Some of you will undoubtedly be skeptical when I call Heltah Skeltah one of the most influential East coast rap groups of the last 15 years, particularly when you examine their discography and see only three albums in that time. Nonetheless the Ruck and Rock tandem was one of the most rugged in hip-hop even before their debut album “Nocturnal” dropped in 1996, having already been heard on underground Duck Down favorites like “Headz Ain’t Redee” and “Leflah Leflour Eshkoshka.” The arrival of “Nocturnal” signaled the birth of an underground New York renaissance in the second half of the 1990’s with labels like Rawkus, Fondle ‘Em and Duck Down leading the way in musical and lyrical creativity. Ruck and Rock were the perfect model for aspiring rap duos, as Ruck was the street smart brainiac rapper while Rock was the deep-throated gruff flowing gangster who had a little wit to his shit. What they captured on “Nocturnal” and the follow-up release “Magnum Force” was damn near magical and seemed destined to keep hardcore New York hip-hop on lock for the foreseeable future.
Something went wrong though. The greatest duo in the Duck Down family sans Smif-N-Wessun suddenly couldn’t see eye to eye on shit. Rock practically vanished off the map, appearing occasionally for a cameo on a project, largely out of the limelight. The prolific Ruck had no problem moving on, dropping his Heltah Skeltah moniker in favor of the name Sean Price, dropping some of his best work as a soloist on albums like “Monkey Barz” and “Jesus Price Superstar.” These albums gave a whole new world of insight into Ruck’s sense of humor as well as narrative ability, to the point the fact he had ever BEEN Ruck could have been forgotten altogether… except for that occasional Rock cameo. Clearly the two still remained Duck Down family affiliates at the very least, possibly the friendship which Heltah Skeltah formed with was still there too, but the two just couldn’t seem to come together in the studio for a full album. Rock’s personal woes probably haven’t made things easier, as he’s battling both attempted murder charges and accusations that he’s been pimping hoes (seriously). It’s hard to find time to collaborate in the lab with so many vultures circling, but somehow Sean P and his former partner-in-rhyme managed to do it and resume their Ruck to Rock roles and record “D.I.R.T.”
Here comes the part of the review I’ve been dreading since the word “some” in paragraph one. The acronym “D.I.R.T.” stands for “Da Incredible Rap Team” and as far as I’m concerned if this was 1996 or 1998 there would be ABSOLUTELY NO QUESTION that statement was true. Back then Ruck and Rock were an unstoppable duo the likes of which haven’t been since since the Hart Foundation, using an incredible combination of strength and finesse to steamroll the competition. Much like the wrestling analogy though, sometimes you’re “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be” and sometimes you’re just the big muscular guy with the whacky goatee and insane promos. As cool as you seem as a duo at the time, when the breakup occurs one guy is clearly the superstar and the other is just a midcarder at best. Listening to “D.I.R.T.” makes you at first hopeful they can recapture that magic from the 1990’s, then vaguely uncomfortable when you realize they can’t and that Sean Price is purposefully holding back to try and give Rock more of the spotlight. There’s no question they had the idea of getting old glory back again when you listen to the “Intro” and they’re imitating the opening skit from N.W.A’s “Prelude.” For one it’s not funny and for another the beat isn’t nearly as hype as Dr. Dre’s banging piano production, drawing a bad comparison between the two all around.
Unfortunately pianos are exactly what plague “Everything Is Heltah Skeltah,” as the duo attempt to flow over a crunked out version of Beethoven’s “FÃ¼r Elise.” I’ve long been in favor of more classical music being sampled in hip-hop – besides being royalty free it can add a tremendously rich sound to a song. Just think of the haunting Faure backdrop to Xzibit’s “Paparazzi” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Unfortunately in Heltah Skeltah’s case it doesn’t sound haunting or cool – it sounds off-key, noisy and not at all funny – not unlike Ruck doing a poor imitation of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s “I joke, I joke, I keed, I keed.” Production continues to hamper this duo’s attempts to get on track throughout “D.I.R.T.” More thought was put into the title of “The Art of Disrespekinazation” than the beat Khrysis put on it. Bang-ba-ba-bong-ba-ba-bong-ba-ba-bong-ba-ba-FAST-FORWARD. “Da Beginning of Da End” is the first song on the shit to shine, as little known producer 10 For The Triad creates a beat that’s equal parts heavy bass, operatic screaming and pounding drums. This dopeness lasts all of three and a half minutes before Sould Theory drops a farting beat on “Twinz” for Rock to miss the point of his formerly fat flow. The intensity of the delivery is there, but the rap is laughable.
“I chase down niggaz like you chase brown liquor
On my pivot like the chamber on the trey pound bitches
I love New York but I hate clown bitches
Not a chance would I tangle with you stank foul bitches”
Arguably Rock is really rhyming “brown” with “pound” and “clown” but he still had to use “bitches” for three straight lines to do it. Frankly “pound” and “clown” is not a great rhyme anyway. Glimpses of brilliance can occasionally be heard on “D.I.R.T.” but they have a hard time shining through these murky and muddy waters. Khrysis redeems himself on the title track and Rock seems to find his old wit with lines like “you niggaz so subpar you sub-leasing.” It’s also good to hear the Boot Camp collective collaborate on “So Damn Tuff” featuring Buckshot and Rustee Juxx or “W.M.D.” featuring Smif-N-Wessun, the latter arguably being the album’s strongest track. The wrestling fan in me is also feeling “That’s Incredible” but I have a feeling most listeners won’t get the beat used as reference (nor do they credit the ambiguously gay wrestler in the liner notes – probably hoping they’ll never have to pay for the sample). Unfortunately these songs ride side by side with mediocre offerings like the Stu Bangas’ work on “Ape Food” featuring The Representativz and “Ruck N Roll,” which is simple enough to let Ruck break out his inner Sean Price but still bogs down in its attempt to follow the implied rock ‘n roll concept.
In my heart I really want to love “D.I.R.T.” like I did the first two Heltah Skeltah albums, but those two albums have aged and gotten better with time while this one wears me out from the first listen and doesn’t demand any immediate replay. I can see myself picking select tracks and keeping them for my own personal mix on a Duck Down playlist, but the only time I’ll listen to the whole thing from start to finish is for this review. To break out the wrestling analogy one more time it’s like Shawn Michaels and Marty Janetty – no matter how great they used to be together it’s just not the same when you try to recapture the glory and your old tag team partner’s just going to end up back in jail or on house arrest sooner or later (sorry Rock). I think in 2008 I’m comfortable with the fact that Sean Price is much better off as a soloist and that I’ve got two great Heltah Skeltah albums to remember the good old days by. “D.I.R.T.” doesn’t necessarily tarnish their legacy but it certainly doesn’t add anything to it either.