Monday night I checked out the Duck Down Records 15th Anniversary tour at Club Empire in Ybor City, Tampa. It was a long time coming as I have been a fan of the label in since it started in 1995.
For those that might not know, Duck Down Records is one of the premier underground labels in hip-hop. While other labels aspire for the pop market, go for the artsy hipster rap niche, or attract the suburban market, Duck Down has kept to it's Brooklyn-style roots and carved a niche as a home for veteran "grown man" rappers. Throughout the years, the Duck Down ranks have included the Boot Camp Clik, comprised of the four founding groups of the label: Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah, and the Originoo Gun Clappaz; Phife Dawg (formerly of A Tribe Called Quest); Masta Ace; current member Pharaoh Monche; and many others. They are New York street hip-hop at it's best.
Now that we have covered who they are, here is my experience seeing this highly esteemed collective.
Having learned my lesson from previous hip-hop shows, I knew there was no way the Duck Down show was going to start anytime near the 8pm time listed on the ticket. As I mentioned on Twitter after I entered the venue, hip hop shows are one of the last public bastions that still work on "black people time". I wouldn't be surprised if jazz clubs and blues juke joints back in the day also operated on such a schedule, but now that those genres have been subsumed into white culture, they have been put on more rigid performance schedules. In the case of hip-hop shows, that's just the way of the world.
Little did I realize how late the show would be.
After listening to the local DJ spin back-in-the-day jams until 10pm or so, local group The Villanz took the stage. Along with their generic hip-hop name, they had one dude who sort of resembled Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, another who looked like the missing member of the Fat Boys, and a big bald guy. They were ok, but forgettable.
Following The Villanz, Mike Mass took his turn on the mic. Although he was a better than The Villanz, his 15 to 20 minutes on stage was also filler and nothing special, although the crowd did know a song or two.
After another half-hour of the house DJ's old-school mix, Dynasty, a third local act, got her chance to entertain the crowd. (Keep in mind, it was nearly 11:30pm when she took the stage.)
I've seen Dynasty before and I really enjoy her songs. She is a female rapper in the Lauryn Hill mode, with raps about battling MCs and what it means to be a female MC in a male dominated genre. If it wasn't so late, I think I would have enjoyed her show more but even as it was, she was really good.
After another 20 minutes of Dynasty and other 20-30 minutes of the house's old school mix, the Duck Down Records crew finally started to take the stage.
(Yes, I am 550+ words into this review and finally getting to the headliners. This review is exactly like the show, except I couldn't scroll down.)
The first Duck Down artist to take the stage was a young MC named Skyzoo. Skyzoo is a newcomer to the Duck Down label, having only been signed in 2009. Before then however, he made a name for himself in the underground via assorted mixtapes and independent releases.
Although I had only heard him in cameo appearance prior to the show, I was impressed. Skyzoo came out on stage like he was shot out of a cannon, revving up the crowd with a rapid-fire delivery and sharp flow. Like many of the other Duck Down artists, Skyzoo is all about the lyrics and the storytelling. I'll definitely be picking up some of his releases soon.
(Check out a youtube clip of Skyzoo from Monday night. And check out this interview from 2007, Skyzoo knows his hip-hop history, which is a definite plus in my book.)
Next on the stage was veteran rapper Pharoahe Monche. Most people know Pharoahe Monche from his 1999 hit "Simon Says", but few realize he is still on the scene and still making music. I know I was surprised.
Unfortunately, the curse of having one massive hit messes with Pharoahe Monche's show. Even though he rocked the mic with a bunch of good new songs, after each a group of fans would yell "Simon Says" in hope that he would go into that song. That must be annoying for him as I know it was starting to bug me.
Of course, he ended with "Simon Says" and everyone got the f**k up. You know it goes.
Next on stage was old school MCs Smif-N-Wessun. Like I said, these were the guys who got me into the Duck Down sound with the song "Wontime". Even though they didn't play that song, Tek and Steele ripped the stage with a bunch of other songs - some off of albums I had and some I had never heard before. Like Skyzoo and Pharoahe Monche, Smif-N-Wessun also came with a lot of energy and charisma. Check the video.
After Smif-N-Wessun, I glanced at my phone and saw it was nearly 2am. Worknight or not, and even though I had to get up at 6:30am, I was already in for the long haul.
Following Smif-N-Wessun was Duck Down Records' biggest name and one half of Heltah Skeltah, heavyweight MC Sean Price. I was looking forward to seeing Sean Price more than anyone else. Like the others, Sean P killed the crowd despite getting angry at the house sound guy for an annoying feedback that plagued his entire performance.
If you have never seen Sean Price, he is a big dude. As he got angrier and kept trying to spit rhymes about destroying MCs all the while battling an uncontrollable stage malfunction, I began fearing for the sound guy's life. Remind me never to mess with Sean P. Check the video.
Last but not least, at 2:15 in the morning, the final act came on the stage, the founding father of Duck Down Records, the legendary Buckshot. Although I had a bunch of Buckshot cameos, the only album I have of his is his duet work with KRS-One. Even though it was late and even though a lot of the crowd had gone home (maybe if they started earlier there would have been more people there!), and despite the continuing feedback problem, Buckshot still worked his ass off. Despite there being only 50-75 people there, Buckshot spit rhymes in every direction and even played his biggest hits, "Who Got the Props?" and "I Got Cha Opin".
It was an awesome display of MCing. Check the video.
At 3:00am Buckshot finally concluded the show. That's right, 3:00am. After a night of magnificent hip-hop, I brought my tired ass back to the house and collapsed on the bed. Only to wake up 3 hours later.
Oh well. Such is life. Gotta make the sacrifice for a good time sometime, right?