“When we [originally] signed up with Priority, we excluded Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun and said if we ever get those
[groups] out of Nervous, we’ll come back to [renegotiate],” says Dru Ha. “The percentages changed, we owned the masters of the record—everything started changing, in terms of the structure of the deal.”
With a better deal in place, Duck Down began to mature as a label. It maintained a staff that fluctuated between six and eight employees and gained complete control over its production and project marketing budgets. Dru and Buck received a lump sum of money from Priority, to operate their label. This allowed Duck Down to spend the budgets as they saw fit. The label soon released Smif-N-Wessun’s sophomore album, 1998’s The Rude Awakening (the group released the LP under the alias Cocoa Brovaz, due to a legal dispute with the Smith & Wesson firearms company in 1995, but have since retained the rights to use their original moniker), and a year later dropped Black Moon’s second album, War Zone.
Duck Down’s growth came to a halt when music giant EMI bought Priority in full for $125 million in 1998. Lost in the shuffle, Duck Down was dropped from Priority’s roster the following year. “We lose everything,” says Dru. “We lose overhead, we lose the office, we lose our funding, we lose our deals for the next albums.”
Disappointed by being dropped, but spurred on by all they’d accomplished together so far, Dru and Buck moved the label’s operations to Dru’s house, in Manhattan’s East Village, and by the new millenium, Duck Down had cut a one-off deal with Minnesota-based distribution company K-Tel to release Buckshot’s solo debut album, The BDI Thug.
In 2002, DD partnered with Koch Entertainment (currently known as E1) for a three-year distribution stint. The first product of this new deal was The Chosen Few, Boot Camp Clik’s second LP which moved about 40,000 units. The next year, Duck Down dropped the compilation album, Collect Dis Edition, and Black Moon’s third album, Total Eclipse.
The Koch deal looked good on paper, but when the contract was up, in 2005, Duck Down actually ended up owing its distributor a chunk of change, somewhere in the six-figure range. Dru and Buck claim that Koch inflated their manufacturing costs and refused to match any discounts that Duck Down offered to large retail chains. “Little by little, your distribution deal that seemed like a 70-30 split in your favor, after you work that shit down, it turned to, like, a 20-80 for them, in their favor,” Dru says.
DD refused to renew with Koch. Instead, they cold-called Navarre, a Minnesota-based computer-software distribution company with ties to major retailers like Best Buy and the now-defunct Circuit City, and later inked with them. “They gave us a great deal, a great deal,” says Dru. “I spent so much time on that deal, making sure I understood all the ins and outs. They walked me through it, like, a hundred times.”
In 2005, Duck Down released Monkey Barz (Sean Price’s solo debut), Chemistry (a collaborative album between Buckshot and producer 9th Wonder) and Smif-N-Wessun: Reloaded with Navarre. Collectively, the three albums registered about 70,000 units sold with SoundScan, though Dru estimates that the unregistered and international sales bring that number closer to 100,000. Life was going well, but fate would bring Duck Down back to Koch’s door, where things had ended ugly just two years earlier.
In 2007 Koch acquired Navarre for $6.5 million. As a result of the buyout, DD was once again in business with Koch, but this time the distributor had to honor the terms of the much-more-favorable Navarre deal. (Today, Duck Down renews with E1 on a year-to-year basis, slightly modifying the original Navarre deal each time out.) Soon after reuniting with Koch, Duck Down struck major look deals for themselves and entered into separate agreements with ESPN and the History Channel, for the label’s artists to provide the cable stations with original music for programming.
Over the past three years, and during rough times, Duck Down has blossomed. It has expanded its roster and released albums such as Boston trio Special Teamz’ 2007 Stereotypez and former Rawkus Records duo Kidz in the Hall’s 2008 The In Crowd and this year’s Land of Make Believe, as well as Cypress Hill front man B-Real’s 2009 solo LP, Smoke and Mirrors—just a few examples of Duck Down’s growing diversity. Now, for its 15th anniversary, the label will release 15 Years of Duck Down, a greatest-hits LP, in July. DD also plans to launch a nationwide tour and release albums from its current roster, including its newest acquisition, veteran Queens lyricist Pharoahe Monch.
When Dru Ha and Buckshot birthed Duck Down Records in 1995, they believed that, if they had the power over the money and the ultimate control, they would win as an independent record label. Fifteen years later, it seems like the partners might have known what they were talking about.
“It’s not about money anymore, because our money is dictated on what we sell,” Dru says. “It’s about getting paid for what you sell the best way, so when you do have a home run or you do have a good record, that’s how you stay in business.”
And in control.