Let’s Canonize Some Music: Smif-N-Wessun’s Da Shinin’

In my article on 50 Cent I expressed a desire to can all armchair A&R talk and go back to focusing on the actual music when discussing Hip-Hop. And while I’m not quite done examining the nature of our current day discourse on the genre, I would like to introduce another series of articles in the spirit of musical appreciation. In it, I will generally sing the praise of what I think are albums that have not received their due yet… or at least not quite in the way they should receive it.

Hip-Hop started in New York. Its recorded musical expressions were made by New Yorkers, mostly for New Yorkers, and as such it was never a necessity for New York Hip-Hop artists to establish the environment they grew up in as a mise en scene for the stories they told. After all, their core audience knew all about the place already and is there such a thing as life outside the Big Apple, anyway?

True enough, it was the sound of the music itself that gave shape to the city in the ears of outside listeners, but most of the lyrical components of NY Hip-Hop were written expecting a lot of prior knowledge from the audience – barring notable exceptions like New York New York by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and The Bridge by MC Shan. Eventually, when other U.S. regions started to join in on the fun and make waves, there was a higher sense of necessity for their artists to “tell you a little story about where they come from”. This lead to the creation of landmark albums such as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (1988) and OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), amongst others. The birthplace of Hip-Hop didn’t have an album in that vein, however. Until 1995’s Dah Shinin’ by Smif-N-Wessun, that is.

It might very well have been this shifting global attention to Hip-Hop from other regions that contributed to the focus of the debut album of Boot Camp Clik generals Tek and Steele; a re-introduction to New York City – and in particular Brooklyn – in rap form. Dah Shinin’ was created from the ashes of a place recovering from a reign of terror by Warriors-like street gangs such as the Decepticons and the Lo-Lifes… and the culmination of a trend set in motion by a new generation of New York rappers such as Nas, Wu-Tang and B.I.G., the first wave of the ‘Bring New York back’ ethos. Though credit must also be given to a certain Brooklyn duo made up of one transplant from Houston and one from Boston for songs like The Place Where We Dwell and The Planet, Dah Shinin’, as an album, damn near revolves around establishing the Decepticon-affiliated artists’ home town as a setting for tales of crime plotting, instilling fear in the hearts of the weak, paranoia and exorbitant weed consumption. There is the defining 1994 lead single Bucktown, of course, and Home Sweet Home, with its apt sampling of Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s We Live in Brooklyn, Baby, which manages to evoke the same strange mixture of hope and ominousness as the song it samples from does. This song’s presence on the album weighs even heavier due to the cover art homaging He’s Coming, the Roy Ayers Ubiquity album containing said sampled song. But listen closer and it becomes clear that other songs are just as much about the place as what’s going on in it. On Stand Strong, Tek and Steel rhyme that they do or die and never ran, never will, referencing the street code catchphrases of BK neighborhoods Bedford Stuyvesant (Bed Stuy) and Brownsville. In the background chatter on Next Shit, Boot Camp Clik members utter the Decepticon greeting of “What’s the flavor?” and the mythical gang is even namedropped once on P.N.C.

On Dah Shinin’ Tek and Steele don’t present themselves rappers in the tradition of rhyme pattern innovating, punchline dropping Brooklyn giants such as Big Daddy Kane. They don’t attack the mic with the aggression of a pre-Enta da Stage remixes Buckshot. They seldomly raise their voices, but combined with the hard-hitting, darkly melancholic beats of Da Beatminerz – who might just contributed their most complete and overall best production to this album – Smif-N-Wessun prove that you don’t have to scream to sound very threatening. Steele has a bassy vocal tone and a straight delivery, whereas Tek’s voice is a bit higher in pitch and his flows come out more melodic, with more than just a hint of Reggae influence (see also Sound Bwoy Bureill).

Together, the duo possess an abundance of style and, like all BCC’ers, the ability to seemlessly rhyme back ‘n forth in a proper old school, Run DMC-type fashion. From a lyrical perspective, neither of the two make you hit the rewind button, but their lines are visual, often intriguing and rife with dark suggestion. In Wontime, a song centered around prison life, Steele rhymes “New place / same faces from the last joint / got my banger / so when danger come / I’ll be on point”. On K.I.M., Tek says: “We’re coming through / all you hear is Timb boots stomping / got you shitting in your draws / just staring / looking / watching / what’s our next move / hope it’s not in your direction / ‘cause you know you fucked up and left home without protection”.

There is talk of facing nightmares, capers gone wrong due to faulty perception of reality (Hellucination) and the air of death filling a snitch’s room while the Black Moon is creeping up… and there are the Stephen King inspired album title and Stanley Kubrick inspired music video of  ‘Wontime’. With the flawless and cohesive music of Mr. Walt and DJ Evil Dee as its backbone, Dah Shinin’ presents a beautifully eerie, unique and always bumping vision of ’94-’95 era Brooklyn, as seen through the weed haze filled eyes of two scheming street cats with higher criminal aspirations.

I could also talk about how the album was instrumental in the Timbs ‘n hoodies dominated street fashion of ‘90s era NYC (Timz N Hood Check). Or about how the high influx of Jamaicans in Brooklyn contributed to the Reggae stylings on it. Or how it was the album that gave shape to the Boot Camp Clik, with Buckshot, Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C. all contributing to it. Matter of fact, I could talk about it all day. So I hope you have been vehemently nodding your head in recognition (or wrekognition?) while reading this. Otherwise, you have some catching up to do. Go listen, instead!


 

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