PHOTOS BY ABRANISAACC
There's a war going on outside, no man is safe from. You can run but you can't hide forever. In these streets that we done took. - Prodigy, Survival Of The Fittest
Over the past several years, underground hip-hop's cultural stage has been hijacked by a new brand of emcees and producers reminiscent of the sounds of Mobb Deep's mid to late nineties run. Concentrated within up-state New York, in large part thanks to Buffalo's Griselda roster, this new rap renaissance has not only transformed the underground scene but has made a significant dent in the mainstream hip-hop circuits as well. Of the many hundreds of emcees who have stepped inside this stylistic endeavour, I argue that Griselda-affiliate Elcamino is not only the purest manifestation of the renaissance in question but is arguably one of the greatest rappers of all time.
'Me and my brother man? We like that street shit. We come from that Mobb Deep shit.' - King Ralph [brother of Elcamino.]
Word choice is perhaps the most undervalued asset to a rapper’s arsenal. Unlike speed, charisma, subject matter, rhyme scheme, or flow, all of which introduce themselves as visible and tangible components - capable of measuring a rapper's skillset, word choice is often a less flashy - often invisible power that an emcee can draw from. Prodigy and Havoc, the duo that comprised Mobb Deep, are certainly not known for their technical prowess, their speed in delivery, or even subject matter that spoke to contemporary issues of the day. Despite this, emcees like Prodigy are still labelled as some of the greatest rappers of all time, and to those whom the emcee resonated with most, Prodigy is often considered the perfect rapper. I think many people who consider themselves fans of Mobb Deep, would be hard pressed to codify what exactly made them great. My argument is word choice.
Word choice is not synonymous with a large vocabulary. Quite the opposite. Sometimes less is more. Furthermore, the ability to be direct and communicate meaning with one swipe, is often more appreciated than communication which requires work deciphering the text on behalf of the audience. Great screenwriters are often very good at this skill. Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi who wrote Goodfellas together, had the ability to paint a vivid and believable picture of New York City crime life with simple, yet punching word choice. When a gangster spoke, the words that came out of their mouth, despite how menacing they may be on paper, were delivered as a veiled threat. The audience understood that the reality was far grimmer and bleaker than what the screen had told them. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times the following after seeing Goodfellas for the first time:
'The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese distills those memories into a fiction that sometimes plays like a documentary, that contains so much information and feeling about the Mafia that finally it creates the same claustrophobic feeling Hill's wife talks about: The feeling that the mob world is the real world.'
This is the power of word choice. It's the power of good writing. Not in flashy writing, but in powerful writing. When Mobb Deep released The Infamous in 1995 on Loud Records, the feeling was the same. You believed their existence. The apocalyptic landscape that the two emcees painted for Queensbridge New York, felt like a movie. There was a war going on outside, and you were knee deep in the trenches for 66 minutes. When Prodigy spits 'you can put your whole army, against my team and... I guarantee you it will be your very last time breathing.' You not only believe him, but part of you understands that the severity of his message is veiled by a particular humility that comes from respect and confidence.
Elcamino is cut from this same cloth. Though he has shown he is capable of flaunting more technically savvy ideas, the emcee has willingly sacrificed these elements to deliver on word choice, potency and above all, mood. As when word choice is at its best, mood becomes the by-product. On the song, "Camino Season," the emcee describes expanding his turf by claiming nonchalantly, "I kidnapped your earth." On the song "Field Trips," he raps "these ni**as brought a knife to a gun fight." A simple reflection on a common refrain that tells you all you need to know about the circumstance being detailed. These hard and poetic descriptions are common-place among Camino's writing. The words he uses matter. His word choice is where he excels, much like Mobb Deep before him.
Labeled as some 'laid back, don't fuck with me rap,' by Dead End Hip-Hop's Kinge, Camino carries forward the styles of Mobb Deep to tell an ever-so-slightly different story. Unlike Prodigy and Havoc who told the story of Queensbridge crime life, Camino speaks on Buffalo's crime life to much the same effect. However, although stylistic similarities exist, the differences are important. From an outsider, Buffalo feels less apocalyptic and more desolate. Empty, broken promises, far removed, yet still experiencing the same struggles that New York City in the 1990s felt. In an interview with Toronto's Daniel Son, he recollected experiencing up-state New York in the 2010s, and how it resembled the stories he had heard of New York City in the 1990s.
'When you go do shows up there? It's a whole different type of new energy. When you go to those shows you're gonna see more guns than you ever seen in your life. I guarantee it. Just inside the little club or the little bar that you're in. Shit is grimy out there. Shit is not lovely out there. When I hear OGs talk about the stories from the 90s and how the shows were in the 90s? How it was grimy? Early 2000s? And how shit got soft? And now shit is getting back to that grimy shit. When I go to Buffalo, when I go to Rochester, I come back and tell these stories; like 'Yo, this guy was holding me down in the bathroom. I thought he was going to rob me. Next thing I know he's a big fan but he got those big fucking guns sticking out. Shit is real out there. That's the real proving grounds.'
Street rap in Buffalo is therefore capable of tapping into the same mood, the same energy, and the same power that 90s New York street rap had. And although the city communicates these experiences through a number of different (and well-varied) perspectives, Elcamino, with his commitment and focus, is perhaps the closest hip-hop has gotten to Mobb Deep's iconic and signature aesthetic.
Although the Mobb Deep comparisons are truthfully appropriate, it's unfair to Camino to solely rely on these comparisons when attempting to communicate his greatness. What Camino has done, is far more unique than other adopters of the style have managed to pull off. Unlike Mobb Deep, Camino has the ability to harmonize his mean-mugged thuggish persona seamlessly into songs and deliver a more soulful interpretation of street life than Mobb Deep was ever able to do. His ability to sing, and sing well, is an underappreciated element of the rapper's toolkit, but has largely made Camino into what he is today. Some of Camino's best work, songs like "Goon Ballad," "James Brown" and "Soul Brother" come to mind as particular exercises in this craft - that stand out as some of my favourites among his catalog. Most of the time, however, Camino blends his verses with these more melodic and harmonized hooks within one song. A track like "Hustle Like Me" produced by 38 Spesh, is an exemplary track; lasting just two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, where Camino ties the knot on his verse by singing lines like:
I break it down fast and I'm back on the ave. You ain't fucking with me ni**a. You got a little trap but it don't get no cash. I'm always out first and I take it in last. You don't hustle like me ni**a.' I never go back, so I keep me a bag. Cause I ain't ever have all the shit that I have. You ain't struggle like me ni**a.'
There was a certain feeling the listener got when they heard Nate Dogg harmonize and sing lines that felt like they had no business coming out of a soul singers’ mouth. Unlike singers before him, Nate Dogg would sing with the vocabulary of a gangster rapper and make the sentences sound even harder than they could have in verse. Camino, in many ways, is an extension of this same train of thought. Yet instead of occupying the persona of a west-coast, low-riding, gang banger, Camino authentically portrays that of an east coast street hustler - who has seen the glory, as well as the destruction that the lifestyle causes and is here to report back on his life's findings. The mix between the Prodigy-esque rap verses, and the east coast thuggish Nate Dogg-like hooks, makes Camino one of the most interesting and promising rappers to date.
The last aspect to appreciate, is something that the new renaissance movement has capitalized on increasingly well. Unlike rappers of the past, who would drop an album once every year, maybe once every two years, today's modern underground rapper seemingly lives in the studio. Elcamino, since 2017, has dropped over twenty projects to his name. This does not include previous work with his group "Local Residents" or solo work put out under the name "Meechy Elcamino" before his style was truly defined. These twenty-plus projects are near perfect. Camino's production choices are absolutely stellar, with full albums produced from greats such as 38 Spesh, Camoflauge Monk, DJ Shay, Bozack Morris, TrickyTrippz, Oh Jay and more. Due to his ability to sing and craft fitting hooks, his feature discography is also outstanding, often contributing hooks to hip-hop giants such as Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, Grafh, Flee Lord, 38 Spesh, and plenty others.
Camino not only stands amongst the best in terms of style and musical excellence, but his production choice, his consistency, and the sheer magnitude of his catalog must be recognized and appreciated. Unlike Mobb Deep who performed at their peak for three full albums in the 1990s, Camino has delivered that quality for over twenty projects; all of which have been released on vinyl, and have been given the proper album treatment. These are not throwaways, and these are not loosies left to be forgotten.
Although Elcamino has released projects under a myriad of labels in the past, including Air Vinyl, GoodFelons, Duape!, Tuff Kong Records, GGBR, Griselda and De Rap Winkel, the emcee is continuing to elevate his status in the game. In August of 2022, Elcamino was handed his chains from Benny the Butcher on stage as he was inducted into Benny's Black Soprano Family. Although he has held close ties and affiliation with Griselda in the past, and his debut Elcamino 1 was released on Griselda Records, this will be the first time that Camino finds himself at home in a group / roster like setting. The upcoming Black Soprano Family album, Long Live DJ Shay will feature verses from Camino throughout and is expected to be released September 9 of 2022.
Don't let Camino fool you. He's one of the smartest people - young people - I know. He knows how to play the drums. He can sing. Like he can SING! He could be an R&B singer. He's just talented. Do not sleep on Elcamino. He's going to be a star. A huge star. That's my ni**a. - Lucky Seven [Drumwork]
In light of the new project from Black Soprano Family, and as a companion to this piece, I have included below a curated selection of songs from Elcamino's discography. Although his library is vast and well worth a full deep dive, this will hopefully prove to be a catching gateway into the emcee's music.
CREDITS Photos by abranisaacc https://www.instagram.com/abranisaacc/
Prodigy. "Survival of the Fittest." Off of Mobb Deep's The Infamous. Loud Records. 1995 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIq4UTgqDAc
King Ralph. 'The Renaissance Show.' Season 1, Episode 1. Interview by Alex Kuchma. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lgOFnNg9Zk&
Roger Ebert. Review of Goodfellas. September 2 1990. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/goodfellas-1990
Elcamino. "Camino Season." From Sacred Psalms by Elcamino and 38 Spesh. 2020. https://elcaminoairvinyls.bandcamp.com/
Elcamino. "Field Trips." From Stashbox Chronicles by DJ Nugz. 2019. https://djnugz.bandcamp.com/album/stashbox-chronicles
Kenneth B Kinge, 'Elcamino & 38 Spesh - Martyr's Prayer' on the Dead End Hip-Hop Podcast Network. Released May 2021. https://open.spotify.com/episode/1VjSXOuN5mZJSDfHyKWeaT?si=1bcf2383318948a1
Daniel Son, interview with Alex Kuchma for The Underground Vault. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkOJ-2bcqc8
Lucky Seven. 'The Renaissance Show: Season 1, Episode 4.' Interview with Alex Kuchma. Released October 16 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ahXM4jGlmw&