While the Golden Age of the producer-MC collaboration lies years in the past, occasionally a group comes through that reminds Hip-Hop heads why the formula was so effective in the first place. 2010’s flashback is Live from the Tape Deck, a glimpse back to the glory days of Gang Starr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Brooklyn native Skyzoo and New Jersey’s !llmind craft 12 tracks of expert workmanship, which if not quite reaching those legendary heights goes the distance in doing their geographical roots proud.
Key to the success of albums of this style is the chemistry between MC and producer and Skyzoo and Illmind have the right formula. “Frisbees,” the album’s premier track, moves with a symbiotic energy. !llmind’s Knight Rider-inspired production moves in concert with the rhythms of Skyzoo’s vocalization as he floats quotables like perfect thrown forehands. Well-placed guest appearances don’t break up the flow, but add to the mix. New York is well represented—Heltah Skeltah bring their usual bold rhymes to “The Burn Notice,” while Styles P. and Buckshot team up with Sky to give listeners a slice of the Big Apple’s best on “Now or Never.”
While the bench players give their contributions, it is the album’s alpha dog that takes over in crunch times. Live From the Tape Deck brilliantly showcases Skyzoo’s talents, most notably his ability to craft full-length verses that hold the listeners attention while maintaining fundamentally sound rhymes from couplet to couplet. Nowhere is this more clear then on “The Winners Circle” where S-K adopts the role of LeBron James’ ego to a tee—King James should fire Mav Carter and hire ‘Zoo cause in three minutes, he explains LeBron’s motivations for moving to South Beach better than a team of brand marketers every could. Zoo’s not limited to role playing however, and gets personal on “Langston’s Pen,” both in thanking those who’ve helped and attacking those he thinks that are road blocking his climb into our living rooms.
While East Coast lobbyists will find few flaws in the album, those who weren’t brought up on Preemo and Do the Right Thing may miss the appeal. There’s little attempt by the tape deckers to make anything that would gain radio traction outside the greater five boroughs. The closest effort, the girl ballad—“#allaboutthat” doesn’t have the required energy to make it in the 2010s and both seem to know it as Skyzoo goes through the motions. This won’t be trending any time soon.
Crossover dreams of duos with Drake deferred, Skyzoo and !llmind return to the program of making gritty music. “Kitchen Table,” exemplifies their working class, no nonsense vibe—Illmind’s weary, hypnotic beat draws the listener in as Skyzoo goes off on the difficulties of the daily grind. There’s some politicking, particularly from Rhymefest on “Understanding Riley,” but Skyzoo and !llmind aren’t radicals. They only care about the Hip-Hop essentials, beats, rhymes and life. And even in 2010, that’s all you need.