Words: Rob Marriott | Photos: Christian Lantry
Originally published in ego trip #3, 1995
FRIDAY. The air is colder out here in East New York. Sky is looking like stale milk as 10-year-old shorties in Timbos scrape at the thin remains of one of dem half-assed New York snowfalls. Packing snowballs the minute they step outside the nearby school building, they go running through flocks of black pigeons, snow shrapnel flying. I watch them as they slowly make their way home, chasing each other around the rusted-down Ninety-eights left for dead under the staccato shadows of the elevated 2 Train, running by the boom spots, filtering in and out of the corner stores and bodegas, sending screams and laughter echoing down the broke-up streets.
That was me, I think, twelve, thirteen years ago – little shorty doo-wop doing his thing, running and ducking through the concrete streets of Brooklyn, oblivious to the decay and destruction around me. Back in the days me and the other niggas on my block used to go pillaging the dump across the street for go-cart parts and such. Wood for clip guns. (It was all fun and games ’til somebody lost an eye.) You know the story: dutty, little whyle-ass kids kinda carefree, laughing at nothing in particular, hidin’ snowballs in their jackets.
But shit changes. Yeah, it’s all like the intro to Welcome Back Kotter for them now, but just wait. In eight years, the snowballs meltin’ in their pockets turn to burners, the laughter’s replaced with cold, slitted stares and all of a sudden the games… the games ain’t that fun no more.
SUNDAY, THE SAME CORNER. Three signs you are now in a crime capital: 1) Pigs is out here thick, like locusts. The beast be making his rounds, even on the Sabbath. 2) Niggas roll deep – geared in either complete fatigues sets or lugging super-dupe-extra thick goose downs on they backs. Be looking like big black Michelin men on a mission. Their subdued, ancient faces – halfway hidden under hats and hoodies – tell eight million stories. 3) At the nearby Pizza Palace there is a sign that reads: NO CHANGE FOR A $50 DOLLARS OR A $100 DOLLARS.
This is Bucktown: land of lawless, breeding ground for crime and rhyme, and hometown to some of the masters of one or the other or both: Biggie, Jemini, Jeru, Buckshot, Group Home to name a few. But what brings me out here to the B-town boonies is a pair of rugged heads named Tek and Steele, otherwise known as Smif-N-Wessun. And if you don’t know, you need to ask somebody. “Bucktown”? “Let’s Git It On”? Not to mention their debut album, Dah Shinin’, which sparkles like a black gem among the dusty coals of present day hip-hop albums. Niggas came straight on strong with the street roots poetry, no lie. And it’s Crooklyn, baby, through and through.
It’s in the rhythm: the midnight shots, the corner store hustlers, the knuckle games, the whole Glock nine. You can see Brooklyn in their shit. Nigga like Tek will just lay it out for you.
This is a story of a place that we call home/ Where the kids pack heat when it’s time to roam/ Everybody’s on a scramble/ Life’s a gamble/ Hoppin’ on the white horse/ Tryna get a handle/ …We got a spot on every block to make your dreams come true/ Just come correct with the snaps is all you do/ Don’t come crying broke still tryna cop the dope/ What part of ‘no’ did you not understand, bro?/ We can’t afford to be takin’ shorts or be playin’ sports/ Empires need to be built, but mac-10s bought/ Or even caught for them deceased-ass hustlers/ And we still got the pound for y’all livin’ muthafuckas…
FRIDAY PAST. By the time Steele, the other half of Smif-N-Wessun, comes through, I had been lounging for a good while, watching Def Comedy Jam with a coupla heads, scopin’ out the spot. I was sittin’ in the Doghillee, the place where the different components of the Boot Camp Click converge and converse; the place where their lives, their language gets converted into music. This was a niggas’ place: where the war-born gather for all-night ciphers, shun misery, maybe even death. It’s where heads get blitted, build philosophies, whatever: a place to lay your biscuits down and bug.
Rocking a doo-rag low to his eyes, Steele, Mr. Rippa, greets me as his guest, makes sure I’m cool, then goes to the back with Dog, one member of the Originoo Gunn Clappaz, to take care of some business. More niggas arrive, they settling down, burning buds. Somebody turns off the sound on the TV and throws in a tape. Tunes come rocking out the box, first Heltah Skeltah – another Bootcamp affiliate on deck – with some ol’ re-rendered old school blues type shit. Then a female emcee named Champagne (she’s nasty!) rhyme-ridin’ a beat that’s signature Evil D: dark, shadowy like alleyways. Red eyes transfix on the silent TV as more and more niggas arrive – knotty-headed every one of them. The blunts come in hazy waves of three. Everyone gives fist to a 40, libation is poured to the gone-too-quickly, and the once-chiseled faces turn tender with laughter, lit by a single shade-less, naked lamp. More trees are twisted, more puffin’, more niggas nodding and listening to stories. Big man tells us about how he was backstage at the Redman, Jeru, and Method Man show when the Twins – them niggas that be hangin’ with Redman – got into beef with the Flatlinerz, who went barging into Red’s room, prompting niggas to start beefin’ and pulling razors out they mouths, pushin’ bouncers out the way and gettin’ loud and you know the rest…
Steele comes back and me and him start talkin’ about the album, their next moves, the bullshit Source review. He speaks in parables and metaphors, his hands rolling and pausin’ with his every word like he’s fighting off unseen enemies. He’s focused on elevation, he tells me.
“… ’Cause if you look at it we representing the culture,” he says. “The culture and the science. Smif-N-Wessun’s bringing the conversation aspect, the circle. Black Moon came with one aspect, now we comin’ with another. We talking ’bout that thing when you can finish each other’s thoughts, know what I’m sayin’? The I-n-I. That’s what we call the shinin’.” And I’m with him. He’s talking that telepathy shit that drove the white boys in the movie stark ravin’ mad, about the ability to enter another’s mindstate. It’s the metaphor mindstate – that higher connection ciphers are fertile ground for.