Heds and Dreds, Pt. 2: Exclusive Interview with Smif-n-Wessun

Words and Interview by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Fubz

Yesterday, we launched our new “Heds and Dreds” column by breaking down Smif-n-Wessun’s contributions to the cultural exchange between hip-hop and reggae, from “Sound Bwoy Bureill” to now. Today being the release date of Monumental, the don gorgons‘ long-awaited full-length album with Pete Rock, we’re going even deeper, chopping it up with Tek and Steele about their respective introductions to reggae, the unavoidable influence of Caribbean culture in Brooklyn, the mystery voice on the “Sound Bwoy” intro, and more. Yesterday we also premiered “This One,” a sequel of sorts to “Sound Bwoy Bureil” featuring Steele’s little bro Top Dog (of OGC and “Sound Bwoy Bureil” fame) and LU fam Jahdan Blakkamoore, but it’s so forward-worthy we had to run it again. Stream it below if you haven’t already copped Monumental, read on for the interview and if you’re in NYC, swing by the release party/photo exhibition at Tammany Hall on the Lower East Side.

Smif N Wessun—This One feat. Top Dog & Jahdan Blakkamore of Noble Society

LargeUp: What caught your attention first: was it hip-hop, or reggae/dancehall?
Tek: As a kid, it was neither for me. It was more gospel music—my mom was a minister—and down South soul music. My dad played in a band and my uncles were singers, and still are to this day. I was introduced to that music first and then later on I came up into Supercat and Yellowman and listening to more reggae like that. To answer the question, it would be reggae before hip-hop.
Steele: As a kid in my house, I couldn’t really listen to too much hip-hop. The hip-hop I did listen to, I had to sneak and listen to, late-night. But my uncle, he was heavy into the soundclashes. He would get the VHS tapes of every reggae artist that was in the soundclash and I would sit there and watch it. My dad would play more generic reggae artists like Black Uhuru, he had one Bob Marley record. That was the influence. Hip-hop was just the culture at the time. It was where everything was going.

LU: Are either of you of Caribbean descent at all?
Tek: I was born on di island, mon—Coney Island [laughs]. My people are from Virginia.
Steele: My dad’s father was West Indian but he grew up without his dad. I didn’t have any direct influence but it’s in the blood. Our blood is shades deep. There’s shades to this blackness.

LU: As far as the reggae infleunce in your music, would you attribute that primarily to growing up in Brooklyn and particularly areas like Bed-Stuy and Brownsville with a lot of Caribbean people?
Tek: Yeah, we’re influenced in Brooklyn period with it. You know how they say if you hang out with someone long enough, you’re gonna start to look alike and start doing certain things the same way? Growing up around that and being around that all day seven days a week,  you start understanding the patois, you start speaking it yourself, you start picking up on and eating certain foods. And we always been heavy influenced by it and true to it so that’s why it comes off in the music the way it does.
Steele: That’s one thing about Brooklyn–it’s very rich in culture. It’s almost like everybody is from somewhere else, or their ancestors are. You got West Indian culture, you got Latin culture, you got Asian culture–it’s one big mesh. What hip-hop does is allow us to come near and share these different cultures and make something greater.

LU: “Sound Bwoy Bureil” is one of the classic reggae-influenced hip-hop songs. Most of the rhymes are in patois, with quotes from Buju’s “Boom Bye Bye” and other dancehall songs. Where did it originate from?
Steele: I remember when we first heard that beat it was made for Heltah Skeltah. Mr. Walt and Evil Dee was playing that for them and I had my fingers crossed, hoping that they didn’t like it. Immediately when I heard it, I was like “Oh my gosh, we can smash that.” You just felt the vibe when you heard that “dun-dun-bump-doom.” It just felt right and we got my brother DO, Top Dog from OGC, that guy he never played hip-hop in the crib. He always played reggae in the house. And that’s my younger brother.
Tek: Always.
Steele: He more influenced me than anything—him and my uncle with the soundclash tapes. To this day he still got them VHS tapes. My brother, he used to play his reggae rockers—go to house parties and do his thing. He was sick with it. I said, “We gotta put him on this track.” At the time he wasn’t rhyming. We were like, “Just do that reggae thing you do.” It would be corny if we just tried to do it, knowing that he was the one that was heavy into it. We started him off on his rhymes and said keep it simple. From there, we was already in the pocket. We just figured we’d make a dope song by having all the elements that we knew worked.

LU: I’ve always been curious what the sample is at the beginning of “Sound Bwoy Bureil.” We even had some debate in one of our posts over whether it was [dubplate intro specialists] Fuzzy Jones or Joe Lickshot. Somebody chimed in and said it was neither–that you actually got someone to sound like one of them…
Steele: The original is Joe Lickshot, I believe. Basically, Mr. Walt and Evil Dee had somebody come and do that. I think that was somebody they brought in. I would have to ask Mr. Walt, honestly. At that point they was pretty secretive with their production and we didn’t try to cross no lines. I remember there was one track we did and we wanted to mix it, and that was one of the first disagreements we had with Beatminerz. They had the vision as far as the music. Beatminerz, those guys are West Indian. Well, not West Indian, they’re from Belize. We’re all tropical folk.

LU: It sounds like you have the same person from the “Sound Bwoy Bureil” intro on “This One,” from your new album…
Tek: It might just be the same dude.
Steele: That’s the thing. Pete Rock called Mr. Walt and they spoke that producer stuff, and them guys, you can’t tread on their water. They’re geniuses. Alligators, crocodiles. But I’m sure if you call Mr. Walt, we might be able to find that out.
Tek: We keep it tight with the links that we use. That’s why the features that’s on the new album are on the new album. Those specific features is who we needed. We didn’t go try to sell the songs or pay extra to get a big-name artist. We got who needed to be got and fit ’em on the songs, so that’s why it is the way it is.
Steele: That’s why Jahdan is on this one as well. He just happens to be super talented. We just always want to give guys a shot, if they’re consistent with a sound that works for us, one that we know people like and we feel natural doing this shit.

LU: How did you meet Jahdan? You were featuring on Smif-n-Wessun records long before anyone knew him as an artist, really…
Steele: We met him at D&D Studios. D&D is the house, baby. My man Gordon was managing the kid and we had a session and Jah Dan was just sitting there with his fisherman cap on, covering his whole face and shit. Gordon played some tunes and said, “This is this guy, over here.” He was real humble and his stuff was really good and he had so many different ranges, we said we need this guy on the “Sound Bwoy” [remix]. From that point, we forged a relationship. He’d swing by the crib and we’d kick it, smoke, reason.

LU: Pete Rock is Jamaican. Did that factor in at all as far as your conversations about making Monumental?
Tek: Him being a Jamaican didn’t add or subtract anything. We just brought the best out of each other making this album together.

LU: Dah Shinin had a lot of patois and a big reggae influence as far as the lyrics. That influence has come and gone in your music over the years…
Steele: It’s a more natural thing, as opposed to consciously saying let’s make a hip-hop reggae tune. If the track makes us feel that vibe then you’ll hear a little bit of it. We definitely are conscious of not doing the cliche reggae rap song. As much as we love the blend, we know when something sounds corny. And a lot of cats can’t really do it and sound believable. We just let the music tell us where to go with it and let nature take course.

LU: Would you ever do a whole dancehall project or dancehall-influenced hip-hop album?
Steele: I’ve spoken to cats like Jahdan and Light from Bush Babees, and tossed around ideas. Those cats are West Indian and their background is very clear. I think when time permits we’ll be able to do something like that. But even when we’re not doing our own projects, we’re always featuring on other cats records or doing dubplates in the states, overseas. Sometimes we’ll do the dub, and we’ll never hear the dub again.

LU: Has”Sound Bwoy Bureil” and the other reggae-flavored records you’ve done created opportunities for you in the Caribbean?
Tek: Well, shit, we hung out with the Scare Dem Crew and Bounty Killer, so that was an experience in itself, with Wyclef. There wasn’t too many hip-hop artists doing that. But the love we receive at home is plenty. We get dubplates people want, even of songs we never did as a dancehall verison but they want dubs for it. It’s a blessing.
Steele: In the early 2000s, we visited Bob Marley’s mom’s house in Miami a few times–they had a company that was booking shows. We were in her house with life size portraits of Bob, like you in this man’s family’s house. It was so surreal to be on the hammock, smoking trees like, “This is Bob Marley’s family.” I would have loved to have been a part of that album with Nas and the young gorgon. I would have loved to be a part of Buju’s new album. There’s still uncharted land that Tek and Steele are trying to get to. We’re always open to opportunities to do more songs like that. My boy J Period did a mix CD for Lauryn Hill with all of her greatest hits and he did a blend for “Killing Me Softly,” and I did a remake of the “Sound Bwoy” verse on that. At the time he was deejaying for Buju, so he got Buju on it. It’s me, Buju and Lauryn Hill. That’s bananas to me. These combinations you would never dream of but when they happen, it’s monumental.

LU: Can I get you guys to tell me Smif N Wessun’s 10 favorite Caribbean artists?
Tek: 1. We’d both say Bob Marley. 2. Buju Banton 3. Yellowman 4. Vybz Kartel 5. TOK.
Steele: 1. Garnet Silk 2. Richie Spice 3. Israel Vibration 4. Burning Spear 5. Gregory Isaacs.
Tek: Can’t forget Beres Hammond.
Steele: And Tenor Saw. ‘Nuff bredren.