Published Feb 22, 2019Hip-hop is approaching its golden years, but not many of our Golden Era heroes are here to enjoy them — but Boot Camp Clik offshoots Smif-N-Wessun, are. And their latest album, The All, is a rare opportunity for hip-hop fans to witness a 360 moment, to witness the pair savour the fruits of their legacy.
"When we made Dah Shinin', we were kids," says Tek in an Exclaim! interview, referring to their 1995 debut album. "Today, we're grown men that have learned from our mistakes. And [we're] grateful and appreciative to be here right now."
That air of triumph and wisdom is apparent on The All. Produced in full by 9th Wonder and the Soul Council, the album is a warm reflection on the pair's journey from boys to men, peppered with anecdotes and lessons that they've learned throughout their career. There's a touch of nostalgia and moments of pride. There's also a sense of finality peeking through the soul samples and familiar thump of 9th Wonder's signature drum kits. They describe the album as a purge of sorts.
"It's kind of like a wrap-up for us," says General Steele, the other half of the Brooklyn duo. "It's a spiritual wrap-up from old stuff. I think it's important for us to reflect on where we have been, our travels, [and] what we have endured."
The Soul Council's vintage, percussion-heavy beats serve as the perfect bed onto which Smif-N-Wessun can lay their introspective rhymes. The backdrop the Council provides is a nod to the past, but the music doesn't live there — a deliberate move, according to Tek. The All is not a retirement album, nor a Shinin' remake, and Smif-N-Wessun wanted a sound that reflected their current states of mind. In that regard, Tek says the decision to work with 9th Wonder's team was an easy one.
"Really, they chose us. Dru-Ha [Friedman, co-founder of Duck Down Music] came to us with the idea of shooting out to North Carolina and putting [the album] together. And when we got there, it was [like] a meeting of old family and friends. It was beautiful."
The pair's voices thicken with fondness as they share stories of the kinship and camaraderie that coloured The All's creation. There were home-cooked meals, marathon studio sessions, biscuits from Bojangles, and a break where the group stopped recording to marvel at the August 2018 solar eclipse like a band of giddy children.
"We were like jittery kids on Christmas eve or something," says Tek of the creative process. "When you bottle that all up? That's what The All is made of. All positive vibes. There was no negativity running around. We banished all that."
Although Tek and Steele still rhyme with a certain hunger, their overall disposition on this album is the confident comfort of two decorated veterans with nothing left to prove. They've already cemented their places in history as humble but mighty forces in East Coast hip-hop. They've earned the respect of their biggest influence, rappers who, over the years, have become equals. "It's honourable to see Erik Sermon and Parrish Smith [of EPMD] say, "Yo man, I love y'all," says Steele. "It's dope to be able to go to a show and be backstage with Rakim. We listened to these guys in high school!"
This album, then, finds Tek and Steele celebrating their accomplishments, passing advice on to future generations and taking a moment to honour the people who were instrumental in their journey. Tucked between more rugged, hardcore tracks like "Let It Go" and "The A.L.L." are themes of fatherhood, marriage, friendship, love and grief. The project is the duo's first effort since the death of friend and longtime collaborator Sean Price, and throughout the album, they grapple with that loss.
"I think Sean Price was in that studio with us some nights you know? [I] would hear him echo like, 'Yo, that's hot. Just rap. Don't be too preachy, too emotional. Get your bars out,'" says Steele. "Sean was definitely a puppeteer on this one. He was definitely present for this project."
There's a clear-eyed reverence on The All that will charm longtime Smif-N-Wessun fans. It's heartwarming to hear Tek and Steele's chemistry still intact, to hear the childlike awe in their voices as though they're teaming up for the first time. They take no part of their decades-long journey for granted.
"Smif-N-Wessun's first album could have been their last for all we know. [So] we have learned to really appreciate the good, the bad and the ugly," says Steele. "We grow and we learn from each other to this day. It's great to have a comrade, it's great to have a connection with somebody. I think that makes our swords sharper."