Smoothe Da Hustler – Once Upon A Time In America (March 19, 1996)

Through the years, Brooklyn, New York has produced a slew of incredible emcees: Special Ed, Big Daddy Kane, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, AZ, Jeru Da Damaja, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Fabolous, Sean Price, and that’s just scratching the surface. All the names mentioned above were able to establish themselves in the game and cement their own legacies to varying degrees, but there were others that represented BK for only a moment, never fully able to lay a solid foundation and became mere footnotes in the annals of hip-hop. Like the subject of today’s post.

Damon Smith, better known to the world as Smoothe Da Hustler, came on the scene in the mid-nineties and got his first break when he hit the road with Biggie on his 1994 Ready To Die tour. Smoothe didn’t have a deal at the time, but the tour gave him exposure to a much wider audience than he had prior. He would continue to work independently, eventually hooking up with fellow Brownsville native and producer, D/R Period (known for his work with M.O.P. and being the maestro behind their monster record “Ante Up”) and recording tracks, including the hood classic, “Broken Language”, which would earn a spot on the once coveted Hip-Hop Quotable column in The Source. The Source plug and the regional buzz that “Broken Language” created caused the labels to come swarming and soon Smoothe would sign to Profile, where he would release his debut album, Once Upon A Time In America.

D/R Period would produce all but one of the album’s tracks, and though the project wasn’t a huge commercial success, it did receive positive reviews from the critics. Smoothe would eventually leave Profile and sign with Def Jam, where he would record a song for The Nutty Professor Soundtrack (“My Crew Can’t Go For That”) and pen songs for the likes of Public Enemy and Foxy Brown, but he would never release a proper follow-up to Once Upon A Time In America (he did release Violenttimes Day on his independent label, SMG Records in 2008, but a twelve-year hiatus doesn’t count as a proper follow up).

I didn’t listen to or buy Once Upon A Time In America when it came out in ‘96, but I stumbled upon a copy in the used cd bins for a dollar and bought it on the strength of “Broken Language”. So even if the rest of the album is trash, I’ll still get my money’s worth.

Once Upon A Time… – The album opens with cinematic music playing to set the scene for a horrible audio quality skit that’s supposed to play as a movie, introducing the listener to a young nappy headed Smoothe and how he was introduced to the drug game.

Fuck Watcha Heard – The song begins with a blaring horn loop and a few words from Smoothe’s younger brother, Trigger Tha Gambler, whose also responsible for reciting the song’s hook. D/R Period brings in a dusty piano loop that sounds like it’s getting bullied by the grimy bass line, but they both work well underneath Smoothe’s raspy voice and Brownsville thuggery. The track ends with a short snippet to set up the next song (FYI: All the album’s skits sound like they were recorded on a cheap old school tape recorder, so naturally, they sound terrible).

Dollar Bill – Smoothe invites D.V. Alias Christ (who’s alias might be an early contender for worst alias of the year) to join him on the mic, as the two take turns imagining life without the dollar bill. D.V. mixes his verses with singing and rhyming (he also sings the hook), while Smoothe sticks to a traditional rhyming pattern and comes off like a semi-automatic, leaving the track full of holes. D/R backs the duo’s bars with a hard boom bap backdrop built around a loop (or interpolation) from Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”. Neither Smoothe or D.V. due a great job of staying on task and answering the question posed on the hook, but this still ends up being an entertaining listen with D/R’s bangin’ instrumental shining the brightest.

Glocks On Cock – This is the only track on Once Upon A Time that D/R Period is not credited with producing. Instead, Kenny Gee (not to be confused with the jazz saxophonist) serves up a gully instrumental that Smoothe uses to shoot niggas, sell drugs and talk his emcee shit over. Smoothe, whose voice is already raspy, reaches new levels of gravelly on this record, to the point I felt sorry for his esophagus and wanted to drink a glass of water on his behalf. The energy of the instrumental had me waiting for M.O.P. to pop up with a cameo, but the record is still decent despite their absence.

Broken Language – This is the grimy New York classic that will forever define Smoothe Da Hustler’s rap career. D/R creates a dark scrunch-face inducing backdrop, punctuated with a menacing bass line, that Smoothe and Trigger use to pass the mic back and forth like a hot potato, as they take turns listing all of the different occupations, roles and hats that they wear, which includes some pretty interesting, and uncomfortable to hear, titles (i.e., “the white girl gang banger, the Virgin Mary fucker, the Jesus hanger”). Brilliant record that sounds just as amazing today as it as it did when it first came out.

Speak My Peace – Smoothe shares a few words over dirge like chords before the next song comes in…

Neva Die Alone – Our host takes a stroll down memory lane, recalling the circumstances that made him turn to hustling in the streets, before using the final verse to focus on his new career as a rapper. D/R temporarily abandons his gutter boom-bap and cooks up a synthy jazzed-up bop that I thoroughly enjoyed. The track ends with a skit to set up the next song.

Food For Thoughts – Smoothe uses this cloudy and blunted backdrop to ask a series of rhetorical questions on the first two verses, then lists all the things he doesn’t want taken from him on the song’s final verse. Not a bad record, but Jadakiss’ “Why?” and Common and Mos Def’s “The Questions” we’re much better executed records with the same concept.

Family Conflicts – This short skit finds a hardheaded Smoothe getting some valuable advice from his mom, while Shirley Murdock’s classic “As We Lay” plays in the background. This bleeds into the next song…

Only Human – D/R takes another break away from his grimy soundscapes and offers up a tender groove that Smoothe uses to boast and reflect on his past decisions. Kovon comes through to sprinkle his soft vocals on the hook, putting the finishing touches on an obvious attempt at a crossover hit. The attempt might not have went as planned, but I still enjoyed the record.

Hustler’s Theme – D/R interpolates Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” for the backdrop and gives it a bit of a rock feel, while Kovon returns and does his best Curtis Mayfield impersonation on the hook. Smoothe matches the instrumental’s high energy, completely spazzing out, and spits a “ki flipping” bar that reminded me of Foxy Brown’s miscalculated “ki cut and flip “verse from Nas’ Affirmative Action” on It Was Written (considering Smoothe was ghostwriting for Foxy around this time, it’s very possible that he penned her “ki cut and flip” bar as well). Speaking of ki’s, this was dope.

Murdafest – Mediocre filler.

Hustlin’ – I know “Hustler” is part of Smoothe’s alias, but do we really need a song called “Hustler’s Theme” and “Hustlin’” that lyrically cover the same ground on the same album? Of course not, but the instrumental was pretty cool.

My Brother My Ace – Trigger returns for this one, as he and Smoothe tag team the mic one last time for the evening. The song title is corny, and the beat is bland, but I love Smoothe and Trigger’s chemistry on this one. I would have loved to hear a collab album from the Brothers Smith.

Dedication – Smoothe dedicates the first two verses of this song to all his haters and naysayers and then uses the final verse to pay respect to some of his peers and O.G.’s. D/R flips a S.O.S. Band record to create the smooth (no pun intended) instrumental that our host, tenaciously, picks apart with ease. Nice way to close out the evening.

After my first few listens to Once Upon A Time In America, I wasn’t crazy about the album. But after a few more listens it started to grow on me, and then a few more spins and I started to respect Smoothe Da Hustler’s emcee ability, and his gritty vocal tone begin to sound nice paired with D/R Period’s gutter brand of boom-bap. Smoothe’s content is redundant, a few of the instrumentals are lackluster and the lo-fi interludes do a poor job of tying the album’s flimsy theme together, but it’s still a solid debut from a competent emcee who unfortunately, never got a fair chance to prove himself in this genre we call hip-hop.


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2 Responses to Smoothe Da Hustler – Once Upon A Time In America (March 19, 1996)

  1. Daniel Blake says:

    Great review. Feel Smoothe is the greatest what could have been in hip hop with the exception of DOC

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