Monday, June 3, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. #012: MHz - "World Premier" b/w "Camu"

MHz - "World Premier" b/w "Camu" (Fondle 'Em Records, 1998)
Just over a week ago, May 25 commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of Camu Tao. He was thirty, and he had been battling lung cancer for three years. His debut solo album King of Hearts was left unfinished, and the record label that his friend El-P had signed him to, Definitive Jux, was struggling financially and on its way to folding. The King of Hearts demos got an official release two years later, but compared to the rest of his catalog, they sound spare and unfinished. Unfortunately, the rest of Camu’s catalog consists entirely of work with other groups, a few featured verses on other artists’ projects, and three 12” solo singles. For a rapper as distinct and exciting as Camu to have so little recorded music is a shame.

Fortunately, the recorded career that Camu had was pretty consistently great, dating back to his first appearance on MHz’s “World Premier” single in 1998. MHz, composed of Camu Tao, Copywrite, Tage Future, Jakki tha Motamouth, and RJD2, is probably the best rap group that ever came out of Columbus, Ohio, and Camu was the immediate breakout member. After a landmark appearance on WKCR’s Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show on February 19, 1998,[1] Bobbito signed the group to his Fondle ‘Em label[2] and prepped the “World Premier” single for later that year. Since the MHz were more of a collective of like-minded artists rather than a full-fledged group,  Tage and Jakki don’t appear on this first single at all, and rather than handling the beats himself, RJD2 only gets coproduction credit on one of the two songs.[3] Instead the focus is on Copywrite, who handles the first verse on the a-side, and on Camu, who finishes out the a-side and has the whole b-side to himself.

Over chopped samples of guitar and vibes from the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” that sound a lot tinnier and rougher than the sounds in the Stones’ original, Copywrite makes his stance on wack rappers clear from the outset of “World Premier”: “We don't need gimmicks/Wack ones still ride the dilz till they exceed the speed limits.” Copywrite sounds a bit like he doesn’t know how to flow over a beat, so he’s constantly changing his tempo and cadence in a way that sounds not unlike a much less elegant Pharoahe Monch verse. Copy’s still a very raw talent here, but Camu is something else entirely. His voice and delivery are so out there that the start of his verse—which, in a mid-nineties underground rap tradition follows not a hook, but a bunch of people adlibbing into the mic in place of something catchy—is outright jarring. Camu’s vocal style is so completely unique that it sounds as if it was birthed in a vacuum devoid of influences. Right off the bat, he’s delivering non-sequitors (“Handle the jewels with care when you're ridin'/My aggressiveness is on another plane”) followed immediately by a flow that renders his words gibberish. He sounds like the local wino with a bunch of ideas that he can’t quite hash out in a coherent way. As a result, predicting what Camu’s next line will sound like is basically impossible. Camu’s performance is instantly seared into your brain after hearing it. MHz’s premier song stands as their best, a perfect distillation of their approach to underground rap tropes.

The b-side is titled “Camu,” and similarly to Wu-Tang’s “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man” from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it serves as a solo showcase for the group’s breakout member. Unlike “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”’s catchy spell-along chorus, “Camu”’s chorus—which also uses spelling—isn’t even that noticeable the first time through. Camu doesn’t really stop rapping at all for most of the song’s runtime, and since he goes from verse to chorus to verse so quickly and the beat doesn’t change up at all, the chorus might not as well exist. The beat by the awesomely named Mentor for the City[4] isn’t anything special, just a three note piano loop, a horn stab, and some anemic drums, and it quickly gets old when just listening to the instrumental. With Camu free-associative bars on top, however, the beat’s deficiencies stop being a problem. Why need a great beat when Camu can provide all of the song’s color? Like a lot of songs released on Fondle ‘Em, “Camu” sounds like a first take vocal recording and the resulting raggedy quality gives the song the feel of a freestyle. Like his verse on “World Premier,” Camu is completely unpredictable, stumbling wildly through the beat. It’s an exhilarating performance, and it shows Camu at the absolute peak of his rapping talents.

MHz put out one more single, “Rocket Science,” on Fondle’ Em the next year and then put out a compilation of the Fondle ‘Em stuff, some freestyles, and assorted demos as the indispensable Table Scraps in 2001. RJD2 and Camu signed to El-P’s Definitive Jux label as solo artists as MHz ceased to be a going concern. While RJD2 took off with Deadringer, Camu took a while to develop a solo voice on the uneven S.A. Smash album in 2002. He found that voice by abandoning rapping in favor of singing. Take “Oxycontin,” Camu’s solo track from El-P’s Collecting the Kid compilation from 2004. This is not a common progression for a staunchly underground rapper. Yet even in his new role as a singer, Camu was able to come up with material that sounded completely his own. Considering how naturally he took to strange ideas like “Oxycontin,” it’s not too surprising that he switched to singing so soon after the MHz days. He had mastered his style as a rapper and moved on to something new. It’s that quality that makes Camu so dearly missed by his fans and peers.

The remaining members of MHz reunited for their first official album in 2012, four years after Camu’s death. A few great unreleased Camu verses appear on the record.

"World Premier"

"Camu" doesn't seem to be available on YouTube, so here is 2004's "Oxycontin" instead

Coming Up on Spray Cans:
Rammellzee & K-Rob
Big Twan
Cashless Society
Black Attack
Royal Fam
Abstract Tribe Unique or the Nonce

[1] Where Camu was unsurprisingly the most memorable. Portions of the group’s freestyles from this episode can be found on the MHz Table Scraps compilation.
[2] I said in the Arsonists entry of Spray Cans that I would probably end up covering every Fondle ‘Em release in this series. Here’s #2.
[3] These three would get their time on the second MHz single for Fondle ‘Em, “Rocket Science.”
[4] We need more rap names like Mentor for the City that sound like they were reading a lot of Jack Kirby comics while they were coming up with names.

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