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Video: Rock Keeps The Heltah Skeltah Flag Flying High For Sean Price

15 years later, Rockness is still representing for Brooklyn's most rugged

The B65 bus squeals to a halt as the MC known as Rockness Monsta laughs into a phone that has just been handed to him. A hot piece of fried shrimp dangles in his free hand, as he stands on the corner of Bergen Street and Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, talking to “Eric The Barber” from high school. What looks like a padlock ring on his hand is actually a brass knuckle of the ‘80s hit cartoon Transformers' evil crew Decepticon logo. The likeness of his late rhyme partner, in DuckDown Records’ duo Heltah Skeltah, Sean Price overlooks the scene, guarding one of the last ungentrified corners in Brooklyn. The mural by artist Meres One lives on the side of the fish-n-chips spot, Git It N Git. The shop sports an “A” rating on the window but the satisfied look on Rock’s face is evidence enough of how good the food is.

“My last conversation with P was over the phone,” Rock recalls. “We had did a feature for somebody and dude paid me all the money, the whole deposit or whatever and [Sean] had to come and get his half of the bread. I needed change for a hunned, but I needed my bread. He said ‘I’ll get you tomorrow.’ He know just like I know that it was safer with me. We brovas, we know. But he was in the cab and I made the hasty decision and I gave him the whole hundred. Of course I ain’t see him the next day. When I call [him] he’s on a boat with Sadat X fishin’. I cursed this nigga out and he was laughing at me the whole time. He gave no fucks.”

It’s been a little more than two years since the untimely death of Sean Price, one half of Heltah Skeltah and a foundational part of the ten-man outfit The Boot Camp Clik. His posthumous album Imperius Rex has been out for about a month, but 43-year-old Rock is still adjusting to life without his friend, both personally and professionally. He has distilled his grieving process into his music, finally completing his long awaited solo project, Rockness, A.P. (After Price).

“Originally I was working on another album, [it] had a completely different title and then P passed. My whole world changed,” says Rock. “That album wasn’t a proper representation of me at that time. So I decided that this moment needed its own picture frame.”

The mood on the corner is elevated because his first single and video “Good Weed, Bitches And Guns” has been making the rounds. The hook alone gives a snapshot of his life from sin to kin over a smoky guitar loop.

“I’m struggling like a motherfucker with a clean version of that song. Dudes is like ‘Yo, I need a clean.’ But how do you clean it up? The filth is in the title!”

While the Crown Heights locale has shown love to Rock and P, to truly appreciate what inspired Rockness A.P. you have to go a few train stops away back to the Seth Low Projects in Brownsville.

Seth Low was a Mayor of Brooklyn from 1881 to 1885 who, among other achievements, integrated Brooklyn schools and became President of Columbia University in 1890. The campus’s Low Memorial Library is named for his father. However, the housing projects named after him did not benefit from his goodwill or his fortune, comprised of four high-rise buildings containing 536 low-income units. Sitting in the middle of the most densely concentrated area of public housing in the nation, the area has been crippled by generational poverty.

Parked on his Sackman Ave block Rock, born Jamal Bush, points to P.S. 150 “The Christopher Ave School” noting that he only went there briefly as a child for Kindergarten but, “The Principal there now is rithickulous.” He’s lived in other places when “times were better” but has called these buildings home for most of his life.

“I first came here when I was four months old,” he says. “The Boot Camp was basically built here. Sackman street is my block. Steele’s [of Smif-N-Wessun] building is right on the other side of this school across the street. I used to walk home from school down Belmont and walk past Steele’s window. His uncle Guy introduced us. This was before we were Boot Camp. Once we started running with each other it started growing. It became two sides of the family. Everybody who came in came in through either me or Steele; Ruck, Starang and Louieville came in through me. Little Rock came in through me. Tek, Buckshot, Preeme and Top Dog came in through Steele. DJ Logic is Smif-N-Wessun’s DJ but he’s from my building. Only those who proved themselves to be elite came into the Boot Camp fold.”

Rock’s rapping aspirations kicked in before he was in Middle School and he had assembled a crew with his cousin and some friends in his building.

“The dudes in my building wasn’t on some rap shit. So my squad [was] my man Ike and my two dancers Hot Rod and Dish Nigga Ron. These two niggas was the two flyest in the crew. They were my Scoob and Scrap. My man Derick was gonna be my DJ and Ike was my right hand man. He knew how to play the keyboard and he was my curve ball. That was my special niche, but these niggas was not about that life. My dancers had no routines, my DJ was trash and all Ike had was jokes. So when I found Steele I said I’m fucking with THAT. He was moving like a well-oiled machine so I positioned myself and me and son always rocked. It was an unspoken bond. Of all the Boot Camp me and Steele is the only ones that met off of rap.”

Jamal met Sean through their mothers, making them officially “play cousins” who’d run into each other on the 3 train on the way to school. They wouldn’t become a rap group until High School, performing under a name that Rock will take to his grave. “But one day we were walking from Bristol Park in Brownsville and he told me our new name was Heltah Skeltah. It means utter confusion. It was that simple.”

As Heltah Skeltah the two friends also known as “Sparkskie and Dutch” released their debut album Nocturnal in 1996. Devoid of Black Moon’s jazzy aesthetic and Smif-N-Wessun’s Jamaican Dancehall influences, Heltah Skeltah were pure menace. Their dark and bellicose tracks like “Operation Lockdown” and “Soldiers Gone Psycho” fully fleshed out the Decepticon narratives that their brothers only hinted at.

“It’s just my family. It’s not the fact that it’s iconic or anything. These dudes helped make me who I am,” he says of the notorious Brooklyn street gang named after the Hasbro toys and cartoons that kept residents looking over their shoulders through most of the 1990s. “A lot of what goes into my rap is from that school of thought. I can write a hot 16 that’ll tear the town down without thinking. It’s gonna sound disrespectful, I’m gonna smack the shit out of a couple niggas, I’mma kick somebody down a flight of stairs, talk about how they sweatpants ain’t got no pockets. And part of that comes from my Decepticon life. The level of disrespect and violence and the style of it, and the way I say it, it comes from that.”

Life in Seth Low left permanent marks on Rock, namely the trademark scar he wears on his cheek.

“I had a fight with a grown ass man when I was 16. He was losing so he cut me. Grown ass dude. It’s funny because I’m older than he was now. He was like 32 but he was grown to me then. If I had half the speed I had then now I’d be side hustling in the MMA. I boxed him poom pap pin. At some point when the fight got sloppy and tussly he cut me. I don’t know what he did it with but it definitely wasn’t his finger.”

Heltah Sketlah would release one more album in 1998, Magnum Force before the deal between their label Duck Down and Priority expired in 2000. In a strange twist, all of the artists were being given their release papers except Rock, who details the ensuing drama on the title track to his album.

“At that time, our distro / production deal with Priority expired, and they had a clause in the contract where they could pick one act from our roster and continue the deal for that particular act under same terms we were already in,” says Duck Down Records Co-CEO Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman. “Priority chose Rock --- not Heltah Skeltah --- and while we didn’t appreciate the way they went about it, as they discussed and negotiated directly with him verse us, we didn’t have alternate distribution set up to offer a better option. Rock and I have reflected on this in recent years. While we didn’t respect the situation we were put in, looking back I’m glad that he had a chance to pursue his solo career on that level, without the resentment of thinking we held him back from a potential opportunity.”

While Dru gave his blessing, Rock was still a little unclear on how his partner Ruck would take him staying with the label, despite Sean’s own verbalized desire to record solo material.

“Me and Ruck used to talk about everything but I can’t remember a specific conversation we had about it. I took Ruck to Cali with me working on the solo album. I won’t lie, there was a moment that I got a sign that he was unhappy with what I was doing on some level. I did a song and I wanted him with Starang, Little Rock, Preme and Doc Holiday. And I remember Ruck asking me ‘When we gonna do a song just me and you?’ That was the only sign I got cuz niggas is prideful. If you feel a way how can you say that when you was the nigga who started the solo album train? So I was just trying to take the lead. There’s three different versions of a "Heads Ain’t Ready Part 3" that was supposed to be on my solo album. I wasn’t trying to leave nobody behind! I was just trying to take the lead. Nothing more nothing less.”

Rock went on to record his solo debut on Priority, titled Planet Rock, but found that they couldn’t deliver on his grandiose vision for the project, which included cameos from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. With Priority “dragging their feet” he sought out a new situation almost immediately.

During a trip to Cali Rock was chauffeured by Tha Alkoholiks’ weedman, who brought him over to DJ Lethal’s house to meet them. After a few meetings Rock signed to Lethal’s label Lethal Dose Records, bringing most of what he recorded at Priority with him. But unforeseen politics threw a monkey wrench into his plans.

“Fred Durst starts beefing with Eminem and Lethal gets caught up in it,” he says of the early 2000s feud between Limp Bizkit and Slim Shady where they offered and then reneged on recording a diss track to Everlast, who had been going back and forth with Em. The clincher was DJ Lethal appearing on MTV stating that, while Em was the better MC, that Everlast would whoop his ass in a fight. Em countered with the diss track “Girls,” a hidden song on D-12’s Devil’s Night album.

“Eminem was throwing shots at Lethal specifically and Fred. He was on Lethal neck. So I was like ‘Fuck, we gotta write bars for Eminem now? I fucking love Eminem,’” Rock says letting out his trademark deep chuckle. “If they coming at the boss they gonna come at the soldiers eventually.”

But before it came to that Lethal lost his deal at Interscope. Rock doesn’t say that it was because of the beef with Em, but he says the timing seemed to imply it. With two deals now come and gone Rock fell back.

“I wasn’t starving so it wasn’t killing me that I wasn’t putting out music. I learned a lot but I still wasn’t able to put together a situation on my own where I could finance putting out an album of the magnitude I believed I deserved. I think highly of myself and my rap. My product is too important to be bullshitted with. I come from an era where packaging mattered. You had a system; video, radio, shit like that. I know shits changed but certain things remain the same. I don’t give a fuck how the game is now. If your song is playing regularly on daytime radio, your life is different. That hasn’t changed.”

Over the years Rock would put out mixtapes and perform, but held back on putting out a new album until that morning of August 8th 2015 when the world was rocked with the news of Sean Price passing in his sleep. The very notion of him going peacefully manifested in the track “The Streets Want Blood,” which was less of a tribute than the musical version of throwing yourself on the casket at a funeral. “I cheated because I was masking my sad with mad,” he says.” For me Heltah Skeltah is my brand. As a solo artist I’m not a proven commodity. My company is over. I have to move. I’m a rapper to my bones so I needed to rap.”

So his friend Neph, aka The Last American B-Boy, linked him with both Phil Anastasia at Digital Deja Vu records and North Carolina producer Ford Tuff to work on Life After Price.

“A lot of Dropboxin, phone calls, FaceTime, and trips but we got it done,” Ford Tuff says of the year-long recording process. “Once we did our first record called "G Real" I realized that Rock was back like he never left. Very skillful guy, you can hear it in his bars. He's definitely a real MC, always has been. And yes these records we crafted are from the mud, sample free. I had the honor of creating these with some talented musicians like Pascal Zumaque & Ron Browz.”

The album is Rockness leaving it all on the field. There are no surprises but many revelations. Even the guest list is curated to include MCs who have experienced the same loss that he has: Koniva of D-12, Wu-Tang Clan and Young Noble of The Outlawz are all members of a very exclusive club.

“With the exception of Ras Kass and M.O.P --- and they’re really fam. So it’s like a support system. The guest appearances is more like a therapy session.”

The “exclusive club” theme came courtesy of an episode of The Flash, a show that Rock didn’t really watch until after Sean P died. But it held one last message from his friend. Sean would write the words “Niggleeshus The Grodd” in his special personal hieroglyphics, but Rock never knew what it meant.

“Ruck always had tons of useless information in his brain. So I’m not gonna waste his time asking him about shit. So I never asked him what it meant. But then when I’m sitting on the plane I see Grodd show up and I see that he’s a Gorilla and I cried. That’s your nigga talking to you. I never watched none of this shit before. So when I got home I started watching The Flash and I became a binge watcher. So there’s this dude Harrison Wells. The first one we see in season one said it to Flash’s stepfather, a black dude. They were having the conversation saying “We belong to an exclusive club.” At the moment it made all the sense in the world so I jacked it. I wrote it down in my phone and said I’m gonna use it at some point.”

A few weeks later a nightclub in Manhattan’s Lower East Side has become a colony of Brooklyn as celebration begins for the impending release of the album. At 9pm sharp “GWBag” rings off but Rock is still en route, posting a photo of himself crossing the Williamsburg Bridge on his Instagram page. “I’m on the way!” His friends and fam, including Sean Price’s widow Bernadette, two-step to his track with drinks in their hands. Rock finally enters wearing a custom t-shirt of his album cover accented with a blingy Decepticon chain. It’s hugs for the honeys and pounds for the rough necks as he makes the rounds taking photos and soaking in the moment. Fifteen years is a long time to wait, but this makes it more than worth it.

“I’m such a critic on myself. I’m nervous a little bit,” he says when asked how he thinks the crowd will receive the album. “Most artists we’re our own worst critic. The whole party could be rocking and all we’ll hear is the mistakes. But I feel the difference in the street already. People run up on me and not asking ‘Are you still doing music?’ The conversation is changed now. ‘I seen the new shit, that shit is crazy.’ I notice the difference. “

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VIBE: Can you give us a rundown on how you selected these artists?

Pusha-T: It was a vetting process between us and 1800. I would look for guys that were a strong lyricist, guys who're into melody. Just, you know, small followings, but I thought they were dope.

That’s interesting because in this era of music people focus on the people with the massive followings on social media.

You know, you got to think, if it’s too big then it’s not really special to see it in this process.

Very true. Your music has pretty much always stayed true to your sound and brand. So did you find it challenging to work with this pool of new artists that follow so many of the new trends in hip-hop?

Nah, I think that this is part of my calling and how I’m supposed to mature in the music business. Man, I’m performing in front of 18 to 45 [years old] every night, and it trips me out to see the people get hype over “Grinding” and the people that just know me since 2013. But you know, with that being said, I think I have my hand on the pulse, on what’s going on musically out here. I’ve learned how to enjoy it. I enjoy all types of rap. People will listen to my raps and listen to my music and be like, “aww man, he ain’t going to rock with me.” And really, I do. I enjoy it. I mean, how could you not? To be in it like this, how could I not find appreciation in everything that’s going on?

The way you answered my last question seems like you’re considering retirement or at least exploring what that looks like. But you’re right in the thick of it all, so that’s very interesting.

Yeah, man. I don’t think lyric-driven hip-hop goes out of style. I think that stays around forever, and then I feel like you retire when you’re out of the mix of it and out of the culture and lifestyle of it. When you start not caring about hip-hop aesthetics and just being first and competing, then you supposed to be like, alright cool, I’m out. But until then, I still know what’s fresh to put on and so on and so forth.

One of the biggest differences between vets and new artists is the communities they live in and the things they witness as youth. Did you see some of those differences reflected in their music while working with them?

Yeah. As a veteran artist, I was speaking about what was going on outside at that very moment. I think the newer artists are more introspective. They’re more about themselves and trying to convey messages from their heart. They’re trying to sell you on them, whether they want to party [or] they’re heartbroken. It’s not so much looking out the project window and saying what’s going on. It’s like, I don’t even want to go outside. I’m in my room, and y'all don’t even know I’m writing and I’m going to show y’all one day. It’s all about that.

That seems kind of overwhelming or can come on too strong at times, no?

Nah. As a writer, you dial in on things… You know when somebody says something in a song like, “oh you meant that.” Or you were so intricate with the description of that, you had to get that off. So that’s a score as a writer, me listening to somebody like that. That’s a good thing.

What’s the greatest lesson that you have given this new generation?

I think the greatest lesson for me and the position I’m in right now is opening up these corporate opportunities. They do everything themselves. They’re shooting their own videos, recording themselves. They’re writing, producing, and recording themselves. They’re damn near engineering. One of the girls, [Nita Jonez], she was like, “Yeah, I just be knocking little stuff out while I’m at the crib.” I’m like, I don’t even do that. I don’t even know how to finesse all that. But they’re so self-sufficient. Only thing I could try to do is just package it for them the best way possible. They all got dreams of being huge. A lot of that has to do with the art and what they’re doing, but how it’s presented [as well]. And that’s what I try to show 'em and teach and help 'em with.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from them?

Man, there are just absolutely no rules. No rules at all. They’re such free spirits. They don’t even record how I do. I come in a with a new notepad, pen, and I write like that. I have to see it. It helps me memorize it. They come in and run straight to the mic and just be who they are. And they find themselves through it all. Not everybody; there were some other writers in there, like, Hass and Tyler. Tyler [is] so good at it. It comes out just that precise or damn near close. And then he’ll go and chop it up, make it right a little bit. But they just have that unorthodox attack in the studio. I’m more like, I want to sit down, chill… I don’t even like being in the studio that long. I probably write at home, then I’ll come here and figure out the rest. It’s a very formatted type of thing. And some of the spontaneity and some of the energy probably gets lost in my way because they come in and vibe immediately. Things that may just happen on the spur of the moment, they catch it. When I come in, it’s just all there. Either I’ve written it already or I’m writing it and that’s just what it is. I may lose an adlib. I may lose something that’s quirky in a song that just happens that probably won’t happen for me, but they’ll catch every time.

Do you think there’s a way to balance that incorporates both of those worlds – yours and theirs – to make that ideal way to create?

Well, I think it would have to come from practice. Certain people learn a certain way. Honestly, there’s no difference in what they do than what Jay-Z does. He just practices so much that way that his mind works and processes things really fast. And you know, he’s just really confident in not seeing anything and catching the vibe and going at it. Theirs is just unorthodox. It’s the same thing though. And then as they do it more and better, it’ll get more concise.

In any field, with mentorship there’s only so much you’re willing to take from your mentor before you’re ready to do it yourself. Who were your mentors, and what were some of the things you did and didn’t take from them?

From afar, it would have to be Teddy Riley. Him moving to the area, Virginia Beach, where I’m from – him alone was like wait a minute, music is a real thing. Oh man, there’s a Ferrari down my street. I can’t believe this. I’m seeing Jay-Z’s here. Michael Jackson’s in Virginia Beach for what? You know, shooting a video, all of these things that happened, let me know that this is a real thing and not just for the people on TV. Now in arm’s reach, you got Pharrell and Chad. You got my brother [Malice] who taught me how to write. He actually taught me that MC Hammer wasn’t a rapper when I thought he was. Pharrell literally taught me how to count bars. It’s just been so many lessons between those guys; they taught me everything. They taught me to look at a song, try to see it the whole way through and not just get up and write for the sake of writing. Pharrell always told me, “you may not have something to say today.” Like if I get stuck, “It’s fine. You’ll get to it. We’ll find it another day.” Never force it though.

There’s a huge divide in the genre as far as rookies vs. vets go. This project is so good because it’s paying it forward. Do you think that’s both a necessary and important part of the culture that needs to be restored?

Yes. Well, no. You know what? It’s not for everyone. It’s not for everybody to do. Some people are so stuck in their heyday that they can’t even see what’s going on outside. Everybody that I’ve ever liked in rap music, I probably have had a longer career than all of them. Like whoever I thought was the greatest in my time, I be like, bro, wait a minute they only have five years, five albums? What? When I really think about it, it’s because they all got stuck in their heyday. And that was a hell of a time. The greatest of all great raps, but you know, they couldn’t see any further than that. And when something new came up, they was like, “Yeah, but y’all don’t like us because we…” They just start getting washed and their jeans start fitting differently and they pick the wrong size. They just get stuck in that time period and before you know it, it’s skinny jean time and they got on fucking size 42s and they weigh a buck 50 and they look crazy. And it’s wrong because you get stuck because you don’t embrace and try to help and learn from what’s coming in next. And you should. This is music. You can never stop learning. You have to continuously learn with this forever. It’s just what it is until you just say I’m done. It’s not for everybody man. If you’re not trying to push hip-hop forward, then no, you’re going to be washed and you should be. You should be. I think it’s corny. This is the youngest genre of music. The youngest, most powerful, most influential. We should not be at a point where the elders are knocking the rookies. It’s corny. That’s an effort to stunt the growth of the genre. And that is just totally wrong, 100 percent.

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