“There’s a lot of 40-year-olds in the building tonight!” hosts Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds teased into the mic, as the audience at B.B. King’s Blues Club erupted into laughter.
They weren’t necessarily wrong either, as the crowd gathered last night [December 3] were there to honor and celebrate 20 years of rocking with Duck Down Music, rap’s undisputed number one indie label.
Having Rosenberg and Ciph (host of the long-running, acclaimed Juan Epstein podcast) narrate the occasion was as fitting as it was hosting the event at B.B. King’s. The venue holds the precarious balance of being able to accommodate a large crowd without losing the quality of intimacy, perfect for Duck Down’s vibe, with performances from Boot Camp Clik and more, as well as the night doubling as a special live edition of Juan Ep.
With a couch, desk and turntable set-up occupying the stage—sandwiched in between two huge projectors showcasing music videos from Duck Down’s impressive catalog over the years—this event wasn’t your average rap show. Fittingly, contrast to the norm for Hip-Hop events never running on time, Duck Down had a packed house at 9pm for this tremendous celebration.
“Y’all feeling distinguished ’n sh*t, sitting down at your tables,” Rosenberg and Ciph joked, “with your ladies, and your drinks by candlelight.”
Label co-founder Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman was the first to bless the mic and kick off the evening, diving right into the history of Duck Down.
“These were people that were putting other artists on,” Dru Ha said, reflecting on labels such as Bad Boy, No Limit and Loud Records, and what they were doing during the era of the beginning of the Duck Down legacy. “These labels were developing artists and we kind of looked at it like the same way, and said, you know what if we develop something, we can control it. And we can make it our own movement and that’s what we did.”
With Black Moon taking to the stage first, performing classics such as “Buck ‘Em Down,” and “How Many MCs,” the crowd started to loosen up and as the evening went on, it began to feel more and more like the Hip-Hop family affair the Duck Down label is renowned for cultivating.
“If it wasn’t for Hank Shocklee, we wouldn’t be up on this stage,” Buckshot reflected after performing. “One day, we got the opportunity to shop our demo to Shocklee, so we hurried up over to MCA and we went to give him our demo, and he was like, ‘I can’t check your demo right now. I can’t listen to it, but come back later and I’ll check it out.’ On our way out, there was a door open, so I walked inside the room and I sat down. I said, ‘Hey, how you doin’, I’m here for the job.’ And she looked at me like, ‘what are you talking about?’ She goes, ‘We’re not hiring. Do you mean the internship.’ So I was like, ‘yeah, yeah!’ She goes, ‘Our internships are only on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, are you available Thursday?’ I walked out of there like ‘Oh my God, did that just happen?!’ So Hank Shocklee let me intern for him for about a year and after that we started putting our stuff out.’”
The rest of the evening followed the same formula, with Q&A’s following each performance from the Duck Down roster, in-depth interviews covering the history of the label and sharing the good times. Dru Ha shared about teaching Buckshot how to drive in exchange for being taught how to “rap better” (the label founder’s original interest) and payed homage and tribute to the late, great Sean Price.
Tried and true throughout the years, Duck Down is a collective where “The next group is just as good as the last group,” and with that introduction from Ciph and Rosenberg, Smif-N-Wessun were up to bat next.
Smif-N-Wessun absolutely had the best time commanding the mics, performing tracks like “I Love You” and “Let’s Get It On.” Following their performance, they joined in on the nostalgia kick, getting called out for leaving out key details of a story, with Tek and Steele defending themselves saying, “Rappers are good writers, not the best storytellers!”
The pair reflected on how they chose their name, and how they wanted to come up with someone that when you saw one member, you instantly thought of the next, and landed on Smif-N-Wessun to describe them both. The conversation then took a silly turn when Rosenberg and Tek shared an hilarious and semi-hostile moment backstage, where Rosenberg complimented Tek’s sweater. Tek’s response? “A grown man don’t tell another grown man he likes his sweater with the shoulder patches! Sh*t’s not hard!”
The stories told throughout the night were as charming and fun as the performers themselves. It’s clear with Duck Down it’s a family effort, and one built on bond and not talent at the forefront.
“When I first started out, I didn’t picture a 20-year plan. I didn’t even have a five-year plan!” Dru Ha said, getting back into the history of the record label. “Right now, we’re celebrating Duck Down 20, but we went back really 22-23 years with Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun. That was just Duck Down management. The Fab 5 on this stage, minus Sean P, rest in peace, forever Fab 5, that was the first Duck Down Enterprises groups that we put out.”
“Right off the bat we definitely understood what Sean Price brought to the table,” Dru Ha continued. “Internally, we had no doubteach one of these MC’s had their own set of skills and we appreciated and respected all of them. But we had no doubts about Sean Price.”
The celebration of Duck Down’s 20th would not have been complete with shining a light on the career accomplishments and sharing stories of Sean Price, who tragically passed this August. With P! shirts scattered throughout the audience, and some in attendance putting their lighters in the air, the love for Sean Price was heavily felt throughout the building. The Duck Down camp also shared an emotional compilation video and highlight reel, capturing a small part of Price’s legacy and essence, soundtracked to his track “Mess U Made.”
“What you see is what you get,” Sean P said, in the footage. “I’m a rapper to everybody else, but in here, I’m a dad. I’m a father. A husband. I leave that rap shit outside!”
Bernadette Price held it down for the P family, thanking everyone for their support and love in recent months and shared about how they met in Brownsville, back at age 13.
When Rosenberg asked Bernadette if she was always aware of the impact Sean would have, she responded, “Yes, I always aware. He was aware too. He knew what it was.”
“Sean was bigger than anybody would believe,” Bernadette continued. “Now that he’s gone, everyone is starting to figure it out. He been nice. He ain’t just get nice when he passed away. He said, ‘when I’m gone everybody gonna love me. He wanted to do so much music.” He wanted to make sure he had a legacy like Tupac. He made that quota. He sees, he’s looking down, he’s great. He did music to please the people. He did it for the love, he didn’t do it for the money. He got more music coming soon and I hope y’all gonna buy it!” Bernadette said, with a proud smile on her face.
The tribute continued with Illa Ghee and Your Old Droog rocking the mic next, with Droog saying, “Sean P used to call me classic, man. He really showed love. They say never meet your idols but if you meet Sean P, you won’t be disappointed.” The pair performed Sean Price’s “Bar-Barian” both with passion and with everyone in the crowd rapping along.
As the tribute went on, the special guests continued pouring in, with performances and appearances by Rock of Heltah Skeletah, Pharoahe Monch, 9th Wonder, Skyzoo, Torae, Marco Polo, Ruste Juxx, Chelsea Reject, Raz Fresco, and last but not least, a special blessing to the stage of epic proportions, KRS-One and DJ Kool Herc.
With everyone piled on stage, the amount of talent in the room was overwhelming to digest, but that’s Hip-Hop—the Duck Down way. Spotting several 20th anniversary posters (designed by Tanboys) being carefully carried home on the N-Train as I made my way home to end the night, the words “Real Hip-Hop” and whatever they may mean couldn’t leave my mind. As Rosenberg and Ciph said, Duck Down has been the pinnacle of real Hip-Hop since its inception and during the 20 year celebration, that was felt universally.