There is a significant difference between a recording artist who does hip-hop and a genuine rapper. For example, a rapper can flow naturally and doesn’t need multiple takes and studio magic to the point across. There’s also a slight tendency to ramble and a gift for hyperbole in the name of communication. General Steele, familiar as part of Smif-N-Wessun and the Boot Camp Clik, definitely falls into the “rapper” category. In discussing his upcoming solo debut, Welcome to Bucktown, Steele offered his opinions on everything from maintaining work relationships to the idiocy of Twitter, all without pausing, taking anything back, or once breaking out the Auto-Tune.
Who is General Steele?
In public life, Steele is, with Tek, one half of the dynamic duo of Smif-N-Wessun and one-eighth of the great Boot Camp Clik. He was born and bred in Brooklyn and a member of the game since Bucktown.
Why did you decide to go solo at this point in your career?
I’m a creative spirit. Even on our first album, we have a lyric about standing strong on your own two and putting yourself out there. We’re not tyrants or bosses. I’m not trying to rule over anybody, and this isn’t about putting myself forward. That’s not what Duck Down is about, and that isn’t what Bucktown USA Entertainment is about. Welcome to Bucktown is about what I’ve learned from being in the game. It has all my homies right there with me. It’s a full-circle resurgence of the original joint, a reintroduction, and a welcome all in one.
Tell me about Welcome to Bucktown.
Welcome to Bucktown is a visitation back to the old neighborhood and the very origins of the music. The ’90s was a golden era for hip-hop in Brooklyn. It was never documented fully; people weren’t here writing about it, but they felt it. Music came out and you felt it was real. We lost that movement and a lot of that music. This record tries to get back into that mindset. We’re not trying to just recreate that time, or the ’60s and ’70s through the samples. The idea is to document that feeling and also add to the culture. To do that, we started at the basic essentials, from Curtis Mayfield, and then bring it in to the present day. Welcome to Bucktown is the kind of album has a narrative structure instead of one or two songs and the rest filler. People might be a little surprised that it isn’t more “shoot ‘em up” right from the get-go, but we want it to be interactive. This is the kind of record when you take a ride and listen to it all the way through.
Were there any discussions about the name of the album?
There was no other idea. This had to happen. Smif-n-Wessun came out in 1994, and since then it has been growth and rebirth. You start out as a student of the game and then end up looking back at your climb. When you first get into it, you don’t know what level you’re going to rise to. Some people who were there with you at the beginning aren’t here today to share it with you. Some lost their way and others just didn’t have the skills to remain. Welcome to Bucktown is a graduation and a commemoration. It marks a transition in my own status and a remembrance of everything that has passed.
Have you been accumulating songs over the years, or is this all new material?
These are all brand-new things. I started putting things together in June with the idea of putting it out in September. Then we ran into a little bit of red tape, and some people didn’t answer their phones at the right time, and here we are. We did a pre-release in November with Methods NYC, but this is the official release. It has all the finished artwork and some special messages hidden in the tracks.
What was your process on the album?
The first thing I do is pick my tracks, and then I try to think what producers I’m going to bring in. It’s based on their character, consistency, continuity, vibe and energy. They have to be able to see what I see for the finished product. And I have been lucky to work with people I consider to be the best in the business. On this album, I’m working with 7HD, Ayatollah, the Beat Minerz, and DJ Revolution, among others. These are not people who play with their craft. They can handle the boards. My job was to find the perfect person to identify with the individual track. I’d have a song that was about police corruption, and I had to find the person who can bring the proper perspective. Then I got a “meet my homies” thing, so I hit my Rolodex and see who can get on this. The one thing everybody working on the album has in common is that they’re not old school or new school; they just understand where I’m coming from.
Did the movie play a role in the recording process?
The movie is definitely important in the flow of the album. Before I recorded anything, I had to ask how we could mesh the music into the narrative of the film. Welcome to Bucktown is really a soundtrack, and the best soundtracks support the film directly.
Did you try to make Welcome to Bucktown consciously different from Smif-N-Wessun?
I think subconsciously it was already different, because Tek and me are different people. Individually we have to be who we are — that’s what makes it fly. Each of us exists on a different spectrum, and we grow and develop both separately and then together.
How have you and Tek been able to stay together for so long?
Definitely through the will of the most high. Without him we would have parted ways a long time ago. We respect each other, allow space when space is needed, and work out our arguments in a professional way. It’s important to realize that you’re never going to see directly eye to eye all the time, and that those disagreements are just business.
Can we look forward to more solo work?
One day I’m going to put out a real solo album. I’ll go to Atlantis, lock myself in the studio, and have a full album of just my rhymes. Tek has a solo album, 24 Carats, just about ready to release. We are constantly working and writing. Both of us love the game and are always pressing to get that next thing done.
You’re also prepping a new Smif-N-Wessun album. What can we expect from it?
We’re putting this together with Pete Rock, and the most I can tell you now is that it’s really going to be us and the Pete. We’re going to Pete’s crib or he’s coming to our crib, and we’re working stuff out together. It’s not going to be any of this “send me the track online” stuff. We’re making a fifth album and working with a legend. It has to be big.
Is it difficult to go back to the give and take after putting together a solo record?
Oh, hell no, there is absolutely none of that present. First of all, I have the opportunity to work with Pete Rock, which is something that doesn’t happen every day. And really, each album is just a natural happening. It doesn’t matter who I’m working with, I’m there because I want to be there, and the people with me are committed to doing the best possible work,
What is right with hip-hop now?
Definitely that the opportunities are there, if you’re hungry enough to go out and get them. The doors are open. In one word, I would say the Internet. It changed the game with respect to how music is put out to the consumer.
What is wrong with hip-hop now?
It’s really the flip side of the coin. The power is too available, and anybody can get it. Twitter is a perfect example. Everybody makes a big deal about needing to have a presence on Twitter, and how many “followers” you have, but what do people need to know with the kind of breakfast cereal you’re eating, really?
You’ve been involved with hip-hop since 1993. Has there been anything develop that you just didn’t see coming?
Honestly, no. I learned early on to expect the unexpected, so nothing catches me by surprise. There’s always something that’s going to be the new hype. Back in 2000, we weren’t going to have computers any more. There’s always the Illuminati out there lurking too, but the one constant is that we’re all still here.
Look 17 years into the future. Where are you?
If I’m still on Earth and not on Mars, I’ll be teaching the babies. It’s important for the next generation to know the history of the game and who came before them. I’ll be an old man telling them about how the people before me, like KRS-One and Afrika Bambaataa. I’ll be teaching them to do real push-ups and get their minds right so they will be mentally, physically, and socially ready to carry on. Even when I’m gone, and can no longer tell the story, it will be preserved in everything I’ve recorded and the time I’ve taken with the next generation. The game runs deep. Even when you dig up my bones, you’ll be able to read them.