In the mid-1990s, Smif-N-Wessun burst onto the scene brandishing two barrels locked-and-loaded with raw Rap talent. Following a breakthrough appearance on Black Moon's seminal Enta Da Stage, the skills of Tek and Steele shimmered on their 1995 debut, Dah Shinin'. Da Beatminerz-produced album balanced vigor, street-smarts, and just the right amount of Brooklyn Soul for a display that cemented the Boot Camp Clik as a force to be reckoned with.
Twenty-five years later, General Steele and Tek are still standing strong, with the stars and bars of a decorated career. The pair just released their sixth album, The All. Like their first LP, this body of work pairs the MCs with a respected production team: The Soul Council collective of 9th Wonder, Khrysis, E. Jones and Nottz. Moreover, the 12-song effort showcases maturity and vulnerability, all while adhering to their unique brand of Hip-Hop.
Featuring Raekwon, Rick Ross, and Rapsody, among others, the Bucktown USA/Duck Down Music release underpins Smif-N-Wessun's influence on the genre. Now in their forties, Tek and Steele's artistry is in a state of renaissance, not unlike that of JAY-Z, Royce 5'9, Pusha-T, and other peers. These artists are evolving, shedding skin, and taking listeners to new places. Ambrosia For Heads' Editor-in-Chief Jake Paine interviewed Smif-N-Wessun at Crown Heights' Brooklyn Combine. Inside a space where strategic planning happens daily, Tek and General Steele reflect on their career and explain how Smif-N-Wessun reloaded with some of its best music.
On "Testify," Tek rhymes, “They say take ‘em back to Dah Shinin’ / But they don’t know the shape that my mind’s in.” At 3:45 in the interview, the two men explain where their heads are in 2019. "I think we approached [the album] with an open mind. We had The Soul Council, that was really hands on with us. It wasn't just dudes giving us beats. We had a guy like 9th Wonder who was like, 'Yo, I can hear
this vibe on this type of track. This vibe sounds like this.' And it's like, 'Word? That's what you hear? Aight; let's see if we can catch that vibe right there.' So, we was really building the tracks up," says General Steele.
The pair made two trips to North Carolina. The mornings began early, not without a stop at Biscuit World, a southern restaurant in close proximity to 9th Wonder's studio. Many mornings, Khrysis, who produced seven of The All's 12 tracks, joined for these breakfasts. "We had to come with the content. We had to come with the words and the content
that made sense. So, it wasn't us just sitting there and just writing in the studio," he admits. I get older, I don't like writing in the studio. It feels so contrived to me. But when we was in that space, it was more of like a family space. It was an open lane to create. If you get tired of creating, you can go into the room and watch television, watch Netflix or something like that. We come back, and I'll be in the
studio, and we switch it. We pass off [rhyme] books and stuff like that. So really, like, on our own time, you know?"
After past albums with Da Beatminerz and 2011's Monumental with Pete Rock, Tek describes the chemistry with The Soul Council. "We was all giving input. We worked with Khrysis the majority of the time hands on. So, even if he gave his input, I gave mine. Khrysis gave his. Not
only 9th [Wonder], E. Jones, [Eric] G, even Ka$h [Don't Make Beats], and Rapsody had their joints [in addition to] singing [by Heather Victoria and others]. We had a [white] board writing the names of the songs down. A lot of the titles of the songs came from the actual record we may have been talking about at the time, or whatever we were
just feeling in the song. So, we write it down and we record it, and then we'll just come up with the content of it."
Later in the conversation, Smif-N-Wessun recall their time dabbling with Rawkus Records. Already in the Priority Records family, the pair worked extensively on Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilations, in addition to features on Talib Kweli's solo debut, Quality. The duo
recall "Super Brooklyn," garnering great interest. Sadly, similar to Pharoahe Monch's "Simon Says," a sample cease-and-desist halted a much-needed re-awakening to the group entering Y2K.
By the late 1990s, Smif-N-Wessun was taking its proverbial industry lumps. A legal battle with the gun company forced a temporary name-change to Cocoa Brovaz at an inflection point. Despite time spent with Tupac Shakur, plans for a One Nation album were tragically halted with his 1996 death. Meanwhile, a fast-rising record like "Super
Brooklyn" was stopped right as radio was pushing play. At 34:00, the duo was asked if they feel they have faced a harder road than most.
Steele responds with a powerful sentiment. "Nah. Biggie and Pac [are] dead. Big L is gone. Guru is gone." Tek interjects, "There's always somebody who's got it worse than you. So, the toughest battle is, as long as you breathing every day above ground is a great one."
Steele continues, "Every time we do a show, especially overseas, we always pay homage to the brothers that's not here anymore. And that's part of the show where we get a chance to get a breath. Imagine that. We get a breath for all of these ones that set it forth before us. The game has allowed us to perform. It could be worse. It could be worse."
Perspective is critical, and Smif-N-Wessun are positive about a bumpy road. With a statement album newly in fans' hands, they have reason to celebrate.
Photograph by Photo Rob.