Behind The Beat is a new series where journalist Thomas Hobbs talks to rap producers about the making of their most iconic beat. For our second edition, Hobbs spoke with Ski Beatz, who crafted Camp Lo’s iconic single “Luchini AKA This Is It.”
Hip-hop had never seen anything quite like Camp Lo before. The Bronx rap duo, which consisted of slick-talking MCs Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede, looked like they had caught a yellow cab straight from a Blaxploitation movie set, with their coded slang and eccentric personalities instantly distinctive.
Although it wasn’t a huge chart success, peaking at no. 27 on the Billboard 200, their 1997 studio debut Uptown Saturday Night quickly developed a cult following, with its fusion of jazz, funk, soul, and luxurious hood rap feeling like a breath of fresh air compared to the anarchic gangster rap that ruled the airwaves. While rap in the mid-90s had arguably become too fatalistic and obsessed with the idea of MCs having brushes with death, Camp Lo pushed the culture into a much more colorful direction.
“Coolie High” is so laid back you can envision Sonny and Geechi recording their verses in hammocks, while “Rockin It AKA Spanish Harlem” is capable of making the most hard-nosed street guy get up and do the “cha-cha-cha.” These vibrant songs captured the feel-good glamour of a Saturday Night in the Boogie Down in the 1970s, creating an escapist playground where finding a date, a bottle of Amaretto, and a place to go dance with a hottie were among life’s most pressing concerns.
“It was like they had stepped out of another era completely,” agrees legendary rap producer Ski Beatz, who considers himself the third “unofficial” member of Camp Lo, having produced the majority of Uptown Saturday Night. Even now, he continues to work prominently with the duo. “They had those crazy Donny Hathaway hats, Opal sunglasses, trench coats dragging along the ground when they walked, toothpicks hanging out their mouths… it was crazy. They really had those Partridge Family colors. It was like watching Coolie High in real-time.”
But that’s not to say that Camp Lo’s recording persona was an act. Ski is keen to stress that these guys really are wired in this way. “These dudes really are those people. They naturally had the same kind of flyness of 1970s Marvin Gaye [The Uptown Saturday Night artwork is a tribute to Marvin’s I Want You album cover], but with this raw ‘90s spin on it. I used to listen to them talk to one another and understand about 20% of it.”
The song arguably most synonymous with the group’s unique style remains “Luchini AKA This Is It,” an ebullient New York City rap anthem that sounds ripe for a spin in a disco hall. Rather than describe themselves as being “faded” the group uses “Luchini” to refer to their euphoric state of being as “Harlem River Quiver,” a reference to the dizzying 1928 Duke Ellington song of the same name. The idea of possessing “Belafonte Vigga” levels of swag, meanwhile, is a loving reference to the fabled strength of legendary actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.
Across the song’s breezy four minutes, Sonny and Geechi rap about being fly in a way that’s never anything less than innovative. However, it’s Ski’s perfect beat that inspires such brilliant rapping. “We had basically finished [Uptown Saturday Night] and Profile Records felt we were missing a single and needed something for the radio so I went into the lab for a week and just started digging through the crates,” Ski said.
“Soon as I dropped the needle on that Dynasty song (‘Adventures in the Land of Music’) and heard those horns, I knew I had found something special. Luchini was slang for money and having wealth, and something that the guys said a lot, so I built it into the hook. Soon as the guys heard my hook, we knew this was unique. The reason I say ‘This is It’ like I did was because I just knew we had found Gold.”
With studio time “costing like 5k a second” back in the ’90s, Ski says the duo crafted their verses at his crib on 110th Street in Harlem so that by the time they went to the studio the pair could lay their vocals as quickly as possible. Of the beat itself, Ski, rather modestly, said it was “easy” to create.
“Once you find that magic sample, the rest is easy,” Ski said. “I added the drums from ‘All Night Long‘ (by The Mary Jane Girls) to make it sound more disco, a little bit of piano, and then I made the sample sound more bling. I’m not a looper kind of person, but that loop was just so perfect. The way the sample comes in, well, it didn’t have a down beat, so I had to bring it in on the snare. It just made it all sound extra cool.”
Around the time Ski Beatz was recording with Camp Lo, he was also working with Roc-A-Fella records on Reasonable Doubt, the debut album from an aspiring rapper who went by the name JAY-Z. Ski, who produced Reasonable Doubt highlights such as “Feelin’ It” and “Dead Presidents II” already had strong ties with Roc-A-Fella, with his rap group Original Flavor being managed by the label’s co-founder Dame Dash. Yet he admits that splitting his time between Camp Lo and the more twisted mafioso fables of JAY-Z was challenging, with Hov sometimes taking beats he had originally intended for the duo.
“I had given JAY-Z the ‘Politics As Usual’ beat after already showing it to Camp Lo, who loved everything about it. I remember they was mad as fuck at me for giving it to Jay,” Ski said. “I guess the ‘Luchini’ beat was the perfect apology. In actuality, I was more of a Camp Lo fan than I was a JAY-Z fan. In those JAY-Z sessions, I had to reign myself in a little, but with Camp Lo I could let my imagination go crazy. It was a much more abstract way of working, which I loved.”
“Luchini,” which was released towards the tail end of 1996, became Camp Lo’s biggest hit. It peaked at no. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 5 on the Rap Singles chart, helping generate buzz for Uptown Saturday Night (which was released on January 28, 1997). The music video, which shows the duo pulling off an audacious bank robbery while looking like the two coolest people to ever walk through New York City, only added to the song’s appeal. Yet Camp Lo still remained largely overlooked and when Profile Records was sold to Arista in 1998, a lot of the label’s artists had their careers stifled. Camp Lo, in particular, must have felt like they were in some sort of purgatory, with follow-up, Let’s Do It Again, not coming out until 2002. Even today, it feels like Camp Lo remains underrated, with “Luchini” somehow not gaining a place on Vulture’s “100 songs that defined New York City” list published in September.
“These guys should have been like Outkast but La Face [who picked up Camp Lo] didn’t know what a diamond they had on their roster and stopped Camp Lo from releasing any music,” Ski said. “Had they been able to release an album straight after Uptown Saturday Night then they would have been superstars, but because they didn’t, a lot of the momentum disappeared.”
“Camp Lo was just a breath of fresh air. I could be wrong, but I feel like Ghostface and Rakeon were influenced by Camp Lo’s lyricism. A lot of rappers lovingly started using that wild coded slang that came straight from the left field. These guys changed the whole lyrical landscape of ‘90s rap. We were going to put out a dictionary with their album, just so people could understand them more, but it never happened. They were in their own world completely. Hell, they still are.”
The reason Ski is happy to call “Luchini” his best beat is because of how much optimism underpins his memories of those sessions. As we enter the Winter months, with the likelihood of further coronavirus-related lockdown measures being enacted, Ski says listening to “Luchini” could be just the boost that the people need. “It is definitely one of the best beats I ever did,” Ski said. “There is just some kind of love that was transferred from the three of us directly into that music. Every time you hear that song, you hear our love for one another too. That record is just one big ass smile. Music like that doesn’t age, trust me.”
Illustration: Raj Dhunna for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance pop culture journalist, who is based in London. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Noisey, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out, and he has listened to the 7 Day Theory far too many times. Follow his latest and greatest on Twitter @THobbsJourno.