New York’s vaunted golden age of hip-hop in the 90s was born from a can-do ethos that belied the exigencies of survival. Amid the imperilment of structural poverty, a generation of incidental musical icons took a blue-sky approach to overcoming their circumstances, and with it, recast the boundaries of global pop culture.
As part of the Boot Camp Clik supergroup, Brooklyn twosome Tek and Steele, known cooperatively as Smif-N-Wessun, were elemental in the East Coast rap renaissance that turned their borough into an internationally recognized sound. While sweeping commercial success may have eluded them, the duo’s acclaimed 1995 debut Dah Shinin became a perdurable New York classic.
An unblemished collection of street tales chronicled over Da Beatminerz’s exemplary brand of boom bap, Dah Shinin encapsulated the spirit of the epoch. A New York where creativity outweighed opportunity, beats were prospects, and rhymes were therapy. Symbiotically, the Boot Camp Clik representatives captured the zeitgeist of a period that promised fortune, while simultaneously insulating its poorest neighborhoods from any associated trickle-down effects.
The largest and richest city in the US had entered the 1970s with a fully functioning welfare system. New York boasted the only municipal university system in the US offering free higher education. There were 19 public hospitals, state-run daycares, and subsidized drug programs. But come the summer of 1975, all that was to change. New York was in debt, crippling debt.
As every respectable financial catastrophe necessitates, responsibility for the crisis rested firmly at the feet of the poor. The problem, according to the mayor and governor, was that the needy were using too many of the public services offered to them and had tanked the city’s economy. The solution? Budget cuts. First, a group of power brokers and financiers co-opted the city’s economy. Then, the Federal Government stepped in with a loan, conditional to draconian cuts—cuts that would ensure generational poverty.
New York’s public sector was systematically ravaged. Tens of thousands were laid off; school budgets slashed; hospitals, libraries, and firehouses closed; and education now came with a price tag. Within a few short years, New York had become the fulcrum of a conservative movement that would set the stage for national supply-side Reaganomics. Life in the city’s poverty-stricken communities became infinitely more precarious.
The Brownsville section of Brooklyn had long been New York’s most impoverished area and bore the brunt of its fiscal ruin. Children born into the one square mile of municipal tenements—the highest concentration of public housing in the US—were raised in poverty. Life expectancy was (and still is) the lowest in the city. It was in Brownsville where Smif-N-Wessun came to be. Infants during the city’s takeover, Tek and Steele were born into monumental austerity and raised through the ensuing crack epidemic that cultivated crime and conviction at improbable rates.
The unsympathetic surroundings begot predictably hostile fruit. Before sporting fatigues in their videos, Tek and Steele were earning their stripes in the infamous New York street gang, the Decepticons. When General Steele began rapping as a teen, his childhood companion worked his security. When Steele suggested Tek join him as part of a group, he wrote his brother in arms’ first rhyme. The pair were barely out of high school when they seized upon the opportunity to create a cult classic that would define the experiences of a generation growing up in New York’s Medina.
Debuting on Black Moon’s showpiece, Enta da Stage, in 1993, Tek and Steele preordained their entry into rap folklore six months later, when they flipped the woodwind swing of Jack Bruce’s “Born to be Blue” into an ode to the borough itself, “Bucktown.” A canorous dedication to their city within a city, “Bucktown” became an underground success, climbing to the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Singles Chart and setting the table for an impending long play.
However, the group’s indelible contribution to the 90s hip-hop playlists wasn’t even slated as Dah Shinin’s lead-in. The duo scheduled “Nothing Move But the Money” as the first single, but Rod Temperton wouldn’t rock with the Heatwave sample clearance. Unable to decide between “Bucktown” and “Let’s Git it On” as its replacement, the group took the offbeat step of releasing the two tracks as a Double A side. A roughhouse opera with a bassline that rumbles like the L over Van Sinderen, the baleful “Let’s Git it On” still ranks among the parabolic golden age’s finest compositions.
Emerging at the dawn of ‘95, Dah Shinin’ came on the heels of a boom bap year that had witnessed the Kings County leave its unfading imprint on the genre. Post “Bucktown,” Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East, O.C.’s Word...Life, Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb, and, of course, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die had already canonized Brooklyn’s contribution to hip-hop’s greatest year.
In the same D&D studios DJ Premier was squandering sampled crack on Group Home, producers Da Beatminerz and Smif-N-Wessun were working in synergy to cut 15 virulent tales of life in Brooklyn, before it was a brand. The architects of Black Moon’s Enta da Stage two years prior, DJ Evil Dee, Mr. Walt, Baby Paul, and Rich Blak’s subterranean riddims would become the bedrock of Smif-N-Wessun’s forbidding aura.
Filtering their seemly samples into ominous, low-end basslines and marrying them with radioactive percussion, Da Beatminerz undeniably advanced the decorum of the boom bap onomatopoeia on Dah Shinin’. Fellow New Yorkers Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Large Professor had filtered samples before them, but Evil Dee and Mr. Walt fine-tuned the technique into a profession. Coalescing the esteemed sine wave bass of Mr. Walt’s Akai S950 with Evil Dee’s illustrious SP-1200, Dah Shinin’s brooding sonata was scored with a precision that distinguished it from Enta da Stage.
The riddims, like the matter, were trenchant throughout; fulsome grooves set off with uppercut snares and unsparing stanzas. Evil Dee attributed the overarching menace of Dah Shinin’ to an attempt on his behalf to create a soundstripe to their nocturnal corner activities, a mood that wasn’t best accompanied by early hour radio slow jams. “Careless Whisper” may have been ill-suited, but “Wrekonize” could score a beatdown. If music for mal-intent was the grail, “Sound Bwoy Bureill” was the record’s apogee, a harbinger of villainy that goaded Tek and Steele’s most calculated, patois peppered strophes.
The album’s cover was purloined from Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s He’s Coming. From the LP’s crest, “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby,” came “Home Sweet Home,” a spiritual sequel to Digable Planets’ “Borough Check.” Baby Paul’s orchestrated tour of Crooklyn was a lucid tale of turf wars and local pride, in spite of the unpredictable surroundings (We can’t afford to take shorts or be playing sports/Empires need to be built, mack 10’s bought.)
Immersed in a studio haze of sleep deprivation and lye, the vibrant pulse of “Wrektime” and Isaac Hayes’ imbued “Stay Strong” were contact high psalms for soupy night stoop cotching. Robbery, Timbs, and teenage resilience rolled into a blunt assessment of success relative to circumstance. The album also harkened the arrival of O.G.C. and Heltah Skeltah and marked the official formation of the Boot Camp Clik on the minatory posse cut, “Cession at da Doghillee.”
Despite displaying all the trappings of a classic, The Source bestowed a miserly three mics on Dah Shinin’. Rightfully aggrieved, the Clik wrote a letter to the steadily depreciating publication, calling their incredulous rating “a blow to the head of every individual who lives for hip-hop.” The review may have tempered expectations, but Dah Shinin’ would still go on to sell over 300,000 copies, a significant achievement for the humble Nervous imprint, Wreck Records.
Though a quintessentially New York record, Dah Shinin’ unwittingly offered an olive branch to the west in the middle of the ruinous Coast Wars. Hidden in the linear notes of the album was a dedication that flew in the face of rallying war cries towards California, a message to an incarcerated 2Pac, “keep ya head up.” The gesture was not taken lightly. Upon his release, 2Pac flew Smif-N-Wessun and Buckshot to LA in an attempt to bridge the gap between the East and West Coast with an ultimately ill-fated collaborative album.
While 2Pac would pass before his One Nation vision could be realized, the preternatural marriage between Smif-N-Wessun and Da Beatminerz would play a seminal role in a Brooklyn behavioral cusp with universal significance. As one of an ineffable collection of albums that thrust the borough’s name into the vocabulary of millions across the globe, Dah Shinin’ gave rise to an international standard of what hip-hop should sound like, that endures to this day.
A quarter of a century removed, Smif-N-Wessun’s triumph abides as a testament to an era that defined a genre. All heads realize.