Released 15 years ago, Monkey Barz was the birth of Sean Price, “the brokest rapper you know.” Read about how the Brooklyn MC pulled off one of the greatest reinventions in rap history.
The lifestyle that’s afforded a professional rap artist is a lavish one, filled with an excess of finances, a harem of beautiful women, and other spoils of the trade. This may be the case for a handful of rappers who have dominated the Billboard charts, mastered the art of independence, or parlayed their success into lucrative business ventures outside of music. But for the overwhelming majority of artists, the reality is far less enticing. Creative differences, contractual limbo, lackluster promotional budgets, and marginal financial compensation can weigh on a rapper’s psyche, resulting in a number of talented MCs becoming disenchanted with the grind and fading into obscurity. One rap artist who managed to flip the script and channel his pain into a second chance at glory is the late Sean Price, who embodied the persona of the “Struggle Rapper” like none before him and brought a whole new meaning to reality rap.
A product of Brownsville, Brooklyn, Price, who earned the nickname “Ruckus” as a member of the Brooklyn gang Decepticons, linked up with fellow Brownsville tough Rock, forming the rap duo Heltah Skeltah. One arm of the Brownsville based rap crew Boot Camp Clik, Heltah Skeltah first appeared on Smif-N-Wessun’s 1995 debut, Dah Shinin‘, on the tracks “Wontime,” “Cession at da Doghillee,” and “Let’s Git It On,” but would blow up as one of rap’s most anticipated new acts via their appearance on the hit single “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka.” Cast alongside Boot Camp Clik trio O.G.C. — as the short-lived group The Fab 5 — Ruck and Rock garnered instant acclaim due to their standout performances on the sleeper hit, paving the way for the release of their debut album, Nocturnal, in 1996. Led by the single, “Operation Lockdown,” Nocturnal failed to mirror the commercial success of previous Boot Camp Clik offerings, forcing the duo to return to the drawing board.
Appearing on For The People, the Boot Camp Clik’s debut album as a collective, in 1997, Heltah Skeltah doubled back with their sophomore album, Magnum Force, in 1998. However, in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, Ruck and Rock sought production from outside of the BCC camp, calling in producers like Daz Dillinger, Grand Daddy I.U., Self, Smoke, and others to help craft a more palatable sound on the album. Peaking at No. 8 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums, Magnum Force yielded a minor hit with the single, “I Ain’t Havin’ That,” which gave the duo their second Hot 100 hit of their career. Unfortunately, beyond that success, Magnum Force was met with indifference by the mainstream, with die-hard Boot Camp Clik fans maligning Ruck and Rock for not sticking to their guns in the pursuit of chart position and radio airplay. In light of their failure to gain traction, as well as internal friction, Heltah Skeltah decided to part ways, which — following his release from Priority Records — left Ruck a free agent.
Rock — whose contract was retained by Priority before securing a solo deal with DJ Lethal’s Lethal Dose Records at Interscope — was gearing up to drop a solo album titled Planet Rock, featuring production from A-List producers like The Neptunes. Ruck, on the other hand, was faced with the harsh realization that he was no longer a hot commodity. “Nobody believed me,” he recalls of the experience. “Everyone was sucking Rock’s dick, thinking that he’s the man. I can’t do it. When people think of Heltah Skeltah, people think of Rock and the other guy. They on his dick because of his fucking voice and shit.”
With little to no interest from major labels in a solo project, the Brooklyn bred rhyme pugilist resorted to what he knew best: surviving. Among these means were various hustles, from selling black market goods like cellphones and two-way pagers, to trafficking crack-cocaine in various states along the eastern seaboard. This period, which was littered with various criminal charges and brief stints in jail, saw Ruck taking a backseat to Sean Price, the actual author of the rhymes, who first revealed himself on Nocturnal.
Hardened by the trials and tribulations, Ruck had become jaded by the ways of the music industry, balking at the prospect of him ever subjecting himself to the whims that come along with the territory. Regardless, he continued to record and appear on records, popping up alongside Jedi Mind Tricks and his Boot Camp Clik brethren, most noticeably on the 2002 release The Chosen Few. The first project released under the Duck Down umbrella since 1999, The Chosen Few not only marked the comeback of one of the most respected rap collectives of the ’90s, but Ruck’s reincarnation as Sean Price.
With Rock, who was at odds with Duck Down Records at the time, absent from the record, the artist formerly known as Ruck put his talents on full display, introducing a more relaxed, deadpan delivery while incorporating snapshots of his life throughout.
Songs like “Daddy Wanna,” which finds him touching on matters of the heart, and “The Chosen Few (Live for This),” where he pulls no punches about the state of his career, would not raise Price’s Q rating much among the casual fan, but were early indicators of the stylistic turn that was yet to come. Reinvigorated, in 2004, Price hooked up with PF Cuttin for Donkey Sean Jr., a mixtape featuring various freestyles, intended as a precursor to his debut solo album. Price, who was knee-deep in the streets at the time, says his return to the rap game was fueled as much by a desire to become an upstanding citizen as it was to let his creativity run wild. “I got tired of getting arrested, man,” he explained of his decision. “You know it’s real hard when you rent a car, then you got two girls in the car ahead of you with drugs on ’em. And you in the other car, making sure they get where they going. Too much shit, man. I’m tired of that shit. That shit was cool when I was a teenager, I got kids now. When I did it before, it wasn’t no worries. But now my kids and shit. My wife, she calling me every fuckin minute, ‘What’s going on?’ What, I’mma tell her, I’m selling crack on the phone?”
With little left to lose, on his debut album Monkey Barz, Price leaves no stone un-turned, giving us the life and times of a temperamental rap star on the brink of obscurity. On the Kleph Dollaz-produced opener “Peep My Words,” the Brownsville brawler welcomes listeners amid acoustic guitar licks and flutes, balancing trigger-happy couplets with self-deprecating bars alluding to his lackluster resume and underdog status. Reminiscent of his work alongside Rock, “Peep My Words” is akin to a eulogy for Ruck, as Sean Price makes his official introduction on the subsequent number, “One Two Ya’ll,” a bruising number that finds him sauntering across a backdrop provided by MoSS. A master in the art of verbal abuse, Price smacks wack rappers around with insults questioning their manhood while scoffing at their lyrical aptitude, a common thread throughout the proceedings. Coinciding with Duck Down’s resurgence was the rise of the Justus League collective helmed by producer 9th Wonder, who had struck a creative bond with Buckshot that served as a conduit between the two crews. One product of that alliance that’s found on Monkey Barz comes in the form of “Onion Head,” which captures Price volleying menacing quips atop a soulful composition courtesy of Khrysis, the first of two contributions courtesy of the North Carolina-based boardsman.
Dismantling the opposition, lyrically or otherwise, in a dismissive manner may be a pillar of Price’s artistry, but on Monkey Barz, he’s at his most endearing when he touches on the more mundane aspects of his life, such as being a father, disliking his wife’s home-cooked meals, and his favorite pastimes. All of the above gets broached on “Heart Burn,” as 9th Wonder strips elements from “Our Love Has Got to Come Together” by The Independents and pairs it with thumping percussion to compliment the God’s rhyme spill. He continues to explore the intricacies of love and lust on “I Love You (Bitch),” rapping, “Yo, ya’ ass is fat, ya’ brain is small/You slap the kids and ya’ chain is pawned/You look like shit, you destroying yourself/Heineken for breakfast-ass bitch,” spewing his disdain for past lovers while voicing his affection with sweet nothings. With Monkey Barz being Price’s first release as a lead artist in over half a decade, and the lack of fanfare preceding its release, his modest lifestyle as a middling rap artist struggling for relevance is put on full display on “Brokest Rapper You Know,” a quick-strike highlight voicing the frustration that comes with the territory. The seasoned vet holds no punches about his circumstance, with couplets like “Rock solo, Ruck broke/Here’s a hundred dollars, what a fucking joke/Eviction notice, yo I gotta go/Album been out two months, ain’t did a fucking show,” sparing no amount of transparency.
Canadian production team Tone Mason crafted a frantic soundscape for Sean Price to apply damage to with “Boom Bye Yeah,” the lead-single from Monkey Barz. Turning in a flawless lyrical onslaught, the BK brute builds off of a famous catchphrase, this one inspired by Muhammad Ali, which would become one of his signatures as an artist in the subsequent years after the album’s release. While Sean P holds down much of Monkey Barz by his lonely,as he does on the jungle-inspired title-track, he gets a bit of reinforcement via his Boot Camp Clik brethren, with various members popping up across the tracklist. Buckshot turns in a impressive performance on the Khrysis-produced heater “Bye Bye,” while partner-in-rhyme Rock reunites with him on Donkey Sean Jr. leftovers “Jail Shit” and “Slap Boxing,” which also includes a guest spot from Ruste Juxx.
In addition to those previously released fan-favorites, Monkey Barz also included the bonus track “Rising To The Top,” one of Sean Price’s first appearances following his reinvention. Released in 2001 as the theme song to Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto III, “Rising To The Top” — which features verses from Agallah and a standout showing by Bazaar Royale on the hook — presents Sean Price at his finest, mixing comedic one-liners and crude humor with violent threats and an apathetic view of the rap landscape.
The first release in Duck Down’s landmark “Triple Threat” campaign, Monkey Barz came at a time when the label was in the midst of entrenching itself as a superpower in the independent rap scene. Peaking at No. 70 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Monkey Barz was accompanied by music videos for the title track, “Peep My Words,” “Onionhead,” “Heartburn, “Boom Bye Yeah,” and “Slapboxing,” which were included on the Passion of Price DVD released shortly after. These visuals, which played on Price’s penchant for humor and hijinks, would also help ingratiate him to the online rap community, which was coming to prominence and tapped him as one of the champions of the burgeoning scene.
In spite of its marginal commercial success, Monkey Barz was hailed as one of the superior rap releases of the year and created the momentum that afforded subsequent Duck Down projects like Buckshot & 9th Wonder’s Chemistry, and Tek and Steele’s Smif ‘N’ Wessun: Reloaded.
“I’ma just give it to you real simple and plain, Ruck saved us,” Buckshot said of Monkey Barz‘s impact. “We was near done. Financially, we was close to the red button. Artist-wise, the records, this, that, [the] audience. You maxed out the whole, ‘Yo, real hip-hop, man,’ and then Ruck just came and flipped styles and lyrics I never [heard].” Over the course of the next decade, Sean Price would become one of the most captivating and entertaining figures in the game through humorous skits, feeding his loyal fan-base with an endless stream of content, and finding common ground with the public through his love for comics.
He would also begin to get his just due as an MC off the strength of a string of critically-acclaimed solo albums (Jesus Price Superstar, Mic Tyson), group projects with Boot Camp Clik (The Last Stand, Casualties of War), Heltah Skeltah (D.I.R.T.), and Random Axe, a group he formed with Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson and Detroit rapper/producer Black Milk. Unfortunately, Sean Price would pass away in his sleep on August 8, 2015, at the age of 43, snuffing out the light of one of hip-hop’s most beloved underdogs. However, Monkey Barz, as he once put it, marked his transformation from a mere rapper struggling for relevance, into an upstanding family man looking to keep it all together by the string of a single thread. “Ruck was a wild dude,” he recalled of his past years. “Find ‘em, fuck ‘em and flee. Ain’t give two shits about nothing, my kids, my responsibility, anything. And Sean Price got a plan, growth and development. Take care of mine, trying to get up and get out of here. I got my head together, nah mean?”
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?