What Went Right With… Nocturnal by Heltah Skeltah?

An image of an owl to illustrate the review of Heltah Skeltah's debut album Nocturnal by

The Boot Camp Clik really made an impact on Hip-Hop music in the nineties and after two great albums from Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun, Heltah Skeltah followed these classic LPs with one of their own. “Nocturnal” was the first release from the B.C.C. that featured outside production (as well as some in-house production from Da Beatminerz) but despite this, the duo and their début stayed true to the Clik’s 90’s Brooklynite aesthetic. Heltah Skeltah created an album filled with grimy, dark, and hardcore content, the beats were striking and the rhymes were spectacular.

Heltah Skeltah for those who don’t know consisted of Ruck and Rock aka Sean Price and Rockness Monsta aka Sparksy And Dutch, but regardless of their ever-changing monikers, they were one of the greatest Hip-Hop duos of all time. With the pair giving fantastic back-and-forth, multisyllabic rhymes with flawless deliveries that made use of enjambment and assonance, the duo were a force to be reckoned with. With Rock’s deeper and slightly more rugged voice and Ruck sporting a more effortless and quick-witted flow, these ex-members (or possibly ex-member) of the New York gang The Decepticons were a potent mix of lyricism and credibility. With their début album “Nocturnal” the pair brought us an impressive LP that was jam-packed with classics, this was without a doubt an important album for the Hip-Hop genre.

The album begins with the strange line “What the hell was your dick doing in the milk, man?” and this was undoubtedly one of Sean Price’s stoned sessions. But after this surreal opening, the first track (produced by Black Moon‘s Buckshot & Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar) ushers in a hardcore style that remains throughout the entire album. “Intro (Here We Come)” is half introduction and half song, a great brooding opening track with Originoo Gunn Clappaz’ Starang Wondah introducing not only the album but also members of the Boot Camp Clik. Starang then introduces Rockness Monsta who just blasts out of the speakers with his trademark booming voice. Rock’s lyrics in this song form a cento, a lyrical collage which runs through the tracklisting of the LP à la GZA’s “Labels”. Amidst the quiet chanting in the background “If you a dedicated soldier say Here We Come”, Rock also finds time to have a dig at Hip-Pop; “Sean Price will slice that punk shit you reppin’ G; drugs, jewels, and Versace, niggas need Therapy”. The intro fades out and then it’s “Letha Brainz Blo” which incorporates some tranquil production courtesy of Baby Paul with Heltah Skeltah’s typical hardcore lyricism. Rock spits a little of his ultra-violence with “I’ve got enough slugs for your mom in my clip” and “my brass knuckles make your knees buckle”. Rock goes on “…You punk bastard, you could get the gat quick, or your ass kicked, that dry shit, your lips spit, get the Chapstik, or a fat dick, and that’s it” whereas Ruck brings his more humorous content like “One, two, three four five, six seven eight niggas, oh shit where’s my nine?”. Regardless of style, this track showcases the pair’s expertise in flow and delivery and there’s also Rock’s classic chorus “Let the madness begin, let the brains blow if you grin”.

Then comes “Undastand” and this is another juxtaposed track with the production resembling a soothing lullaby that is smacked up against the pair’s hardcore rhymes. With Ruck rhyming “Who is this getting swift with this pugilist, equipped with the lyrical gift to flip scripts? People duck sick, don’t wanna touch with that ruff shit, that Ruck kick, break boys bones like Roy Jones” and Rock spiting his aggressive lines “Watch, the, nine millimetre brain beater, you won’t be beefing and your heart won’t be beating either” we get a great mix of the brilliant and the brutal.

Next it’s a quick intro track titled “Who Dat?” which features a few lines from Ruck and Rock. Then after a quick skit about a secret knock, this blends into the song “Sean Price”, a solo joint from Ruck which also features his brother Illa Noyz. The powerful opening line from Ruck affirms his lyrical ability “Some say Sean Price is, nicest on mic devices, Pack power which make me more mightier than Isis” and although marijuana is said to be this MC’s metronome (“Boom in my system keeps me in time with tunes”) according to an interview I once read, Sean was high on mushrooms when he recorded this track. But regardless of the substances used to create this opus, “Sean Price” is catchy as hell, especially the chorus; “I’m not sure any more more, Who is knocking at my door door”. With the slightly moody sound which includes pitch-shifted vocals and a single harp strike, this song also features a comedic edge with Sean declaring “If I had dollars for every nigga who dared, to battle me on microphones, I’d fuck around and be a millionaire”, his brother Illa Noyz also gives us the great final line “you done away like Faye”.

The following song (produced by Black Moon‘s DJ Evil Dee) is “Clan’s, Posse’s, Crew’s, and Clik’s” and this is a low-key song which features castanets and a steady beat with Rock and Ruck breaking down how other clans, posses, crews, and cliques are weaker than Heltah Skeltah and the Boot Camp Clik. Rockness Monsta has a fantastic line which name drops members of Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun; “I be the drama bringer, wringer of a niggas neck, Wrecker of a set I Buck-shots with a Steel Tec”. Ruck then delivers a few lines with enjambments “Girls demand me, mad bitches I slam the, microphone you hand me ’til the judge remand me” proving the duo’s expertise at rapping.

Then comes “Therapy” a song which takes the form of a therapy session with Rock as the patient and Ruck playing the role of psychiatrist. This song was about as “mainstream” as the album got, and despite there being an R’N’B chorus sang by Vinia Mojica, there’s some great back-and-forth rhymes from the duo. With Ruck playing shrink he rhymes “Just trying to get into your head, Pardon the way I treat you, Tell me bout your scar, did your momma beat ya?”. At one point after being asked “did you have any legal source of income?” Rock jokingly replies with a little play on words “I said farewell to welfare crazy long ago, They want you to work for them peanuts now, Man you need a shrink if you think I’mma go”

Then it’s the slightly comedic song “Place To Be” with Ruck and Rock convincing the listener or any hypothetical person to choose a side between the two rappers. The chorus plays like a persuasive game of tug-of-war, with each MC alternately saying “Place to be is on my side, duke, ’cause you don’t wanna be the target when I fly the coop”. With Ruck’s hilarious line “Buenos Días, You know me as, Ruck el numero uno, Papi chulo stickin’ dick to yo chick culo” Rock also spits “somebody tell the fat lady that she’s up in five minutes” proving the duo to be just as funny as they are furious.

For the next two tracks it’s a slight change of pace with grittier, more hardcore tracks. First it’s “Soldiers Gone Psyco” which is co-produced by and also features a great chorus from Rock; “Will all true warriors in the house say ‘aye’, Say ‘aye’, if you not scared to die. If you can look a nightmare square in the eye, say ‘aye’, soldiers gone psycho, why?” and this track also serves as an example of each MC’s excellent multisyllabic flow. Then it’s “The Square (Triple R)” featuring fellow Boot Camp compadres The Representativz and this track is also produced by Supreme of the Repz. This song has a mean piano-laden beat with a great layered chorus with the repeated “We equal MC Squared” line in the background over the main “We be Triple R rated, but we form a Square, Ruck and Rock, Representativz, ya worst nightmare. Yo, when push come to shove, then I push and shove, slugs in that nigga’s mug, when he show us no love”. The Representativz (Supreme and Rock’s little brother Lidu Rock) also bring their great wordplay but Rockness steals the show with lines like “When will you piranhas learn? Biting my shit, like Larry you fish burn”. The verse then ends with the brilliant “You’d rather be, trapped in a lion’s den with pork chop draws, than front on me”.

Produced by Da Beatminerz’ Mr. Walt, “Da Wiggy” is a more sedate song and it’s possibly the weakest track on the LP. But that being said, when compared to other mainstream Hip-Hop of the time this is still pretty decent. Despite the average beat “Da Wiggy” is still head-knodding and the duo give their consistently great lyrics like Ruck’s “A nigga run shit like track-meets, when blacks meets, in the back streets, my gat greets, niggas that don’t recognize my rap sheet”. The chorus (“We don’t give a wiggy word”) features the sped-up voice of Rock in the background credited as “Da Rockness Monstas” adding a little touch of comedy to the proceedings.

A skit then follows titled “Gettin Ass Gettin Ass” with Sean making a booty call and a few jokes and impressions. Then comes “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka” featuring the Originoo Gunn Clappaz (as The Fab 5) a slight hit which made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995. With Ruck speaking some “Eshkoshin” at the close of the song, I have to say that even to this day I still have no idea what this or the title means; is it gibberish or something else? In either case this track was a certified banger in the mid-nineties with everybody waiting for Ruck, Rock, Starang Wondah, Louieville Sluggh, and Top Dog to drop their collective album that sadly never came to fruition. With great lines from Rock “Like Rockerfeller you hit rock bottom when you enter” and from Ruck “make niggas beat it and scream like Michael” this is just a classic Hip-Hop track that everybody should know…

Then it’s “Prowl” which is a fantastic song produced by Mr. Walt. “Prowl” also features Louieville Sluggah of O.G.C. and it’s a great mean track with heavy bass and an overall dark sound thanks largely to the Portishead sample. Again we have a layered chorus with Rock saying “We see in the dark like an owl, daytime’s used to plot schemes for the night prowl. Out to eliminate those who live foul, daytime’s used to plot schemes for the night prowl” whilst Ruck mutters “Who we be? We be the B double-O T-C-A-M-P” in the background.

Produced by Shaleek, “Grate Unknown”, a solo joint from Rockness Monsta is up next. With a steady beat, a tranquil melody, and some unrelenting lyricism from Rock, there’s also some macabre and violent lyrics; “Follow the trail of broken backs and, at the end of it you’ll find me standing, with my blackjack, with a Smith and Wesson on my side, smoking – not the gat”. This song also features a classic chorus that I’m sure every Heltah Skeltah fan can recite; “If you don’t know like you know, then act like you know like I know”.

The final track “Operation Lock Down” (along with “Outro”) is a beautiful song with a hypnotic and soothing harp against a heavy rhythm. Produced by Tha Alkaholiks’ E-Swift, this was a single that was played everywhere including Yo! MTV Raps but sadly it never reached the dizzying heights of the Top 10. With Ruck giving his Latin-accented intro “I mean, it was cool at first you know, Jus’ you know, rapping about nothing, But then like whut happened woz, The people they started to say things that made sense…” the track instantly transports you to a time when the BCC ruled underground Hip-Hop. With Rockness Monsta giving a great epistrophe which includes “Nevertheless y’all, We out to save the shit before it’s dead y’all, Lock it down with the full-court press y’all” this is yet another song which proves the duo to be two of the all-time greats of the genre. This is a classic Hip-Hop track in every way, everybody say “This is the BCC, and double D, in the ninety-now we lock it down!”

Although this album received acclaim from real Hip-Hop heads, “Nocturnal” was extremely undervalued by the wider music business and also by the mainstream media. 1996 was probably the most prolific year for underrating great Hip-Hop, and numerous albums were relegated to the underground out of ignorance or corruption. One week after sleeping on Heather B’s “Takin Mine”, the media were also ignoring Heltah Skeltah’s “Nocturnal”. Receiving only 3 ½ mics from The Source, “Nocturnal” was grossly underrated when it was released and that’s why in the same year albums like Master P’s “Ice Cream Man” outsold this classic LP. This was a near perfect street-centric album that paid no attention to a genre that was slowly becoming more Pop than Hip-Hop, and thanks to this undiluted content, it’s still a great album twenty years later… yes, it’s aged that well. Some of the lyrics contained within “Nocturnal” are more clever and memorable than contemporary Hip-Hop, in fact when I tweeted Rockness Monsta to say that his old lyrics were better than lyrics by rappers today he even tweeted me to point out how old that particular bar was. I guess classic lines never get old whereas garbage begins to rot almost instantly.

With back-to-back ignorance from critics, radio, and music television, and the ever-growing sciolism within the mainstream rap community, Hip-Hop was slowly transformed into a one-dimensional, corny, money-centric genre in the late nineties. Either everyone had something wrong with their ears or people were being brainwashed by the mass media. These are the only two explanations that I can come up with as to why an album like this sold a mere 250,000 copies whereas an inferior album like “Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath” sold over a 1,000,000. For anybody who was a real fan of Hip-Hop, “Nocturnal” was one of the CD’s or cassettes that became the soundtrack for 1996 and 1997, and Ruck and Rock proved to be two of the greatest MC’s of that era. Heltah Skeltah moved Boot Camp Clik’s sound away from the backpack age to their own unique brand of East Coast Hip-Hop. With their completely original style comprising of dark, brooding sounds mixed with humorous lyrics peppered with a little braggadocio and violence, Heltah Skeltah was a style unto itself. This duo were two of the most talented and skilled rappers in the nineties and their first LP “Nocturnal” was a brilliant piece of work.

Locked It Down.

Beats: 9/10

Rhymes: 10/10

Overall: 10/10

7 replies »

  1. This album is a classic! One of the greatest rap albums of all time! You can listen to this album from start to end without skipping a track. Rock and Ruck (Sean Price) prove they were leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. You’re right! How did this classic album only sell peanuts whereas a crappy album like Master P’s Ice Cream Man went platinum. I don’t get it! 1996 was a great year for hip hop, yet people decided to buy Master P’s music. Nobody cared about Dr Dre after he left Death Row Records. Tupac dissed him twice, his compilation got negative reviews, and The Firm album , which he executively produced, was a flop. Say what you will about Eminem, but if it weren’t for him, he would be just like Master P: a rich guy that nobody cares about. Eminem made Dr Dre relevant again.

    Back to the subject of Heltah Skeltah, I think they could be considered the greatest duo of all time. They are right up there with Outkast and Mobb Deep. I’m gonna listen to rest of their discography.

    By the way, thank you for introducing me to the Boot Camp Clik. I never knew they were big in the 90s. Kinda like an underground version of the Wu Tang Clan. Whenever someone mentions of 90s Hip Hop, people will instantly think Tupac, Notorious BIG, Jay Z, Nas, but will give a weird look if you mentioned BCC. People are being sold a rose-tinted version of the 90s (including 90s Hip Hop).

    • 80s and 90s music as well as 80s/90s fashion/movies/television etc. has been lied about or suppressed by the mainstream. Groups like the Boot Camp Clik had a decent sized following but nobody really mentions them today because when it comes to entertainment history, we’ve been thriving in a culture of ignorance for almost two decades. Hip-Hop in particular seems to have fallen afoul and targeted by revisionists – they want to make it look like only a certain few were talented, popular, or respected. The younger generation needs to ask real people about the golden era instead of relying on the mainstream media – they only pedal bullshit and lies.

    • You’re right about Dr. Dre . Between 1994 & 1996 he released four compilation albums . You can check this link from his Wikipedia discography .

      He appeared on two hit songs . “California Love” with Tupac Shakur & Roger Troutman & “No Diggity” with Blackstreet & Queen Pen .

      The Firm album was not a success . I don’t know if it even went Gold in the U.S.A. . You’d have to look that up . Although , the track “Desperados” featuring Canibus was really good .

      1994 to 1998 were not good years for Dr. Dre . He could have been considered a washed-up has-been & been remembered for the stuff he did from 1987 to 1993 . Like how MC Ren or DJ Yella are remembered today .

      Because of his luck with signing Eminem he is considered a “hip hop legend” .

      I don’t know if Dr. Dre personally had much to do with the signings of Kendrick Lamar , 50 Cent or The Game . Maybe his A&R reps found them . I am not a fan of Dre or any of those big acts he signed so I haven’t researched them .

      Imagine if Eazy-E , Tupac , Big Punisher , Big L & Biggie Smalls were all alive today .

      I don’t think mainstream hip hop would be quite as bad as it is today . Big Pun & Big L probably would have followed the career trajectory of someone like KRS-One or Masta Ace & became credible lyrical legends who mostly worked in the underground & indie scenes . Eazy-E may have signed with Aftermath & played second fiddle to Dre . Biggie Smalls & Tupac would have kept Eminem on a leash . If Biggie & Tupac squashed their beef & had not tragically been murdered Eminem wouldn’t have taken their lane over . They were simply too popular & influential . When Eminem’s racist tapes came out some of those legendary deceased rappers probably would have sat him down . Also , all of them could have got on one track & dissed him & Eminem would’ve lost an unwinnable battle .

    • That’s assuming a lot of these deceased artists – look at Notorious Big’s style when he was featured in The Source’s Unsigned Hype and then compare that to “Hypnotize”. Big Punisher went from “Fire Water” to “Still Not A Player”, Big L was on the verge of signing with Jay-Z and he started calling himself “Corleone”, Tupac went from being political to wearing gold chains and laying in a bathtub almost nude for a photo-shoot. These rappers obviously could be influenced by money, fame (or other things) and I think it’s wishful thinking that they would have kept the game in check – almost everybody else went the wrong way – why not them? Hell, even Rakim signed with Dre’s Aftermath for a while – the only people who have remained consistent are people like KRS-One, Professor Griff, or Lord Jamar, but they don’t have any say when it comes to the mainstream.

    • I guess you’re right . Still , I think Big Pun & Big L would have faded out of the mainstream & would have become independent . I guess like how some of The Wu-Tang Clan members solo projects are today . Eazy-E , Tupac & Biggie would have remained mainstream like Busta Rhymes or Common are today .

  2. Exactly! 90s music is put on a pedestal. Nearly everything people hate about today’s music came from the 90s. Autotune, novelty songs, manufactured Pop acts, boy bands/girl groups, terrible rappers, the stereotypical “Rich Nigga with the Bitches, Cars, Bling” content, attention seeking dickheads who constantly appear on everyone’s music video and song to promote themselves, famous for nothing skanks, overrated rock bands. The 90s had a huge influence on today’s music and that’s not always in a good way. I liked Eddie Vedder, but he has a horrible influence because his style was imitated by countless hacks like Chad Krueger of Nickelback and the cunt from Creed and other fakes. The rock music in the late 90s were some of the worst in rock music history.

    • It’s slightly wrong to blame the original person for all the bullshit they’ve inadvertently spawned though. Yes Nickelback was shite but Pearl Jam were cool, it’s hardly Grunge’s fault that Rock became so mediocre in the noughties, that’s like blaming John Lennon for Liam Gallagher.

      On the topic of nineties rappers, bragging about your chain and being mysoginistic wasn’t exactly a new thing, Slick Rick was making songs like this in the eighties while he was draped in gold jewels…

      What bugs me is the way the mainstream ignores the decent/credible stuff from the eighties/nineties (like Heltah Skeltah) just because it never really influenced anybody for the next decade.

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