Hip-hop has its share of self-made success stories. Sometimes, the indie hustle is much more respected than securing a big major label deal. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are the latest triumph, but there have been other entities in hip-hop that have stuck to this model for years. In the case of Duck Down Records, which was founded by Dru Ha and Buck Shot, their rise is widely documented as a victory for East Coast hip-hop. Housing talents such as Sean Price and Kidz in the Hall, DD has become the ideal destination for artists who want complete creative control. To honor the indie kings on the Fourth of July, we revisit our July/August 2010 feature on the hip-hop powerhouse. Check back for our last installment on Murs and Lloyd Banks.
From a management company born out of friendship, to a rap label bred from perseverance, Duck Down Records celebrates 15 years as one of hip-hop’s most important indie labels.
Written By: Rob Markman
In the hip-hop business, it’s rare to see partnerships last—especially as long as the one between Kenyatta “Buckshot” Blake and Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman, founders of Duck Down Records and Duck Down Management. Buck and Dru, CEO and president respectively, have struggled through music-industry politics, enjoyed good times and successes, and battled wars together. This year, the pair will share the 15th anniversary of the East Coast independent hip-hop label, Duck Down Records, which has released 35 albums and sold more than two million records worldwide. Home to rap groups Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah, O.G.C. and Boot Camp Clik, as well as relative newcomers Kidz in the Hall, DD has become a destination for artists who refuse to compromise their work in order to fit into the major-label system. And over the course of the past 15 years, they’ve mastered their domain.
Dru Ha and Buckshot first met 18 years ago, while a fresh-out-of-college Dru was interning at Nervous Records, an N.Y.-based independent house-music label. In 1992, Nervous signed its fi rst hip-hop act, Brooklyn-based trio Black Moon. The group, which included front man Buckshot, 5ft and DJ Evil Dee, first made noise with their underground debut single, “Who Got Da Props?” After growing frustrated with their then-manager, popular N.Y. radio DJ Chuck Chillout, Black Moon parted ways with Chillout. Impressed by the eager young intern named Dru, whom the rapper had come to know on a personal level after frequent visits to the Nervous offices, Buck called him with an unexpected offer. “Yo, Dru, I just fired Chuck. What am I going to do?” Buck remembers asking during a phone call with his eventual partner.
“I don’t know,” Dru said.
Then came the offer: “Do you want to start a management company together?”
“Are you sure?” Dru responded.
“Hey, we both don’t know nothing, but we will learn this shit, man,” said Buck. “As long as we got each other, as long as we got this, basically, then nobody could stop us.”
In 1993, Dru Ha and Buckshot formed Duck Down Management, with Black Moon as their first clients. As a result, Buck played a dual role as Black Moon’s lead MC and a partner in the company that managed them. The lines were blurry, but the arrangement established the company’s do-for-self business model. Dru juggled a multitude of responsibilities, as well as serving as executive producer and even rapping on the group’s debut album, Enta Da Stage, which was released on Nervous in September 1993. “I was involved in every aspect of that album,” says Dru. “Booking the studios, going to the studio, dealing with Buck and Evil Dee, recording sessions, helping construct songs—wherever I could, giving my input. I was just at all the sessions, strategizing. Whatever it was, I was there.”
Enta Da Stage was a relative indie win, selling over 300,000 copies. It put Black Moon in the mix with their major-label contemporaries, like Wu-Tang Clan (Loud/Sony) and Onyx (Def Jam/Universal). The album’s success also gave Duck Down Management the leverage to add Brooklyn duo Smif-N-Wessun as its second clients and get the group an artist
deal on Nervous as well.
Smif-N-Wessun dropped their debut album, Dah Shinin’, in 1994, and like Black Moon’s, it sold about 300,000 copies nationally. But when the money wasn’t rolling in as Duck Down had expected, this prompted Buck and Dru to grow weary of their deal with Nervous. “We were getting independent money, but they were getting gold-record sales,” Dru says of the deal. “So millions and millions of dollars were being made, and we were only getting a small piece of it. [Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun] were getting ripped off, because it was a bad deal, [but] it was the deal they signed.”
And they needed to be off of it. Eager to earn more of the actual profits, but unable to sever ties with Nervous, Buck and Dru formed their own record label, Duck Down Records, and launched in 1995, without Black Moon or Smif-N-Wessun, who were contractually obligated to Nervous.
Now with two separate companies—Duck Down the management arm and Duck Down the record label—Dru and Buck were able to secure a label deal with Priority Records, the leading U.S. independent record label, which was known for having N.W.A and Master P’s No Limit label. With their new deal, Duck Down, which occupied office space in Priority’s Manhattan building, had to deliver two albums a year over the next three years in order to satisfy the terms of the agreement. DD would be responsible for shooting all of their own videos, producing and A&Ring their own records, and handling their own publicity, while Priority controlled their marketing and promotions budgets and owned Duck Down’s master recordings.
That first year, Buck and Dru’s label introduced its two newest acts simultaneously, both of which hailed from Brooklyn: the duo Heltah Skeltah, which consisted of Rock and Ruck, and the trio O.G.C., made up of rappers Starang Wondah, Top Dog and Louieville Sluggah. Though both groups had appeared previously, on Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’, they still remained relative unknowns. In an effort to promote Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C. simultaneously, Duck Down merged the two groups, forming a quintet, which they dubbed Fab 5. The group’s first single, “Leflaur Leflah
Eshkoshka,” dropped later that year, becoming Duck Down Records’ first official release.
By March, the single had peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart, and in 1996, DD released debut albums from both Heltah Skeltah (Nocturnal) and O.G.C. (Da Storm). The next year, Duck Down turned its attention to Boot Camp Clik (composed of eight MCs: Buckshot and all of the members of Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C.) and dropped For the People, the Clik’s debut album, which sold 200,000 copies.
The following year, Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun finally broke free from Nervous, which allowed Duck Down Management to bring its marquee acts over to Duck Down Records. Locking the two groups down to their label, allowed Dru and Buck to restructure the original label deal with Priority, to gain a more financially beneficial distribution deal.