As a cultural hub for black art and entertainment, Harlem, New York’s musical impact runs deep. From the Harlem Renaissance days when jazz music reigned supreme to the ‘80s and ‘90s rap explosion of the New Jack Swing era, the neighborhood has long been recognized as fertile ground for breeding creatives. However, while central and west Harlem—home to historic landmarks like the Blue Note Jazz Cafe and famed thoroughfares like Lenox Avenue, Saint Nicholas Avenue and Broadway—get most of the love and publicity, East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, is largely viewed as the land of the forgotten by its residents. Just ask Neek Bucks, one of the eastside’s most promising rap prospects, who reps the El Barrio section of the neighborhood with pride.
“When people think about Harlem, they only think about one section of it,” Neek explains to VIBE via phone. “They only think about the westside ’cause that’s where all the monumental things are, like The Apollo and things like that. The eastside is just its own world, it’s made of mostly projects so everybody went to school together, everybody knows each other, some get along, some don’t. I feel like it’s one of the most dangerous areas in Harlem and to come up out of there is major ’cause people don’t. Growing up there was just like any other place in poverty, you got the shoot-outs, you got the girls, you got the whole vibe of violence. It’s just Harlem. The streets, bro.”
Those streets nearly cost him his teenage life after having his head grazed by a bullet— and helped inspire and inform his music, which has placed Neek at the brink of stardom. After stamping himself as one to watch with his first two projects, 2018’s El Barrio and its sequel in 2019, performing with fellow Harlemites Dipset as well as YFN Lucci, and working with some of the hottest artists in the game, Neek is back following a lengthy hiatus with his highly anticipated project, Neighborhood Hov. Released in February, the project’s title is an allusion to Neek’s own stature within the streets of El Barrio, where he plans to give hope and lead by example with his own success.
“I feel like when I titled it Neighborhood Hov, I was going for what JAY-Z means to the culture,” he shares. “So what JAY-Z means to the culture of Hip-Hop and what he’s done is what I mean to my block, you get what I’m saying? I just pinned both of it together, my block’s Hov. The reason why I feel like I was able to do it is ’cause I don’t think nobody is putting these raps together like I am, telling a real, authentic story such as Hov did on his come-up. And I feel like with my music there’s no cut. People are fans of it. They do respect that I’m still doing real Hip-Hop and I feel I was cut for it. I was able to do it. Nobody challenged it, you know?”
At twelve tracks in length, with guest spots from G Herbo, Lil Tjay, Benny The Butcher, Tsu Surf, and Sleazus Bhrist, Neighborhood Hov not only marks a ceremonious return for Neek Bucks but an evolution in his artistry that’s increased his odds for widespread success and longevity.
VIBE speaks with Neek Bucks about the making of Neighborhood Hov, his forthcoming collaborative project with Hitmaka, and more.
Harlem has become a symbol of gentrification in NYC, but recent incidents in the borough have made headlines and reminded the public of the harsh realities that often take place there. What’s your take on how Harlem has evolved over the years and what effect gentrification has had on the streets and the residents there?
I feel like Harlem has gotten good and worse at the same time. I feel like as soon as we get on a pace, things go bad when the weather breaks or social media, it’s a whole new generation of kids and people and I feel like it’s got its up and its got its downs, but I feel like we’re figuring it out.
Your record label, H4 Records, recently partnered with record exec Billy J and 1801 Records. How did that relationship come about?
Billy J is the owner of 1801, I’m the owner of H4 and he’s a partner, so we don’t have no alliances, we’re an independent label. Me and Billy met a few times in the past, we met about three times. Our third visit, he was looking for me and I was looking for him and we just meshed well and I decided to make him a partner in my label ’cause he brought the industry access that I needed. I already had the streets you know?
You recently released your new album, Neighborhood Hov, your first project in nearly two years. What was the reason for the hiatus?
I feel like I needed time to reinvent myself, really get to know myself more. I’m a dad now. I feel like when the Coronavirus pandemic came, it sat me down for a year and gave me time to really think and see which way I wanted to go. And expand myself and my vocabulary and just how I see things and I think I needed that time. So I recorded and I came out with Neighborhood Hov and I think it was one of my best projects.
What’s the reception to the project been like?
Everybody’s been saying this is my best body of work, they hear growth. I gained a bunch of new fans off of it. I got a lot of support from the city, people like Jadakiss, Fab, Jim Jones. A bunch of people just supported, posted it, Herbo, everybody. So I feel like they received it well.
What was your goal or mission while making this project?
I basically wanted to stand out on this, I wanted to show people that I could do everything, I didn’t want to be put in a box. If you listen to the project there’s some melodic, there’s some real rap, there’s me doing my own hooks. I just wanted people to hear that I grew since the last project.
Who are some of the producers you worked with on this album?
I got my in-house producer Smatt***, he came in and brought me a different kind of motivation that I needed, took me in a whole new direction of production. I got my man Shawn Don**, who produced the Herbo, he’s a part of Vacant Lot. I got Bizzy *** which is my go-to guy he’s one of the big producers out of New York City, he’s finally getting the credit he deserves. And yeah, that’s about it.
“Flight,” the opening selection on the album, features Sleazus Bhrist and blends your lyricism with Bhrist’s melodic flow. What’s the inspiration and backstory to that song?
Sleazuz Bhrist is actually from the eastside of Harlem, he’s from where I’m from. With Sleazus, he’s been doing his thing, that’s been my guy for years. Our projects are also alliances, so it just made sense to start it off with him, someone from the east side and give him that look.
“Fly Away” finds you connecting with Bronx rep Lil TJay and lightening the vibe with a joint for the ladies. What’s your present love life like and did you draw from any personal experiences for that song or your music in particular?
Nah, I wouldn’t say that it has to do something with my love life, I just feel like making songs for females is the coolest thing in the world. I love those. TJay has a great following when it comes to making songs for females, children, and things like that and I knew that getting him on that song would be a good idea for the world to hear it, to get it out. So yeah, it was just more of that. I just love making songs for females and that’s what that was.
Earlier you mentioned fatherhood, how did that play into the music or just your whole mind state while making this project?
I think I grew. I just think having a kid made me a man even faster, it made me expand my mind and just open it up a little more to be able to make dope music. So I feel like me having a child just added to my life, for the better.
In addition to features from artists on the melodic tip, you also linked with a few bonafide spitters on Neighborhood Hov, including Benny The Butcher on “Pain” and G Herbo on “Default.” How competitive is your approach when hopping on tracks with lyricists of that caliber and what’s the vibe like during the creation of joints like those two songs in particular?
Yeah, I’m pretty confident when it comes to things like that. These guys who are real spitters respect my craft and know what I do so it’s more of a thing where I like to bring the best out of them ’cause it’s times where you get verses from guys and they don’t bring their A-Game ’cause they feel like they’ll slide all on you and I feel like every verse I got from everybody on this project gave it their best. I don’t got no weak verses on here from anybody, so I’m pretty confident. I don’t worry about those things.
Speaking of spitters, Tsu Surf pops up on “Sinnin,” which you’ve also released an accompanying video for. What was it like working with Surf and what were some funny or interesting memories from the video shoot that you can share?
Surf actually came to my studio in the Bronx and recorded it, it was a great vibe. Surf’s been my guy for a couple of years, I met him a while back. When we were on the set, we just had a bunch of fun. I don’t really remember anything memorable, I just remember a good vibe, a good time, and us just laughing and joking and shooting a video.
“Corner Gospel 5” finds you picking up where the 4th installment of the series left off, will there be any more additions to the series moving forward?
I think I might end it with a sixth, just to leave it on an even number and I might finish it off as a finale there and probably double back later on. I don’t know. It’s still in the air, people actually like those.
What would you say are three tracks on the album that you’re excited for the fans to hear and why?
“Times,” which is more of a melodic vibe where I’m just talking about my life, just giving everybody me in a different way other than rapping. “Fly Away,” cause like I said, making songs for girls is the coolest thing in the world to me. And “First Love, Pt. 2,’ which is about my child. That’s my favorite song of them all ’cause I actually got him on there.
What would you say listeners are gonna learn about you after listening to Neighborhood Hov?
For a first-time listener, I think people will say, ‘He’s very versatile, he’s not, like, a one dimension artist,’ and I think that will make people wanna hear more.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the live music industry, how have you adapted to the current state of the world while promoting this album?
Me, I just use the time wisely. It gave me time to sit down and really reconstruct, so the pandemic didn’t really affect me that much, I actually feel like I prospered in it. It just gave me a chance to make my dopest music.
A few years ago, you, along with production duo Trackmasters, created a short film inspired by “Streets is Watching,” with you freestyling over classic beats from the album. Given the fans’ reaction and positive feedback to the film, have you ever thought about releasing other short films or trying your hand at acting, in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like the reason why we did that in the first place is ’cause I’m, like, a real anti-social person it’s hard to really get anything out of me so Trackmasters came up with that idea to show people my personality more. So I feel like it’s definitely something I’d do again to give the people more of my personality.
What’s next for Neek Bucks moving forward?
I got the Benny The Butcher video dropping that me and Benny shot in Buffalo. I got the Neighborhood Hov deluxe dropping. I’ve been working closely with Hitmaka to get an album done, so I got a whole bunch of music and videos on the way.
About the Hitmaka project, do you have a timetable on when people will hear the music or any other details?
Nah, not yet. I don’t have no dates for it, we just really been cooking up, vibing, knocking joints out. I wanna have at least thirty to forty songs done before I even put a date out.
How did you and Hitmaka hook up?
We linked through Billy J. Billy J works with Hitmaka closely so it just made sense for all of us to get together.