Fort Apache (The Mixtape Album)
don’t believe Camp Lo. The official explanation for their extended hiatus from the rap world was label problems and a desire to “travel.” But that’s just too easy. I know the truth. Listening to Fort Apache (The Mixtape Album), it becomes all too clear that after fleeing the bank heist depicted in their epic “Luchini” video, Camp Lo hopped into a waiting stretch limousine doubling as the getaway car. Tearing off their Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon stick-up masks, Geechie Suede and Sonny Chiba sank into the plush leather seats with canary-gobbling smiles, pouring themselves celebratory Cristal toasts to the new life that awaited them in Antigua. Diamond running and stick-ups had certainly paid off, they thought to themselves, as they lit up fat Cohibas stuffed with chronic. Stepping out of the limo red-eyed to catch the red eye, the two crooks laughed goodbye to the urban jungle of NYC, boarded the private jet waiting for them at Teterboro, and headed off to Cayman bank accounts, white-sand beaches, ice-cold tropical drinks, and bikini-clad beauties.
Then again, you can always believe the tragic “real” story. The story of how the duo dropped a classic first single, “Cooley High,” in 1996 on the Wu-Tang heavy Great White Hype soundtrack. The story of the two rookies that held their own with the heavy-hitters, coming off like distant cousins of Ghost and Rae. The story of a couple of friends slinging slang soaked lyrics that sketched colorful portraits of a Blaxploitation underworld.
The hit single was followed by the masterpiece: 1997’s Ski-produced Uptown Saturday Night. Spitting over the same soul-drenched beats that Jay-Z wanted for Reasonable Doubt, the duo’s portraits grew more vivid—spitting seamless flows about performing diamond heists and living with Charlie’s Angels hornets during “silky days and satin nights.” These weren’t the ice-cold Scarface reinterpretations of their brethren in the Wu, Suede and Chiba were more interested in the fur, guns, and jewels lexicon of Superfly and The Mack.
The rest is, as they say, cliché: with the modest success of Uptown, the majors came knocking. The label, Priority, told the majors they weren’t for sale—unless the entire imprint was included in the deal. As soon as Arista signed on the dotted line, Lo was asked to bring in R&B; singers for the hooks. Predictably, Lo asked out and went AWOL for the next several years, until 2002’s self-released Let’s Do It Again, a severely underrated and often brilliant record that few people know actually exist. And then? One guest appearance on Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth in 2003, and…nothing.
Perhaps it’s this hiatus that makes Lo’s Fort Apache: The Mixtape Album seem even more impressive than it already is. The record is the sound of the artists shaking off cobwebs with swagger intact, verbiage Technicolor bright, and flows vicious and Richard Roundtree-smooth. While most of NYC wasted the last decade squandering their goodwill with half-baked skit-laden albums, Camp Lo’s time off has only made them hungrier to stake their claim and to build upon their legacy.
In interviews, the duo have described the mixtape as 80s themed—with a touch of 70s Hollywood. It’s made clear on the first track, the fierce stick-up minded “82 Afro’s.” From there, the duo take the listener underground into their paisley colored hideouts packed to the gills with ebony-skinned girls in tight jeans and afros, towering mountains of vacuum-sealed drugs, and gargantuan speakers hemorrhaging funk. “Suga Willie’s Revenge” finds Lo riding hard 80s style drums with a sinuous and infectious flute sample. Over the thudding bass, Lo put their elegantly tangled vernacular on display: (“It’s that blue funk personified / I’m the Congo in the vibe / I’m the voodoo come alive / I’m the fly frantic / Live across the transatlantic / With the panama slanted / On this true enchantment.”)
“52” finds the pair ruminating over the number 52 (“They said when I’m 52 I’d have 52 brides / In a B-52 bomber pouring out 152”), while “Gimmie Dat” features Lo spitting over a lean beat and a sample from Gangstarr’s “Just to Get a Rep,” and taking on the personas of a stick-up kid and his victim in the Bronx. And “Suga Lo’s Lov”? Possibly the finest infidelity gone-wrong tale since Ghostface’s “It’s Over.” The album’s excellence doesn’t become clear until it’s over—after Lo has dropped six straight certified bangers, each the equal of anything on Uptown Saturday Night. Shit, they even turn the reggae-themed “Ganja Lounge” into a slow burning stoner anthem.
So nearly five years after their last album and a decade since “Cooley High” heralded their arrival, Camp Lo have returned to planet Earth to drop the year’s best mixtape. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Caribbean, a treasure chest is buried deep in the sand, filled with glistening diamonds, fur coats, and Panama hats, patiently awaiting the return of their rightful owners. The ones who’ve returned home to finish what they started.