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NL rapper Suave-Ski and producer Smoke theWorld deliver a loose concept album

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One of the most compelling questions facing musicians during the last 12 months might be optimally presented in an old school, fill-in-the-blank fashion: "Artistically, I spent my Year of COVID doing ___________." And, being creative, these folks would complete that question in myria

d ways.

For rapper Suave-Ski and producer Smoke the World, they went in a direction that, on the surface, might also be described as old school. In an age of rapidly dropped singles, serial mixtapes and fly-by-night homemade videos, the collaborative duo have delivered "Suavinhood," a full-length, quasi-concept album of great depth, emotion, thoughtful wordplay, and a vastly empathetic sheen of sonic sophistication.

The album was released digitally on Feb. 20, and over the course of a loosely autobiographical eight-song narrative, the listener is taken on a journey of life in the streets that starts with the joy of musical awakening and discovery, through a period of loss and poor choices, and ultimately ends with joy and redemption. Lyrically, it all takes place against the skeletal framework of Suave-Ski's — real name Andrew Camacho — experiences growing up in the burgeoning New London hip hop scene as well as time spent with family in Texas after his mother sent him down, as he says, "to get me away from the trouble I was getting into."

Telling the story

But if perception is that concept albums are antiquated and most associated with hyper-grandiose efforts by Yes, Genesis, the Who, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull, it's also true that such productions pop up with some regularity in rap. MF DOOM and "Mm... Food," Jay-Z's "American Gangster," Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" and The Roots' "Undun" are just a few of the most notable hip hop concept works.

It's the latter that seems most similar to "Suavinhood." There are Smoke the World's soundscapes, samples and beats always behind and/or darting in and out of Camacho's flow, perfectly complementing the vivid description of his words. The album is redolent of nighttime — with all the promise and excitement or anxiety and threat — and the mood shifts from anticipation to the somber and ominous to, ultimately, hopeful.

Now 30, a proud father and an integral part of a socially conscious New London underground rap scene, Camacho says, "'Suavinhood' is obviously a Robin Hood reference about redistribution, but it's not about money. Rather, it's self-reflexive and about taking back your life and creativity from drug dealers and haters and some of the dark stuff. Music saved me. Hip hop saved me."

Suave-ski's earlier albums include "Speakeazy," "Suaved Up" and "Take Out," along with numerous singles. A new EP is already in production. But "Suavinhood" is understandably the present focus.

"With the new album, I'm my own modest hero," Camacho continues. "I went through a lot and made mistakes, but my family never gave up on me and I never gave up on myself. Even the bad decisions I made worked out when I realized I could learn from their lessons."

Tunes like "Special" convey the excitment when someone discovers the sorcery of music, while "Elite," with a guest appearance from Motive, talks about the manipulation of the music biz. "Control" and "Goals," segueing into the back side of the album, capture a moment of self-realization when someone realizes he or she is responsible for their own destiny. Fatherhood — Camacho has a young son and a daughter — has been a big part of that.

Samples and beats

It helps that "Smoke," as 43-year-old producer Michael Montavon prefers to be called, can relate to the narrative. He grew up in New London and also "spent too much time with the wrong people. But there was always music in my house and around me. Generations of music — all the way through the history rock and into rap. I absorbed all that, and in the end, my obsession saved me. And meeting Suave was almost like it was supposed to happen."

Careful listens to "Suavinhood" discern clever samples that can range from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" in the set-opening "Herointro" — which on "Suavinhood" is not about the drug but rather than the constant compulsion for gratification — to the haunting but uplifting finale "Now Ya Know," with its haunting and recurring snippet from "Have You Heard, pt. 1" off the Moody Blues' "On the Threshold of a Dream."

Both men, who have worked off and on together for eight years, consider "Suavinhood" a creative high point in New London rap. (In addition to Motive, two other longtime local pals and collaborators, City XL and Reks, also guest on the recording.)

"Sampling is a great art, and I'm always learning," Smoke says. "When you hear Suave-Ski's rhymes and ideas, it's pretty easy to be inspired. I love it when my mind gets to travel so many places, and that's where these songs took me. It also helps that I grew up in a family with a huge record collection of all kinds of music. And that was my diet. That's what I lived on and continue to live on. It's a joy to see an album like this emerge."

Camacho says, "Smoke has so many generations of music in his head, and he just has the knowledge and creativity to add so much flavor to a project. He spent a year on this album, and he'd come up with something — like that Moody Blues sample — and I have no idea what that is. But now I do, and that opens ME up to new music, too. And we just go forward. This is what we do, and we've found our place in New London. This scene has so much going for it."

Hometown music

The New London hip hop scene, which is well represented in a global "underground" scene wherein the artists, Camacho says, consciously eschew the major label "star machine" to maintain musical and artistic control of product. Typically, content focuses on the positive and socially conscious and, if the acquisition of a following is a grassroots process, the fans are extremely loyal, and profits stay with the artists and are frequently plowed back into the product.

"We subsist in the underground and by definition don't need Grammy kind of money," Camacho says. "If you take any musical genre and look at it, mass consumption is about what the labels and executives want you to see and hear. The music we're making and sharing isn't the message they want you to hear. It's like a lot of pages have been ripped out of the book. You have to go and find those pages of you want to hear a certain style or artists."

Camacho says earlier in his career he had an interview with label executives from the Universal Music Group. The meetings started positively, and he was excited to be in a board room with people he'd only heard of, talking about his art. But things went south quickly. 

"First, they asked me to write an R&B song," he remembers. "Then they asked me about wearing certain clothes and said I should get tattoos, and I realized it was already more about the image and a certain message — and we didn't even have a deal yet. What they say about selling your soul is so true. And I decided there was no price that could buy what I'm trying to do, and I turned it down."

As underground artists with a global audience that specifically focuses on the underground scene, Camacho points out that a committed following of even 500-600 fans can allow the musician to subsist as there are no advances or overhead fees owed to labels. "These are fans that are with you forever," Camacho says, "and word of mouth slowly gets out there and increases your audience. We engage with fans and do our own promotion, and that's very important to me. This album is very important to me. I want everyone who's been along for the ride to hear it and want to tell THEIR friends about it for all the right reasons."  

Giving back

Ultimately, Camacho says, he's worked hard and somehow ended up exactly where he needs to be.

Camacho and several partners are about to formally open CreativeKonnection, a new multimedia company on Bank Street. The vision of the outfit is to help with all aspects of an artistic career from production, video, merchandising and marketing. Similarly, the building will house Artflame, a nonprofit afterschool course for local young people that is designed to teach multimedia, management and team-building through the music making process.

"Fatherhood gave me the drive and so much more to succeed and give a meaningful legacy starting right now," Camacho says. "Nobody taught me that. I went to YouTube University and made up for a lot of lost time, but I gained a lot of knowledge and I want to share it. I'm dedicating the rest of my life to educating anyone who's interested in music and art to be self-sufficient."

 

Listen up!

What: The new album "Suavinhood"

Who: Suave-Ski, produced by Smoke the World

Available: $10 purchase at Bandcamp; streaming at Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal

For more information: https://www.outsiderzklub.com/suave-ski

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