In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Camp Lo’s Sophomore LP Let’s Do It Again, Camp Lo’s independent imprint Soulfever is releasing select singles from the LP starting with the Jocko Produced China Soul which is now streaming on all digital music providers.
Camp Lo made their debut on the soundtrack of Reginald Hudlin’s 1996 film The Great White Hype. The album peaked at number 93 on the Billboard 200, number 27 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums in the United States. Camp Lo’s “Coolie High”, was the soundtracks lead single and peaked at #62 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and #25 on the Hot Rap Songs. The demo version of this record (aka Coolie High is Life) contained a sample of Michael Jackson’s Lady of My Life which was deemed an unclearable sample (although LL and Boyz to Men seemed to clear easy enough years later) and led the duo of producers Jocko and Ski Beatz to instead sample Janet Jackson’s Funny How Time Flies.
Happy 25th Anniversary to Camp Lo’s debut album Uptown Saturday Night, originally released January 28, 1997.
1997 began with hip-hop fans still mourning the loss of Tupac Shakur, and before reaching the halfway mark of the calendar year, we found ourselves once again grieving the loss of another megastar, The Notorious B.I.G. The toll of losing two musical giants, especially within such a short timeframe, amidst the still ongoing East Coast vs. West Coast beef, sucked the oxygen out of the hip-hop world and created a palpable feeling of instability.
In between the deaths of the two legends, hip-hop did seem to catch a second wind and regain her footing as a duo from the cultural birthplace charged in to take us on a trip Uptown and remind us of happier days a few decades earlier.
Arguably the first great album of 1997 and a nod to the 1974 film of the same name that starred Sir Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby, Uptown Saturday Night saw Camp Lo come literally out of nowhere with a complete package of style and musical chemistry. At least for a moment, the group’s debut long player made us forget the trivialities of who was dissing who. And when listening to the album in retrospect, one can only assume that Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede inspired their contemporaries to step it up a notch or two.
From the first time we heard these cats on their lead single “Coolie High” they reminded us of everything cool we heard (or remembered) about the ‘70s. From the hairstyles and fashion we saw in our own photo albums, to the smooth slang we watched over and over in Blaxploitation films and syndicated rerun television shows. By the time “Luchini AKA This Is It” dropped, Camp Lo had convincingly made a case that they had nearly perfected a sound all their own, a sound that was undeniably soulful and broke from the New York City mold of screwface cynicism enough to be dubbed Northernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
If you were anything like me, you couldn’t get to the nearest record store fast enough. And once you pulled the CD or tape from the shelf, you found a rare album that was impressive, adorned with its dope album cover, which called to mind the beloved TV series Good Times, and payed tribute to the artist Ernie Barnes who created the immortal “Sugar Shack” piece that also graced the album cover of the king of cool Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You.
As if the music doesn’t speak well enough for itself, the group’s conceptual chemistry furthers Uptown’s distinctiveness with the appropriate song titles along the track listing, with joints named “Krystal Karrington,” “Sparkle,” and the ode to New York City’s first celebrity crime lord, “Nicky Barnes AKA It’s Alright.” Indeed, the album fulfilled the promise of being a full blown masterpiece crafted by two swag gods.
The back-and-forth exchange between Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede’s rapid-fire but smooth delivery is perfectly complimented by Ski’s stellar production, which should make you smile, when you consider that he may have held back his best work from Jay Z, while he was helping construct his debut LP Reasonable Doubt (1996) which was released only months earlier.
The album’s fluidity almost makes it impossible to point out highs and lows, but the excitement of Digable Planets’ Butterfly on “Swing,” particularly with the dramatic video entrance, definitely helped solidify the album, along with the other veteran appearance of Trugoy the Dove (a.k.a. Dave) from De La Soul on “B-Side to Hollywood.”
All in all, Uptown Saturday Night was exactly that: the good stiff drink we needed during a stress-filled year of grief and drama across the hip-hop landscape. Luckily for us, the content of the drink has aged like vintage whiskey for the distinguished ear ready to have a listen once again, 25 years later.
Bronx, New York natives Sonny Cheeba, and Geechi Suede have been many things to Hip Hop over the course of their 20-year careers. To some, they are known as Camp Lo, a group that offered up slick lyrics and smooth delivery as they redefined what it meant to cool. To others, they’re better known as 80 Blocks From Tiffanys, a more recent group that includes the two emcees along with the legendary producer Pete Rock. However you define them, they are chart-toppers and party rockers, and now, after over five-and-a-half-years, Camp Lo is back with their latest album Ragtime Hightimes.
Made in conjunction with longtime collaborator Ski Beatz, Ragtime Hightimes reflects the aging sect of Hip Hop that is clinging for dear life to the samples and simplicity that made it great. The rhymes are witty and boastful, the beats draw upon their musical forefathers of jazz, blues and soul and the emcees largely stick to the script. Many contemporary albums are criticized from the standpoint of their originality; does the album push the envelope, or as Lupe Fiasco once said, “Did you improve on the design, did you do something new?” Ragtime Hightimes is blissfully unconcerned with such questions, sticking out not for what it adds, but for its reliance on what made Camp Lo great in the first place.
From beginning to end, Ragtime Hightimes serves as a time machine taking listeners back to a day when instrumentation was the predominant weapon of choice for beat makers. That’s not to say that computerized noises don’t play a role for the album, which at times pit instrumentation against its electronic counterpart on tracks like “Sunglasses,” which includes both a set of light, airy notes floating upward in octave, yet also features trumpets overtop the drum loop.
“Sunglasses,” along with the soulful, instrument-laden “Gypsy Notes,” seem to naturally fit the duo’s classy, refined style, leading to lines like “Eye candy collector, in your tri-sector, no kisses to deflect her, metal through the detector,” that give the track a celebratory feel. Other tracks are less fortunate.
With samples both tough and expensive to clear, today’s producers have had to rely on live instrumentation and their computers to lay down tracks, slowly changing Hip Hop over the last decade. Ski Beatz, catering to the duo he’s worked with since their debut 1997 album Uptown Saturday Night, has worked his magic to use live instrumentation in lieu of samples throughout, at times giving the album a similar feel to the group’s older work by turning Ragtime Hightimes into a symphony of drums, horns, vocals and even guitar on “Mean Joe.” When Ski Beatz does turn to electronics, however, it seems to throw the dynamic of the duo off.
Tracks like “Sunshine,” which heavily draws upon computer-generated sound, comes across somewhere between the soundtrack to an ‘80s action movie and a ‘90s video game. “It’s Cold,” the album’s third track, also finds the group struggling to fit their flow to the futuristic, computerized beat as Cheeba and Suede have their back-and-forth banter limited by the slower song; the overreliance of electronic sounds on “Power Man” creates a similar disturbance that even witty rhymes can’t save.
Whereas the duo used to benefit from slower tempos – think tracks like “Coolie High” – Camp Lo now seems better suited to beats that move at a steady pace – think tracks like “Lunchini (aka This Is It)” – making things harder on their longtime producer. “She want Don Juan, she don’t want Chee / because when I want one, I might want three,” rhymes Sonny Cheeba on “Sunshine,” the slower beat drawing a heavy influence from the sounds of Latin America and the Caribbean shaping the sound of the duo in a way that does them little good.
Camp Lo are rarely introspective, their rhymes instead focused on their attire, their women, and their steez, making them better suited for beats that are more upbeat jazz club than dancehall. Lines like “Dutch’s filled with dandelions and daiquiris that dilute ‘em / Arabian arrow unlocking, disconnect and conclude ‘em,” from the album’s first track “Black Jesus,” go hand-in-hand with the chopped-up vocals and Golden Age reliance on the kick drum, snare, and hi-hat found on the beat rather than clashing with it. It’s almost as if the album can be separated into two parts: tracks that rely on instrumentation and their electronic rivals.
Innovation is key to moving Hip Hop forward, but sometimes artists are at their best when they’re able to stick to what made them successful in the first place. For Camp Lo, the triumphant braggadocio packaged with the sleek, polished delivery of Cheeba and Suede is all many fans will need to get their head nodding. Aside from a few electronic bumps in the road, Ragtime Hightimes delivers another solid Camp Lo project to add to their storied discography.