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. “