The collective soon to be known as Boot Camp Clik debuted with an impressive double dose of full-length releases that became certified hip-hop classics – Black Moon’s “Enta Da Stage” and Smif-N-Wessun’s “Dah Shinin’.” The label that goes hand in hand with BCC history, however, Duck Down, has its origins in 1995, after the artists had become frustrated with their partner Wreck/Nervous and decided to turn their management company into a record label. 15 years later Duck Down has grown into a trusted brand and is becoming more prolific with every year, supporting new talent (Torae, Skyzoo, Kidz in the Hall, Blue Scholars), relying on the expertise of veterans (B-Real, KRS-One, Edo.G), offering a platform to producers (Marco Polo, 9th Wonder, DJ Revolution) and still tending to the original Boot Camp Clik.
“15 Years of Duck Down Music” runs down the history of Duck Down chronologically, but the first two spots rightfully belong to the Brooklyn massive’s Wreck material. The first time the world took notice of these Bucktown soldiers was with the Black Moon single “Who Got the Props.” 5FT, Evil Dee and Buckshot certainly received plenty of props for this jazzy joint riding the wave of underaged hardcore rap. Smif-N-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” already showed remarkable progress as far as originality goes, the track (like the album) to this day being one of the most natural symbioses of rap and reggae. By 1995 BCC – with the help of a group of affiliated producers gathered under the moniker Da Beatminerz – had found their sound, laid-back yet menacing raps over beats that were as dark as they were mellow. Their lyrical patterns became more complex, and on a whole their style just took off to another plane, best exemplified by the enigmatically titled “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” by The Fab 5, a collaboration between groups Heltah Skeltah and Originoo Gunn Clappaz. The intro by Ruck had you repeating “eshkoshka” before you were able to wonder what it could possibly mean. Flipside to the “Blah” single but developing a much stronger pull than the a-side, “Leflaur Leflah” was emblematic of the Clik’s ability to throw curve balls.
Even with sparse drums and melody reduced to a simple bassline, mid-’90s BCC tracks managed to have a hypnotizing effect, as was the case with OGC’s “Da Storm.” They seemingly took a departure from their mystic boom bap on the unfairly shunned group album “For the People.” But “Headz R Reddee Pt. II” (which in my book was meant to be called either just “Headz R Reddee” or “Headz Ain’t Ready Pt. II”) is actually a cohesive collective statement, and really just a beautiful track, from the short individual verses down to the melodic, sample-free backing. Sounding like a ’90s underground version of a Bomb Squad/Marley Marl inferno, the thumping “Black Trump” by the temporarily re-named Smif-N-Wessun (simultaneously sampling and featuring the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon), was yet another outline. Black Moon took it even further back with the old school tribute “Two Turntables & a Mic,” which is based on Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat.”
Black Moon’s “War Zone” album was the last one distributed by Priority. For two years they released vinyl singles only, for instance Smif-N-Wessun’s Super Mario-sampling “Super Brooklyn.” After Buckshot – likely also because of the contractual lock Black Moon was under – had been the only Boot Camper to go solo, Heltah Skeltah’s Ruck AKA Sean Price emerged as a soloist with songs like “Don’t Say Shit to Ruck,” a hard-going street theme produced by Agallah that in retrospect symbolizes hip-hop’s ’00s big-scale sound quite nicely.
Backed by a new distributor, the Boot Camp Clik returned with a group project, its opener, the Curt Cazal-produced “And So” proof that the independent hustle had bound together the team only stronger. Buckshot:
“The saga continues, the motherfuckin’ drama continues
Buck brung a bomb to the interview and blew up the main topic
‘What’s up with Boot Camp Clik, son, they ain’t knockin’
They ain’t hot and ain’t droppin’ the now-topics’
But listen, nigga, this is how I pop shit
I don’t mean MoÃ«t corks – when a poet talks
every line lead the blind when the mind get lost
Rhymes enforced with action
Cause everybody lookin’ like, ‘Is they slackin’
are they back in, what’s crackin’?’
Nigga, I’m hip-hop like the backspin
And you could never change the fact that I did back then”
The Black Moon album “Total Eclipse” saw them get back with Da Beatminerz, the natural chemistry showing itself once again in tracks like the harsh but melodic “Stay Real.” 2005’s Buckshot/9th Wonder collaborative release, coincidentally called “Chemistry,” signaled the label’s diversification that continues to the present day. And since loyalty seems to be a key ingredient in Duck Down’s day-to-day operations, 9th also produced “Here We Come” off the third BCC full-length.
The label’s expansion strategy led to surprising results, like Kidz in the Hall’s hit “Drivin Down the Block (Low End Theory),” which has little in common with the rugged raps and dusty tracks often favored by the in-house artists. But they too can stay up-to-date, as shown by “Robot,” Buckshot and KRS-One’s commentary on the AutoTune craze. It virtually all comes together on the compilation’s new track, “I’m Better Than You” as Buckshot, Skyzoo, Promise, and Sean P lace a synthesized beat by Double-O.
“15 Years of Duck Down Music” was compiled with the help of fans who were able to vote for one track from each year. To disclose my bias, I participated in the online poll and am happy to see many of my picks being part of the consensus. It hasn’t escaped my attention that Duck Down did some shuffling afterwards (“Super Brooklyn” suddenly represents 2000 instead of 1999, “Drivin Down the Block” 2008 instead of 2007). I would also question the presence of “D&D Soundclash,” which, although appearing on an earlier Duck Down sampler, had existed long before on an Afu-Ra album. Why a label fails to spell names and titles from its own catalog properly is also a bit mystifying, as is the fact that the Wreck Records tracks have a lower volume than the rest. Following my own inclinations, I’m also disappointed that nothing from Marco Polo & Torae’s “Double Barrel” or Special Teamz’ “Stereotypez” made the cut, but as a celebration of Duck Down’s 15th anniversary, the specially packaged CD is a memorable present from and to the birthday boys.