I originally posted this on the site six months ago, but I did some house cleaning on the blog and had to re-post it. Please excuse any dated references.
My buddy Tyson texted me the other day with a question: What’s your most underrated album of all-time? Damn good question, Ty. Worthy of another ICYMI post. So here goes…
Here’s my first issue: What does “underrated” even mean anymore? There are a million websites telling us what’s good and what’s not. Everyone and their brother has a “Best Albums of the Year” column every December. Shit, even I did one on this site a few years ago. I have a hard time saying anything in the social media era is underrated since you can always find someone screaming hyperbole about any given record. If something is good, somebody somewhere recognizes it. To come up with an answer I refuse to consider anything from the past 10-12 years.
There are so many possible answers to this question. Just looking at my record collection let me name a few… To the 5 Boroughs by Beastie Boys. Is it their best album? No. However, people tend to compare it to their other classics and it gets lost in the mix. Same can be said for Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement by A Tribe Called Quest. I’m not saying either one is as good as Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. Still underrated albums that get lost because we all talk about the brilliance of their other albums. Buhloone Mindstate by De La Soul. Same thing.
To come up with my answer I’m going back to 1997. Hip hop was in a transition period. The height of the east coast/west coast beef. R.I.P. Tupac and Biggie. Puffy and Mase were recycling classic hits and dancing all over MTV. The Death Row era was in rapid decline. The Native Tongue era had come and gone, for the most part. No Limit and Cash Money hadn’t invaded hip hop radio. Jay-Z wasn’t quite a household name. We were a couple years away from new billboard darlings Nelly and Ludacris. My personal favorites, the Rawkus underground consisting of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch (among others) hadn’t quite made their way out of the boroughs yet. Someone had to deliver. In January, 1997, a duo out of the Bronx named Camp Lo gave us Uptown Saturday Night. My most underrated album of all-time.
Why is it underrated?
- According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) Uptown Saturday Night peaked at #27 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Yet, two years ago when I turned on “Luchini” at work my intern Kody immediately picked his head up and said, “Oh, shit! Camp Lo!!!”
- I can play that track at one of my basement parties in 2018 and people who never heard the song say, “Oh shit, what is this?” Yes, everyone’s initial reaction to Camp Lo is “Oh shit!”
- Guest appearances on the album include Trugoy from De La Soul and Ishmael Butler a.k.a. Butterfly of Digable Planets. They don’t make appearances on just anyone’s album.
I have few memories of that era that I recall more fondly than riding around Marquette, Michigan, with my brother in the Mothership with Uptown Saturday Night on repeat in the tape deck. Anyone who knows anything about Camp Lo knows their insanely catchy single “Luchini AKA This is it“. Who could forget that crazy sample and the video that looked like it came out of a blaxploitation movie? Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede had a unique delivery unlike anyone before or since. Sonny Cheeba sounds like he spits every line on this album with an ear-to-ear smile on his face, and judging by the “Luchini” video, he did.
Despite Luchini’s relative popularity, it’s not the song that catches my ear the most on my frequent replays of that album. That title belongs to the lesser-known third track, “Park Joint”. There’s nothing musically mind-blowing about this song. A standard boom-bap drum loop and a bass line that was sampled from a 1972 track by someone named Deodato. Who finds that shit? For me, more often less is more in hip hop production. Give me some drums and a bass line. The real beauty of this track is in the insane vocal performance. Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba trade bars and one-up each other from start to finish. Just when you think one is better, the other comes in and raises the bar.
Here’s my true expert analysis after listening to the track hundreds of times and analyzing it: I don’t have a fucking clue what they’re rapping about. The lyrics to this track (and most of the album) leave me completely baffled. How did they write this shit? What are they talking about? When I read the lyrics on various sites online I don’t even trust what I’m reading. Is that really what they’re saying? Are these guys the hip hop Duran Duran? This somehow makes less sense than “Union of the Snake”…but goddamn it’s dope. I love listening to this and thinking, “Man, they’re saying a lot of words and they sound cool as hell. I don’t care what they’re talking about. They could say damn near anything and I’d be nodding my head to this.” Just try following this excerpt of G Suede’s lyrics, many of which I’m confident are incorrect because the people transcribing were at least as confused as I am:
The Lo shit be that jiggy shit, Jah, get your wages up
Lebanon, off the Henny-Dom, higher horizons
Flagrant, silky step toes don’t touch the pavement
Just toss Ice and Bricks, skimmer slick, ace, duece, tray shit
My binocular occupy the ocean, off the octagon
The ooohs! and onyx through the opal, Villa Valore
Spilling New Score, the green leaf on it, I pour the meeble
On the fraudulent and galavant, in the Mercury Segal
Oh. Now I get it?
How did they write this shit? More importantly, who cares? It’s unbelievable. Camp Lo somehow never achieved great commercial success. They never topped #27 on the Billboard 200. They have continued to make music that I love to listen to. Check out the 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s mixtapes, the Ragtime Hightimes album, or their new Candy Land XPress mixtape if you want to hear more. I still frequently spin “Park Joint” when I want to bring myself back to ’97 and those rides around the MQT in the Mothership.
Now, who got what you don’t got? Lo do. Next verse.