He didn’t see it was my legal name on the door. And not “Ha” and so he ended up leaving and then we didn’t meet that first day. And then you know, I want to say was in a studio session a bit, you know, up at D&D or the actual studio, but say that was probably more like our official first meeting. And even with those guys, that kind of helped that. I think even with Sean and Rock. I think that it helped that one obviously, we had the endorsement already from Buck and Smif-N-Wessun. They were all friends from Brownsville and they all knew each other.
So that right away gave me the endorsement. They already had the stamp of approval, they could get past like who I was just because, you know, Tek and Steele were already in business with us. And they were giving them the report on how they felt we conducted business and the type of people we were. So you know, that made things a lot easier. I think Sean definitely got a kick out of me being on, “U Da Man”. And that album at the time was just on fire, you know, like that Enta Da Stage album was going crazy at that moment in time. And so the success from that and like him—he knew who I was and what I was doing and he’d clown me—Pretty much, typical Sean fashion like he clown me, probably within like a day or so, “you’re gonna keep rhyming,” he was already kind of poking fun at me in his in his classic way. And so we developed a quick friendship.
They were in need of direction of what they were doing, how they were going to kind of mold it together. And, you know, to their credit, they kind of let us do our thing. We had already been through producing two albums. And again, I would say it’s just much different back then of how we produce the record. And I don’t mean the production of the tape. You know, of course Beatminerz were producing the record. But we were really like a major part of putting the songs and concepts and features and everything together. The strategy, the overall plan of like, “Alright, what are we going to do?” You know, a lot of brainstorming a lot of ideas, we just took everything to a different degree—what order you’re going to put the songs and how our song is going to match up. All those things we spent a little more time on. I’m not saying that artists don’t today, ‘cause I wouldn’t know. I’m not in their camps but for both of us, I know I don’t today, with all the different projects I’m involved with. I just don’t do that anymore. It’s not the same role that I had back then. It seemed like I had more time, it seemed like that. That’s what I could do. That’s where my focus could be. And I never felt like we had a I never felt like rush. There were a hundred things going on, like today will be for me, you know what I mean? If you told me I got to go sit in the studio right now for eight hours. I’d be like, “Yo, I just don’t know how I’m going to do that.” But back then I didn’t even think that. I didn’t think anything of that.
What was that apartment like in the end?
Rock: It was just a small studio apartment on 14th Street, 13th Street Union Square and it became like a little frat house. All the guys would come through all different times of the night and places. It was a little makeshift office or strategy place for us where we would hang out and just whatever, like a lot of things happened. And they’re just just coming up with ideas or having little meetings or whatever it might be. But it also was a meeting point if we were going to the studio because the studios were in Manhattan. And the guys were still all living in Brooklyn. So it’s kind of like that middle ground if they needed to be in Manhattan. It was a spot for them.
Did you have any conflicts with landlords or neighbors, anything like that due to all the people coming in and out during all hours?
Rock: Oh, yeah. Tek almost got arrested in that apartment. Police were called a couple of times. And you know, it was some of my first encounters of like how fucked up the city could be and that side of it could be. That wasn’t a doorman building. It was just a walk up. And so it wasn’t as crazy as when I moved a couple years later. I moved when I was in a doorman building and it was a little nicer with a one bedroom and I still kept the same kind of vibe. Now there was more room I could have more people over at a time and in that second apartment I just had all types of problems. I wasn’t able to buy that second apartment because of the co-op board. When I went in front of the board it was like all these things said about me that the business I was keeping and other than that not so much like that first apartment. Just a couple of incidents of like smoke or whatever and police came in a couple of times but you know not like the way that I had in the second place and I got to my third place I shut all that shit down as I learned to separate my life at that point.
What would you say is the most memorable story you have between those two apartments?
Rock: I don’t know man, that’s just some crazy fun times. There’s good memories and bad memories like that. Like I said, I’ll never forget the time with the Tek and the police coming into my apartment like they knocked on the door and then they just basically came in… they didn’t have a warrant. They didn’t have anything. There was no reason for them to be able to even enter my apartment. And one of the officers had Tek in a chokehold in the elevator taking him down. I’m like sitting there screaming going yo you know like, please in the case like he didn’t do anything. They ended up letting them go when he got them downstairs but you know I’m never going forget that, It was just kind of like a real wake up call. I didn’t even think something like that could happen. I had never—maybe I was naive or whatever, but I had never seen that firsthand.
That’s crazy how fucked up cops were back then and still fucked up now.
Rock: When I do think back then I think about how it could have escalated. I didn’t even think that’s possible. But now I almost think we were lucky to get out of some of those situations with just being angry or being scuffed up. The cop literally had him in a chokehold in the elevator, like out for no real reason. And he was choking them out, and had him in a headlock. As the elevator went down, I was in the elevator, like nothing happened when we got outside and they didn’t arrest him. So it was almost like the cost of trying to make his point. Tek might’ve mouthed off or said something or gave them just the slightest indication of testing his power. But that’s a bad memory and also is a wake up call for me. I’m just understanding and seeing certain things, like a lot of things that lyrics you hear in the music, if sometimes you don’t understand where it stems from.
Sometimes maybe you overlook it, and you look back today, I think it’s so much more acceptable today to look like, “Hey, listen to the lyrics. Listen to what they’re saying about police abuse,” and then you go back and listen to the records from the 90s or whatever. And it’s just like, no one, no one felt it was justified or no one was really listening, listening. I was almost like, where the artist is saying it, you almost took it as—were the artists just saying it versus like, no, this shit was really going on. I don’t think that there was enough recognition of what was actually happening.
Now Heltah Skeltah is formed. How did you guys get on the New Jersey Drive Soundtrack?
Rock: We don’t even know how that happened. We were just rapping with our homeboys. It was an opportunity. Maybe we knew that it was… the song could possibly be for a movie soundtrack. Maybe we knew that, maybe we didn’t, but for us, we were just happy to be here. We were new here. We were rapping with our friends and we would do that to this day. If we were all in the same place with a studio and a beat that we like, we all want it and as far as where that song ends up, that’s something to be worked out later.
Heltah Skeltah, Smif-N-Wessin, and O.G.C formed the Boot Camp Clik, and also formed the Fab 5. After two successful singles, with Leflah being the breakout hit, why didn’t you guys capitalize with a full project?
Dru: Yeah, looking back, that was probably a mistake on our part. Because that’s like record business 101. You get a hit single, and then you drop an album, even if you have to, that’s literally record business 101. We had Priority as our parent company, as the people guiding us a bit as much as we would listen, but we were young and we probably didn’t think you could tell us anything. If someone was telling us something, I don’t know how quick we were to listen. But yeah, it was definitely a mistake.
I think some of it stems from the fact that they weren’t really, truly a group. That never was the intention. When we got the demo from them. The demo had them together. The demo had “Blah” On it. “Blah” was the B-Side to “Leflah”. And they actually hated “Blah” Ruck and Rock, They didn’t like “Blah”. I love “Blah,” I had it on the demo. So I must have listened to that demo a hundred times. When you’re going through music, and you find something you like… I was playing that shit everywhere. So I love the song. I felt like the public needed to hear it. And then we just came up with the idea.
When we did the deal at Priority. We knew it was going to take some time to get music together. So we have “Blah” and we just came up with the idea of saying look, Why don’t we put you guys together, release a single it’ll buy us some time to work on the albums. And you know, we’ll come up with a date, they probably came up with the name Fab 5 but it collectively was our idea to say let’s let’s put out a single just to introduce both groups.
I think even if you look back on the artwork, it says “next up from the Boot Camp Clik it’s the Fab Five consisting of Heltah Skeltah and OGC.” We already knew what their groups were. We kind of put them together but some of them might have just been that they wanted to get to their projects, you know, like the new guys wanted to get to their debut.
Was there ever an original plan for you guys as a group or it was just like you guys were pretty much spitting the whole time?
Rock: I think everybody winged it back then. I don’t know. I could be wrong. We knew we wanted to make records, we just didn’t know how… we didn’t have any idea how many albums we would make or anything. We were just going to go.
‘96 is one of the most prolific years for hip-hop and Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal was the first official release from Duck Down. How did Nocturnal differ from other mainstream albums?
Dru: It was just dark, man. I don’t think any of us were sitting there, comparing it to other albums that never really were our mind state. You know, maybe Rock would tell you differently. If he was looking at it that way, I know Sean was very competitive. Sean was a huge Redman fan. So there probably was like a lot of Death Squad influence, obviously, Wu Tang was just getting going. And there was a lot of respect for Wu Tang.
And then of course Black Moon and Smiff-N-Wessun, so those being in the families, I think that they had the blueprint from Enta Da Stage and Dah Shinin’, of how to craft an album with the Beatminerz sound, but then still make it their own. And I don’t know how much that made it different from everything else that was going on. But to me, a big separation point for these guys was they lived in almost every world they could make fun music, like “Leflah”, which was a fun record, they can make the darkest of dark records. “Triple R Rated” or “Da Prowl”, or certain records on Nocturnal. And then yet they still could drop—I don’t want to sound corny saying it—but they could drop knowledge within the lyrics as well.
They were all very aware, very self aware, very educated, very street educated. And so there was a lot of substance within the lyrics. If they were going to kill you or do something to you, lyrically, there might have been an undertone of why not just the random—like Sean would say—we’re all saying the same shit is just how you say it. I’ve heard Sean say that in so many interviews, right? We’re all saying the same shit. It’s just how we say it. It’s just how we’re saying it that can make a difference. But subject matter can be very similar. And to me, they were also extremely believable. Maybe it’s because I was so close to them, but you didn’t feel like they were acting.
Back then, how many songs were called because shit is real? Like how many? What are you actually trying to say that was real? I think what they were trying to sound like this life is real, the projects are real, the police are real, low income is real. Having a fight is real. Some people would maybe try to capitalize on it who didn’t necessarily come from that lifestyle or even came from that lifestyle but didn’t get in the middle of it all.
When we say real, some of it is that these guys were entrenched in that and for better or worse that was a part of how they grew up, and how they came at it and you hear it in the music. They were flexible in the sense that they could still make a fun record, they could still make a party record, they could still be funny and show humor within it as well. And so by showing all the different sides, that’s what kind of gives them a little bit of difference because sometimes you could be a party rapper, but a party rapper can’t make those type of records that these guys can, or you can just be a straight underground mean mugging rapper all the time, and maybe never show a sense of humor. And I think that puts you in different boxes and they kind of were able to expand the boundaries a little bit.
Where was Nocturnal recorded?
Dru: Summit D&D and Summit Chungking studios, which were not closet studios. We ended up spending more money, we did the deal with Priority. And we love D&D that was a home base, but being in the game you’re always looking around, you’re always saying if we did this, or you hear an artist was at this studio, you know, maybe you start thinking that’s going to change your music or give you a different level of success. But we upped the ante. We definitely mixed that record in a bigger, brighter studio with more bells and whistles, and bigger mixing engineers and things like that. Looking back, that’s not to say that’s the right formula, because we’ve also made some incredible albums in, like you said, in closets, in basements. But we were a little more comfortable making Nocturnal than we were when we made Enta Da Stage and Dah Shinin’.
How did you come up with the artwork and the concept of Nocturnal?
Rock: I don’t know. It was just… I came up with the artwork from the title. I came up with the title from the way we were living. We were outside at night time most of the time. We didn’t fuck with the day time too much, too tough. It was around that point when we were out of high school. None of us were in college so we didn’t have to go out in the daytime anymore. We would sleep in, we would wake up when we wanted to wake up. We would wake and bake and then we would go link up with the homies and do whatever the fuck we wanted to do, but it was summer time and one of those hot, early ’90s summers and shit, so we wouldn’t stay out in the sun too much. We wouldn’t be in the sun all day every day.
We liked the night, so one night I recognized that was the pattern we were having and the word nocturnal just sounded like a dope word to me and when it dropped into my head, I was like, “Hmm. That’s us and that’s the name of the album.” And I told them and that was that. But as far as the album cover, it’s just, what does that look like to me? What’s a good representation of us being nocturnal? And we had already… I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg as far as the album and what the songs on the album and the album cover. I don’t remember when I came up with the idea. All I know is when we were doing… when there was time to design the album, the album was done. It was time to design the artwork. I already knew exactly what I wanted. I already knew how to describe it.
It almost felt funny to me to tell a n**a that I want to have me and Ruck hanging upside from something, from a tree or whatever. It was like, “Tell me. Whatever it is, just tell us.” And I told them, and it worked out.
Was there a difference between the persona of Ruck and Sean Price?
Dru: I think on Nocturnal, Sean was Ruck. He wasn’t Sean Price at that time. Of course he’s Sean Price. He wasn’t the character of Sean price. He was more lyrical miracle. We joked around about that a little bit of that time period, we would fuck around and call it shoulder missile rap like: lyrical miracle spiritual hitcher with the bid. You know, it’s more like flexing skills but the lyrics were still there. Although we were introduced to Sean price on that album, as well. Right? Because we did get the self-titled song “Sean Price”. It was almost like he was foreshadowing the future.
That record was a little different too. “I’m not sure anymore, who’s knocking at my door.” He was kind of introducing that character, Sean Price. That’s a character because, of course, that’s his name and that’s him. But it still was the character of the MC. So, I don’t know, I think you were being introduced to Sean to Ruck on that album. And as all artists, you know, do they develop? And he was developing. it wasn’t a finished product yet.
Did “Clan’s, Posse’s, Crew’s & Clik’s” draw the attention of any other crews at the time?
Rock: No. I didn’t feel like that. I didn’t feel like… maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but I didn’t feel like… nah. I didn’t feel like that. I feel like for whatever reason, whatever me and Ruck said, I feel like me and Sean P. could do no wrong lyrically. That’s the response we got from the people. Whatever we did, they fucked with.
Being the first drop, was there any discussion on the direction of the album’s sound? Like dipping your feet in the mainstream for the first drop?
Dru: Maybe we were guilty of that on “Therapy,” definitely was feeling the pressure. There were more dollars being put in through Priority. And bigger budgets, and we had success with “I Got Cha Opin” remix and “Bucktown” and even “Wreckonize” remix, hitting certain radio records. We were having success with that. Maybe we felt a little pressure to come up with something that could translate. But for the most part, I would say that there was no identity crisis at all whatsoever on that album, we knew exactly what we were looking for I think collectively as a team. And I believe we stuck to the plan, like it was still heavily influenced by Da Beatminerz. And so that sound was still prevalent, but they expanded a little bit by going out. Beatminerz didn’t do that album exclusively. Rock and Ruck had a little bit of a different relationship with Da Beatminerz because they were introduced to them.
Evil Dee being family to Mr. Walt and being in Black Moon, and then, Smif-N-Wessun, just being with those guys all the time in the beginning, they almost became like an adoptive family to Da Beatminerz. Ruck and rock was like another step out, they were like first cousins, but they did know they contributed so much to the sound. But I think even the outside producers on the few tracks that we did use were like E-Swift or Shaleek, like some of those tracks that we use, they were still from that Beatminerz sound. So I think that album, we knew the identity of it, we stuck to the plan.
You guys took a more radio friendly approach on “Therapy.” How did the idea for that track come about?
Rock: Honest reflection. It’s real simple. We were young men and this is what was going on in our minds. This was what was going on in my mind because to this day, you listen to the music right now, when we want to watch what they, so called “hip-hop purists,” are screaming and waving their fists at the so called “mumble rappers.” If you actually listen to their music, you can hear that these little n**s are hurting. They’re depressed and what you’re doing, so called hip-hop “purists” is yelling at them and telling them what they’d better do or what they should do and what they’re doing ain’t shit. It’s stupid to me, honestly.
You’re calling what they’re doing mumbling. I’m sure they didn’t call what they’re doing mumbling, or whatever, but whatever. That’s the nature of our culture. We’ve been taught to hate each other. We’ve been taught to tear each other down at every fucking turn or whatever, but what I’m saying is that it’s nothing… Nothing’s different now than then. All of the violence and fuckery that I participated in, I was an angry little dude. I wasn’t little but when I was young I was angry. I was grumpy as fuck, but that’s all because I wasn’t happy.
I was hurting in so many areas and the only part of my psyche or my mental health or mood or whatever you want to call it, the only part of that whole landscape that was comfortable enough for a young thug to talk about and question is my anger. It was too bitch ass to question my sadness. You’re a thug, you ain’t going to talk about your sadness. You ain’t going to talk about how you’re hurting. At least, I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to do that, but the anger part, which was what I was displaying to the world, anger comes from… anger is a secondary emotion. You’re always hurt before you’re angry. But it’s cool. It was “cooler” to rap about the anger, but it’s simply a song about mental health which is quite necessary, or was necessary then and is necessary now.
Back then, making a song like “Therapy,” was that considered against the grain where everybody was just pretty much trying to one up each other?
Rock: We didn’t care about… we were one upping everybody because nobody was doing that. After you look back at a song like that now and it’s like, this song is essential right now as it was, probably was back then, because right now everybody’s just pretty much rapping about their emotions. They’re sad, they’re taking drugs, they’re rapping about that pain.
Were there any challenges or any difficulties during the making of Nocturnal?
Dru: Ruck’s name at the time. Ruck’s first full name was really Ruck the Irrational. You know how you’d always have a name to a name? So it wasn’t just Ruck, it was Ruck the Irrational and he was a little bit irrational. He was a little bit unpredictable but in the sense of maybe a studio session he might walk out of and come back the next day. Not tell you why he’s leaving, and come back the next day. For the most part, I would say Rock is a perfectionist, a true professional. Rock always took the craft extremely seriously, and had a lot of respect for the art. And so he was all over it. He loved to be in the studio, he loved to rap. Still does to this day. So I don’t you know, I don’t recall a whole lot of problems though. The only thing is once in a while you might get some irrational behavior out of Ruck. But what we learned was a part of his nature.
Throughout the recording sessions for Nocturnal, what would you say was your favorite track to record and why?
Rock: The whole shit was… it was a lot of fun, because the whole gang was there the whole time. It’s hard to pick a favorite and a lot of those memories are kind of blurry. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. My favorite… what stands out for me are probably songs that are recorded on Smif-N-Wessun’s album and had been ready, like “Cession At Da Doghillee” and “Headz Ain’t Ready,” because of the way we used to do those songs. The vocal booth was a big ass room and it had two mics in there and we used to form two lines at the mics and we would do those songs in one take.
Well, not one take, but we would do them in the straight take so we would be standing there facing each other like if Louieville rhymed first, then Starang is on the second round… he’s on the other mic because he rhymes second. Then Top Dogg is on the mic with Louieville and then Ruck is on the mic behind Starang. So we get to face the n**a rapping before us and the n**a rapping after us and it was just two assembly lines of rhymes and shit was just, wow, dope. I don’t think we did that on Nocturnal. I don’t think we did that on any other album because eventually we stopped recording there so that was the last studio that had that particular set up that we recorded in.
How did it feel to finally push out your debut record at the time?
Rock: I just felt like I was a part of something and I felt proud and excited to be adding my contribution to this thing I was a part of, me getting up to bat. You’re on the baseball team and you’re third in the batting line, you’re third at bat, your man is coming and you’ve got a man on first and second or you’ve got—imagine batting fourth and you’ve got bases loaded. Shit felt great. It wasn’t… I don’t think I felt fearful. I may have. Of course, I was a little bit nervous but I was… the excitement outweighed the nervousness. I was excited to get this shit out.
It’s probably one of the most surreal moments too. “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” ended up on Nocturnal. That wasn’t always the plan for it though, right?
Rock: Nah. Not at all. That was just something we did. That wasn’t even supposed to be a single. It was a B side to a single that I hated. The single, “Blah,” we hated that shit. I don’t know. Can’t nobody never say Boot Camp Clik was hard to work with because we worked with n**s. I could say three out of five of us hated “Blah” Ruck and Rock, we were the older brothers in OGC and we were the older brothers in the Fab 5 and Starang Wondah is the older brother in OGC and none of us like that song, but we ran with it. On some Kingslayer shit.
There’s always a song here and there you’re not fond of.
Rock: Luckily, “Leflaur” took all the attention off of it because we never performed that shit.
What does Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka mean anyway?
Rock: Nothing. Don’t mean shit. Don’t get it twisted, we got a lot of slang that we made up and it means some shit. Not that. That shit don’t mean nothing. You don’t hear that word at all amongst us.
“Operation Lockdown” was arguably the biggest track off the album —
Rock: I don’t know about that. “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” was the biggest track off the album, actually. It just wasn’t recorded for the album but it went on the album and that’s probably the Boot Camp Clik, they just wreck it. I read something a few days ago that said it was. Of all of our records, it’s the biggest one.
How did the concepts for the two videos came to be and why was the original so different from the released version?
Rock: Well, the first video was the original idea, it was the grimier video. The one with all of the Indian paint, that’s the second video. The other video was we’re in the basement and shit, we’re walking through walls and all of that, that was the original video and we didn’t like it for what we were paying for it, so we shot another one. And Dru Ha and Buckshot pretty much directed the second one, the one with all the tribal shit. It was just… for us, for me personally, when they told me the idea for it, I just knew that it visually looked dope and also, I always knew that the history of the natives is a deep and rich one and I didn’t mind emulating and fucking around with that.
Dru: So we knew we had a great record on “Lockdown,” and we went and we had the biggest budget that we’ve ever had. Someone reading this today wouldn’t really truly understand but if you said, Oh back then we were making our music videos for $7,500 to $10,000. And someone today might be like, I can make five videos for that. But, you know, back then it was film, it was camera crews it was it wasn’t like point and click videos. So we had the biggest budget that we had, and we went and we all liked the video for “The Choice is Yours” [singing: You could get with this, you get with that] The Black Sheep video. And we found that director because we all liked it. It was like he had some cool effects— like the pages, it seemed like the paper was kind of crumbling on the screen—And at the time, the director had got hired to do the “What’s Up” campaign for Budweiser. I don’t remember his name, but we found them. We give him the budget, and we shoot basically in like a studio, he built out this box set. And it was kind of what you see, it’s a cool video, it’s just all done in one location.
In a studio they built out this box. And so when we got it back we just didn’t feel like it was enough. I think we were all very focused on the dollars. Like that shouldn’t have cost whatever we just spent, you know what I mean? Like, the number was five times as much as we had ever had on the music video. And we all just were like where’s the bells and whistles, where’s the effects? Where’s this? Where’s that? We just didn’t feel like it was impactful enough. Buck and I flew out to to the west coast and we sat down with Priority. And we said, “Look, we feel like we got a special record. But we don’t feel like we have a special video.” And we got them to give us an additional budget. And they were like, what do you guys want to do? And we said to them—to the owner of Priority and this other guy in business affairs—don’t worry, we got this treatment, we’ll show it to you next week. And we leave the office and we had no fucking idea what we were going to do.
And then we have Boot Camp Clik, we have all these nicknames for ourselves and all these different things going on and and I came up with the idea. I remember we were in a hotel, we were in a hotel room, doing a show, we’re doing a tour. And I told Buck, “I don’t know how we’re going to go sell this to them, but we got to go sell them the idea and see if they’re going to fuck with it.” And we went into the room again, it was probably a little intimidating not knowing how Ruck is going to react or Rock is gonna react. And we kind of just said look, we’ve got this Clique, we’re like a tribe. There’s no one doing anything like this. Let’s try to do something a little different. You know, it’s certain lines in the song that we felt like we’re going to match up to that treatment. And we came up with a general idea and then we went back to Marcus Turner, who had directed the “Blah” video for us, which we all liked and we told him the idea and he loved it. And you know, he built from there. We took a shot.
That was before Busta Rhymes [singing: Put your hands where my eyes can see] before any Missy videos. I felt like it was groundbreaking, in the sense that rappers really hadn’t put themselves out there to that degree, the way they did an “Operation Lockdown.” They went there, they tried something completely off the grid. And it was a risk, but that shit went bananas and became a number one video at BET on Rap City and it lit up the box and all these places. It kind of really encompassed the whole Boot Camp of what was going on. And Sean’s sitting there and he says “magic” and he throws that dust into the fire. And then Rock is like that war warrior, there’s just so many things that we were fitting.
Years later, I would get some emails from people saying that it was disrespectful and it was insulting to portray Indians like that. And I never ever had thought about it, nor did the guys like at the time, so I had a little bit of a look back on it. Of course, that wasn’t our intent. Of course, we were celebrating the power of a tribe, we were celebrating the bravery and the camaraderie of a tribe not but to some people, they might look at that and say, No, you’re stereotyping. I don’t know the culture well enough, that might be the culture you see on TV. It’s kind of crazy how much a video can affect people in different ways.
You got the “Operation Lockdown” video out, everything is going well, how’d you react to the Hot97 ban?
Dru: You know, I definitely had some of my first fights up there and like realizing how dirty the business can be, or how unfair this business can be. But, and you also understand that things aren’t fair, and that you gotta do what you got to do to make things happen.
I think some of their ban was out of pure frustration. You know, they’re going up there to do an interview. They’re invited. They probably had to wait too long to get the interview. You know what I mean? Like, we were probably fighting for that interview for months before we got it. And then they’re downstairs and their name isn’t on the security list. Sean and Rock are not kissing anyone’s ass but I think Sean was just like, you got a security guard downstairs telling him not recognizing who he is, and then telling him that he can’t go up. And again, this isn’t the day of cell phones and texting and it’s not an easy fix. You kind of feel like you’re getting played in the lobby. It might be the middle of winter. They’re coming from Brooklyn, they probably took the train up. There was no fucking Uber’s a lot of circumstances go into play. And then they get in and they’re like, “Oh, your name is not on the list.”
That’s just pure disrespect. And so he ended up getting on the phone with someone in the lobby, I think, he slammed the phone and it just gets back to the program director who has nothing to do with any of it that “Oh, Helter Skelter broke a phone in the lobby” and there’s no consideration for anything I just said, is just only like, well, they’re banned they can never come up here again. No one has the empathy to think about everything else. They’re just like well, tough luck, like they shouldn’t have broke the phone. We say they were banned. But it wasn’t like an official ban, it was just for that album. The station was already going through a lot of changes, like right in front of our eyes coming out of that time period of “Who Got Da Props?”, “How Many MCs…,” “I Got Cha Opin,” “Bucktown”, and “Wreckonize,” we had a lot of music on that station, even “Lafleur”.
You know, these songs were hits on that radio station, and then all of a sudden, the station was slowly distancing themselves from that sound. It wasn’t just us now, but that’s a whole other conversation and a whole other article but it’s the truth. Not even just the station, but the industry was starting cto experience a shift in sound and it started, it’s slow, you know, it’s a slow build. But it is different from ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, ‘96. And then it starts to go into a different era of music. Some artists get weeded out so yeah, that kind of sucked. Actually, I think I wasn’t there that day. Actually Buck and I were on the West Coast at Pac’s house when it happened.
Rock: We’ve never been at Hot ’97 since, it was a ban. It was a dickhead security and Ruck thought that it was smarter to punch the phone instead of the guy and that’s what he did, and that was his form of restraining himself. We got banned from Hot ‘97.
The album also received 3.5 mics in The Source. At the time, do you think the album was underrated?
Rock: Yes. Absolutely. Me and my boy Starang Wondah from OGC, we had a couple of debates on this topic on my podcast, Monsta Mondayz, (shameless plug), salute to Starang, but we’ve debated this multiple times on people accepting criticism and/or not accepting criticism and I feel like I don’t… I’m sure about what it is I do, and whether you tell me another person’s opinion of what I do, especially when they don’t do what I do, I’m a professional at what I do so I’m in a space now where nobody’s opinion can shake my facts.
Your opinion can’t shake my facts. You can not like what I do. I can accept that you don’t like it, but you can’t tell me that it’s not good. You understand what I’m saying? Starang is always like, “You’ve got to accept it when they’re telling you the good and when they’re telling you the bad.” I’m like, “I don’t always accept it when they’re telling me the good.” People love the song Blah!. I hated it. You understand what I’m saying? And on the other hand, when The Source magazine gave my album 3.5 mics, I didn’t like that either. They gave Magnum Force three mics. I hated that even more.
Commercially the album didn’t do as well as you guys hoped. What did you contribute to that?
Dru: Radio plays such a big part. We’re coming up with those records I mentioned earlier being big, big commercial hits, and “Lafleur” was a commercial hit but there was no album behind it. Even though “Lafleur” is on this album, it was like a year and changed later. And “Operation Lockdown” was a great record and did really well video-wise, but it never became a radio record across the country. So there was no internet back then there was no Instagram and social platforms. It was controlled really by MTV and radio.
And you know, we were getting local radio and we were definitely getting the mixture of support on the east coast. But once you went outside of that, there would be pockets of guys that could support it. And I also said that stations were starting to change with how they were regulating the hip hop that they were playing. The album still did numbers. No it wasn’t a platinum record back then but selling 200,000-300,000 copies was no small change so Priority was happy with it and we were as well. We knew what we had without any big commercial record on there. And I think that they found a spot in the game for them.
You weren’t really with the idea of solo careers but that was the direction that everyone seemed to steer in following pretty much Magnum Force. What made you embark on your own solo career?
Rock: I got kind of pushed in that direction. A lot of the dudes in my crew, the closest members in my crew were talking about doing solo albums which were Sean P. and Starang, they were talking about doing solo albums long before I was. When Priority and Duck Down split, Priority did some weird shit. Some shit like there was a clause in our contracts where if Duck Down and Priority split, they had the option to keep Heltah Skeltah but they didn’t even exercise that option. They just exercised the option to keep me.
Why’d they only keep you?
Rock: You’d have to ask them. I can’t speak for why they did what they did.
That must have been a shock to the system at the time, especially wanting to get out of your contracts or whatever the case might have been.
Rock: Yeah. I’ve got a song about it on Rockness AP. My first solo album. It’s actually called Rockness after Price, it’s the title of the song where I speak about all of that shit. But yeah, that was them. These people manipulate the lives of these other people, friends, brothers. And then never put out an album on me…. What the fuck you break my crew up for?
How do you think the rap game has changed for better or for worse?
Rock: I don’t know. For better, you can do what you need to do if… you don’t need a label. That’s better. That’s also worse because there’s no quality control and that’s… I don’t know. That’s weird. I’m not sure how to feel about it. Yeah, there’s no quality control and it’s a lot of whack shit that gets out, gets through. And I’m not saying the new shit is whack. I can honestly say a lot of whack shit has always been in hip hop. Even in the ’90s, there were groups and artists that I did not fuck with. There were groups and artists that throughout every era that… if you were hardcore, you didn’t fuck with too much mainstream shit. It just was what it was and that doesn’t necessarily make the mainstream shit whack. It’s just shit that you don’t fuck with, but there was always certain shit that you may have deemed, “That shit is whack.”
We’ve always had… there’s always been a short list or a long list of things that we’ve all considered trash. “I don’t fuck with that,” or whatever. But I’m not the judge of all of that. When I say a lot of trash… when I say the quality control, I just think when you rap, you’re supposed to rhyme. I just think that you’re supposed to rhyme on the beat. I think… there’s just certain basic things that I feel like certain basic boxes need to be checked when making this kind of shit and if you check those basic ass boxes, you can do whatever the fuck you want and I feel like there’s some dudes that are getting in and they ain’t even checking those basic boxes.
But then at the same time, that shit does not affect any of us who don’t fuck with it. If you don’t fuck with it, it doesn’t affect you. Only when it comes down to the “mainstream”, they will push some shit, like they’re using our music against us. Our music has always had some negatives and some positives and right now, the mainstream America or mainstream media is only pushing the lowest vibrational shit, the negative shit. The let’s make money just to fuck it up. The, let’s kill each other, let’s disrespect old people, let’s disrespect the women, fuck everything. We’re going to wear dresses as men. We’re going to do every drug in sight. That’s the shit that wins in mainstream media. The system has taken and began to use our music as a weapon against us and that’s whack. That’s now.
Rock: As dope as Griselda is and as much noise as they’re making, there’s still certain avenues that aren’t willing to fuck with them because of the fact they’re not ignorant. They might be street, but it’s a difference in what they do. Their music might be street, it might be violent, it might be hood and all of that, but there is an air of intelligence and real hustle in what they do and they don’t just make the money to shit on the people. They inspire people. So mainstream America, they still are kind of resistant to the boys.
I see them breaking down a lot of barriers and all of that and I know it can’t be easy, but they’ve still got a way to go. I say this respectfully, because I know that the deck that is mainstream media is stacked against their type, or my type, and/or.