Zilla Rocca’s favorite Western is Duck, You Sucker.
These are the things I think about when my son goes to bed at 8 PM every night: What the hell were Duck Down and Smif-N-Wessun thinking when they put out this shitty album in 1998? Here it is:
1. Rap names are important: RZA said that when Russell Jones went from Ason Unique to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, it predicted the drunken master lifestyle of his cousin that ultimately led to his death. Method Man had mad different methods to his shit, and roughly 15 aliases to boot. Would Kanye or 2pac be as open, personal, and contradictory if they used stage names?
I was thinking about rap names when I revisited Smif-N-Wessun’s 20 year old sophomore album, The Rude Awakening, as Cocoa Brovaz. The Rude Awakening is not a great album by any means, and the landscape of east coast rap in 1998 was hard for most rappers not named DMX/Jay-Z/Big Pun to navigate. But I wonder if things could’ve been different if Tek and Steele just didn’t get sued by that goddamn gun company.
“Marketing wise, it set us back. Because of the packaging, people wanna go for the package. If you’re going to buy Johnson & Johnson baby powder, you’re gonna find it. You’re not going for the next best thing.” – Steele on DaveyD.com
Smif-N-Wessun. That’s an incredible name for a rap duo. Their debut, Dah Shinin’, from the album cover to the singles, is perfect. The amount of goodwill they garnered off that record, plus the “I Love You Remix” with Mary J. Blige, never recovered, largely to The Rude Awakening and the sophomore slump of other Boot Camp Click artists.
But I keep going back to that name. Smif-N-Wessun. It looks tough as shit while I’m typing it on a screen twenty plus years later. You know what doesn’t look or sound good? Cocoa Brovaz. It’s a little bit better as “Cocoa B’z,” but come on. Apparently, that was the first name of the group, but Naughty By Nature, another all-time great rap name, was first called New Style. You need a manager or A&R to straighten that shit out.
2. Themes: The first song on The Rude Awakening is all about the lawsuit and name change. The packaging in the CD booklet even has a zombified Tek and Steele standing over two tombstones, one named “Nerve Us” and the other “Smif-N-Wessun.” The loose theme then was that they would come back strong in the face of a shitty label and a shitty lawsuit. But the album cover makes no sense. There’s a CFL type logo of “CB” with a bunch of b-roll shots in the background. The back of the CD is incredible—Tek and Steele shirtless, smoking weed under an American flag, wearing knit hats and gloves. It’s an iconic photo that is now extinct with no print mags nor physicals.The most memorable image was a Source one page ad where Cocoa Brovaz are sitting in a giant cup of coffee with a bunch of chicks in bikinis. Maybe it’s supposed to be hot cocoa? There’s no real direction of this album, from the visuals to the music.
3. The rap industry in 1998: Smif-N-Wessun was so associated with The Beatminerz sound and yet the production group only handled four of the album’s 18 cuts. The Beatminerz sound was perfect for ’93-’96, but radioactive waste for the Billboard charts by ’98. Swizz Beatz, man…shit. “Won on Won,” the lead single, is great. Produced by Sean C before he found LV, it struck the balance between sample based beats that were damn near alien in ’98 and hardcore street shit. What Cocoa Brovaz and Boot Camp Clik could never figure out back then was how to survive in a late ’90s landscape of Casio/Triton beats with jiggy or thugged out cats owning the airwaves.
Filtered basslines and reggae samples were outta here. The second single was more contemporary for ’98: “Black Trump” (now the worst named rap song ever) with Raekwon got a lot of burn on mixtapes, but didn’t make a dent on the charts. The final single, “Spanish Harlem,” is like “Dah Shinin’ Part 2,” with verses from Tony Touch and Hurricane G and a beat from Mr. Walt. I don’t even know if anyone over 30 even remembers that song or video.
4. The beats: Duck Down made a very clear decision after the first wave of albums, starting with the Boot Camp Click album For the People: Beatminerz would be minimized in favor of random ass dudes supplying the bulk of the beats for the label. Here’s the names of some producers who worked on the sophomore albums from Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah, and OGC:
I’m not sure if Duck Down saw the landscape changing and didn’t want to rely on the Beatminerz sound, or if there was an issue with a costly sample. Duckdown had their comeback in ’05-’06 precisely by employing sample based producers like 9th Wonder, Marco Polo, Illmind, Large Professor, PF Cuttin, and Khrysis. But from ’97-’99, there was a half foot-in, half foot-out approach to beats where flat and cleaner beats were placed on Duck Down albums next to the haunting remains of Beatminerz.
5. Mood: After all of these years, that’s the missing ingredient of all the second wave of Duck Down releases, and that was the Beatminerz’s greatest talent. Mood is hard to articulate beyond saying “Wontime” is the grimiest shit ever. Like RZA and Wu-Tang, Boot Camp created a singular universe of pissy hallways, Timbs, and Ahmad Jamal samples baptized in Brooklyn blunt smoke. Maybe Smif-N-Wessun didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “boom bap” group, but “Dah Shinin” is arguably the peak of boom bap production and the usage of the EMU SP-1200. You can’t get that sound anywhere else. The SP-1200 gave that album a warmth that was bleak and ghostly, with sunshine cracking through on “Bucktown” and “Wreckonize.” Smif-N-Wessun have made other fine hip hop songs since 1995, but none have ever captured that mood again. Mood is the difference between a Ka album and a Styles P album.
Here’s the newly arranged album of The Rude Awakening. I tried to best capture the mood of “Dah Shinin'” with some newer colors and flavors that weren’t a drastic departure.
#1 “Still Standing Strong” (Prod. by Steele and Face N Time)
A breezy guitar sample and some classic rasta vocal stylings from Tek. “Still Standing Strong” also quietly references the group maintaining their place in the game after the name change and the fizzling out with Nervous Records.
#2 “Bucktown USA” (Prod. by Mr. Walt of The Beatminerz)
A sequel to “Bucktown” with a somber beat from Mr. Walt. This joint serves to let folks know that the group name is different but the vibes are intact. In truth, the album should’ve sounded more like this to keep the base satisfied.
#3 “Won on Won” (Prod. by Sean Cane and 12 Nations)
“September 13” by Deodata has also been sampled by Pete Rock, Camp Lo, and J Dilla, three of the funkiest acts ever. Sean C cooked all of their asses with his flip, taking the funk and turning it into a sledge hammer. Tek and Steele bust shots at everyone stealing their style. This was a single off the greatest soundtrack of all time—Soul in the Hole—before landing on The Rude Awakening. I don’t know how you could replicate this song ten more times, but that should’ve been the plan for the entire Cocoa Brovaz enterprise.
#4 “Black Trump (Feat. Raekwon)” (Prod. by Self)
Boot Camp and Wu-Tang collabos rarely disappointed. Even the last Wu album had Sean Price and it was the best song on the whole project. I guarantee Kanye loves this song.
#5 “Off the Wall (Feat. Professor X)” (Prod. by Shawn J Period)
This joint spells out the workings of the lawsuit with Smith & Wesson. It’s a good two minutes too long and is more of a Public Enemy type of joint, outlining the government keeping tabs on them and how Smith & Wesson is only suing them because of racism. It’s essential to explain why Cocoa Brovaz had to be the new alias.
#6 “Myah Angelow (Feat. Ruck and Diedre Artis)” (Prod. by Baby Paul of the Beatminerz)
You need a Sean P cameo on a Duck Down project. This is another introspective joint with a cheesy ass R&B hook, but the back and forth rhymes and hook from Tek and Steele, plus Ruck without Rock, needs to be on this album.
#7 “Back 2 Life” (Prod. by JB)
The Prodigy sample from “Cradle to the Grave” is choice. Sampling any Prodigy lines from The Infamous or Hell On Earth is like rap HGH on any song. Every rap album of the late ’90s needed a song about their folks being locked up, so we check off that box with this song.
#8 “Spanish Harlem (Feat. Tony Touch and Hurricane G) (Prod. by Mr. Walt of The Beatminerz)
Hurricane G is great in small doses, as are rhymes from Tony Touch, who was basically the official DJ of Boot Camp. They were all over his 50 MC’s mixtapes and his Piece Maker album, and he kicked a verse on Boot Camp’s For the People. I read some old interview with Tek and Steele where they complained about Puffy using Hurricane G on that song “P.E. 2000” strictly because they brought her back out for this song and that cats stole their Spanish slang style from this song too. Hang around long enough and Puffy will eventually take your shit.
#9 “Blown Away (Feat. Buckshot)” (Prod. by Baby Paul of The Beatminerz)
You need a Buckshot cameo on a Duck Down project. This is a Beatminerz joint, introspective, vibe heavy. A solid album cut.
#10 “Bucktown USA Remix (Feat. M.O.P.)” (Prod. by Mr. Walt of The Beatminerz)
This was on the CD Single for “Bucktown USA”—what a BANGER just by adding Lil’ Fame and Billy Danze. M.O.P was a good model for what Smif-N-Wessun could’ve been if they kept their original style in tact: “Ante Up” and “Cold As Ice” still keep those cats paid today and they didn’t drop until M.O.P were on their fourth album. Their ’98 album First Family 4 Life had its cheesy “Eye of the Tiger” song with Jay-Z, but Danze and Fame kept refining the formula from To The Death and built a strong cult following, even when they went through label drama and were on the bench for a few years. Also, I just want to hear this beat again to finish off the album.