Boot Camp Clik, Heltah Skeltah, Black Moon, OGC, Smif N Wessun, they’re the classic rap groups of the mid to late 90’s that helped bring about New York’s resurgence in Hip-Hop. The company that brought us these groups was Duck Down Enterprises and their CEO, Dru Ha, has a message for everyone, they’re back. Recently I sat down with Dru Ha to talk all things Hip-Hop. The interview lasted nearly an hour, though, which is why we’re breaking it up into two parts. In this installment Dru Ha speaks at length about the founding of Duck Down, the massive collaboration that almost was with 2Pac, and how Eminem nearly ended up on the Duck Down roster.

Adam Bernard: You’re the CEO of Duck Down Enterprises, tell me how you brought Duck Down from being a concept to being one of the biggest independent labels in Hip-Hop.
Dru Ha: When we started it we had no idea where it was gonna lead to or where the path was gonna go. We started Duck Down more as a management company out of a necessity because we were on an independent label called Nervous Records and we were doing a lot of the work at Nervous that kind of fit the description of a manager, me and Buck (Buckshot) were doing it together. We were doing things like taking the groups on the road and doing the radio promotions. On an independent label you have to wear a lot of hats so we were getting our hands wet doing everything, video promotions, retail, the marketing, the studio work and when we came into Smif N Wessun, which was the first group we actually brought to the table, we instantly did a management contract with them. We repeated the process and we weren’t seeing what we thought was a fair share going through Nervous so by the time we got to Heltah Skeltah we felt like we needed to have our own home for our music as opposed to giving it to a third party and that’s where we formed Duck Down as the record label, to put out music that we were bringing up, that we were developing and to have an avenue and a place to put it.

AB: When you started Duck Down did you imagine it would have the impact that it’s had and continues to have?
DH: No, no clue that we’d have this longevity. We were blessed out of the box to find seven, eight MC’s that were really unique and that had a lot of versatility, their own sound, that such long careers were gonna be built out of. I didn’t know back then, I never really stopped, I never really remember thinking about the future so much as what was gonna happen next. It’s like being on a ride and living the ride as it was going but not knowing where the next turn or the next fall or climb was. I didn’t do a lot of envisioning, I really didn’t.

“The proudest moment I think was when 2Pac called the office and made the phone call like two days after he got out of Rikers…”

AB: What’s been your proudest moment as CEO?
DH: The proudest moment I think was when 2Pac called the office and made the phone call like two days after he got out of Rikers and the receptionist was like Dru 2Pac is on the phone for you and I was like yeah right. We play a lot of jokes in the office, like one time I had an intern call Buckshot and say that he was Master P because we were on Priority and I was in the room with him buggin out like “yo tell him I say uuuungh” and Buck was like chill, he thought I was losing it. But it really was 2Pac calling and when I picked up the phone he was like whaddup Dru Ha and he knew who we were and he knew all about us, he knew our music and I felt like he knew me. I didn’t think anyone was really paying attention like that, so that was a real proud moment of like damn someone of that status recognized who we were and what we were doing. He brought us out to his home and we spent two weeks out there with him and recorded a lot of music with him. That was a good moment.

AB: So what was that call in reference to?
DH: The call was in reference to he was locked up for a while and Smif N Wessun had bigged him up in The Shining, I think Tek wrote 2Pac keep ya head up, I don’t know what the exact line was. Pac was in Rikers so at the time Smiff N Wessun had a lot going on and I’m sure they listen to the radio on Rikers because that’s what they get, so I think he was just interested in our camp and what we were doing and he wanted us to record an album with him. He said he was working on this project called One Nation, it was gonna be a couple installments and anyone that knew Pac knew that he wasn’t bullshitting when he said that because he would record three songs a night. He wanted to do three volumes of One Nation and he wanted us to be a part of it, he felt like all the publicity was blown out of proportion of East Coast – West Coast, he was like I just don’t fuck with certain dudes on the east coast but not the whole east coast, I’m from the east coast. He just kinda felt through our music that those guys represented his vibe a little bit over here. We probably recorded ten or eleven songs with him.

AB: What year was this?
DH: It was ’96, about two months before he passed.

“Some of them are out there […] on a lot of Makaveli street CD’s.”

AB: And what happened to those songs?
DH: Some of them are out there, they were on a lot of Makaveli street CD’s. Military Minds was on the last Interscope album, Better Dayz. And a lot of the songs our verses were lifted and there are a lot of songs you hear today as a fan and it’s got other artists over it and some of them are still lost in the vault because they were property of Death Row at the time. Those are some of the last records he recorded, some of the music was never found, but there are about five or six songs that are out there and if you look hard you can find them.

AB: Had that album been released what kind of an impact would it have had?
DH: Man, that’s something I think about quite often. I think of what that would have done, this game is like Jay-Z said, it’s who you’re with, and it means so much, it’s like anything with a commercial product, who endorses you, he would have provided and endorsement for Boot Camp, for Buckshot and for Smif N Wessun that I think would have propelled them to a little bit of a different light. These guys have always been independent not just in terms of the record labels that they’ve been on but independent on their own in the game. No major producer producing them, no major artist co-signing them, so I think Pac would have brought light. I remember being there in his house and he’d come home every night from filming his movie, whatever the last movie it was that he made, and we would go out and he would take us to functions that we never would have been able to get into, like MTV functions. One night we were at this AIDS benefit and Pac got up and was all bushi and Hollywood somewhere and he fits right in, there are all these celebrities and MTV is there and they said to Pac they wanted him for a series of interviews about artists’ first memories of MTV and he was like hold up, yo Buck come here, and then he put Buck in the shot so as he’s answering the question people could see him. He was so strategic, he knew his power. He had also said to us volume one was gonna be on Death Row, volume two was gonna be on Duck Down and he said volume three was gonna be on Makaveli. So he had this plan. He was the type of guy when he said something you had to meet him and speak to him a few times to know there was no bullshittin in him. He would joke around, he was funny and had a sense of humor but he was very straight forward, he treated everyone the same. If you were a writer or if you were a rapper or if you were from the hood or if you were from a country club he talked to you the same way, it was just straight across. He said certain things that we didn’t even believe, like the next one’s gonna be on Duck Down and me and Buck were kinda like yeah I couldn’t really imagine that happening but looking back on it I think that we probably would have had a whole album on Duck Dwon with 2Pac and The Outlawz and the different people that he brought to the table. But I don’t know, whatever that would have done at the time it wouldn’t have mattered today, it would have had a run for whatever it would have done and then you’d still be back on your own. Like Mobb Deep on G-Unit, it gives you the platform but what are you gonna do with the platform? That will only give you the light for but so long, so I don’t want to say that it would have affected our whole career, I just think that it would have opened up some other doors and maybe some other things would have gone differently from there.

AB: Do you think it would have put the whole East Coast – West Coast thing to bed?
DH: No I think his beef was so legitimate with Bad Boy and there was so much fire in him. We were real cool with Mobb Deep at the time. Havoc and Buckshot started in the game around the same time, there was a lot of mutual respect, but Pac, something was going on between him and Mobb Deep at the time and we were telling him that we were cool with them. I remember being in the trailer like well hold up that’s our people and it just didn’t matter, his rage was so heartfelt that it wasn’t like he was thinking it through almost. He had legitimate beefs with certain east coast artists that nobody probably would have been able to talk him out of so I don’t think that we would have helped dead it. You saw it dead itself, it just got played out just like anything else. And of course you have his death and you have Biggie’s death and that’s kinda of like an eye for an eye, one from the east and one form the west, unfortunately. I’m just saying us deading it? I don’t think we had that power, I don’t think we were on that level where we would have been recognized on that quote unquote platinum A-list artist level where it would have demanded it. He looked at us like soldiers, as dudes that get busy, but that’s just being honest. We weren’t on the level of a Biggie record sales wise, we weren’t MTV artists. I don’t think we had enough leverage where MTV would have had a newsbreak like 2Pac teams up with Boot Camp, it would have been more like 2Pac is leading this project. We weren’t the only ones involved in the project, either, he had artists from all over, The Luniz, Greg Nice, Scarface, Snoop, The Dogg Pound. He had Melle Melle. It would have taken him to really officialize it. Some people have asked us why we never finished it. The Outlawz were very close to him and anything to go down would have to go through with their blessings and once Pac wasn’t there for that he was like the glue that brought all of us together and I don’t think anyone was in a position to take over that position of being him. It’s like losing your quarterback in terms of that project.

AB: Was there any artist that you wanted that got away?
DH: Well I mean not to be corny but Eminem was an artist that we had a definite relationship with and we had meetings with and hosted events with. We were doing things with Em very early on and we tried to get him signed through our deal. The early on Duck Down is not the label that it is today. Early on Duck Down we had more money but the money was always someone else’s. It’s like we always had access to the bank, we could walk into the bank and make a withdrawal but we had to have someone sign off on it, we needed permission, but we had more capability than the average person does because we had the relationship. Today we’re actually a record label, anything we do is our money, is our own checks, it’s stuff that we fund. When we wanted to do a project before we had to go to Priority and present the project and ask for whatever we were looking for and it had to be either approved or not. The Em project, at the time, we didn’t get the approval for him.

AB: What year was that?
DH: That was probably ’97.

AB: Wow that was right before, yeah.
DH: {*laughs*} Yeah, once again. What happened with Em was we did a Lyricist Lounge event and Tek and Steele were the hosts of the event and Em was a participant, one of the unsigned acts on the bill that night, and I’ll never forget that night. It was like an all black audience back still when it was those Lyricist Lounge events were like gladiator events where if you didn’t represent your head was coming off and sometimes the crowd wanted to see you fail because they wanted to see someone get booed, it’s that mob mentality. It was packed that night and Tek and Steele introduced him, next up is a dude outta Detroit, Eminem, and he comes up, it took him a minute to get on stage and once the crowd saw that he was white they were quick to heckle him a little bit, not too bad, but quick comments. Tek and Steele were even like “let’s go man, this is New York. Let’s go!” His DAT wouldn’t start so it was tough standing in front of the crowd with no music and them just looking at you and you looking at them and he was just kinda the same way you see him now, straight face, no smile, no smirk, with that look on his face like straight outta the fuckin 8 Mile movie. Then all of a sudden the DAT kicked in and he did his thing and he just unleashed and the crowd went crazy. Everyone gave it up for him and I was motioning because my man Shucky, who does our street team was on the stage because Tek and Steele were on the stage and I just motioned to him writing on my palm like get his number, get his number! But you know what, there were a lot of A&R’s and industry people there that night and there weren’t a lot of people that asked for his number. It’s mad, you can imagine, but again at the same time it’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s just that he held it down, he did his thing and I was intrigued.

“I played [Eminem] Black Trump from Smif and Wessun’s album and I told him we were gonna put Raekwon on it.”

The next day he came up to our office and the next day he came back, we talked for a while, I remember I played him Black Trump from Smif and Wessun’s album and I told him we were gonna put Raekwon on it. I just remember that exactly. The next day he came back with Paul Rosenberg and we spoke some more and I said look me and Buck would like to try and get something done, let us take this to Priority and they told us what they were looking for and to their credit they had already had that CD floating around through a company called Web Entertainment so they kinda knew what they were sitting on, they knew they had something, and they weren’t asking for a regular record deal, they wanted a pretty good amount for a new artist, they wanted something that was a little more than your standard, so we really needed to go to Priority and get it and it was like right around October, fourth quarter, and long short they wouldn’t approve the budget. I tried to stay in contact, I actually went to Paul Rosenberg and told him what happened, I showed him the letters, I wanted him to know that I really wanted to get it done because I was hoping that maybe come January or February Priority would revisit it, that’s how the labels work.

Very shortly after he got the deal with Interscope. Eminem, he wouldn’t be the Eminem of today that he is without, going back to what we were talking about earlier, the endorsement of Dr. Dre, it gave him instant MTV, it gave him instant audience, it gave him instant beats, it instantly gave him the west coast, it instantly gave him radio. But you have to be able to handle the endorsement. I don’t want to take anything away from him, I’m saying just because you get it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to live up to it and he more than lived up to it, he was an artist that deserved that spotlight and it just so happened that when it shined on him the world got to see the talent that he was. On Duck Down there was no way we would have been able to give him that light and people like us, the purists, the dudes that really listen to Hip-Hop, we’d have still recognized his talent and dudes still would have liked him, but who knows how his story would have gone. There’s a lot of dope MC’s out there that don’t blow up, or don’t blow up anywhere near the level that they should blow up.

Next week Dru Ha talks about why certain artists hit while other don’t, the issues that come about from being an independent label and how he gets around some of them, and what he would like to see more artists do with their demos.