Duck Down Music has been a champion of independent hip-hop before it was the thing to do to build a brand without a major label machine. Some of today's most popular MCs like Chance the Rapper shy away from major label deals, proving that the indie path is the way to go when the right team is in place. Duck Down and its artists have consistently weathered the storm in the music industry, especially when the big dogs weren't looking their way.

The record label, which began as a management company, has remained an advocate for New York's indie rap scene from the year of its inception in 1995. From fostering Brooklyn supergroups like Boot Camp Clik and working with 2Pac to getting into the music licensing scene, Duck Down has managed to keep its homegrown New York flavor and still push hip-hop's culture forward.

To celebrate 20 years of success, the label started by Drew "Dru-Ha" Friedman and Kenyatta Blake (aka Buckshot) will host an evening of stories and songs at New York's B.B. King's Blues Club. Hosted by Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds, the event consists of a mix of live, in-depth interviews with artists and performances from Boot Camp Clik, Pharaohe Monch, 9th Wonder, Skyzoo, Chelsea Reject and more. A special tribute is scheduled for Brooklyn's own Sean Price, who passed away unexpectedly at the age 43 this summer.

Before the festivities tonight (Dec. 3), XXL caught up with Dru-Ha to relive some of the label's best memories and set the pace for another 20 years in the game.

Congrats on 20 years in the game! It’s been a long journey.

Yeah, thank you! It’s been a long time coming.

So first, let’s go back to ‘94, ‘95 when you and Buckshot first took that leap of faith and went from making Duck Down a management company to a full-fledged label. What were some of the early struggles you guys faced?

Well, in those early days we didn’t really have a game plan and I think that’s part of the fun of it and it’s also part of the challenges because you don’t really know how to set yourself up yet or what you’re actually looking for. But back then, in those times there was a lot of independent mind frame activity going on even though it wasn’t truly independent record labels so much. But you had the movements of No Limit and Bad Boy and Loud and there were a lot of young executives in the game that were promoting their brand underneath the parent company. So Buckshot knew early on that we wanted to kind of form something that could turn into its own label and allow us to sign other groups and develop our own brand.

Speaking of brand, what was it like trying to find your personal brand for the label early on?

I think that’s kind of evolved over 20 years. Initially, it was very Boot Camp, Brooklyn-centric and that was our mind frame because of so much talent that Buck and Smif-N-Wessun brought to the table just within us. That was one of those classic scenarios of like how Wu-Tang would have all its individual members. What we had was Boot Camp Clik and that led to all the individual groups and members there that could record. Heltah Skeltah, O.G.C, Fab 5, Buckshot as his own artist. So, the first six or seven years really kept us busy and was the primary focus of Duck Down. Then, we figured out that we would need to expand to really be a true record label and sign other acts, to use some of the things we learned for other artists and go out and have success with other groups.

Take me back to putting out your first album as a label, back when Black Moon dropped Enta Da Stage and Smif-N-Wessun dropped The Shinin’. What was it like to see your dreams and your work come to fruition?

Well, those albums actually came out in ‘93, ‘94 so they predate Duck Down Music. Those were under Duck Down Management and we were with another indie label. Those records were just incredible and fun to work on because I was just fresh out of school. Buckshot was 17, 18 years old. I mean, we were just young kids, young adults or whatever you want to call it, living our dream, loving our jobs, loving the culture, everything about being friends and getting to make these records and traveling around the country and the world. Just being a part of it.

It just was like I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else in those moments in time. The expectations and things, of course there was pressure, but there wasn’t as much understanding of what you had to sell and stuff, it was like, “Let’s just go through this and take the opportunity.” The first true Duck Down release was the Fab 5 single, “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” in ‘96 and that was a great feeling!

At that point, there was a lot of pressure on us because we did a very lucrative deal with Priority Records and they had had so much success with N.W.A and a lot of the West Coast things that they had going on. So the owner of that label, Bryan Turner, he had high expectations for us. We didn’t want to come out and dud and so putting “Leflah” out and there was a B-side record called “Blah,” combining Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C to make this “Leflah” single and it took off on radio. The video took off. Back then, you could actually sell a lot of physicals of the singles. We sold a boatload. And it really set up Heltah Skeltah and O.G.C for some of their own debut albums.

What was an obstacle in the business you guys overcame that was a learning experience?

I would say when we actually lost our distribution deal, our production deal in 1999. Priority Records was our parent company and they ended up folding into Capitol Records so we lost our whole distribution. Everything was gone. So that made us take a step back in ‘99 and we ended up signing Smif-N-Wessun at that time. Then, they were operating under the name Cocoa Brovaz and we ended up having to do a deal with them with Rawkus Records because Rawkus was still active and they were able to do some things with them that were weren’t.

And that was the reality of the situation for me and Buck that we weren’t truly independent because we were relying on someone else to fund us. So, that was the turning point and the wake up call. It took us that moment to step back and be like, “Alright, not only do we need our own entity where we’re not relying on anyone else, but also need to go out and expand and show different distributors that we can bring different talent to the table."

Right, kind of like back to the drawing board.

Right, and just for the record that Cocoa Brovaz record on Rawkus actually never came out and we ended up getting Smif-N-Wessun back on Duck Down and all of their releases have come out under us.

What was one of Duck Down’s best selling releases?

Boot Camp Clik, The Chosen Few in 2002. It was definitely one of our first independent albums and it did very well for us, so that was a nice transition. Over the years you find your market and you understand what it is and you zone in on it and get better and delivering for your customers and your fans.

So, being around since the ‘90s, how do you think Duck Down has helped push hip-hop as a culture forward?

I think that we’ve really helped set up a nice model to look at for independent artists and independent labels. They’ll be a lot of different people that we’ve come across over the years that, you know, post-90s, we’ve distributed projects for the likes of Talib Kweli or Pharoahe Monch or Black Rob, different artists that maybe we didn’t start their careers but we were kind of a transition for them in that space.

I know that’s true to Kwe and I know that’s true for Pharoahe and over the years, in articles, Kwe will say he learned a lot from the time working with us. A lot of kids we sit down with today, they’ll say, “We don’t want to sign to Duck Down, we want to be Duck Down,” like develop their stuff like how we have. And I think that we’ve kind of shown that you don’t need a ton of money, you don’t need radio, you don’t need certain things to get a movement going and sell independent hip-hop.

Yeah and it seems like more artists are trying to stay indie for as long as possible now.

Yeah, well that’s also the climate change. The one thing I don’t want to misconstrue is back in the ‘90s it was still very popular and beneficial to have a major label behind you. And I’m not going to front and say back in 2001 Lyor Cohen called and say, “I want to sign Buckshot” that we wouldn’t have done that deal. For us, nobody was offering us a deal. Nobody was offering Sean Price, in those times, a major label deal so instead of doing nothing, we did what we had to do to do it ourselves.

Today, it’s easy and it’s popular to say, “Oh, I can go up on iTunes.” It doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to record an album. You don’t need to buy studio time. You can make videos today for a few grand, back then videos were costing us 20 or 30,000 dollars. So, it changed a whole lot, but you’re absolutely right in that everyone wants to kind of remain independent because you’re looking at the company you’re going to and saying, “Why am I going to give up X percent of this ownership unless they’re really bringing something substantial to the table.”

Definitely makes sense. What are some of the standout moments from the label for you?

For me definitely doing the album with KRS-One and Buckshot. We did an album with the two of them called Survival Skills. And I got to spend a lot of time with Kris, like a month period. And he was probably a childhood idol of mine in terms of the hip-hop game and just being a fan. And we had met Kris back in ‘93, ‘94, but those were just encounters. But to get to work with him and watch him in the studio, man. And I still go back and listen to that Survival Skills record, we had artists like Mary J. Blige, Melanie Fiona, features from K'naan and Atmosphere from Rhymesayers so it was so many people came out on that record that it was really a cool process to be a part of. That was a highlight for me.

That’s dope! Anymore standouts?

Well, of course, spending a few weeks with 2Pac in ‘95, ‘96. We got to go out and work on the One Nation album with him. Me, Buck, Tech and Steele spent a couple weeks in his house, you know, late night studio sessions. We learned a lot from that experience. Working with Pete Rock, we did a full album with Pete Rock as well called Monumental. Those types of experiences for me when you say every night, “I’m going to the studio,” because you know, we say that a lot in this business [laughs], but when you’re going in with Pete Rock, because, you know, at the end of the day, I got into this as a fan first and when that beat and that music comes on late night in the studio and you watch firsthand the artists putting it together, it’s like watching a game if you’re fan of a sports team. It might be boring in practice all week, but when the game happens…

It’s primetime!

Right, exactly, primetime! And that’s what those moments are like. Those are all highlights.

Cool. And aside from that, in terms of expanding the label, you guys have had a lot of success in the licensing for TV and movies. What were some of the cool moments when it comes to music licensing for you?

We took a trip out to ESPN maybe about 10 years ago, went up to Bristol, Conn. A fan reached out to us, said he worked there. We went in and he introduced us to some people in the building and they were like, “Hey, could you guys create some original music for us?” And next thing you know, they’re writing us a check. They were putting our music on college basketball and stuff and we realized there was a whole new space in TV for music.

We became very aggressive for pitching music for syncs and getting it in the movies. Like Buckshot wrote the theme music to Gangland. Ice-T performs it but Buckshot wrote it. So, we were just realizing more opportunities, like you don’t even have to perform a record to get publishing.

Shifting from business more to the family aspect of it, you guys lost one of your own this year, Sean Price. How has his death changed morale in the company?

Well, for me personally, it was a terrible, terrible loss. It still is. It was so sudden and so hard to believe and accept. I’m looking at his artwork on my computer. We’re creating artwork for the show and we got a nice image of him on there and we’re doing a tribute for him within the show. He was a friend. When you’re so close and you work so closely with these artists, you develop a certain relationship with them that can’t be replaced.

And I think morale for everyone was definitely... no one feels sorry for themselves, it doesn’t go to that extent, but everyone suffered the loss and individually, we all miss him. We were blessed and his wife, Bernadette, was very fortunate as well, with how much music he left behind. He must’ve recorded over a hundred songs that haven’t been put out. In the couple of weeks, we’ve done a couple of sessions of going through the files and we’re going to have a lot of music to release from him and keep his legacy going strong.

So would you say you guys see another posthumous album coming out from Sean in 2016?

100 percent. We got a lot of great things from Sean in store. Some great specialty items, new music, and box sets and stuff like that. So, we’re going to keep it going for Sean for many, many years.

Speaking of 2016, what else does Duck Down have planned? What are you focused on for next year?

Well, the last couple of years, we’ve expanded into the distribution lane a little further with artists like David Dallas from New Zealand, Bodega Bamz just released an album with us. We’ve done three albums with Statik Selektah, who brings a ton of new artists through our doors every day so 2016 is probably going to be lined up with some of those acts. We’re working on something new with Statik. David Dallas has a new album coming as well.

Some other tricks up our sleeve. There’s always projects we’re looking at to see if it would work with our brand and the artist’s. We’re working with an artist out of Toronto named Raz Fresco. A girl out of Brooklyn named Chelsea Reject. And then, we did a partnership, and I have to be careful with my wording, but we do a lot of distribution and marketing in that partnership, not with Duck Down but members of our team, we partnered with another Brooklyn artist named Young M.A. Chelsea is one side of the spectrum and Young M.A. is just... the fierceness and wittiness and wordplay is right in pocket with what we support. So, 2016 is looking good.

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