Bring back glowing eyebeams
Sean Price + Skyzoo + Craig G
January 16, 2006
The uber-hard NY rap formalists in the Boot Camp Clik were never stars, exactly, but they once managed to carve out a definite space for their hazy screwface anthems on the national rap landscape. Heltah Skeltah and Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun released one minor classic album apiece, and I can remember seeing something like five BCC videos in a row on the Box a couple of times. Listening to those old records now, it’s amazing how devoted those rappers were to their own singular aesthetic; they figured out how great mumbled headslap threats could sound over slow, soft-focus jazz loops, and so they kept working that formula, pushing it to psychedelic extremes. The rap world might’ve moved on from that stuff, but all those Boot Camp guys are still around, still pushing their sound to its logical conclusions; the only difference is the rap mainstream has stopped paying attention. So the BCC sound has become a distinctly regional niche-market taste, a tiny corner of the rap universe big enough to keep all those rappers fed but too small to get any of their faces on BET more than once a week. I was talking to Sean Fennessey about the Duck Down Records crew a couple of weeks ago, and he pointed out that these days they aren’t a whole lot different from Big Cat Records or something. BCC might be selling records outside of New York, but they’re selling those records to New York rap devotees. And something about their continued existence makes me really, really happy. Fat Joe, a product of the same New York rap era as the Boot Camp Clik, may be ten times richer than Sean Price, but I can’t imagine he’s any happier. Joe builds his albums from preexisting connect-the-dots blueprints, wedging in club-tracks and sensitive-thug ballads and fake Southern stuff, and he doesn’t seem to have any idea who he is anymore. Price pursues his muse and keeps his cult happy; he knows exactly who he is. I know which one I’d rather be.
Maybe a BCC record-release show would’ve been a big event ten years ago, but it wasn’t quite enough to fill up the Knitting Factory on a freezing-cold Tuesday night in January. But the parade of BCC luminaries was still oddly thrilling: Buckshot and Steele and Big Rock, dudes in bubble-goose parkas crowding the stage and swapping mics. Price himself is an enormous figure, filling the stage by himself and eventually getting loose enough to bust out some ridiculous dance moves. Price’s fired-up guest spot during Smif-N-Wessun’s set was my favorite thing about the Redman/Raekwon retro-extravaganza at BB King’s in November. He never showed that explosive energy at the Knitting Factory. Instead, he was quiet and reserved, deep in a probably-stoned headspace that suited the lazy, heavy beats just fine. For a few songs, he stood off at the back of the stage and let his BCC compatriots soak up the attention, not a bad idea considering that there aren’t a lot of rappers more fun to watch than Big Rock, still radiating a sort of controlled mania in his scattershot bursts or syllables. Most of these guys have cut their dreads by now, but they’re all absolutely the same people, defiant in their consistency.
BCC live shows never seem to fall into self-righteous old-man nostalgia because they’re a lot more concerned with what they are than what they’re not, and the rest of the rappers on the bill should’ve taken notes. Onetime Juice Crew sparkplug Craig G is still as hard and solid as ever, but it’s not a lot of fun to watch him rant about why rap sucks now in between roaring about how true he is to real hip-hop and giving too much mic time to his hypeman. I hadn’t heard of Skyzoo before, but I liked his workmanline mixtape-rapper flow just fine. But his one DJ Premier track didn’t turn out to be the triumphant declaration of self it could’ve been, largely because he devoted the track’s third verse to an asskissy gimmick: working in the names of as many Premier tracks as possible (“When I be on the mic, I kick in the door,” that sort of thing). Part of what makes the Boot Camp Clik great in their own extremely specific way is that they refuse to obsess about past glories. Instead, they’re just refining their sound and biding their time. If the spotlight ever swings back to New York, they’ll be there, waiting.