“It’s been a minute since we’ve been in Chicago,” Tek, one half of Smif-n-Wessun, says over the phone just after picking up a healthful drink at a Brooklyn corner store. “This is one of the shows with our boys that we’ve been trying to set up for almost two years. I’m glad we’re coming back, it’s gonna be something special.”
Tek helped write “Bucktown,” the closest thing he and General Steele can count as a hit, for 1995’s “Dah Shinin’,” but the MC doesn’t readily recall anyone telling him about the Chicago neighborhood sharing the name.
By contrast, Steele says he’s reasonably familiar with Chicago’s Bucktown, but the song and the idea behind it have taken on a broader meaning after traversing the globe.
“For us, Bucktown is Brooklyn. We had no prior knowledge of any other town or any other state or any other group,” he says. “‘Buck’ is a term affiliated with being untamed. So, we talk about this Bucktown, the place we come from, that’s uncharted land. As teenagers, when we went out into the world, it was like, ‘Wow, there are places carrying this name for similar reasons.’ It’s that much more enlightening.”
Much like Smif-n-Wessun’s Bucktown, the local namesake’s undergone significant gentrification over the last decade and change. Similar to the rap duo’s home turf, Chicago’s West Side births a wealth of music. And the cultural exchange at work here’s just as important as it has been in New York for the advancement of art.
“I look at the gentrification of Brooklyn—or the re-gentrification of Brooklyn, since it’s always been home to a lot of immigrants,” Steele clarifies. “[It’s] people just migrating, coming into this place that’s uncharted and creating their own rules and regulations.”
Contributing to Smif-n-Wessun’s absence from Cook County of late has been international touring and steadily booking time to experiment with recording, an adjunct to being exposed to an influx of new ideas in its native borough.
“Mainly because we’ve been… trying to get started with everything we need to get done with the new Boot Camp album and the new Smif-n-Wessun album,” Tek explains. “We’re gonna try a new direction of putting an album together… So, we’re probably going to think about goin’ away somewhere for a month or two and just layin’ up and having the music already arranged. Then just get locked up in the studio, sun up to sun down.”
Time the pair hasn’t earmarked for creative output gets poured into Duck Down Records. The imprint, which predates 1995’s “Dah Shinin’,” hasn’t racked up platinum albums, but does represent the genre in its broadest terms and even released the Chicago-based Kidz in the Hall “Land of Make Believe” and “Occasion” discs.
“We’re hands-on with day-to-day operations,” Tek says of the label. “We built Duck Down from the ground up—Black Moon, Dru Ha, Buckshot and Smif-n-Wessun. That was the birth of Boot Camp. From day one, we were hands on with it… That’s why we still rap together, we were family before the music.”
Extending that family vibe, Smif-N-Wessun embraced the prodigious Pete Rock as producer for the duo’s 2011 “Monumental.” Descriptions of how studio time goes—a fluid coming and going of Duck Down affiliates and old friends like Da Beatminerz—may have contributed to what sounds like a series of effortless verses topping Pete Rock’s jazzed-up productions.
“You have your producers, you have your beat makers, you have your song arrangers—everybody plays their part. Pete Rock is one of those who’s complete with all that,” Tek says. “He’s not just sending you beats over the internet or coming to the studio, dropping a beat off, smoking and then breaks out. He’s a real producer’s producer.”
Smif-n-Wessun have had the opportunity to work with the underground’s most significant performers and appear on some of hip-hop’s most rugged nineties offerings. It’s been a while since Black Moon introduced Tek and Steele on “Enta da Stage” in 1993, but gaining newfound visibility on the back of “Monumental” means folks are clamoring for the classics at a fever pitch.
“We talked a lot about commemorating the twentieth anniversary [of ‘Enta da Stage’],” Steele says. “We try to be spontaneous and conscious of what the people want. But we celebrate every accomplishment—us being in business independently, Smif-n-Wessun being one of the last remaining duos in hip-hop and Duck Down still thriving. So, there’s always going to be something coming outta that camp.”
Devising future plans could include any number of well-known performers, but Tek says accommodating each Boot Camp Clik member’s unique approach to rapping will likely preclude a single producer from dominating the project. Whatever the disc sounds like, though, Tek and Steele plan to push on, changing and adapting new ideas to what they discuss most in lyrical form.
“The topic we touch on—it’s life,” Tek says. “That’s what we report back to the masses.”
And the masses, for almost twenty years, have included the expansive Duck Down clan.
“Prior to ‘Dah Shinin’,’ Smif-n-Wessun was a family,” Steele says. “And every time I come to Chicago, I’m reminded of a family vibe. It’s long overdue that we’re going to perform there.”
July 25 at the Shrine, 2109 South Wabash, (312)753-5700. 8pm. $10-$20.