Price Is Right: Why Sean Price Should Be Every MC’s Hope Story
One year ago today, I remember where I was when I got the text message. Sean Price had died. I was sitting at a red light in the city of Pittsburgh. After putting my phone down, I made a U-turn, went home and started to prepare the story that needed to be told to the Hip-Hop community. A pleasant Saturday turned somber in an instant.
It was not until later on that the emotion set in. That’s happened when people I know and care about pass away, from family and friends to a growing list of artists I’ve covered closely and worked with in my career. I knew Sean Price, but not particularly well. We had spoken a number of times, emailed a few more, and crossed paths only but a few encounters, living in different cities. Growing up, among the first crate of 12″ records I amassed was Heltah Skeltah’s “I Ain’t Havin’ That.” Admittedly, at that time, Rock (a/k/a Rockness Monstah) was my preferred in the two-man group, with his unique tone. In 2002, I would interview the Boot Camp Clik (as part of The Chosen Few), and like so many writers starting out, I directed most of my questions to Buckshot and Rock—as Sean sat around the speaker phone at a label conference table. Like MC Ren, Khujo Goodie, or Inspectah Deck, Sean Price’s first 10 years rapping in a group setting were not met with the response his skills deserved.
By the mid-2000s, Sean’s career had truly appeared to be fading like so many of his mid-’90s peers. Heltah Skeltah’s discography halted at the close of the 1990s, as Rock secured a solo deal with DJ Lethal (Limp Bizkit/House Of Pain) at Interscope. The Boot Camp Clik was not a perennial outfit, and even Buckshot’s popularity appeared to be challenged. In 2004, Sean would street-release Donkey Sean, Jr. The physical, retail mixtape made marginal noise, as Sean snatched industry beats, getting Blahzay Blahzay’s P.F. Cuttin’ to host, and saw what his solo stock looked like on the ticker. Save for a few hardcore Heads, that stock valuation was tepid at best.
However, while Duck Down had an extremely quiet 2004, it was setting up for a 10-year anniversary in ’05. At the time, I was working as a 21 year-old editor at AllHipHop. I remember a staff meeting where all of us discussed, almost with hesitancy how much we liked the advance to Monkey Barz, Sean’s solo debut. All (or close to) were surprised by how much an otherwise inconspicuous LP stuck to our ribs—making us laugh, think, and get to know a background figure. The Duck Down album appeared to be the under-card in a four-month, “triple threat” anniversary run for the label that also included Smif-n-Wessun’s return to its original name, and an exciting collaboration between Black Moon’s Buckshot and Little Brother’s 9th Wonder. More than 11 years later (and well before his death), Sean’s is the work people seem to talk about most.
“Listen to my old shit, they be like ‘Damn, he hot / What happened to them niggas, man?’ ‘They flopped’ – Word? / Drinking and smoking, vice versa, smoking and drinking / I’m hoping these Lincolns add up, I ain’t supposed to be stinkin’ / Y’all niggas is farsighted, didn’t notice the kingpin.” – “Peep My Words”
Monkey Barz was a return to simplicity at a time when theatrics were winning big (thanks to the G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath reign, and others). Save for onetime EPMD-turned-Purple City affiliate Agallah, there were no notable guests beyond the Boot Camp Clik. The MC formerly known as Ruck had switched to his government name, signaling a realness, and an aesthetic that he was a vocational blue-collar guy. That album, however, was no punch-clock product. As 9th, Khrysis and Ayatollah provided beats quite different than the typical Duck Down sound, Sean went to work with his sharpest flows and rawest lyrics. The record placed Sean’s life (his wife’s bad cooking, his poorly-behaved kids, hustling 2-way pagers to support a failing career) into unworldly rhyme patterns, delivered as sparse conversation. Sean’s syncopated cadence clicked on quirky beats, with whimsical samples.
This was more than rapping-about-Rap; this was rapping about the Rap life gone wrong. Price thrived in this thematic direction, not unlike fellow Brownsville, Brooklyn native (and collaborator) Masta Ace. However, while Ace presented his sometimes self-deprecating autobiographical rhyme clinics with a glossy polish, Sean rapped with an uncleared voice, he sniffed, and often sucked in audible breaths of air. The ornery comedian appeared to make his strongest music, almost by accident. There was an apathetic quality to Sean Price’s art that made it stand apart from the MCs who wanted to fit in, or impress the A-list. Sean seemingly just wanted to feed his family, and stay laced in the best Nikes and Timberlands. And if this failed, he promised to revert to his old ways—like the “Juicy” storyline in reverse.
As I got to know Sean that year, I learned that while the work may have seemed effortless, that was never the case. Like any artist, “Monster P” sought appreciation. He seemingly understood that he had lived in the shadow of not only his partner, but within his label roster, and clique. Monkey Barz was a 4th & Long, for an artist at career crossroads. The album appeared to jump ahead of itself to forecast poor sales, no show bookings, and paltry royalty checks. But that is not what would happened. With nothing but skill, Sean punched against the industry. The album was not a commercial hit; it did not chart on the Top 200. However, the release got people excited about Sean Price, talking about Duck Down, and it gave a formulaic time in Hip-Hop an underground story that they could hold close to their heart. Just like the most exciting rappers without albums of that era (Lupe Fiasco, Saigon, Papoose), Sean Price’s whisper-campaign made those around take closer note of his abilities.
The 10 years following Monkey Barz were more interesting for Sean than the first decade. While MTV and BET weren’t playing his videos like they once did with “Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka,” Price basked in the digital spotlight. Like 50 Cent, he had a catchphrase ad-lib in “P!” Like Lil Wayne, he had an exciting mixtape series that people would come to anticipate. However, even as 2006’s Jesus Price Supastar and 2012’s Mic Tyson went to the charts, Sean never changed. That same pastiche that he used in 2005 that turned his career around never led him astray.
“Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthin’ ta’ fuck with / Boot Camp Clik ain’t nuthin’ ta’ Wu-Tang / Niggas seem shocked by the way that I do thangs / I’m with Destiny’s Child, I still ride the 2-train / Sometimes I feel like I’m the best in the field / But I’m not, and I’m broke, so I go invest in some krillz.” – “Like You”
From 2005 to his death in 2015, Sean Price did a lot more than meets the eye. As Hip-Hop moved from print to digital, from radio to blog, Sean was ready to collect the props that evaded him in the past. As artists gave fans unprecedented access to their lives (even if veneer), Sean Price took a page from Redman’s playbook. While commercial rappers made disposable vlog content, Sean became a star on NahRight, 2DopeBoyz, and OnSmash by being himself in all situations. He made a la carte songs that people were drawn to, and videos just because. Sean was built for the fast-paced culture, and online media loved him for his quality, endless output. Additionally, from Ruste Juxx to Guilty Simpson to Illa Ghee, he was always down to help put on another MC he believed in.
The Newport-smoking, foul-mouthed funnyman was perfect for the social media boom. As artists extended to become “online brands,” Sean was top-notch. He formed groups and hinted at full-length collaborations, discussed Hip-Hop, fashion, comics, movies, and botched dieting online—blocking anybody and everybody who disagreed or annoyed him. From criticizing “fancy” bottled water brands to calling out terrestrial radio stations for their playlists, Sean became a daily operation—even with just a few solo albums.
“Niggas said I lost my image when I cut off my dreads / But I’m the nicest nigga out, duke, fuck what you said / Let it be known / Gold ring, embedded with stone / So when I punch you in the face, that shit will dent up your dome / Niggas runnin’ up, asking about Rock / I send your ass to heaven, motherfucker, ask God about ‘Pac / Ask about Big, motherfucker, ask about Pun / Gangsta rappers can’t fight so they rap about guns.” – “Onion Head”
Sean Price’s career is a testament to the survival of hardcore Hip-Hop. The MC reportedly took meetings with Jay Z at Def Jam Records, remaining Duck Down til’ the end. He made some of his most incredible music with Jedi Mind Tricks and Reef The Lost Cauze, just as he did with Mac Miller or Wu-Tang Clan. Even joking about “Paypal The Feature,” Sean seemingly never short-changed anybody. With his own career making a historic pivot via a low-budget release, he knew the power in greatness—even without all the industry machinery.
The man known as P! was something Hip-Hop could hold onto as it changed at an increasingly rapid rate. Price was a product of the Brooklyn, New York when Biggie Smalls and Jay Z were kings. Residing there throughout his career, Sean stood as an ambassador of the bygone era in music, carrying it forward. Just as Jay Z is the link between Big Daddy Kane and Kanye West, Sean Price is the link between Black Moon and Action Bronson. Whether his sonic style was in vogue or serving as the counter-balance, Sean P! is one of the reasons that rhyming remains an art, in the era of the beat.
Like Larry David or MF DOOM, Sean Price struck late-career by bringing his unpretentious self to the surface of his message. One year later, legions of fans who never heard Master P, or stood in amazement at “The Unexpected,” are gravitating towards the MC, the man, the husband, and the father. Along with the honest, intricate rhymes, the crude humor, and the representation of a certain type of masculine MC, Sean Price gave Hip-Hop hope, and continues to in a year that wasn’t the same without him.
#BonusBeat: Newly released Sean Price by Duck Down: “Rap Professor,” produced by Skizz:
New music continues to roll out from the Brownsville bar-buster.