“They said it was tight up here. I ain’t know it was this tight,” Camp Lo’s Geechi Suede jokes under the indigo stage lights. “I would tell y’all to put your hands in the air but you might hit the person next to you.”
It’s an ungodly 1am on a Saturday night at New York City’s famed Blue Note Jazz club. The anxious crowd is filled with beautiful people who are hooded, capped, locked, and weaved. It’s your favorite Black rom-com from the ‘90s come to life, the perfect setting for a hip-hop homecoming. Geechi Suede is joined on stage by his partner Sonny Cheeba and a live band to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of their debut album Uptown Saturday Night. The Blaxploitation-era inspired work stands as one of the most unique and resilient rap debuts of that decade, mostly because it played by its own rules. The two MCs, who share a first name and birthplace (more on that later) challenged and enthralled listeners with an encrypted rhyme style that made you question everything you’d learned about language. They rapped in cursive with alien penmanship that mere ink and paper couldn’t contain.
It’s raining Alizé, I’m floating through the Holland tunnel swerving
I’m digging on the Sheba pulling cheeba she be splurging
We lurking with the chrome cause we be murking from the boogie
And shitting on them crabs cause they jive fake and woolly
Distinguished by silken smooth voices and a fashion sense that traded the jeans, jerseys, and construction boots of their Bronx, NY breeding for fluorescent fedoras and hard bottoms, Camp Lo carved out a place in hip-hop that was somewhere between rap group and time-traveling superheroes. Under the guidance of MC and producer Ski Beatz, the duo forged a distinct sound to match their Avant-garde style. Which is why two decades later, fans that probably left their kids at home with grandma are crammed elbow-to-elbow to be transported back to 1997.
From the cover art and song titles to the videos, Uptown Saturday Night was a collage of old school influences and a reflection of how Suede and Cheeba each saw the world. Born Saladine T. Wallace and Salahadeen T. Wilds in Bronx Lebanon Hospital under the Cancer and Virgo zodiac signs respectively, Suede and Cheeba use the push and pull of “thought” versus “heart” to describe their relationship. Suede’s stage name is a dressing up of Geechi Dan Buford from 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night film starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. “He came down the block with this suede mustard jacket on, and from then on I started calling him Suede,” says Cheeba, who himself went by Cochise from Cooley High before settling on the lead character from the Kung Fu flick The Street Fighter. But the Cooley High references would still surface in their constant allusions to Stone and Rob, the two weed smoking hoods, and of course in the title of the first single.
In the Beginning…
While the album was recorded at D&D Studios, the foundation of Camp Lo was started on the streets of the Bronx and solidified in Ski’s Harlem studio apartment.
Ski Beatz: I met Suede in the Bronx. I was living on Valentine Ave. That was his neighborhood. He was a young kid trying to rap. He used to come up to me saying “Yo I’m trying to get into this music thing.” He knew that I was with Original Flavor at the time and kind of in the game. He was full of energy. He didn’t know anything about how to put a song together, but he definitely had the heart.
Geechi Suede: I was already working with Ski before I met Cheeba. He was takin’ me out to DJ Clark Kent’s house and stuff. Then I’d head down to VA.
Ski Beatz: I remember taking him to Clark Kent’s house to record a song. The name of it was “I Heard You Could Rhyme Kid.” It came out pretty good. I taught him song structure, and he got to hear his voice laid down over some beats. After that one song I lost touch with him for like a year. But when I got back in touch with him he had Cheeba with him. Before they were Camp Lo they were “Cee-Lo” like playing dice. I heard them rhyme with the back and forth, and the contrast was dope. The ‘70s slang, it was cool.
Geechi Suede: We dipped from Ski for a second to develop ourselves more. We was messing with Danny Dan the Beat Man over on 183rd. We did a song over a Stevie Wonder track from “Inner Visions.” It was called “Rolling Lo Style.” That’s where we developed the back and forth style. After we put down six or seven joints with him we felt like we were really up.
By the time Cheeba and Suede reconnected with Ski, he had a second album with Original Flavor under his belt (and an earlier 1990 project with the Bizzy Boys) and money for a proper studio setup, which included an SP-1200, an AKAI S950, a turntable and a Fender Rhodes. His revolving door at 1119 110th St. saw talent like Rah Digga, The Outsidaz, Jay-Z, Jaz-O, Cam’ron and Mase pass through it.
Geechi Suede: The first song we did with Ski was “Camp Lo (Bust Ya Down).” It was in his studio apartment with a studio in it [laughs]. That was where everything pretty much came together. We did “Suga Streets” there, “Coolie High Is Life,” and “Short Eyes.”
Sonny Cheeba: That was right after high school, and I tried to dabble in a little telemarketing. You know how you gotta convince people to stay on the phone so you can sell ‘em something? You had the quota and all that. Then I tried the supermarket shit because I just had a son, trying to get bread anyway possible. But for the most part it was just studio time.
Will Fulton, A&R Profile Records: Dame Dash was living in the next building. They had the whole Roc-A-Fella’s thing, before Roc-A-Fella Records, it was a name Tone Hooker came up with that included Jay, Sauce Money, Original Flavor, and then the larger crew. Then a bunch of other crews were recording in this space. So Ski is a real scientist with music. He can do a record from start to finish, and at that point his studio system was very specific. Camp Lo wrote at Ski’s studio and then made versions of the demos at D&D.
Ski Beatz: I just remember us recording four or five songs every night from scratch. Which was kind of crazy. Everybody is there: Suede, Cheeba, Tone Hooker. Dame would come through and check us out. I think Jay-Z came to a couple of sessions. It was good energy.
Coolie High Gets Priority
After recording the demo it was an early version of “Coolie High” that got the label execs at Priority interested in a single deal.
Ski Beatz: We got the demo done and Tone Hooker (T-Strong) he was managing them at the time. He took the demo up to Profile Records. That was actually his first label; he wanted to go to all the labels to shop it, but Profile hopped on it as soon as they heard it. Will Fulton heard it and loved it. The crazy thing is we didn’t use any of the songs from the demo [we made] on the album.
Will Fulton: Before working at Profile, I had been at TVT Records in 1994 and signed Ja Rule as part of Cash Money Click and Mic Geronimo. I moved over to Profile in 1995. But before that I’d interned at Jive. I happened to be at Jive and someone played me a tape at an A&R meeting there, and they turned it down. I’d been a college radio DJ and was really looking for a certain thing. I wasn’t really looking for Camp Lo, because they were so different from anything I’d expected, but I knew immediately I wanted to do whatever I could to be involved. I was an instant fan. I took the tape home, and I listened to it and wore that tape out.
There was something about Camp Lo where their music was extremely cinematic. First, I could just tell right off that their ideas about what they wanted to do seemed so fleshed out. Second, Suede’s bionic flow and Cheeba’s voice—who was Cochise at the time—it was like he drank a bottle of maple syrup before he started rhyming. I hadn’t seen or met them at that point. I’m not sure I met them until right around the time that I signed them.
The single budget was like $12,000 all in. I remember taking it to Jim Mahoney who ended up being President of Fat Beats later, but he was Head of Radio Promotions. I played it for him, and he was good with it. He got where it was going. There weren’t a lot of groups that sounded like them. If you can imagine in 1995 you had Biggie and Craig Mack and Biggie had just started doing the more chill Big Poppa voice, but everybody was hype, hype, hype! So Ski was producing Jay, who was basically talking and Camp Lo who was whispering. They were very much their own thing, and the label went with me because we had just done “Broken Language.” I did what I could to put the group’s vision forward. When “Coolie High” started to take off, the label’s commitment got to be more. That was a slow and amazing process.
“Coolie High” was the de facto introduction of Camp Lo to the world. With its breathy, low pass filtered vibes the two poets invited ladies into their lair filled with lust and libations. They may not have understood everything they said, but it sounded good.
Sonny Cheeba: People heard me say “Trey shots of life for all night you dig it.” I’m talking about nutting three times that night with that jawn. “Trey shots of life.” The shot of life is sperm in the body! Motherfuckers were like “What does he mean?” You gotta think.
Ski Beatz: Jocko made the original beat, took the Janet Jackson sample (“Funny How Time Flies) and chopped it up. But Will asked if I could redo it. They had a girl come in and sing it, get some live keys. We got Jocko’s consent obviously. His version is not on the demo. I did the [earlier] one with the Michael Jackson sample (“Lady In My Life”), but we knew we couldn’t clear that sample. Jocko came and used Janet Jackson and we loved that version too, but Profile made me go in and redo it so we wouldn’t have to clear it. That’s not Janet singing in the video version; that’s another girl.
Geechi Suede: We were definitely on the (MJ sample) before LL. “Hey Lover” joint came out in ’95, but that was the record that got us signed, the “Coolie High” with [that sample]. We owe a lot to the Jacksons.
Will Fulton: We replayed a very similar riff with live musicians and that was tough for the group because they were hooked on that original version.
The Jocko version was a way to come in with something new. Early on people didn’t necessarily see the vision. Not until the video for “Coolie High.”
Geechi Suede: D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album was playing the whole fuckin’ time we was shooting [the video]. It was definitely in Union Square not too far from Nell’s. It was a really nice restaurant. My uncles flew in, my family was there, and pretty girls on set. That day we went looking for the clothes we wanted and then told the stylist which stores to go to. That was a trippy moment being on the set of your first video. It’s not like today where you can go with one person with a camera and shoot a video. This was a movie set with dollies and all that. At the end of the video, Will Fulton was like, “I wanna do a toast to this moment” and he pulled out a half pint of Hennessy and he poured us a cap full.
Sonny Cheeba: But it felt like a double shot…
GS: That’s why during that night scene niggas had a whole other swerve [laughs]. Because it was right before we shot the last scene. And that was like our first time [drinking], and that shit definitely had our energy in a whole ‘nother lane.
Will Fulton: This is a group at the time that had all these songs related to drinking, so I said let’s do a toast. I had no idea that Suede had never really touched it before. He just told me this recently. We had gone to this little park on 12th St and 2nd Avenue across from the place, Flamingo East, where we shot the club scene. I said, “Let’s do a toast,” and the rest was history. That’s such a corrupt label guy thing to do. It wasn’t the last time that Hennessy appeared in this story.
With the video to “Coolie High” making the rounds on “Video Music Box” and BET, the group caught the attention of Maceo from De La Soul who thought they’d be perfect to take out on tour. The relationships formed on the road would prove instrumental in the creation of the two veteran cameos on Uptown Saturday Night.
Geechi Suede: On the tour we had a stop in St. Louis and we went out to eat. When we came back, our room was right next Trugoy’s room and we heard this beat coming from outside. We was like “WTF is that?” and we knocked on the door. He was like, “Y’all fuckin with that?” So when we got off the tour we went out to Long Island to record “B-Side To Hollywood.”
Ski Beatz: That shit was dope. De La knew Camp Lo had that Native Tongue-ish thing going on, and they are master producers. They knew the sound I was going for and that shit sounded great. I never felt like it wasn’t gonna fit. I was honored that they wanted to do something. We’re all fans of De La Soul.
A stop for gas in New Jersey held another magical moment, a chance meeting with one of Suede’s musical influences, Ish aka Butterfly from Digable Planets who would appear on “Swing.”
GS: Me and Chee were the last ones to get off the bus and he was like “I think I saw your man, Butterfly,” and I was like “What?” We chased the nigga down.
SC: He thought niggas was gonna stick him up.
GS: We ran up on him and I hit him with the “Coolie High” tape and said that we were on the road with De La. Later on I’d found out that one of his boys called him and told him about the song, and that one of the guys sounded like him. We locked in after that. That was another magical thing that happened on that tour.
It’s crazy when I look back at how the universe was working. Everything was happening naturally, not forced at all. To go on tour with De La after trying to dress like those brothers, I was trying to sound like Ish and capture his voice. That shit was crazy, straight dream shit.
Ski Beatz: I remember being in the studio mixing the beat, and I kept trying to change it up and Ish kept saying “Keep it like Dat” trust me. And Ish is like a big brother to Suede. He’s been following Ish since the beginning of his career, so when he finally met him and got him to do the song I know that was a very exciting moment for Suede.
Luchini AKA This Is It
With the album almost complete, the label wanted a strong single to follow up “Coolie High,” and the group answered with their ode to opulence, “Luchini.” The song has proven so durable that it was recently given new life when Nappy DJ Needles mashed up the lyrics with Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Boy” instrumental.
Ski Beatz: The album was wrapped up and done but [the label] was saying we need something for the radio, we need spins, etc. Amazingly that was the last song and I remember digging and finding that Dynasty (“Adventures In The Land Of Music”) sample and said “this is crack.” I called up the guys, and they said it was dope. The verses and hook came together quick. I remember being in D.C. and we were talking about dropping “Luchini,” we were still performing “Coolie High” but we knew people were gonna love Luchini when it dropped.
Will Fulton: The restaurant [where we shot the video] is now called Dizzy’s on 8th Avenue and 9th street on Park Slope, Brooklyn. We had been talking with Cheeba and Suede about doing something that was really referential to the diner in “Coolie High.” So there was one with the diner and bar, and said it was going to be perfect.
Geechi Suede: One of the dates we had recently did in Japan, Cheeba was DJing and he dropped the Bobby Shmurda shit because he was a big fan. Not too long after that the blend dropped. And Nappy DJ Needles is our boy in St. Louis who DJs for us anytime we go through the Lou. It was like a rebirth of that record for these heads now.
Ski Beatz: That blend was dope. When I saw Camp Lo’s lyrics flowing to that beat—and not to take away from how people are rapping now, their lyrics are just timeless. The flow is golden.
For the third video the crew went with “Black Nostaljak,” which seemed like an obvious choice considering Camp Lo’s whole vibe was a throwback.
Black Nostaljack AKA Come On
Will Fulton: I remember calling up Todd Mayflield, Curtis Mayfield’s brother, about the “Trippin out” sample for “Black Nostaljack.” I found the call sheet for it and it says when Jimmy Walker comes in etc. That was a dream come true for me and for them. Everybody had grown up on “Good Times” and there was the Ernie Barnes “Sugar Shack” painting connection, which inspired the painting on USN. We had Dr. Revolt, who is one of those classic old school graffiti guys, paint the guys in that style for the cover. So we thought we should do some “Good Times” [angle]. Somehow it was magically possible that they would do it and Profile would pay for the building of the set. The budgets were tiny by major label standards, but we got something decent. It was a build out inside a loft. And we got to use the theme song in the beginning and used the same film they used in the ‘70s. That’s why it has that hue.
Sonny Cheeba: Everybody had a crush on Thelma (actress Bern Nadette Stanis), but nobody wanted to tell her. For the most part it was a good time, especially when we did the “Krystal Karrington” joint at the end.
GS: [That video] was supposed to be “Rockin It (AKA Spanish Harlem)” for the third single. Why we didn’t do it, Chee?
SC: I think cats thought “BN” was crazier because of the sample.
GS: We felt like “Rockin” was the first of its kind blending [latin and hip-hop] and it was just gonna cross shit up crazy. Because you see it really worked well for Wyclef with the Santana shit, those were big records. I feel like Spanish Harlem was the first of its style.
Ski Beatz: At the time I was living in The Bronx with a Puerto Rican girl and her moms and her brother. Everyday they would have [Merengue] blaring out the windows so that was embedded in my DNA when I was working on that album. I love that music, and I said we gotta do something with that. It was so BX. I don’t know where I got the record though
GS: But “BN” was dope. It was super dreamy with JJ and Thelma, and it’s funny how they was just able to make the set look like [“Good Times”]. It was dope that they were able to pull that off.
Ski Beatz: Ill Will, he picked the sample. He said you’ve gotta chop up this Curtis Mayfield sample and that they were getting “Good Times” actors for the video. I don’t know if I would have ran with that as the second single. I would have done “Kristal Karrington” or “Sparkle.” That’s why we put it on the end to keep that edge. But the label wanted to keep them smooth.
Will Fulton: The radio and higher ups were the ones who picked “Black Nostaljack.” From ‘96 to late ‘97 it was more difficult for an independent label to get anything on the radio. It became a Universal and Arista-owned game.
Though Camp Lo had built a reputation for being slick-talking playboys, their more mischievous alter egos Stone and Rob always lurked beneath the surface. In fact, the album was originally going to be called A Piece of The Action, and had leaned more towards the darker tracks like “Killin ‘Em Softly” and the lead track, “Krystal Karrington.” The latter was featured in an early episode of Marvel’s “Iron Fist.”
Ski Beatz: Remember the old VHS tapes? I had an old VHS tape of the “Bionic Woman,” and I heard that background in one of the action scenes when she was fighting and I said, “Yo, I gotta chop that up.” I might have been one of the first people to sample from a VHS tape back in the day. Maybe not, but to sample the “Bionic Woman” I knew nobody was thinking about that.
GS: “Krystal Karrington” was initially a drop for DJ Chubby Chub. We were doing a drop for him over that beat and when we heard that shit back we was like…
SC: Time for another 24.
Will Fulton: That version (featured in “Iron Fist”) was the tape demo. I didn’t notice right away, but Ski told me that’s the demo version. You’d have to listen very closely that the vocal performances are different. I had made a cassette sequence when the album was called “A Piece Of The Action,” and it was a lot of the darker tracks that had been like that song. [There was] another song called “Crystals and Istols,” At the time the early incarnation of the album was darker. But “KK” was definitely the hard Camp Lo record. It was more gritty.
As if having their vocals mashed up with a millennial stick-up kid anthem wasn’t enough testimony to their timelessness, Camp Lo’s early demo was resurrected in a collection called On The Way Uptown. Will Fulton found the tapes in an old storage space and passed them along to the guys after attending the release party for their 2015 album Ragtime Hightimes.
Will Fulton: So I found the cassettes and brought them to Ski, and Ski had Zack Weeks master it and they put it out. I wonder how many ‘90s groups threw out cassette players and their cassettes along with it. There is a lot of stuff that got lost. All of the amazing music from that era just went in another direction.
One of the rescued tracks was a song called “Hollywood At The Disco” that featured the same “Rain Dance” sample as Lil Kim’s “Crush On You,” which was ironically produced by Ski’s mentor The Rhythm Fanatic.
Ski: I used the sample before him, but like I said it was a demo and we never used the song. Obviously he didn’t hear my demo, and I ain’t know he was gonna produce “Crush On You.” That’s how it goes with samples. It’s cool that we were on the same vibe because he taught me how to make beats.
The group came full circle shooting videos for “Piece of the Action” and “Suga Streets” at the end of 2016. For the former they stomped through the streets of Philly clad in leather sleeves and low brims, but for the latter they returned to the scene of the crime, 2130 110th St. where it wall began. It was like a scene from the mind-bending, existential film Waking Life, where the idea is to “remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.”
Geechi Suede: We time travel in music a lot. We go to the past and the future, but I don’t think we ever be now with it. We never with what’s going on with the moment. I think the fact that we play with time like that keeps us out of the category of being dated. Praise Be to Allah we just have a built-in flow to us that definitely ain’t got nothing to do with time.
Sonny Cheeba: The people on the set didn’t know “Piece of the Action” was 20 years old either. They thought it was fresh off the press.
Ski Beatz: Their lyrics are so fuckin abstract, it’s like a Rubiks Cube and you’re trying to put those colors together. They don’t say dated things in their rhymes like “Tim Boots, Moet and gold chain Jesus Piece.” Instead you hear “In Switzerland I dance by the moon.” C’mon man, that shit is artwork. That shit is poetry. They wasn’t writing rhymes, they was writing with kaleidoscope pens. Every time I recorded them I was just amazed at the shit they was saying. “How he gonna say that with THAT? What the fuck is Cheeba talking about? But it sounds dope!”