Back in October, Beat Street, a New York City hip-hop institution, closed its doors without so much of a mention in the hip-hop press. Beat Street, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, was the record store, the place where I bought my first cassette tape, the place where I would run into the artists that bumped out my Walkman. In the days before the Internet and blogs, by the turntables at Beat Street was the only place to hear the rumors: who’s working on a new album, who’s got beef with whom and who got jacked at the Tunnel.
But like Tower Records, Beat Street proved no match for the Internet and digital sales. The industry is struggling: Long gone are the label deals and the days when a hit record carried an album to a platinum plaque. It’s hard out there for an emcee. If thirty is the new twenty, selling 45,000 in the first week is the new 100,000. According to Reuters and Soundscan, sales in rap have declined more than 44 percent since 2000, and with exception of new age, rap suffered the biggest decline in 2006. To put this in perspective, Yanni is caking more than your favorite rapper is. And the situation is no less bleak for the independent artists.
My first encounter with Sean Price, a.k.a. Ruck of Heltah Skeltah and Boot Camp Clik, was, ironically, at Beat Street. BCC started as a collective of neighborhood friends with a shared interest in wrecking mikes. Sean P’s story starts with dealing crack, moves to emceeing with the BCC and then back to the illegal life (selling E-pills and burnout phones) before finding himself atop the underground with two stellar albums, 2005’s Monkey Barz and Jesus Price Superstar, released in January on Duck Down. Sean P laments on “Mess I Made,” his latest single, “I ain’t had a hit since ninety-six,” but some are calling him the biggest emcee to come out of the underground since MF Doom.
My more recent interaction with Sean P was over the telephone. I was thrown at first when I heard a woman’s voice at the other end. “Can I talk to Sean Price?” I ask, and I hear her stomp off in the direction of screaming kids and Sean P’s voice off in the distance. We forget hip-hop artists have real families, flesh and blood, not the giant crew often referred to as “fam.” But Sean P’s clique may be closer to the traditional definition in that it’s just a group of friends from Brooklyn.
“Getting down with Buckshot, we just cliqued. That’s why it’s Boot Camp Clik, not Boot Camp Crew,” he said. “Ain’t nobody my friends through hip-hop; we just friends period. We all grew up together. I’ve known Steele since I was eight years old. I’ve known Rock all his life. Rock’s moms and my moms used to hang out together.”
Sean Price is from Brownsville and still lives there, and it’s among the Brooklyn neighborhoods that still remain wild to this day. Sean P’s classroom for emceeing was the corner of his block, where he learned to rhyme and talk with his hands.
“Older gods used to do it, and I straight copied it. It’s nervousness; it’s that Rain Man in me. It just comes out,” he said, noting that it’s therapeutic for him to put his twist on the page. “I think the music needs more of that — raw emotion.”
As Ruck, Price would release two albums with Heltah Skeltah: the celebrated 1996 debut, Nocturnal, and the not-so-celebrated follow-up, 1998’s Magnum Force. Duck Down Records lost its distribution deal with Priority, and Heltah Skeltah wasn’t asked to partake in Boot Camp Clik’s 2002 album, The Chosen Few. And things weren’t going much better for Price himself.
“I was going through hell in hot water,” he said. “Nothing was popping off for me right; finances fucked up my life fucked up. I had to get on my job.” It was during this period that Sean P got back to his old hustling ways, selling drugs hand to hand and burn-out phones and whatever else to keep the family fed. Sean P’s motivation to dust off the pen and pad was part desperation, part eagerness to show his peers he still got the props and part motivation after listening to emcees who were missing the mark. “Niggas is garbage,” he said. “I decided to give it a shot because I could do better than these dudes.”
Monkey Bars and Jesus Price Superstar have been somewhat commercially successful for underground releases, but he is far from living in the lap of luxury. “Nobody is happy with what they selling,” he said. “My sales ain’t where they need to be independently. I ain’t balling.”
The self-proclaimed “brokest rapper alive” did not the take the title as a gimmick: Among other things, he even began to sell verses online to fill the financial void. He’s recently hinted at reuniting with Rock for a new Heltah Skeltah album, but he’s also talked about leaving rap behind after another solo project.
“I take that back. I am always going to do records,” he said. “My situation needs to get better finically. This independent shit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — no disrespect to Duck Down; ain’t nothing wrong with Duck Down. But that ain’t a gimmick retirement thing. I love rap, but the money got to be better. This chicken-and-broccoli, pork-fried-rice label shit — I can’t keep doing this shit. I can’t relax in the studio. I can’t rest; it’s never ending.”
But what’s the plan if hip-hop can’t pay the bills? Movies? Corporate America? A&R? “I’ll get a job,” he said. “I ain’t too proud for that. I got a family. I won’t go back to hustling.”
Sean Price working for UPS, a function of an unsupported underground. Now imagine that.
“Mess I Made” video shoot: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fchXXzeYLHg