It’s the night after the 2016 presidential election and the City That Never Sleeps lays in stunned, damp silence. As Mos and Talib once rapped, you can actually hear the city breathing as the crackle of tires peeling off wet asphalt replaces the usual din of pedestrian chatter. Still reeling from America’s decision to make a narcissistic billionaire its 45th President, many New Yorkers don’t know what to do, but find refuge in their favorite spiritual vice—music. A privileged few are gathered at MoMa PS1 in Queens to begin the recovery process by celebrating the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s (somewhat) surprise new album—their first in 18 years. Among the celebrants are Tek and General Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, the latter having his own project Building Bridges being released on the same day as Tribe’s. The timing would crush a less confident MC but Steele couldn’t be more pleased.
“I was looking at the different people that was there. This particular night I just couldn’t stop smiling,” he says of the gathering. “They had the Tribe original artwork on the wall and had drinks called ‘Electric Relaxation.’ The energy in there was amazing and I felt like I was a part of that without even talking about Building Bridges. I was at the Building Bridges party with Q-Tip.”
Caught up in the emotions of the moment Steele picked up two roses from off the stage and handed them to one of the elders in the room, drawn to her energy. He didn’t know who she was but found out later that she was Phife Dawg’s mother Cheryl Taylor, the reason they were all there.
“I had never met her before,” Steele confesses. “I didn’t know it was her. It wasn’t planned or coerced, it was a natural gesture.”
Two weeks later Steele is settled into an office at The Brooklyn Combine in Flatbush, a meeting place that doubles as the law offices of his childhood friend, famed attorney Kenneth Montgomery, Esq. It’s only 5pm but Daylight Savings Time has dropped a dark cloak outside, making it feel especially bright inside. Kendrick’s “Untitled Unmastered” vibrates the walls, which are decorated with dusty books, maps and binoculars. If knowledge had a smell it would be what fills the air.
“This is the place where geniuses come. A lot of community work goes on here,” says Steele. “We do a lot of cultural events here as well. The Combine is a group of brothers and sisters, some are attorneys, Phil is a graphic designer. They go to different schools in the community and teach code. They teach photography. And they save lives.”
Steele is dressed in a black polo shirt with a matching baseball cap emblazoned with the Decepticon logo. He’s not late for Comic Con, he’s going to a funeral later this evening. As a ‘likkle youth’ in the 80s Steele ran with the infamous band of mischief makers The Decepticons. (“Doing crimes with Decepticons, up inside of the times /Helped we at times, to keep our minds organized” he rapped on 1995’s “P.N.C.”) The remaining members are gathering tonight to mourn the passing of their mother.
“My big brother Rumble Cyclonus–Megatron Rest In Peace–they’re brothers, the original brothers of The Decepticons. Their mother just passed away. So all of the Decepticons within the range of the all mighty Facebook have to be there to honor her. That’s our mother. It’s a family, it’s a brotherhood/sisterhood. So we have to remember that strength and connect that bridge.”
Bridging generations is foremost on Steele’s mind. The title of his collaborative effort with Vermont-based producer ES-K came to fruition thanks in part to the latter’s persistence. As with most things in modern day, the two met online. ES-K had a song called “Serenity” that he was dedicating to a deceased friend and asked Steele to appear on it alongside AG of D.I.T.C.
“I had already established a small connection with him through email or Twitter but we had never worked together,” says ES-K, whose handle is short of Essential Knowledge. “I reached out to him on January 13, 2013 and Steele agreed to work on the track. We built over the years from there.”
“I had just lost my good friend Floyd. He was my counsel other than Kenny. So I said I wanted to do a song commemorating him and he hit me and gave me the track. It allowed me to kind of vent so to speak.”
That song led to ES-K sending more beats and Steele’s Padawan VVS Verbal listened to them all, picking the best ones.
“When we started recording this project I wasn’t really excited about rhyming,” Steele confesses. “I’ve done a lot of different things with Smif-N-Wessun and with Boot Camp and was like ‘Where can you go?’ But when I heard the music and had a chance to digest it, it felt natural. I was excited to see what was coming out. We were writing rhymes at like 6 in the morning thinking ‘This is going to be good.’ We didn’t have the name until we accumulated a certain amount of tracks. It became obvious that we were building a bridge to a better tomorrow.”
ES-K, who also plays cello and bass, started making beats on a bootleg copy of FL Studio when he was 15. He graduated to an MPC when he was 17 and now, more than a decade later, has mastered the jazzy boom-bap that helped make Smif-N-Wessun a household name when he was in kindergarten. So their resulting 12-track album is a nod to sonic forebears like Da Beatminerz, Large Professor and Diamond D who hammered together broad beams of dusty piano with grafted kick drums to construct their own inner city blues. “The sound was like when somebody’s cooking dinner on Sunday and you smell it thinking ‘I hope that’s coming from my house,’” Steel stays with a grin. “When we got to track 5 it started to make more sense. I didn’t try to make it sound like Da Shining or anything we did before, but it felt like it was going back to that essence.”
For the first video they chose the mellow yet motivational “Persistence.” The sparse visual finds Steele, VVS Verbal and Louie Skaggs literally out of their comfort zone amongst the trails and foliage of New England.
“We went up to Burlington, Hollow Creak Road, some kind of spooky name. That was another plug from ES-K. He lives up there and knows a lot of really good people. The brother you see chopping the wood, that’s his land. For us it was a good way to kick off the project. What is the vision for this? We’re reaching out. We’re not trying to compete with the guys who get in their cars and drive off with the big booty chicks. But we love the music and love the experience. So we went to the top of the mountain and looked at things from a different perspective. That’s what the project is a bout. Looking at hip-hop from a different perspective.”
The Building Bridges track list reads like a survival manual to Giuliani era New York; “Da Saga Continues,” “Do Remember,” and “Just Live” to name a few. It’s like they could see the Hell on the horizon because they’ve lived through it once. Steele and VVS spent a marathon writing session holed up in their home recording studio, The Trenches. After a few days of writing it came time to figure out who would join them on this journey. Everyone from Buckshot and Smoothe Da Hustler to Louie Skaggs and Shadow The Great answered the call. But the most haunting of the guest appearances is from the late Sean Price, who appears on the aptly titled “Unforgettable.”
“It was a rare visit from Sean,” he says of the Spring night when they made the song. “Sean will normally come, lay his verse and then he’ll leave. But this day in particular he sat there and we kicked it all night and Louie Skaggs and Verbal were asking him all these questions. Then later that night Rock came. So it was a Heltah Skeltah interview! I was a little tight because they had Heltah Skeltah here and ain’t record no music? Are you kidding me? After we recorded he was like ‘What else you got? I’m in a good mood.”’ He called verbal Slimburg. ‘Yo, Slimburg what you got? He wanted to do —more. But to keep it a stack we didn’t have no more beats. Nothing as meaningful as that one. We WANTED him to get on that one. So we just talked over a fine cognac and that was probably the last time we hung out with the homey. That might be the last song feature we recorded for this.”
It’s a highlight from a labor of love that ES-K couldn’t be happier with.
“I absolutely love it,” the producer says of the finished product. “It hasn’t been easy, but it has been a very fulfilling and rewarding experience. A dream come true and years of hard work coming to fruition.”