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.