What Went Right With… Once Upon A Time In America by Smoothe Da Hustler?

A review of Smoothe Da Hustler's debut album Once Upon A Time In America

Smoothe Da Hustler, one of the greatest rappers of all time but also one of the most underrated and most under-exposed MCs of the 1990s, released his impressive debut LP Once Upon A Time In America in 1996. Smoothe’s singles “Hustlin’” and “Broken Language” played constantly on Hip-Hop radio shows back in 1995, and everyone was impressed by the latter song’s originality and the sheer lyrical talent that was displayed on both joints. Damon Smith aka Smoothe Da Hustler’s raspy, unrelenting lyricism was a thing of wonder, and along with his brother Tawan Smith aka Trigger Tha Gambler’s heavier, unyielding style, The Smith Bros. were a duo almost without peers; lyrically they were two of the most adept spitters in the game. Like Smoothe said in “Broken Language” they were the “hottest niggas out this winter” and because of this newfound yet underground fame in the 9-5, the Smith brothers both signed deals; Smoothe with Profile and Trigger with Def Jam. Despite their obvious talent and unsurpassable skill however, the pair’s solo albums were either ignored (Once Upon A Time In America) or shelved (Life’s A 50/50 Gamble). So with all that in mind, let’s look back at Smoothe Da Hustler’s debut LP…

According to an interview in The Source‘s April 1996 issue, Smoothe emerged after his conviction for drugs with a new purpose; no longer a hustler in the streets, he now had aspirations of becoming a hustler in the rap game. Smoothe’s album opens with the intro “Once Upon A Time…” with the sound of pan pipes and brothers Damon and Tawan growing up in front of the listener’s ears, going from playing “that car’s mine” in the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn to growing up and getting into crime. Then comes the first song “Fuck Whatcha Heard” and Da Hustler comes out blasting with his unique verbose style and impressive flow. Trigger Tha Gambler helps out on the chorus: “Fuck whatcha heard, here’s a Brownsville wild killer, project strangler, blood spiller”. Lyrics like this: “I’m breaking herbs down better than stick shifts wit’ clutches, Stiff dick touches clits like Brownsville lips to dutches” set the scene for the unique and unrivalled lyricism that was to come in the album. Switching flows from multisyllabic to almost spoken word in this track, Smoothe also gives some of his trademark “Broken Language”: “The mass destructor, cash conductor, class constructor…”

After the sound of women cutting cocaine to make cash, we’re lead to “Dollar Bill”, an ode to the greenback featuring D.V. Alias Khrist, a singer who was usually described in the ’90s as the “East Coast Nate Dogg”. D.V. gives a catchy chorus and opening half verse. This was potentially a radio-friendly, cross-over track (with its electric guitar sound over the head-nodding bassline-slash-beat sample from Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” which has been used in countless Hip-Hop songs including Notorious BIG’s “Warning” and Madstyle’s “Halls Of Horror”) and yet oddly, it didn’t get released as a single.

“Glocks On Cock” comes next and it exhibits some mean delivery against a relatively laid-back beat. The hook (“fingers on the trigger, times up, give it up, I’m that rough-neck nigga, glocks on cock”) along with the rest of the song could be seen as cliched amongst other mid-90’s Hip-Hop but after the gunshot sound at the close of the track comes something so utterly distinctive and impressive that you forget any shortcomings…

This is the juncture of the LP where the ’95 single “Broken Language” featuring Smoothe’s brother Trigger Tha Gambler comes in. The duo give a superb and flawless, no-chorus track which for the most part, puts forward a series of rhyming nouns. D.R. Period gives a very simple but appropriate, non-distracting beat with a string and two-note piano sound. After Trigger’s opener “Bodies get cremated on a Friday, the do or die way” the song bursts with almost non-stop kenning (“The gun reacher, bussin’ shot teacher, ya funeral-serving church preacher, ya black hearse coffin seeker”). The radio version of the track obscured “offensive” lines like “North Carolina vagina hitter” but I remember the line “The Noah killer, the expert slayer, the white girl gangbanger, the Virgin Mary fucker, the Jesus hanger” got a full-blown removal with just the beat playing. 😂 This song was unashamed in its content, for instance “the title stripper, the idol flipper, the cross breaker, and Bible ripper” would have right-wing conservatives’ blood boiling had they heard it; hey, maybe it’s better for tracks like this to bubble in the underground or they’d be banned. That being said, this single was played everywhere from Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 Rap Show to various pirate radio stations in the UK. I’m surprised this single didn’t get anywhere in the mainstream given how much it was played (it did chart on the Billboard 100 in the U.S.) but regardless, it was an underground smash with everyone who was anyone talking about it. One thing’s for certain: if airplay and streams were considered when charting a song’s success like it does today, this song would have blown-up. Rappers ranging from Papoose and Remy Ma, Redman and Method Man, One Click Bang, Canibus, Rose Kartel, and Killah Priest (and Yalo who I came across on YouTube whilst finding the original video) have made copies of this track but this is the original and best…

“Speak My Peace” is a quick interlude over an organ playing, and this leads to “Neva Die Alone” which contains an R’N’B chorus sang by Dawn Tallman. This is a catchy track and another potential cross-over song that wasn’t; I was and still am surprised that the radio didn’t play it. The song is about Smoothe following in his father’s footsteps, selling crack in order to eat and live. There’s some introspective lyrics about hood struggle and limited choices: “my mother never wanted me to go that route, but if I ain’t go the fast route, then we were ass-out” and there’s a tongue twister thrown in there for good measure: “fake crews that fake moves that make crews pay dues, real crews that kill crews who fake moves, so you chose; refuse.” The song closes with an unneeded skit-ending but this leads into “Food For Thoughts” which is a great track with unique anaphora verses. The first verse begins with “why is”, the second verse “what makes”, and the third “don’t take”. For example: “Why is it that every black brother talks the slang? Why is it that slang determines if a brother hangs? Why is it that people judge niggas by how they look? Why is it that hoodies on my head makes me a crook? Why is it that people got to struggle to survive? Why is it that 9 to 5 is harder to get in ’95?”

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“Family Conflicts” is next and it’s another interlude with Smoothe’s mother warning him about the perils of street life. This leads to “Only Human”, a song with another R’N’B chorus, this time by Kovon. This offering is slightly “Pop” but the tone is apt for the topic, which is similar to the aforementioned “Food For Thoughts”: “My little hustle turned into big ones, Little money turned into big funds, Box-cutters turned into big guns”. This is another very catchy, mid-nineties track, that again, could and should have been played on the radio to garner mainstream interest.

“Hustler’s Theme” sports a 1970s-esque sound thanks to the appropriate sample of Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead” and there’s yet another R’N’B-slash-Funk vocal during the chorus from Kovon who tries to imitate the original track. Part of this song was used to promote the release of this album (left), specifically a drug comparison verse, but unlike other drug mathematics (Foxy ahem Brown) this metaphor totted-up: “Let’s compare the rap way, using the crack way to show you niggas how I rep; let’s suppose this track was the plate, putting MCs on a triple beam scale, so I can simplify the weight. Now let’s see; 32 jams be 32 grams to the gut, subtract 4 of them, 28 grams to work without the cut. Now double it and multiply the sum by 2, 112 grams altogether now what you do, is let your shit harden and wait, ’cause while I marinate with 3 keys, I bless you with the big 8th”. I also have to mention that there was a “Hill Playaz Remix” version of this song featuring Trigger Tha Gambler and Rhyme Recka that I personally thought was superior, but it didn’t make it to either of Smoothe or Trigger’s albums…

“Murdafest” is next and it features Trigger Tha Gambler helping out with the hook. The joint has a mean sound on-par with “Broken Language” and has just as much lyrical menace from Smoothe: “Brain stretcher, cocaine blesser, mic finesser, neverthelesser, nigga like me put niggas like y’all niggas under pressure”. Trigger’s hook may sound a little dated two and a half decades after it was first made (“Crime portrayed as the wild wild west, quick to blast suckers, ’cause it’s known as a murdafest, kill ’em dead, fill ’em up with lead, murdafest bring a nigga blowe, one to your head”) but this song was the shit back in the day.

“Hustlin’”, one of the original pre-LP singles, has a laid-back sound and a slower beat but Smoothe, as he usually does, makes it sound more complex (“I gotta break something to make something, if I don’t make something by breaking something, them I’ma take something”). The hook (“My everyday lifestyle ain’t nothing but a hustle (hustle), gamble (gamble), slinging (slinging), doing stick-ups (nobody move a muscle)” adheres to the autobiographical nature of the album. There’s also some mild humour here and there: “I’m quick to blast niggas, booty-ass niggas, tryna pass niggas, talking that garbage, that’s why I trash niggas” and “I roll with thieves robbin’ hoods, so I ain’t give niggas shit”.

Next is the classic “My Brother My Ace”, a brilliant song with fantastic yet simplistic production which contains a solitary vocal sample (“Taboo” by Impact) that compliments the unique back-and-forth rhyming between Smoothe and Trigger. Parts of the song feature a Japanese Senryu, a reversible poem in Hip-Hop form. The song begins with Smoothe declaring to Trigger “You’re my blood, my motherfucking heart, we was doing it back to back from the start” and this sets the stage for some fantastic back to back and back and forth rhyming. There’s some near-palindrome sentences: “I’ll move with threats, threats I’ll move with, bruise shit, mentally confuse and lose shit. Shit lose the confused, mentally shit bruise a crew, slick” and “Fake fronting faggots, soft like fabric, I got gadgets, my craft cause static, pussy niggas get dramatic. Dramatic, your niggas pussy static, cause craft, my gadgets got a fabric like soft faggots, fronting fake if you’re backwards“. And the classic quotable: “Smoothe Da Hustler Trigger nigga, It’s the nigga Trigg and Smoothe Da Hustler. Customer-serving drug smuggler, smuggling drugs serving customer. DR Period, Period DR. We are, are we? No doubt, doubt no. Y’all see nigga, nigga see y’all”. There’s also the alternate intermingling of each other’s names “T (S) R (M) I (O) G (O) G (T) E (H) R (E)”. And I’ve gotta say; that chorus brings back memories of listening to this on my headphones during the walk home from school… “You’re my brother right? No doubt. You getting down? No doubt. Word? Word to mother Smoothe/Trigg I’m going all out”…

The album finishes with “Dedication”, another potential cross-over song with another catchy R’N’B chorus from Kovon but Smoothe makes what could be a corny track into a credible joint with his unrelenting lyrics. There’s lots of old and new-school shout-outs (“I dug rap from Melle Mel on Soul Sonic”) and humour (“Those that hang around me be telling me girls call me a dog so I guess that’s why they hound me”). This is a very satisfying listen and a decent way of closing the album.

The stand out tracks are of course “Broken Language” and “My Brother My Ace” but “Fuck Whatcha Heard”, “Dollar Bill”, “Food For Thoughts”, “Murdafest”, and “Hustlin’” are also great tracks. Even the more introspective songs such as “Neva Die Alone”, “Only Human” and “Dedication” are highly satisfying, in fact these three tracks are examples of how to properly do Hip-Hop with a Pop-friendly, R&B edge. With the exception of Kenny Gee’s “Glocks On Cock”, the entire album is produced by DR Period, who famously and similarly produced all-but-one of the songs in M.O.P.’s debut LP To The Death.

In terms of the album artist, I have to say that it’s rare for one, let alone two rappers to employ obscure or underused lyrical concepts such as kenning, anaphora, and palindromes into their music. Surely anyone worth their salt would place Smoothe and Trigg in their Top 5 Dead Or Alive list?

With a slew of young people’s reactions to the pair’s “Broken Language” music video posted on YouTube, the recent resurgence in interest prompted me to write about this highly original and often neglected and overlooked song and album. It’s quite irritating that anyone who hears this track is instantly impressed with it but it’s relegated to the “underground” because by definition not that many people have heard it. Back in ’96, I used to put this on and pass one of my in-ear headphones to class-mates who were into other genres of music and it never failed to impress…

Word is that Smoothe and Trigger have an updated version of “Broken Language” called “Brooklyn Language” which is still unreleased (it was supposed to be on a solo album titled Sir Vival). There have also been talks of making a super-group by pairing The Smith Bros. with fellow Brownsvillians M.O.P. (along with D/R Period producing) called “Brooklyn Boys Club” (BBC). That being said, the duo’s original Ruckus Clique (which consisted of Smoothe Da Hustler, Trigger Tha Gambler, D.V. Alias Khrist, Mad Pain, Retsam, and Gotti according to an interview with The Source) or Hill Players (who were Smoothe, Trigger, D.V., Mad Pain, Retsam, and Rhyme Recka according to an interview with Elements Magazine) went through various guises and despite being mentioned as much as “SMG” in their songs, they failed to release an album under either moniker.

Recorded at Nexx Level Studios, this album would sew the seeds and pave the way for The Nexx Level clique who were filled with some of the best rappers of the golden era, and yet none of them got the respect they deserved, languishing in the underground while other weaker rappers rose to the top during the late nineties and early noughties. Smoothe, Trigger, Khrist, Papoose, Retsam, Nizam, Rhyme Recka, Gold’En Smiles, Pain, Boogie, Shyste (and whoever I missed from the rest of the collective) never got recognition from the mainstream but I guess that’s for another article, and maybe I’ll review their one and only and hard-to-find compilation album All Up In Ya.

You could argue that this album is a 9/10; Smoothe’s unique lyricism is very notable and memorable but the production is sometimes lacking originality. The fact that Once Upon A Time In America is so under-exposed and the artist in question so underrated however, I’d counter any such suggestion and say that this LP deserves a perfect score. Whether 10 or 9, this is a far-cry from the paltry 3 ½ mics out of 5 The Source gave in their review. This album might not be a flawless masterpiece in terms of beats but there’s so many classic songs from “Broken Language” to “My Brother My Ace” that these elevate this LP to something extremely special and noteworthy. Critics for The Source and even the print advert above focussed on the drug-selling and the drug-mathematics aspect, which is understandable given some of the content and Smoothe’s incarceration, but this album was and is so much more. It’s a landmark Lyrical Hip-Hop album for anyone who lived through the golden era.

I have fond memories listening to Smoothe Da Hustler’s debut cassette on my Walkman and reciting “Broken Language” (which I knew all the words to) it kept me sane during my school days in the mid-to-late nineties along with rappers such as the Boot Camp Clik, Mobb Deep, and Heather B. I even recall playing this album in class when our teacher allowed us to play our own music a few days before breaking up for the summer holidays. I should have probably kept the cassette version I once owned but I later binned it for favour of the CD, both of which now sell in the £20 to £50 range since they’re out of print. Regardless of monetary worth, this album is of untold value since it represents the heights of lyrical Hip-Hop music, a time when it seemed, every MC was trying to out-do each other’s rhymes. Once Upon A Time In America is yet another album the contemporary mainstream forgets to mention when they discuss ’90s rap but real Hip-Hop heads can never forget this classic yet underappreciated LP. Once Upon A Time In America is gonna be with us forever. Thank you Smoothe.

Once Upon A Time A Long Time Ago.

Beats: 8/10

Rhymes: 10/10

Overall: 10/10

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