Yes In My Backyard is a semiweekly column showcasing new and emerging MP3s from local talent.
Before losing a battle with lung cancer in May of 2008, Brooklyn-via-Ohio MC Camu Tao spent nearly a decade as one of the most underrated rappers in the indie underground. The depth of his talents were barely scratched by his recorded output — a great record with tear-the-club-up duo S.A. Smash, a slept-on concept record with noir crew Nighthawks, and a handful of gripping 12″s. Since 2004, Definitive Jux label head El-P had been hearing something else in Camu’s demos and home-recordings, a wealth of material that was slowly repainting the MC as a brassy, bluesy, beat-wise singer-songwriter — a one-man mix of Gnarls Barkley and Sleigh Bells. Tao’s long-in-the-works album, King Of Hearts, is finally seeing release on August 17 thanks to Jux and the forward-thinking folks at Fat Possum. The record is a stunning mix of electropunk churn, lovesick croon, and hip-hop wordsmithery. Had it been released four years ago, it would have easily beaten everyone to the punch — Drake, B.O.B., and admitted fan Kid Cudi — and done it all wrapped in a perennially cool haze of fuzzy art-punk distortion. Tao’s album opener “Be a Big Girl” uses an infectious interpolation of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces centerpiece “Big Boys” to lay his heart on the line over some tape-damaged beatwork and maniacally crunchy Albini guitars.
El-P on Camu Tao:
Tell me about the experience of putting out Camu’s album in 2003 with S.A. Smash.
We knew that the S.A. Smash record was different from anything we had put out before on Jux at the time. It was more of a straightforward street record. It definitely got overlooked and we kind of suspected it might, but I think a lot of people have since gone back to that record and started regarding it as a classic. I feel like the context of the label hurt the release, but we in some ways wanted to upset the balance of what people expected from the label and its artists.
Do you remember when Camu first started working in this new, extra-melodic, singer-songwriter style?
For the most part Camu started singing on songs when we did the Central Services stuff [El’s circa 2004 production duo with Camu]. I knew he had this amazing, unique voice and had heard him sing things here and there. I think CS opened that up for him as a way to make songs and he ran with it and really made it his own. Part of the reason we didn’t put out the CS stuff was because I felt like the stuff he was doing for King Of Hearts was just blowing it away.
When did he start bringing you the King Of Hearts stuff?
He started sending demos from Ohio after he had moved back. I was immediately blown away. I’m not sure what he was listening to but I signed him for that album within days of hearing the first demos.
What would Camu use to write melodies?
He would just come up with melodies in his head or over production he did. He wasn’t a trained singer but he had an amazing ear and he would come up with the strangest harmonies and vocal parts that just seemed to work despite the fact that in some cases they really technically shouldn’t have. He was a natural. I don’t know anyone who heard music the way he did.
What can you tell us about “Be a Big Girl”?
“Be a Big Girl” shocked me when I heard it. All of a sudden this friend of mine who was a rapper all his life was making these insane almost-pop songs. I didn’t know for a while that he was inspired by Elvis Costello for that one. I think Elvis had a really big influence on King Of Hearts.
What’s the most memorable Camu performance you ever witnessed?
Him and Metro from S.A. Smash rocked a Def Jux show in NYC in full Roman soldier regalia. It was insane.