If Sean Price’s rap career had ended in 1996—if his only contribution to the genre was that year’s ingenious Nocturnal, the debut album from his duo Heltah Skeltah—he would still be worthy of the respect, admiration, and mourning that has poured forth since the announcement of his sudden death this past Saturday. But he gave us so much more than that. The rapper formerly known as Ruck fought for that rarest of opportunities in hip-hop—a legitimate second act—and got it, and we’re all the richer for it.
But that first Heltah Skeltah album though! If Nocturnal isn’t among the dingiest, grimiest, “punch niggas in they face just for livin’”-est mid-’90s East Coast rap albums you’ve ever heard, that means you haven’t heard it. The duo was part of Brooklyn’s famed Boot Camp Clik, one of the most respected oversized rap crews of their time, though it never amassed the rabid following commanded by their closest analogues, the Wu-Tang Clan. Of all the records Clik cohorts put out in their heyday, only Black Moon’s 1993 debut Enta da Stage is broadly accepted as part of the rap canon now, surviving the inevitable elision of history. This does a disservice to several other great BCC records, though, and Nocturnal most of all.
Heltah Skeltah were one of the most expertly balanced rap duos of all time. Price was then known as Ruck (aka Ruckus, aka Dr. Kill Patients, aka Tha Inflicta); he and his partner Rock (aka Tha Rockness Monstah, aka Tha Flipsta, aka Bummee Jab) were two misanthropes prone to flaunting their toughness on records, verbalizing the many ways in which they were harder and better than everyone else with a wit, vocabulary, and rhyming ability to make you believe it. Rock played the leading man, a fairly inevitable result of his rumbling voice, which suggested a three-packs-a-day cigarette habit chased with copious amounts of whiskey and gravel. With his pitch-black lyrics (“Heltah Skeltah is hectic, hit the deck then step / If you wanna hear your neck click / See this center, don’t really play no basketball / I do my shooting with a motherfucking Mac, you fall / To the floor, OGC hit up everything that come through the door / Recognize Heltah Skeltah means WAR”) oozing perfectly over the group’s sparse, eerie, atonal beats, it’s no surprise he was considered the star.
Ruck’s appeal was slightly different, but in a perfectly complementary way. While Price’s voice didn’t stand out to the same degree, its tonal quality implied just as much menace as his partner’s, with an extra layer of guile slathered on top. Rock sounded like the voice you’d hear in your nightmares—if you were walking down a dark alley, just one “AYO” from the guy would send you sprinting for the light. Whereas Ruck sounded like a scheming hood salesman clearly running some kind of game on you, yet you were both too afraid and too entranced by the strange logic of his words to pull yourself away until it was too late. Rock was the brawn, but Ruck was the brains. A perfect marriage.
If you really listened, though, you could tell Price was the better rapper, with a rhyming density that stands up to the best writers in the genre. Ruck didn’t just rhyme words—he picked sounds and prodded them, twisted them, repeated them, and abused them until they were all you could hear. Nocturnal is rife with his stunning internal rhyme schemes; take this bit from his first verse on “Sean Price”:
Sean sparks like John Starks in the fourth quarter
Oughta meet my peeps, deep like the Torah
Unforgettable like Nat King, bats swing
Louisville chill because my motherfucking slap stings
This track brings, the average career to a halt
Is it my fault you fell victim to my verbal assault?
If I had dollars for every nigga who dared to battle me on microphones
I’d fuck around and be a millionaire
Instead of an impenetrable muck of tangled word-strings, what he presented were thick, rich cords of sounds and meaning that made you wanted to listen over and over and over, if only so you could rap along to them with the same cool effortlessness that came so naturally to him.
Within the mid-’90s boom of gritty New York rap, Heltah Skeltah and the BCC as a whole were successful, though not outrageously so. Nocturnal’s “Leflaur, Leflah, Eshkoshka”—also featuring the Clik-affiliated trio O.G.C.—was the crew’s biggest hit at that point, and the album sold pretty well for an independent release. But as usual, shady label deals, clashing egos, and disappointing sales prevented the Boot Camp Clik from building anything of note. They released their first true group album, For the People, in 1997 to little fanfare, while that same year, Heltah Skeltah’s sophomore effort Magnum Force—watered down in an effort to capture mainstream listeners—couldn’t sustain Nocturnal’s momentum. By 2000, the Clik as we knew it had more or less disbanded.
Transitioning from rap semi-stardom back to real life is never easy, and it was especially hard on Price. He was invisible in the early 2000s, save the odd feature appearance; all we know from that period in his life is what he’s chosen to reveal in songs and interviews since. It’s not pretty. Here’s an excerpt from “Mess You Made,” a song from his second solo album, 2007’s Jesus Price Supastar:
I ain’t had a hit since ’96
Ever since then my career been twists
The Fab 5 album got put on the shelf
But they still play “Leflah” on the Throwback at 12
My man said he heard me on Mister Cee
Yeah that’s cool, but it don’t equal chips to P
The brokest rapper you know sell crack after the show
With a fo’-fo’ that’ll blow back half your fro
The drugs that I sold got fucked up, God
So it’s Carhartt suits and construction jobs
It ain’t rap dough, but the money is cool
Gotta make sure Elijah ain’t bummy at school
From selling out shows to selling drugs after them. Price often rapped about doing time; he was usually pretty vague on specifics, though as he revealed during an interview with Scarface on Hip Hop DX, he did at least one stint in prison. There aren’t many alternatives for street rappers whose life work involves impressing their friends with funny, outlandish tales of the violence and criminality that surrounds them once the purchasing public moves on. Price was just one of dozens of artists who made a fundamental impact on rap music, but haven’t been able to turn it into a lasting career.
He stuck with it, though. Duck Down Records—the label started by Black Moon’s Buckshot and the group’s manager, and that once housed most of the Boot Camp Clik—started back up again in the mid-’00s after going defunct around the turn of the century. The label’s first serious push toward redemption came in 2005, headlined by Ruck, now going by his birth name, Sean Price, on his first solo album, Monkey Barz.
This was a return to form for Price, proving that he was just as irascible and hilarious as you remembered. That one album vaulted him back into the game, allowing him to once again make a decent living as a rapper: On subsequent efforts like Jesus Price, 2008’s Heltah Skeltah reunion album D.I.R.T., 2009’s Kimbo Price, the 2011 Black Milk/Guilty Simpson collab Random Axe, and 2012’s Mic Tyson, his flows and patterns were a little less intricate than before, though he made up for it with a newfound vulnerability. On songs like “Mess You Made” and “Brokest Rapper You Know” (the latter a recurring nickname he gave himself), Price would touch on his struggles after the Heltah Skeltah days with total fearlessness and honesty. On both songs, he mentions that he’d contemplated suicide.
Still, the overwhelming majority of Sean Price 2.0 songs would pleasantly remind you of Nocturnal. Price kept on talking his gully, braggadocious shit, now reborn as the rap game’s designated surly uncle, or the aging streetball legend once famous for his dunks and trash talk, and now content to skulk around the court heckling the young’uns, giving them hell with his new post game and talking just as much trash as ever. He’d concede that he was still the Brokest Rapper You Know, but he never stopped making his case that he was the best, too.
Sean Price passed away sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, apparently in his sleep. He leaves a legacy as one of rap’s best pure rhymers, a producer on one of rap’s most sinister full-lengths, and maybe most impressively, as one of the few rappers to reach the summit of the rap game, fall all the way back to earth, and claw his way back up solely on the strength of his talent and drive. As dark as his music often was, his story is a beacon of light in a genre where there are all too few.
Top photo via Getty