When Sean Price came into rap music 20 years ago, he was standing next to a rail-thin, crazy-eyed six-foot-eight rap demon with a Busta Rhymes-esque gargling back-of-the-throat flow. And somehow, Price’s partner never overshadowed him. Back then, Price was known as Ruck, half of the Brooklyn duo Heltah Skeltah along with the towering Rock. Where Rock was theatrical and demonstrative, Ruck was hard and focused, delivering headknock threats with an easy, conversational flow and an intricate, vivid way of describing all the ways he’d fuck you up. They made a striking pair, two big guys with dreads exploding in every direction and a wild willingness to dress up like mental patients or Native American warriors in their videos. They were a crucial part of the Boot Camp Clik, the Brooklyn crew whose hardnosed, unpretentious style worked as a sort of grounding ballast in ’90s East Coast rap. The different parts of the BCC — Heltah Skeltah, Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon’s Buckshot, the Originoo Gun Clappaz — jumped on each other’s records and onstage at each other’s shows. And while contemporaries like the Wu-Tang Clan and the Bad Boy crew were exploding, they kept things hard and unpretentious — partly by choice, partly because they never really figured out how to make crossover music. Listening to their music now, that unvarnished hoodies-and-Timbs roughneck style has aged beautifully. They knew what they were doing, and they stuck with it. And they kept sticking with it for 20 years.
The first time I saw Price live was nearly a decade ago. Keith Murray was supposed to be opening for Redman and Raekwon at the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square, but he’d canceled, and Smif-N-Wessun were the last-minute replacements. I remember being pissed off about that. I liked Murray, and I hadn’t much bothered with Smif-N-Wessun. (Dah Shinin’, the 1995 Smif-N-Wessun LP that included Price’s on-mic debut, is a nearly perfect album, but I didn’t know that until I bought it immediately after the show.) Smif-N-Wessun ended up being the best thing at the show, not least because their set turned out to be a giant Boot Camp Clik party. This is something I learned in the few years living in New York: Anytime you want and saw any of the Boot Camp Clik’s splinter entities, there was a very good chance that the entire group would end up onstage by the end of the show. This made for one of the most dependable live-music nights out in the city, and I kept going back. The audience would always be small but amped, the people onstage would always be happy to be there, and you’d always get to hear “Bucktown” and “Who Got Da Props” and “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka.” That first show, I remember it ending with someone (Tek from Smif-N-Wessun, I think) riding around piggyback on Price’s shoulders, looking like a little kid.
Price was the biggest man onstage that night, and he was also the best rapper. In those early years, Price might not have been the best rapper in the group; that was probably the explosive, emphatic Buckshot. But as the years went on and everyone else lost at least a half-step — something that just naturally happens in rap — Price got better. Heltah Skeltah had broken up after two albums because Rock was trying to go solo, something that didn’t really work out. But Price played his position, kept showing up on BCC records, and further refined his style. By the time he released his solo debut Monkey Barz in 2005, he’d found a gruff authority in his voice. He was still hard as fuck — nobody ever rapped more or better about “hand skills,” the ability to beat you up — but he also had a sort of grown-up, blue-collar sense of humor. There was a mordant streak in his lyrics, and his punchlines were the sort of things that make you shake your head with a sort of disgusted admiration: “When the tech spit, I / Kill man, woman, child a la Chris Benoit.” (That’s a tasteless line, of course, but the “a la” always killed me. So classy! And he pronounced “I” like “ah,” so the rhyme wasn’t even forced.) But for all the shit-talk, there was also a hard-earned wisdom and pathos in his voice. Listen to the was he ends his verse on the Boot Camp Clik posse cut “And So,” repeating that “I don’t know” twice and trailing off, like he’s just trying to figure out why he’s doing the shit that he’s doing.
During the second half of his life, Price was more prolific, and more of a constant presence, than he was during the first half. Duck Down, the label that released most of the Boot Camp Clik records, went through a sort of indie-rap renaissance by keeping its head down and cranking out new music, often from its principal figures, throughout the ’00s. Price made three solo albums and three solo mixtapes, with another on the way. He reunited Heltah Skeltah for one album and recorded another with Random Axe, an indie-rap supergroup that also included Detroit’s Black Milk and Guilty Simpson. He showed up on records with just about everyone who came from his world, big or small. He never tried to transcend New York rap; he just kept making music for people from New York and people who love that mid-’90s New York sound. He’s on an album that doesn’t come out until this Friday, Gangrene’s very good You Disgust Me, and he might very well have the best verse on it. Anytime he showed up on someone’s song, yelling “P!” in a guttural bellow, I’d immediately stop what I was doing and pay attention because I’d know I was about to hear some shit. He just kept working, never slowing down and never falling off. When other rappers of his vintage were disappearing or publicly complaining about what rap had become, he kept a sort of blue-collar sustainability, keeping his head down and just rapping. More than that, he radiated an ambient good nature. Somewhere along the line, his public persona went from razor-to-your-face hoodlum to hardnosed-but-lovable sitcom dad. I never met him, but I liked him anyway — as a rapper, and as a person. He was a very easy person to like.
Price’s sudden and unexplained death Sunday morning, at the way-too-young age of 43, hit me hard. It hit a lot of people hard. Nobody saw it coming. Price seemed perfectly healthy. He was a big guy, but not the kind of big where you see him and get concerned, like Big Pun or Big Mo. He doesn’t seem like he was chugging lean or doing any of the unhealthy things that rappers sometimes do. He was a family man with a wife and three kids, and he never tried to depict himself as anything else. I’ve never seen anyone say a bad thing about the man, and he was still making great music. He’d flown under the radar for pretty much his entire career, but he’d made “under the radar” look like a pretty good place to be. He was special. We’ll be worse off without him.
1. Kodak Black – “Ran Up A Check”
Kodak Black is a teenage kid from Pompano Beach, Florida and the child of Haitian immigrants. He grew up in a notoriously awful project, and his music carries a lot of bone-hard Lil Boosie influence. But you won’t hear any of that in “Ran Up A Check,” a weightlessly joyous song that sounds like something DāM-FunK might produce if he was remotely interested in getting his music onto rap radio. Over talkbox squelches and synth-bass slaps, this charming and exuberant little kid kicks out juvenile pickup lines — “Call me butthead, got my mind on ya ass” — and the whole thing just shimmers like summer air.
2. AR-Ab – “Back 2 Back Freestyle”
Guys like AR-Ab fascinate me. He’s not a rapper with a criminal past; he’s a terrifying criminal goon-king who sometimes raps. He’s faced murder charges and been shot 10 times, and apparently in Philadelphia, he’s the sort of name you’re scared to say out loud. He’s Voldemort. Drake namechecked him on “Back To Back,” and apparently Meek Mill took offense to this at some point. Bad idea. Now AR-Ab has taken Drake’s “Back To Back” instrumental and used it to rain down threats of fire upon Meek’s soul: “I just left jail, guess I’m going back! / I blow a hole in ya stomach, make ‘em sew it back!” This isn’t terribly sophisticated rapping, and that stuff about Nicki fucking Meek with a strap-on is, like, unnecessary. But whoof, this is one pissed-off rap. If I was Meek, this might be the moment I went shopping for real estate in places other than Philadelphia.
3. Mac Miller – “100 Grandkids”
Mac Miller has found his breezy, quietly intricate stoner-rap stride, and he’s gotten to the point as a rapper where he can just have fun on a track and it’ll still work. It’ll even work as a first single if he does something as simple as spending a couple of bars interpolating “Bad Boys For Life.” Former 50 Cent rainmaker Sha Money XL produced the trac, and the way he switches the beat up completely, without making it sound like two songs awkwardly glued together, is a thing of beauty.
4. 2 Chainz – “Goat” (Feat. The-Dream)
The eerie, tingling beat is great. The decision to have The-Dream free-associate over the back half of the song, rather than just singing a rote and formulaic hook, is even better. But the best thing about this is hearing 2 Chainz back in goony-but-committed punchline mode: “Mister Impeccable / Turn you to a vegetable / Fuck her on the sectional.”
5. Shabazz Palaces – “The Mystery Of Lonny The Døn”
Shabazz Palaces are so deep into their zone now that I’m not even sure they’re making rap music anymore. But this seasick experimental slam-poetry lurch is effective enough that rap should be proud to claim them.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
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