Before I start this post, I want to send my condolences to all the families that lost a child during the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, TX last week. I can’t imagine the pain you’re experiencing right now, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.
After Black Moon laid the foundation for the Boot Camp Clik with their monumental 1993 debut album, Enta Da Stage, they would pass the baton to Smif-N-Wessun who would continue to build on the BCC legacy with another damn near flawless work in the form of their 1995 debut album, Dah Shinin’. With two classic albums under their collective belts, the Brooklyn New York based collective would introduce the world to the next chapter and third installment of the BCC: Ruck (better known as Sean Price (rip)) and Rock (aka Rockness, aka Da Rockness Monsta), aka Ruckus and Rockness, aka Sparkski and Dutch, but professional known as Heltah Skeltah. They would release their debut album, Nocturnal, in the summer of 1996.
Unlike Enta Da Stage and Dah Shinin’, which were both entirely produced by Da Beatminerz, Heltah Skeltah would call on the minerz of beats to produce about half of Nocturnal, letting a few other hands take care of the rest of the album. Nocturnal would render three singles, peaking at thirty-five on the Billboard’s Top 200 and five on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Charts. Even though the album wasn’t a commercial success it did receive positive reviews from most of the critics. (By the way, Ruck’s shoutouts in the liner notes for Nocturnal are hi-larious!).
But the question of the day is: would it stand up to the BCC projects that came before?
Intro (Here We Come) – The first thing you hear on Nocturnal is a male voice saying, “What the hell was your dick doing in the milk, man?” (Not to be confused with “milkman,” which would give the question and answer completely different context), which has to be the weirdest start to any album in the history of music. Then a basic drum beat, accompanied by slick “wah wah” guitar licks (credited to Lord Jamar and Buckshot Shorty) and a faint posse war chant (“Here we come”) comes in, followed by the voice of Starang Wondah (aka Gunn Clappa Number One, who makes up one-third of OGC aka the Originoo Gunn Clappaz), who explains the meaning of the word “nocturnal” and introduces the listener to the album. Then Rock takes the floor and gets off a few bars in his distinctive deep baritone vocal tone, delivered with his robotic-reggaeish flow to warm things up for the evening.
Letha Brainz Blo – Baby Paul laces Heltah Skeltah with a slick symphonic backdrop, while Ruck and Rock give us our first full dosage of their one-two punch, and they don’t disappoint. The thugged-out hook (“if you grin, we’ll let your brains blow”) is hi-larious to me, but I’ve got a slightly twisted sense of humor, so don’t mind me.
Undastand – The melodic sample that Baby Paul sprinkles this instrumental with is the audio equivalent of manna falling from heaven, and it lands perfectly on top of his rugged drums, as Heltah Skeltah declares and wages war on all rappers within earshot. Speaking of heaven, whoever owned the publishing rights to the sampled record (“Soul Girl” by Jeanne & the Darlings) and gave clearance must have been a rigid God-fearing religious person, as all of Ruck and Rock’s curses are edited out of the song. But the censorship doesn’t subtract from the duo’s relentless barrage of quality rhymes and the creamy goodness of the track.
Who Dat? – Ruck and Rock each get off a quick verse over a relaxed but devious sounding Buckshot produced instrumental. It sounds like both emcees are spittin’ “off the top of the dome” freestyles on this one, and they both sound solid. Rock gets interrupted mid-verse by a knock at the door, and that bleeds right into the next song…
Sean Price – Based on the song title, I was sure this was going to be a Ruckus solo joint, but instead, Sean turns it into a duet as he invites his buddy, Illa Noyz (which is a dope alias by the way) to join him on the track. Illa’s flow and delivery give off hood Shakespeare vibes (in a good way), while Ruck continues to impress with braggadocious bully raps, and he adds a tipsy Dancehall-esque style chant on the hook, which works well with the drowsy dimly lit instrumentation.
Clan’s, Posse’s, Crew’s & Clik’s – This one starts with Evil Dee’s thick bending bass line and Rock spotting “six bitch ass niggas on the corner.” Then the drums drop, and Sparkski and Dutch proceed to talk their shit, threatening to beat up and shoot up all “clans, posses, crews and clicks,” and disrespectfully, invite them all to suck upon their private parts on the hook. I miss good old fashion bully rap like this.
Therapy – This was the third single released from Nocturnal. Rock plays a man struggling with his violent thoughts, so he seeks help from (wait for it…) Dr. Kill Patient, played by Ruck, who doesn’t even know what he specializes in (after he introduces himself to Rock at the beginning of the song, he hi-lariously mumbles about being “your psycho…sick…sadomasochistic…). Dr. Kill Patient starts the session off by offering Rock a “six pack and a spliff,” before asking him a series of blunt (no pun intended) questions (i.e., “Have you been touched the wrong way? Involved in gun play? Did your momma beat you?”) and accusing him of being a crackhead. Rock begins to make progress during the second verse when he thinks back to “the nineties, that’s when life got extra grimy”, which he later identifies was fueled by his “eighties anger”, brought on by feeling abandoned by his biological family (there’s some deep shit to unpack here!), to which the good doctor haphazardly, recommends “prescribed poetry that people perceive as potent” (aka dope hip-hop music). Baby Paul’s melodically soothing instrumental, along with the lovely vocals of the beautiful Ms. Vinia Mojica (who most of us were introduced to on The Low End Theory’s “Verses From The Abstract” (Tribe Degrees of Separation: check)) on the hook, complete this underrated gem of a record that Charlamagne Tha God could use as his theme music.
Place To Be – More battle/bully raps over a hard beat.
Soldiers Gone Psyco – If I had to leave one song off Nocturnal it would probably be this one. It’s not a bad song, it’s just not as strong as some of the other joints on the album.
The Square (Triple R) – Supreme builds this instrumental around urgently epic sounding keyboard chords, while Heltah Skeltah invites the Representativz (comprised of Rock’s little brother, Lidu Rock, and Steele’s (from Smif-N-Wessun) cousin and the producer of this track, Supreme The Eloheem) to join them on the track, weaving all the verses together with another clever violent hook. This was sick, and definitely one of my favorite records on Nocturnal.
Da Wiggy – If I had to pick a second song to leave off Nocturnal it would be this one.
Gettin Ass Gettin Ass – Heltah Skeltah provides a little comic relief with this interlude. Ruck calls up a chick (played by Vinia Mojica) that he’s been trying to bone, while a super thirsty (borderline perverted) Rock listens to his buddy’s conversation, laughing in the background and repeatedly asks Ruck to ask the chick if she has a friend, to which Ruck hi-lariously keeps ignoring as he spits game to the object of his erection.
Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka – This was the lead single from Nocturnal and one of the few songs I remember from back in the day, even though I’ve never been able to pronounce the third word in the song title. All three legs of the Originoo Gunn Clappaz (Starang Wondah, Louieville Sluggah and Top Dog) join Rock and Ruck, as all five emcees take turns verbally bashing Baby Paul’s beautiful instrumental in the face. The soothing bass line in this joint is guaranteed to leave you in a trance.
Prowl – Mr. Walt builds this backdrop around a chilling loop taken from the music from the Mission Impossible TV show, as Heltah Skeltah and Louieville Sluggah rep for the nighttime, spreading light and “smacking the shit out of a few ignorant motherfuckers” along the way. Ruck almost sounds bored as he effortlessly spews bars, delivering the best verse of the song: “I devour, niggas who want to test me and defy me, it my Giuliani or the Illuminati, but I be writing plans of attack in my journal, so Ruck, Rock, ‘Ville Sluggah remain nocturnal, seeing through sheisty shit, shining like I’m solar, penetrate through darkness, bounce like I’m sonar”. This is a tough record.
Grate Unknown – Ruck got a solo joint earlier in the evening, so it’s only right that Rock gets one as well. Unlike Ruck (who does introduce his partner in rhyme at the beginning of the song) who had a guest join him on his dolo mission, Rock solely nibbles on this soulful slow-rolling instrumental (credited to Shaleek, who received his first and only other production credit of the night for Ruck’s joint “Sean Price”) that comes equipped with a haunting female vocal, properly sprinkled on the hook. This was nice.
Operation Lockdown – This was the second single from Nocturnal. E-Swift from Tha Alkaholiks builds this silky-smooth backdrop around a luscious harp loop taken from an old George Benson record, as Heltah Skeltah takes one last swing, landing a final blow on the chin of the competition. Buckshot finally shows his face (or voice), but only in the form of a few adlibs. It would have been nice to hear Buck add a verse next to his BCC bredrin, but the record is still dope without it.
Hidden Track – Heltah Skeltah brings back the previous instrumental from “Operation Lock Down” for this hidden Outro. Ruck plays a Dominican accented cat named DeJesus (who sounds a lot like David “Big Papi” Ortiz) who shares his perspective on the current state of hip-hop and based on his opinion from over twenty-five years ago, I’m sure he would hate what most of the music sounds like today. This was hi-larious, and a great way to end the album.
Heltah Skeltah doesn’t give you a bunch of variety on Nocturnal. Just a steady dose of hard beats, violent battle bars aimed at everybody who is not a part of the Boot Camp Clik, and a little comic relief sprinkled in to break up the constant barrage of east coast thuggery; and I enjoyed most of it. Ruck and Rock are both formidable emcees (with Ruck being the more skilled), who might be the strongest lyricists in the BCC not named Buckshot Shorty (I’d be willing to argue that Sean Price was iller than Buckshot, but that’s a conversation for another day). Nocturnal may not be as revered as Enta Da Stage and Dah Shinin’, but it’s a great debut album from an underappreciated duo who I believe were more than capable of living out the violence they inflict in their rhymes.