20 Years Later: Smif-n-Wessun’s ‘Dah Shinin” Is the Quintessential Brooklyn Album
The Bronx may be where hip-hop was created, but Brooklyn has always been a key influence in helping cultivate what rap fans have come to know as swag.
Home to arguably three of the top 10 MC's of all-time -- Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z -- Brooklyn's favorite sons have helped put the flavor and style of their native avenues and streets on display for the world to see, jump-starting an innumerable amount of trends. Looking fly and getting money may be the first two characteristics when you think of the prototypical spit-kicker from Brooklyn, but there is way more to everyday life in New York's most populated borough than those talkingpoints.
Affectionately dubbed "Medina" by die-hard Brooklynites, the borough is home to hard-scrabble neighborhoods and some of the most blue-collar residents you could find in America. The people that live there do enjoy the finer things in life, but the surrounding terrain is anything but lavish and is nothing sweet. Motto's like "Do or Die" and "Never Ran, Never Will" aptly describe the mentality of Brooklyn inhabitants on the other side of the gentrification epidemic currently transforming it's neighborhoods.
It's been a major hub for black culture for the better part of the last half century, while having a rich cultural tradition between the well-documented "white-flight" that took place in the '60s and the implementation of "Reaganomics" in the '80s -- Brooklyn was one of the many locales across the country that was deeply affected by these events. The effects of the crack era ravaged the brownstone and tenement-filled blocks, flooding the borough with drug dealers, stick-up kids and all-around goons, making Brooklyn one of the most infamous hot-beds for crime in America.
The crime-wave carried over into the '90s, where it would reach a fever pitch before Governor George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani made it their point to snuff it out with an iron fist. Around this same time, New York City's rap scene was in the process of regaining its footing after various West Coast acts stronghold on the genre died down.
Although a number of seminal albums were released from between 1991 and 1993, including A Tribe Called Quest's 'Low End Theory,' Gang Starr's 'Daily Operation' and Pete Rock and CL Smooth's 'Mecca and the Soul Brother,' that period also saw genre-altering albums from N.W.A. ('efil4zaggin'), Ice Cube ('Death Certificate') and Dr. Dre ('The Chronic') enamor the rap world and place the games focal point on California's melodic brand of G-Funk. But in 1993 and 1994, the East Coast saw a resurgence in new talent in the form of acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, Nas and Redman -- all of whom would go on to become legends -- evening the playing field and making for what some regard as hip-hop's ultimate golden era.
Among the leaders of this musical charge was Brooklyn-based trio Black Moon. Comprised of MC's Buckshot Shorty, 5 ft and DJ-producer Evil Dee, the group made a splash with their impressive 1993 debut, 'Enta Da Stage.' While the album helped set the template for the sound of Brooklyn hip-hop in the mid '90s, it was also significant for introducing BK duo Smif-n-Wessun via the album cuts, 'Black Smif-n-Wessun' and 'U Da Man.' Comprised of Brooklyn natives Tek and Steele, the group instantly stood out with their back-and-forth rhyme style, rugged flows,and Medina-centric lingo.
Building their buzz with the DJ Evil Dee and Mr. Walt co-produced debut single, 'Bucktown,' Tek and Steel began to assemble tracks for what would ultimately become their debut album, 'Dah Shinin'.' Released on Jan. 10, 1995, the album was met with considerable fanfare, debuting in the top five of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and quickly became a mainstay in tape-decks and stereos for the winter of '95 and beyond. While not reaching the same level of commercial success as BK contemporary Biggie Smalls' iconic 'Ready to Die' album, 'Dah Shinin'' holds one distinction that 'Ready to Die' lacks and that's being the quintessential Brooklyn album of the mid '90s -- and possibly all-time.
Many of you reading this could think that statement is considered as blasphemy, but if you've had the chance to actually walk and feel the streets of Brooklyn and have had enough sense to listen to this album, you would know that my proclamation is more than valid. While technically a transplant, Brooklyn, N.Y. has always felt like home. Born in South Carolina and living in Wilmington, Del., I would spend a number of summers and holidays in the borough with family members living in the East New York section of Brooklyn, soaking up the sights and sounds of the dilapidated, yet vibrant blocks.
My older cousins were big rap fiends and would often have the latest hot release blaring from the boombox while busting my ass in Sega Genesis. Although I was a bit more partial to 'Ready to Die' at the time, due to the allure of its classic singles, my cousins were more fond of the tunes being churned out of Eastern Brooklyn-based rap crews the Gang Starr Foundation and the Boot Camp Clik.
So, when the second full-length project from BCC, 'Dah Shinin'' dropped, my cousins definitely had it in heavy rotation -- their style was more Champion hoody and Timberland boots than Coogi sweaters and Gucci loafers. Whenever company would come over for a session of blunts, video games, sports and guy talk, the room would resemble the "doghillee" that the BCC would refer to from time to time.
I would quietly sit, taking in the conversations, second-hand smoke from the lye and, most importantly, the music while praying that my cousins wouldn't kick me out of the room and out of grown folks business. Over the years, my visits to those relatives in Brooklyn would diminish, but the atmosphere and vibe of the town would almost be embedded in my being and my mind, with albums such as 'Da Shinin'' serving as a time machine of sorts back to mid-'90s Crooklyn. The LP's intro, titled 'Timz N Hood Chek,' is an audio reminder for listeners to adhere to the rugged dress code, with Tek spitting, "Timz and hood 'chek, my crew is out to catch wreck," and advising to "tie up your Timz and make sure you don't slip," before DJ Evil Dee scratches up the Clik's rallying cry, "Bucktown, home the Originoo Gun Clappas," again making it clear where Smif-n-Wessun represent and where they're coming from.
Listen to Smif-n-Wessum's 'Timz N Hood Chek'
'Wrektime' sees Smif-n-Wessun admitting to their hard-rock tendencies via the unapologetic hook, "I am what I am and I do what I do / Puff mad lye, catch wrek wit' my crew," and a basic run-down of their day-to-day. The brooding 'Wreckonize,' which features Rock of Heltah Skeltah -- who steals the show with his gravelly voice via hook duties -- finds Smif-n-Wessun taking a trip up north, with Steele rapping, "Sitting in the pens wit' my back against the gate / Hot as a f---, can't wait to get that bus headed upstate / New place, same faces from the last joint / Got my banga so when danger come I'll be on point." The two rappers give a run-down of the razor-tag and other forms of violence that goes down in the New York State penal system.
'Sound Bwoy Bureill' is a stellar selection inspired by the West Indian culture that is a big component in Bucktown's DNA and speaks particularly to the East New York/Brownsville/East Flatbush triangle. Mixing in a little patois, the pair sets the mood so well with their lyrics. "Now, everybody wanna Don Gargon, all the round New York n----s be talking but we be stalking / In the night's when the guns start barking, but in the day, be wary of where you be walking," feels like you're literally down the avenue of Pitkin on a brisk evening.
'K.I.M. (Keep It Moving)' embodies the daily grind of Brooklynites surviving the times and staying afloat in trying times, from the hustler to the blue-collar worker struggling to pay the bills. The song that formally introduced Smif-n-Wessun as a group, 'Bucktown,' is included on 'Dah Shinin'' and lends itself perfectly to the album's theme, with Tek and Steele dropping dope couplets like "Bucktown, I represent it on the love-love / Deeply rooted from my Timz to my d--- above" in reference to their beloved stomping grounds.
Similar to 'K.I.M.,' 'Stand Strong' has more of a common touch and is relatable to the goons and squares alike with its double-edged hook: "I walk around wit' my pound strapped down / That's only because it's mad real in Bucktown / It gets mad deep in the streets / When you gotta watch ya back for beast, enemies, even ya peeps / I step to my 'business, stand strong on my own two / Do what I have to do to get true."
Listen to Smif-n-Wessun's 'Stand Strong'
'Shinin...' serves as a de facto interlude that sounds as sweet to the ear as Hennessy poured in a glass on the rocks before transitioning into 'Next S---.' Powered by a piano sound and dingy drums, Tek and Steele continue the mid-album winning streak with this number, lamenting, "It's no relaxing, just taxing / Stone is the way of the walk when you're black," and poignantly reflecting on their current station in life, rhyming, "Pressures be building in my mind, sometimes it weighs / That have me counting the many reasons that crime pays / I think about the hustling game, should I maintain or flip and just shift the fastlane? / (We gotta mob), but it takes dough to make bread / We working wit' cement tryna make bricks."
'Cession at da Doghillee' stands on the most jovial track on 'Dah Shinin'' and finds the majority of the BCC joining in on the lyrical festivities, making it somewhat of a family affair. 'Hellucination' is a foggy-sounding storytelling number that features Tek and Steele on a blood-thirsty mission for revenge with a hell of a plot twist at the end.
'Home Sweet Home' is an ode to the more grimy and murderous sides of the streets of Medina, with shout-outs to Red Hood, Coney Island, Flatbush, and Bed Stuy, among other notoriously dangerous Brooklyn sections, with the pair chanting, "We live in Brooklyn, baby" at the end to drive the point home of Smiff-n-Wessun's world revolves around.
Listen to Smif-n-Wessun's 'Home Sweet Home'
'Wipe Ya Mouf' features superb quips, such as Steele spitting, "Walkin down the street, watching you clocking me / Could it be cause I'm magnetic, yet it give me a f---ing headache / But it's pathetic when n----s jump on ya d--- and sweat it," showing no love to the yes-men out in the world.
'Lets Git It On' is slightly reminiscent of a vintage Run-DMC routine with a thugged-out twist and is yet another cut that gets the thumbs up. Preceded by words from Brevoort Projects resident Big Cook, the album's closing number 'P.N.C.' is dedicated to Sean Grady, a.k.a. Rambo, former leader of the infamous Brooklyn gang, the Decepticons, along with other friends lost to the gun. The track is genuine and heartfelt without lacking any of the grit displayed on previous songs on the LP and ends 'Dah Shinin'' on a high note.
Listen to Smif-n-Wessen's 'Cession at da Doghillee'
In 2015, Brooklyn is a few decades removed from the violence and poverty that played a big part in inspiring Smif-n-Wessun to make this album, but a listen of 'Dah Shinin'' brings you right back to the era of old Brooklyn before the invasion of yuppies, cafes and big business. Mobb Deep's 'The Infamous' isn't necessarily the best album from Queens history, but it arguably represents the mindstate of a Queens resident from that era unlike any other, which is what 'Dah Shinin'' is for Brooklyn.
Over the years, I would listen to a countless amount of albums from BK-bred artists. Mos Def's 'Black on Both Sides' and Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek's 'Train of Thought' were all albums that I experienced in real-time and would make it a point to go back and revisit classics such as 'Long Live the Kane,' 'Sun Rises in the East,' 'Enta Da Stage' and 'Reasonable Doubt' among others. But sitting here 20 years later, there is no doubt in my mind that 'Da Shinin'' encapsulates what it is to truly live and breathe Brooklyn
The attitude conveyed through the songs on the LP speak directly to the mentality of young men striving to survive and maintain amidst the madness that has transformed their respective hoods into lawless war zones. And even gentrification couldn't change that.
Listen to Smif-n-Wessun's 'Dah Shinin'' Album