Happy 20th Anniversary to Cocoa Brovaz’ The Rude Awakening, originally released March 31, 1998.
Duck Down Music had a strong run in the ‘90s as a tough independent label dedicated to boom bap and street-level hip-hop. A solid foundation was built first as the management company behind two certified classics: Black Moon’s 1993 debut album Enta da Stage and Smif-N-Wessun’s inaugural effort Dah Shinin’ in 1995.
The label was fully launched in 1996 with excellent albums by Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C., followed by more from Black Moon and several crew projects from the Boot Camp Click. The sophomore album by Smif-N- Wessun, The Rude Awakening, arrived in March 2008.
The first thing of note is the different moniker on the cover. A lawsuit by gun makers Smith & Wesson forced group members Tek and Steele to rebrand as Cocoa Brovaz. One would assume the company was trying to protect their established name and nothing more. If their issue was being associated with violent rap music, however, that’s a huge double standard considering how many lives have expired at the hands of their products.
The name had changed, but this was still Smif-N-Wessun and The Rude Awakening possesses the same formula that made Dah Shinin’ such a good album: hard-as-concrete lyrics and grimy street tales backed up by rugged, neck-snapping beats. There’s also some of the same reggae influence found on their debut, including on the opening track “Off the Wall.”
As with Dah Shinin’, much of the steadfast sound is thanks to production outfit Da Beatminerz. The collective is sometimes criminally overlooked in favor of the masters like DJ Premier, Large Professor and Pete Rock, but Da Beatminerz’ contributions to the creation of boom bap cannot be understated. A close association with Duck Down Music from the very start—crew member Evil Dee is also 1/3 of Black Moon, as is the co-owner of the label, Buckshot—has ensured Da Beatminerz have produced huge parts of the company’s discography, and everything they’ve had a hand in has been good.
Evil Dee and Mr. Walt are usually considered the architects of Da Beatminerz sound, but the crew has included other producers over the years, including Baby Paul. He was involved with the creation of Dah Shinin’, and puts in stellar work again on The Rude Awakening. His contributions include the mellow-but-still-hard “Blown Away,” and later “Myah Angelow.” The latter song features a guest spot from Ruck of Heltah Skeltah. He’s credited in the liner notes as Tall Sean but would soon become better known under his real name Sean Price. He would, of course, go on to achieve wider acclaim than Smif-N-Wessun, and has been elevated to the level of fallen rap hero since his death in 2015.
“Blown Away” is followed by “The Cash,” about the perils of money. It’s a capitalist nightmare that segues nicely into the standout track, the unfortunately titled “Black Trump.” Hip-hop is littered with old references to the orange-faced tyrant who would inexplicably go on to become leader of the free world, among them lyrics by Raekwon. He referred to himself as the “Black Trump” on 1995’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” and that same lyric is sampled here. The Wu-Tang Clan legend also drops a couple of vicious guest verse, and the track sounds as fresh today as it did 20 years ago.
The next few songs— “Dry Snitch,” “Game of Life” and “Back 2 Life” —stick closely to the tried and tested format before arriving at another highlight, “Bucktown USA.” It’s an obvious companion piece to Dah Shinin’s anthemic “Bucktown,” using the same hook, over another killer instrumental by Mr. Walt. “Spanish Harlem” is equally great, bolstered by more niceness from Mr. Walt, and a feature spot from the force of nature that is Hurricane G. The rapper has sadly never managed to find much success despite being one of the most brutal female rappers Brooklyn has ever created. After “Myah Angelow” the album ends with “Memorial,” which meanders on way too long, but seems like an appropriately downbeat way to end things.
Smif-N-Wessun continued to release music into the aughts and are still active today. They embraced the reggae influence fully on 2013’s Born and Raised EP, to mixed results. Duck Down Music has survived the digital era, and still puts out records by artists from or affiliated with Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun.