Duck Down Music is a staple of hardcore East Coast Hip-Hop.
That should go without saying: the label, founded by Drew “Dru-Ha” Friedman and Kenyatta “Buckshot” Blake has spent the better part of 25 years releasing independent music that holds true to the ethos of street lyricism and no-frills production that defined the “boom-bap” 90s. But beyond that, Duck Down has forged a reputation for allowing artists to be themselves, all while flourishing as a bastion of independence and consistency even throughout changing times.
Dru-Ha founded Duck Down in 1992 as a management company, following up on his tenure at SBK Records and after Buckshot’s group Black Moon landed a deal with Nervous Records. Black Moon dropped their classic debut Enta Da Stage in 1993, announcing themselves at Tha Boot Camp Clik (which includes Brooklyn-based acts Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Da Beatminerz production team, Heltah Skeltah and OGC) and setting the stage for Duck Down’s metamorphisis into an actual label.
“These were people that were putting other artists on,” Dru Ha said on the occasion of Duck Down’s 20th anniversary in 2015. “These labels were developing artists and we kind of looked at it like the same way, and said, you know what if we develop something, we can control it. And we can make it our own movement and that’s what we did.”
“One day, we got the opportunity to shop our demo to [Hank] Shocklee," Buckshot recalled in 2015. "So we hurried up over to MCA and we went to give him our demo, and he was like, ‘I can’t check your demo right now. I can’t listen to it, but come back later and I’ll check it out.’
On our way out, there was a door open, so I walked inside the room and I sat down. I said, ‘Hey, how you doin’, I’m here for the job.’ And she looked at me like, ‘what are you talking about?’ She goes, ‘We’re not hiring. Do you mean the internship.’ So I was like, ‘yeah, yeah!’”
Buckshot landing an internship with Hank Shocklee helped Black Moon get signed. Once they were signed, Dru-Ha, then an aspiring rapper himself, set about connecting the group to the established NYC Hip-Hop scene. Duck Down Music was founded as a management brand to help facilitate Black Moon's career, as well as the duo of Steele and Tek, known as Smif-N-Wessun, who would guest on Enta Da Stage.
"We met Black Moon through mutual family friends," Tek shared. "We attended night school together. And yup, that feature was the jump off of everything to follow."
Once both acts dropped their debuts, everyone saw a bigger picture. Their careers were red-hot by 1995, and Duck Down needed to be a label.That transition from management company to record label would be official in 1995, after the success of Smif-N-Wessun’s debut album Dah Shinin.’
From that point on, Duck Down Music was one of rap’s most formidable indie labels, releasing acclaimed BCC releases like Nocturnal by Heltah Skeltah, and eventually branching out over the years to include a bevy of established artists from KRS-One to Pharoah Monche. The label would even collaborate with the late Tupac Shakur on his fabled “One Nation” project; the Boot Camp Clik recorded with 2Pac.
“Certainly in 1995 to 1996, we were given the chance to go out to meet up with Tupac on the West Coast,” Dru-Ha told HipHopDX in 2015. “I would put this in the top anything list because it was Buckshot, Smif N Wessun and myself. We got to spend a few weeks out there to work with him on the One Nation album. Tupac said that he wanted to do multiple releases of One Nation and that it wasn’t going to be one volume. To tie into Duck Down, he said that the first one was going to be on Makaveli, which was going to be on his imprint, and that the second one was going to be on Duck Down. So ‘Pac wasn’t in a mode to say “I promise,” but he recognized our movement and our label to say that we would do the second album on Duck Down. To have the experience was pretty incredible. To this day, I have our pictures up in my office of our time spent with him.”
And it was the genius of Sean Price that sustained Duck Down during its leaner years in the 2000s.
As Hip-Hop’s commercial appeal was at an all-time high, and as New York-based Hip-Hop seemed to lose its foothold on the public’s attentions, it was releases by lyrical legend Price that kept Duck Down afloat.
“[Sean Price] saved us,” Buckshot told VladTV in 2016. “I’m just gonna give it to you real simple and plain. [Duck Down Music] was near done. Financially, we was close to the red button. [We were also stagnated] artist-wise, the records, this, that, the audience. [We had] maxed out the whole ‘Yo, real Hip-Hop, man!’ [message]. Then Ruck just came and flipped a style and lyrics. I became a fan of Ruck—I always was a fan of him, but I became a fan of that Ruck. I always tell that story of how, from that point, Duck Down actually came back.”
Price’s work helped the label move from the CD era into the digital and streaming age. Sean Price’s emergence as a creative voice and leader within the Boot Camp Clik sparked a resurgence for Duck Down Music as a label. And Buckshot’s collaborations with suprproducer 9th Wonder also helped move Duck Down into a new era sonically, after a decade steeped in Beatminerz production.
“Ruck became the leader of Boot Camp Clik because he was finding ways to dig holes for us to come through [to] come back,” Buckshot explained.
"I think Duck Down has always been and still is extremely influential in the Hip Hop culture," Steele has said.
"From being one of the very first label brands to incorporate live online interaction to being one of pioneers in van wrapping and promotions, amongst other things brand and artist related."
In the trap-heavy post-2010s rap landscape, it might be tempting to relegate classic East Coast sounds to the past. When you look at the charts today, you won’t see the kind of Hip-Hop that acts like Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun and Heltah Skeltah were forged in. But it thrives in the spaces that birthed it, carried by generations of emcees that are eager to tap into the lyrical tradition and rarified reverence of heroes like Sean Price. And that’s the legacy of Duck Down; it’s never been preoccupied with the flossiness of the mainstream, and it’s never been beholden to trends. Duck Down Music has always been Duck Down Music.
And thank the rap gods for that.