December 4, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsRemembrances

Slang Cinema: On Camp Lo and Ski Beatz

If you were a hip hop head in the late 1990s, then you probably remember the exact spot on earth you were standing when you first heard Camp Lo’s first single, the horn-spangled hit, “Luchini.” The singular duo, comprised of Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede, drew upon their native Bronx’s vortex of style and pushed baroque slang past its limits and forged an inimitable aesthetic: a cocktail of (fictional?) diamond heists and subsequent designer clothing and luxury car sprees, run-ins with blaxploitation super-sheroes, exotic locales, gunfights and late nights laced with champagne, cognac, eyelids low under a cocked applejack hat. Their debut album, Uptown Saturday Night (1997), included other unforgettable tracks, such as “Sparkle,” “Black Connection,” “Coolie High,” and “Black Nostaljack.” The first two tracks of this year’s release, Ragtime Hightimes, hearken back to the clean, glittery, bittersweet sound of their best early work, crucially supported by the timeless production of one of hip hop’s most underappreciated greats, Ski Beatz.

In the mid-90s, producer Ski Beatz was cranking out classic tracks for both Camp Lo’s masterpiece, and Jay-Z’s monumental debut, Reasonable Doubt. According to Camp Lo, Jay’s brilliant, meditative “Feelin’ It,” was originally one of their tracks, and they amicably handed it over to Jay when he said he’d like to use it. At the time, Ski was in a zone unsurpassed in the history of boom bap production. Others like DJ Premier, Havoc, and Q-Tip have also traversed that zone, but at that level of artistry, no one really exceeds each other, only exhibits different flavors of absolute mastery. Ski’s use of live instrumentation on Uptown is impeccable, with assistance from veterans like Bill Ware, who played vibraphone on “Sparkle (Mr. Midnight Mix),” who had himself recently played with Steely Dan, whose perfectionism, and perfection, in studio recording is well-known (if you’re a fan and haven’t read their unauthorized biography, Reelin’ in the Years, I highly recommend it).

“Sparkle (Mr. Midnight Mix),” is probably the most beautiful song Ski and Camp Lo have ever made, the most original, the most enigmatic in terms of sound. Appearing at a time when boom bap beats were at their peak, the song has no drums, but somehow still has a very high nod factor. Extremely low in the mix are what sound like the original drums, so low that they might only be audible because of headphone bleed in the vocal track. But it is really the flow of Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba that retains the rhythm of the original, heavily swung drums. The vocals thus carry a ghost rhythm propelling the track forward, even as the vibes and fluid, filtered bass and piano lines lazily rise and fall, cresting here, submerged there. In an interview just after the release of Lovers Rock, Sade Adu revealed that she’s used a similar production technique for songs that have no drums in the final mix. At times she’d record her vocals over a reggae track, which provided a watery pulse for the rest of the instrumentation and her phrasing to inhabit, then subtract the drums to create a ghost rhythm.

Ski’s extremely clean, spacious sound is made complete, often, by his tasteful use of piano, from melodic segments on tracks like “Feelin It’” to hypnotic accents that provide both interesting form changes and tension on songs like “Black Connection.” On the latter, the stabbing piano notes contrast with the high-flying horn sample from the opening of Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony’s “Love is the Answer,” creating a vast space between the two layers. Camp Lo’s ornate lyrics live best here, in tracks with ample empty space, tracks with volume, wherein they can paint cinematic, if somewhat disorienting scenes, where the listener catches glittering snippets of clarity amid a barrage of indecipherable slang, arcane black cultural references, and the murky contours of a criminal underworld.  All of it, together, the clarity and confusion, somehow keeps you listening, so steeped it is in a musicality you’ve never heard before, both in the track and in the duo’s back and forth flow.

I don’t think there is another hip hop album that sparkles the way that Uptown Saturday Night does, and, certainly, no production has ever complimented, in what now seems like a necessary way, the labyrinthine argot of Camp Lo. When the music interwoven with their rhymes is not of the highest quality, their style loses some of its shimmer; when the music is as impeccable and surprising as their flow and style, it is hip hop as original as, and as addictive as, any that’s ever been recorded. I never would have expected the opening track of their 2015 album Ragtime Hightimes to top, or even equal, “Krystal Karrington,” which sets off Uptown. But, after one listen to “Black Jesus,” not to mention the gem “Sunglasses” that follows it, I know that I will, for years to come, remember where I was when I first heard it, and I haven’t felt that way about a track in a long time.