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.

“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.